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Taking off our blindfolds, while we wear our masks

We must offer both a personal and professional response against racism. This will require us to use an equity lens in all we do. - quote by Tammie Causey-Konate, Ph.D.

By Tammie Causey-Konaté | August 3, 2020

Author Tammie Causey-Konaté, Ph.D., is a senior technical assistance consultant at the American Institutes for Research (AIR) and works with REL Southwest’s Louisiana Teacher Preparation and Professional Development Research Partnership. She presented and framed the discussion for the partnership-sponsored webinar “Research-Based, Trauma-Responsive Education Practices” in 2019. The webinar recording and resources are archived on our website. REL Southwest is committed to meeting the needs of our partners and stakeholders in the Southwest Region. As one example of the way we support this critical work, we offer Dr. Causey-Konaté’s four-step model to guide conversations and reflections for working through cultural trauma (see Figure 1).

Traumatic experiences come in many forms, including acute events; chronic experiences, such as ongoing exposure to violence; and historical traumas that involve the collective and cumulative trauma experienced by a particular group across generations still suffering its effects (e.g., violent colonization and assimilation policies, slavery, segregation, racism, homophobia, discrimination and oppression).1
— Center on Great Teachers and Leaders at AIR

Trauma is “an event, series of events, or set of circumstances . . . experienced . . . as physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on . . . functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.”2 What we experience collectively encompasses cultural trauma, a social change episode that is significant, sudden, and unexpected and that challenges the central assumptions and core values of a culture, including its identity, and foundations of collective pride.3 At this moment in our collective experience, our nation faces two lines of cultural trauma: the COVID-19 pandemic and the repeated killings of Black Americans by those entrusted to enforce the law. For some, including many of our students and teachers, acute and ongoing individual traumatic circumstances persist, and the sweeping cultural trauma intensifies their burden.

Our first wave of cultural trauma in 2020 has involved months of social distancing, handwashing, temperature checking, and mask wearing as we brace ourselves and loved ones against the COVID-19 pandemic. Rising numbers of those afflicted by the pandemic include over one hundred twenty thousand dead and over two million sick. Anxious, frustrated families struggle as they share spaces–perhaps once considered roomy, even plush–now, cramped, too tight, and seemingly closing in on them. With social outings restricted by quarantines, travel bans, and orders to shelter in place, YouTube watch parties, live-streamed church services, and virtual coffee breaks serve as fragile substitutes for community, for intimacy. The solace of known routines linked to school, work, church, and play is supplanted by Google Classrooms and drive-through graduation ceremonies, Zoom meetings, at-home worship services, and virtual playdates. The world as we know it has disappeared, and with it our freedoms, American freedoms. Our streams of consciousness cry out: How can this happen in the land of the free, the home of the brave? With our medical advancements and technologies, why must we cower behind our masks? Reactions to extended periods of social distancing reveal another social divide. Some assert their individual rights, while others call for individual sacrifice for the collective community. Among their most urgent concerns is creating a future when students and teachers can feel—and can be—safe enough to return to school and focus on learning.

And then, just when we are nearly breathless with panic and fatigue, we witness the unfathomable: a White police officer captured on video with his knee on the neck of an African American man, George Floyd. Floyd gasps desperately over and over, “I can’t breathe!” The scene grips our consciousness for an eternity of 8 minutes and 46 seconds, and Floyd dies. During these punishing moments in our nation’s history, the horror of racism is clearly exposed. The dominant narrative underpinning society gives way–no longer concealing who and what has been shut out of the American dream, rendered marginal, deemed inferior, and counted as expendable.4

Within and beyond the shores of America, the citizens of the world, during the pandemic, had been steeping in a sociopolitical climate of despair and isolation. Across the span of three months–March to June–we experienced the sobering realization of our transience, our resource insecurity, the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on heirs of structural racism and oppression. Feelings of powerlessness and helplessness, the inexpressible loss and pain wrought by the pandemic, now together with the centuries-old image of merciless violence and fatal brutality against Africa’s sons and daughters, rained down the perfect storm of civil unrest and insurgence. We collectively reached our tipping point, with the cumulative impact of this cultural trauma surpassing our “ordinary coping and defensive operations.”5 We could not look away, and having seen, we were compelled to act.

As though operating from the same playbook, protestors all across the globe press forward to overcome injustice and dismantle racism. In my state, Louisiana, a place still reeling from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, the 2005 disaster that laid bare structural racism, protestors of all ages, ethnicities, and persuasions rally for weeks. These demonstrations, likened to those of the Civil Rights era, show forth an awakening. Many have been coordinated and led by our youth, including students in Louisiana. They seem to represent a passing of the guard, a rallying call to disassemble malfunctioning systems and engage new leadership. In Baton Rouge, high school students organize and protest at the state’s capitol. In Jefferson, 16-year-old high school student Olivia Boatwright organizes a protest of some 20 young people via social media and leads a march to the Jefferson Parish sheriff’s office.6

What do these new realities mean for school-aged youth, their parents, and the educators who will facilitate their continued growth? Beyond crucial pandemic lessons regarding medical care, food and nutrition, public and private safety, and unequal access to devices and Internet connectivity for online education, we have been given a crash course in the intended and unintended consequences of racism. How can our schools help address the impact of collective trauma, specifically racism trauma, when the school year begins? What are the conversations that need to happen now to shape research, policy, and classroom strategies? How can we support these new student leaders in the streets speaking out for what they believe in? What role can the REL program play in shaping these conversations and addressing the root causes of the problems?

Given this fresh knowledge, we must offer both a personal and professional response against racism. This will require us to use an equity lens in all we do: as we design and conduct research, inform and enact policy, plan and implement professional learning opportunities, we must act as if our very lives and those of our loved ones are hanging in the balance. We must stand in loco parentis to overhaul systems of knowledge and belief that exclude the contributions of our fellow humans or invalidate their life experiences. We must revoke all privileges not used to advance equitable access for equal outcomes and benefits. We must use our spheres of influence to usher in restorative justice. Our hope for tomorrow hangs heavy in the air. At our fingertips is the rare and extraordinary promise of a new and better tomorrow. Let us temper our emotions; let us commit to antiracist action; let us reinvest in our humanity! Our survival depends on it, and if we desire a brighter tomorrow, we must construct it today.

Implementing strategies that help administrators and teachers address collective trauma both for themselves and their students within their schools and classrooms will be critical. We need to start with reflecting and having open conversations with colleagues, so we are better informed to create trauma-sensitive classrooms and programs that focus on resilience and restorative justice. To guide these conversations and reflection, I offer up my four-step model for working through cultural trauma (see Figure 1).7 This model is designed to help users realize and access their own capacity for resilience in the face of traumatic or adverse events. Application begins with critical examination and rejection of historical traditions of oppression and domination and ends with culturally affirming solutions-based action. Working through these phases takes time, and each phase includes action steps you can take to support the process. A few examples include re-examining systems of oppression and exploring disaggregated data to look at the impact on communities and student groups (phase 1); creating community immersion experiences (phase 2); identifying community-based organizations and leaders that you can lend support to or that can help support innovation and implementation (phase 3); and codeveloping a set of solutions based on data and understandings developed over the four phases (phase 4). A brief explanation of the four phases follows:

Phase I.  Resist traditional domination
Develop awareness of history as a backdrop to a traumatic event or series of events. Identify related systems of oppression and domination and your place within the perpetuation and, as importantly, dismantling of those systems. Suspend presumptions about impacted individuals and communities and explore their differences anew, as assets. Investigate immediate needs of those impacted and acquire informed understandings regarding the origins of those needs.

Phase II.  Disrupt deficit-based public discourse regarding traumatic event
Critically examine public discourse and messaging relevant to the traumatic event(s). Interrupt distorted and incomplete majoritarian narratives by working to learn from the experiences and vantage points of impacted individuals and communities that have been marginalized through underrepresentation or misrepresentation, clarify complexities, and support the dissemination of more accurate messaging.

Phase III.  Empower and arouse agency and creative self-transformation
Engage in outreach efforts that organize and facilitate individual and coordinated self-help, invention, and innovation. Use strengths-based approaches that draw upon social responsibility and community cultural wealth.

Phase IV.  Develop culturally affirming sustainable solutions
Build upon community cultural capital to co-develop, co-champion, and co-implement sustainable solutions derived from strategic action and transformative ingenuities and innovations.

Model for Strengthening Traditions of Resistance for
                  Social, Political, and Cultural Survival. Phase one, resist
                  traditional domination. Phase two, disrupt deficit-based
                  public discourse regarding traumatic event. Phase three,
                  empower and arouse agency and creative self-transformation.
                  Phase four, develop culturally affirming sustainable

Figure 1. Model for Strengthening Traditions of Resistance for Social, Political, and Cultural Survival

For more information on trauma and the related topics addressed here:


1 Center on Great Teachers and Leaders, 2020, p. 2.

2 SAMHSA, July 2014, p. 7.

3 Causey-Konaté, 2018; Sztompka, 2000.

4 Causey-Konaté, 2018.

5 Terr, 1991, p. 11.

6 Bartolotta, June 2020.

7 Causey-Konaté, 2018.


Bartolotta, D. (2020, June 12). Two Parishes, two protests: Activists continue demonstrations for racial justice in Orleans, Jefferson. New Orleans News from WWL-TV. Retrieved on July 9, 2020, from

Causey-Konaté, T. M. (2018). Preface. In T. M. Causey-Konaté, & M. Montgomery-Richard (Eds.), Called to sankofa: A narrative account of African Americans leading education in post-Katrina New Orleans. New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing.

Center on Great Teachers and Leaders at the American Institutes for Research. (2020). Supporting student resilience and well-being with trauma-informed care: Educator self-assessment and planning tool. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved on July 9, 2020, from

SAMHSA’s Trauma and Justice Strategic Initiative. (2014, July). SAMHSA’s concept of trauma and guidance for a trauma-informed approach. Retrieved July 9, 2020, from

Sztompka, P. (2000). Cultural trauma: The other face of social change. European Journal of Social Theory, 3(4), 449–466.

Terr, L. C. (1991). Childhood traumas: An outline and overview. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 148(1), 10–20. Retrieved on July 9, 2020, from

This work was funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES) under contract 91990018C0002, administered by American Institutes for Research. The content of this blog post does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. government.

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photo of Tammie Causey-Konaté

Tammie Causey-Konaté

Senior Technical Assistance Consultant | REL Southwest