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Safe spaces, toxic stress, child trauma: A public health take on the Stephon Clark shooting Date: 06/28/18


Sammy Caiola

By Sammy Caiola

When police officers shot and killed 22-year-old Stephon Clark in Sacramento, Calif., in March, members of the black community erupted in grief and outrage. Clark was in his grandmother’s backyard and he was not armed. The officers had mistaken his cell phone for a gun.

The days that followed brought protests, highway closures and town halls. There was a funeral to cover, and an independent autopsy to analyze. As a newsroom, we had to think hard about how to use our resources.

As our health reporter, I wanted to explore the systemic health issues behind the incident. Clark was killed in Meadowview — a low-income, largely black neighborhood that I had reported on for a 2016 project on African American child mortality. I knew that Clark’s death was just the tip of the iceberg on top of the poverty, violence and institutional racism that people in these neighborhoods face daily. After interviews with residents and leaders — and a little elbow grease from our digital team — I was able to put together a piece about health disparities by ZIP code.

At this point, the conversation was largely about economics, inequity, and a lack of government investment in these neighborhoods. It wasn’t until Stephon Clark’s brother, Ste’Vante Clark, started to break down in public that we began to look at a mental health angle. At a downtown rally, a family member named Jamilia Land told the crowd that what Ste’Vante was experiencing went beyond grief and could be classified as PTSD.

“What you see is not rare,” Land said. “Every single day, there is a child that looks just like Ste’Vante, who is running around here, who looks half crazy to the world, but you don’t know the damage that’s done inside.”

She continued: “We are living in communities that are like war zones. … Where are the mental health professionals in our community?”

With help from Land, and other family members, I started to put together a feature about trauma. I attended a community event where an African American epidemiologist gave a talk about toxic stress, what causes it, and how it can lead to self-blame, aggression and substance abuse if left unchecked. She ended up being a crucial part of the piece.

A few short weeks later, Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg put out a call for mental health professionals to fan out to Stephon Clark’s neighborhood. He wanted therapists and counselors to undergo cultural sensitivity training and provide free services to grieving residents. I wrote a quick news story on this, but it didn’t feel like a complete picture.

Fortunately, our talk show producers booked Kristee Haggins, an African American mental health professional who was working with the mayor. She hinted that while the city’s efforts were noble, the black community also needed a safe space in which to do its own healing. She mentioned something called emotional emancipation circles, or conversation groups designed to address historical racial trauma. Former CapRadio reporter Adhiti Bandlamudi and I teamed up to do a breakout piece on that model.

We leaned on Haggins as a guide. She took us to a church where neighborhood leaders were getting trained to launch emotional emancipation circles. We learned that these circles were used to support residents of Ferguson and in Baltimore when those cities were reeling from police killings of black men. And we learned that the healing groups don’t have to be led by therapists.

“The idea is that all of us are touched by it, so there’s no 'expert' in the room,” said Theopia Jackson, president-elect of the Association of Black Psychologists, which helped launch the circles nationally. “It’s that person’s job to hold the space, but they’re also undergoing their own healing process. The facilitator must have a shared experience with them.”

When I asked her about the mayor’s plan, she voiced some concern.

“I cannot have African-American clinicians who are grounded in black psychology be replaced by good intended white clinicians who are learning how to ask about spirit, but have not been able to benefit from the genuine training of understanding their own role in oppression and racism,” she said.

Adhiti and I were not allowed to observe the facilitator training because it needed to remain a safe space. But we still left that church visit with a much deeper understanding of generational trauma than we had when we went in.

We wanted an outside opinion, so Adhiti called a trauma expert from the Native American community. And we also wanted to hear from someone who had experienced an emotional emancipation circle firsthand. I went back to Jamilia Land, from the Clark family. She said she hadn’t been to a circle herself, but she knew someone who had.

She put me in touch with Cephus Johnson, the uncle of Oscar Grant, who was shot by police at a BART station in Oakland in 2009. Talking to Johnson really brought it home.

“We go through various stages — the initial shock, the anger, just the pain of not knowing what to do,” he said. “And the only way that becomes clear is when you sit in a circle and you hear that your story’s not an isolated story. This happens over and over.”

And even after all this, there are more stories to tell. In May, I turned my focus to the community’s youth, who were having their own experiences with stress, fear, and rage in the wake of the shooting.

After speaking to some teens and their parents at a community healing event, I set out to report on efforts to help black youth. That brought me back to my 2016 reporting on the county’s plan to prevent African American child deaths. I circled back to some of my old sources to catch up on what they’ve been doing for the last two years, and how their work is changing in light of the shooting. Find the product of that reporting here.

The work is not over. I’m producing a piece on how police shootings of unarmed black people affect African American children, and how parents and other adults can talk to kids about racial injustice. After that, I’ll be looking at job opportunities for African American teens, and how current events shape their journeys and futures.

Stay tuned for more Stephon Clark coverage at CapRadio.org, and follow all of my public health stories at @sammycaiola.

Sammy Caiola, a health care reporter at Capitol Public Radio in Sacramento, Calif., has been covering medical breakthroughs, fitness fads and health policy in California since 2014. Before joining CapRadio, Caiola was a health reporter at The Sacramento Bee.