Responding to Racial Injustice with a Trauma-Informed Approach

Responding to Racial Injustice with a Trauma-Informed Approach

The ongoing and disparate impacts of racism and systemic oppression demand our attention. At Girls Inc., we acknowledge the burden of these realities on the communities of color, and we have a responsibility to respond with approaches that seek to remedy and not retraumatize. We continue to take steps in our journey as a trauma-informed organization, and we want to take the opportunity to share guidance and approaches from SAMHSA around having safe and meaningful discussions around racial injustice and toward racial justice with the girls and young people.

Defining Trauma

While there are many definitions, trauma may be most easily understood through the 3 E’s:

  • Event: A single incident or series of events involving an actual or extreme threat of harm. (e.g., exposure to videos of racial or civic unjust such as killings or hearing racial slurs being used against a person of color racial slurs)
  • Experience of the event: How one labels or assigns meaning to the event. (e.g., some adults/children may experience replays of  videos of people of color  being killed or assaulted as traumatic and feel overwhelmed, perpetually unsafe, or powerless)
  • Effects: The impact of the event on an individual, which may occur immediately or have a delayed onset (some trauma responses include: issues with focus, confusion, nervousness or hypervigilance, normalizing the trauma, disconnecting, self-isolating, or mistrusting)
Responses to Trauma

All trauma responses are unique and complex, as are the experiences of events. There is no one size fits all antidote, but a trauma-informed approach can guide us to respond with care and sensitivity. A trauma-informed approach may be most easily depicted through the 4 R’s:

  • Realize  the widespread impact of trauma and potential paths for recovery. Community dialogue can create opportunities for healing and reveal girls’ resilience through sisterhood.
  • Recognize the signs and symptoms of trauma. Some girls may be struggling with time management and focus, sleep disturbances, mood regulation, or uncharacteristic shifts.
  • Respond through actions, use of language and practices that demonstrate the six principles of a trauma-informed approach. Be curious about what has happened to girls instead of what is wrong with them.
  • Resist Retraumatization by minimizing stressors and reducing barriers to healing. When a girl confides in you as a trusted adult, avoid being defensive or narrowly solution focused. Try validating her experience through empathetic listening, modeling vulnerability, and affirming her honesty.
What Girls Need

Being ready to support girls as a trauma-informed adult means taking steps to assure that girls have certain essentials:

Safety as defined by those impacted by trauma, including physical and emotional safety. Offer opportunities for girls to consider and share what might make them feel more physically and emotionally safe.

Trustworthiness and Transparency go hand in hand. Transparency builds trust and supports a sense of belonging. Clearly articulate the focus and content of conversations and discussions you want to have with the girl(s) in your life. Ask for feedback from her/them. Use the Girls Inc. Bill of Rights as a resource to guide those opening conversations.

Peer Support promotes connection to others with lived experiences of trauma and helps establish safety and hope. Create a safe space for listening where girls can ask questions, process their feelings, and share their own experiences. Consider groups and clubs where girls can connect around their shared differences as additional sources of support.

Empowerment, Voice, and Choice fosters opportunities for girls to be heard and promotes self-advocacy. Help girls identify and articulate issues within their community that they would be interested in getting involved and serve as agents for positive change. Who are the mentors available to assist girls in developing their action plans? How can you support or participate in those relationships?

Cultural, Historical, and Gender Recognition  acknowledges the impact of historical trauma and leverages the healing value of cultural connections. Seek opportunities so girls can meet and interact with community leaders and activists who can provide a historical perspective. These opportunities may be available through your local girl-serving organization.

Do’s & Don’ts for Non-People of Color (non-POC):

Being informed about racial trauma is a crucial step as we navigate the impact of historical oppression on people of color – individuals and communities. It requires reflection, accountability, and intentionality from us all. These strides also involve the possibility of mistakes. Missteps are likely, but we must feel comfortable to acknowledge them and accompany them with efforts towards continuous improvement.

Below are some key considerations and challenges for non-POC:


1. Acknowledge and call out the pain caused by racist beliefs and actions

2. Center voices of those most oppressed without placing the burden on them to lead conversations about race

3. Listen to the voices of those most impacted

4. Risk personal discomfort to engage in dialogue if you are not a person of color

5. Convey openness to listening and deepening your understanding about others experiences and the effects, with no expectation that they take you up on it

6. Take responsibility for your own education and examine your understanding of the intersections of race, class and gender


1. Remain silent in the face of injustice

2. Be defensive

3. Expect people of color to educate you. This is potentially retraumatizing

4. Participate in performative allyship

5. Share viral recordings of people of color being brutalized

6. Assume that every person of color is impacted in the same way or needs the same kind of support

Additional Resources

Addressing Race and Trauma in the Classroom: A guide from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network to explore the interplay of race and trauma and its effects on students.

Building Trauma Informed Communities for Youth: A presentation from The National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments explores the cumulative and historical impact of racism, discrimination, and oppression and promotes healing and resilience.

Complex Trauma: In urban African-American Children, Youth and Families: A resource from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network which explores complex trauma and offers tips for providers.

Racial Trauma is Real: A resource from the Institute for the Study and Promotion of Race and Culture with specific resources for recovery and healing from ongoing racial trauma.

Racial Trauma ResourcesA guide from Mental Health America which provides an overview of race-based traumatic stress (RBTS), a list of resources for preventing and responding to RBTS and links to virtual therapy options.

Self Care Tips for Black People Struggling from a Painful Week: Practical strategies for self care from author Rachel Wilkerson Miller.


Guided by SAMHSA’s Concept of Trauma and Guidance for a Trauma-Informed Approach and further informed by Racial Trauma is Real, a compilation of research and resources from the Institute for the Study and Promotion of Race and Culture, Girls Inc. hopes to further develop a shared understanding of racial trauma as an organization, to better support our girls, communities, and one another.