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WATCH: Community Engagement


  • Laura Braden, CTIPP's Director of Communications


  • Nolan Rollins, CLC at Pivotal Advisors, Consultant at DDC Public Affairs, and former CEO of the Urban Leagues of Los Angeles and New Orleans

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00:00:03 Welcome, everyone. My name is Lara Braden. I'm the communications director for the Campaign for Trauma-Informed Policy and Practice. And today I've got Nolan Rollins with me. He is a CLC at Pivotal Advisors, a consultant advisor to DDC Public Affairs, and he's also the former CEO of the Urban League of Los Angeles and New Orleans. So welcome, Nolan. It's so great to be with you today.

00:00:26 Thank you so much for having me here.

00:00:27 Yeah, absolutely. So let's just dive right in. So we're talking trauma-informed. What brings you on this journey. How did you how did you get into the trauma-informed movement and find all these concepts and approaches?

00:00:41 You know, I mean it's both amazing and unfortunate that I was probably the data point that everyone in trauma-informed talks about. Right? I'm a kid born in Baltimore City. So that's home base for me. So when you think about trauma and trauma-informed, you always have to think environment. What is the environment given you that allows you to go through the trauma? Then at some point when you get more education to be more informed about the trauma that you've actually gone through. So no good deed went unpunished. Not only that, I grew up in Baltimore and was reared here, but in my professional career. I was then sent to New Orleans post-Katrina to rebuild the Urban League there. So rebuilding the Urban League there, rebuilding the airport there as the chairman of the airport and then going to Los Angeles again to to rebuild an Urban League there. But again, being in these kind of deep-seated areas with deep-seated challenges that are culturally connected. So it's ironic, I feel like this kind of trauma-informed conversation, while it's being coined as a thing and a phrase now, it's something that communities in this country have lived through for a very long time, and it's something that I'm particularly both interested in and invested in, because I feel the texture. It's woven into the DNA of who I am at this very moment. As we sit here.

00:02:02 And the communities you work with, because mean, you know, New Orleans, Baltimore, Los Angeles, I imagine there are similarities and yet such unique communities, right, both historically and currently. So how how did what are your reflections on those communities in terms of how did they approach the topics of trauma, whether it was in prevention, mitigation or just even in the educational awareness of of how these interconnected pieces work together?

00:02:29 Yeah. You know, you're absolutely right. These each of the cities and the spaces are so incredibly different but the same. And I always talk about them in different ways. So you know and those who are Baltimoreans and know there was a campaign that we had in Baltimore years ago and it was called Baltimore, the city that reads. And I grew up in Baltimore. Nothing could have been further from the truth. So we weren't really focusing on things like education. We weren't really focusing on the things that can actually make life a bit better for folks. So when I think about my city and I think about where I grew up, I think about kind of abject poverty, I think about delayed and infrastructure that's not there. And infrastructure, I mean, educational system, I mean workforce development, I mean safety, all of those things. For me, that's infrastructure. When we have these conversations nationally, we're always talking about roads and bridges. But there's an infrastructure that we're not talking about that frankly, is the infrastructure that breaks down the ability or inability to achieve the American dream. And those are those very important things. So when I think about a Baltimore city, I think about those challenges, those challenges of education, those challenges of finance and opportunities in the in the space of economic justice and those challenges in the areas of of safety. When I think about New Orleans, I always say New Orleans has a PhD in culture. Like I've never been anywhere where the beauty of the music, the beauty of the people, the kind of laissez-faire way that they think about things is amazing. But when I look at the other side of the coin and then I say, at the Urban League, we intentionally raised capital and did a new market tax credit deal to build a facility in the ninth Ward right after Katrina, because we knew if the Urban League was there, forcing the issue politically to make sure that people can come back to the ninth Ward was a bit stronger. Right. So you have this incredible opportunity where you have amazing people who have PhDs in culture and that economy is being sent around the globe. But when you get home and you see what's happening in the city, it's challenges with economic justice, it's challenges with education. It's like very similar. But again, Baltimore doesn't have the that kind of economy that New Orleans has actually has. So culturally there are different things there. Fundamentally there are challenges there. And then you fast forward and you think about a place like Los Angeles where, you know, you know, I always say that Los Angeles is the kind of place that's a developer's dream, in that there are power structures that are regionally situated in Los Angeles, huge industry, whether it be the legal or or public relations and management over here, huge Hollywood industry over here. And then you have Compton, Watts and spaces where there's economic injustice, where there's challenges with crime and public safety, where there's challenges with education. And all of this lives in the shadow of that industry, those industries that exist there. So all very different, there's no question. But there are some fundamental principles that that are extremely similar. And I think a part of the challenge is people being comfortable with the nuance that it's going to require to really be informed when we're talking about trauma, because trauma is just the word informed is the action. We spend way less time finishing around and working around the nuance of information and being informed so that we can actually help to alleviate the trauma that people are going through. So that's those are some of the things that I think about when I think about the cities that I've been blessed to live in and call home and be near and dear to my heart, even to this day.

00:06:36 Yeah. I worked six months in New Orleans on the BP oil spill on their communications response team, and so got to see that city up close. And it's a dream city. It's I actually tried to move there afterwards. So it's a beautiful, beautiful place filled with beautiful people. Um, let's stick on the um, so the informed piece is really interesting, particularly because the cities that you've worked in are so broad and diverse. They're not small communities. Right. So how do you go about reaching everybody, right, and reaching them the way that they need the information so that it gets absorbed. Right. How do you go about doing that when you've got such broad, diverse communities?

00:07:20 Yeah. So it's it's it's ironic that you should mention what you just mentioned. So the BP oil spill actually happens. I then talk to folks in the, in the. In the industry and say, what about the businesses that are impacted? Those downstream businesses are now impacted because now everything is shut down there. Let me put together the proposal so we can go and work directly with those businesses, understanding what they need and also understanding how to harden their businesses for the next thing that happens. Because in one instance, it's an oil spill and the other instance it's a hurricane, and the next it's it's just a session or.

00:07:57 Right.

00:07:57 Absolutely. You get it. So I think to go directly to your question, the answer is you have to be intentional about what you were trying to do and know that you can't boil the ocean. So I said specifically, we want to work with the businesses that are impacted by this spill. We know that there are other people around that frequent these businesses are no longer frequent them that also need support and help. But we were very specific about the work that we wanted to do because we chose what we believed was an important kind of hub for the spokes, the working environment, the place where people went to work, the place where taxes were being were being paid. We actually believe that the better we are at finding and figuring out those extremely important hubs so that they have this. It's you know, when we think about going to cities, they always talk about this economic impact. When they when an event comes to a city, the economic impact of the Super Bowl is this we have this many jobs and those are take that same principle and lay that principle inside of a community and say to yourself, what has the best community impact? What can we do that is going to help to turn lights on or is going to help to move a mother's opportunity forward for their child? What can we do that's going to best leverage that? Because the truth is, if we think that we can do it all, we are actually a part of the problem. We've got to be specific about what we can do and be open and saying that we would always say, these are the things that we can't do, but this is what we can do, and then keep our promise in doing that.

00:09:36 And then working so closely on the ground in those communities. What were some of the common barriers you encountered, particularly when it comes to getting systems to understand how trauma impacts the individual, ripples out through the family into the community, particularly for an event like Katrina. Right, or any sort of mass event like that. What were some of the common barriers you would run into and how did you overcome them?

00:10:01 Yeah, you know, some of the common barriers at the core, one of the common barriers is value, right? We all think about value differently. And when you think about value differently and you don't necessarily see the value in the individual, you don't count the individual as a part of your value equation as a part of your formula. So for us, it was how do we talk to governmental agencies? How do we talk to business and industry about the value of the people who actually live in the Ninth Ward, the economic value, the educational value, the value that the external public actually sees when it's hearing messages about New Orleans. How do we actually take the individuals who exist there and say, these are extremely invaluable, valuable people to the narrative of New Orleans? You just haven't figured out how to equate value to them. So a part of our job as an urban League was absolutely talking about value, talking about value around education. So at the end of the day, if you're a corporation in New Orleans and you want to attract great talent to New Orleans or great people to your company, if you have a terrible educational system, forget about it. Value. So making the educational system do what it's supposed to do so it can support, whether it be the Ninth Ward, whether it be Lakeview, whether we Uptown, Downtown, back to town, wherever it is that it's actually supporting those things. So I think for a person like me, I'm always interested in being really surgical about our conversations, because the truth is, we've been using blunt force objects for generations, and it's gotten us absolutely nowhere the more surgical we are. And this is the part about from for me, about being informed. Again, the trauma part is easy to get to because we can put our finger on trauma, right? Like we have trauma wards and trauma centers, like we've been using that word for a very long time. But the informed portion of it presupposes that we understand what informed means for the individual, for the community. And the problem is, is that we've done very little work in unpacking that informed part. So I think when I think about the challenge. Is that we've seen that's the biggest challenge, right? And this is, this is this is a challenge that and I'll just say this, those who know me know that I say exactly how I feel about things. I'm at a place right now where I've seen too much, done too much. The resume is way too strong to not be 100% honest. Our country is comfortable with incremental equality. It just is. And until we're honest about that, right. So this incremental equality is it takes forever for women to get the opportunity to vote. It takes forever to make sure that we no longer have slavery. It takes forever to make sure that there's equal opportunity for everyone. Right. This incremental equality, what that is, it also says that it's incremental value in terms of the people that are here. So for me, how do we challenge the notion of trauma-informed? Because what we really have to do is we've got to be able to say that our institutions that are infrastructure has got to be stronger. It absolutely has got to be stronger. And even if we are so myopic to believe that it's not important because it's a local problem, let me just make it really clear that if we do not do that, we will be globally crushed. Just look at our placement in the world in each of the areas. Over time, we go from being in top five to being in 40th in some of these really important spaces. Again, those are the kinds of informed portions of trauma that we've got to get our arms wrapped around. And I think these kinds of conversations are critically important because it challenges us to be better than what we are now, so that we can create a better space and a better place for our children, who are far more free thinking than we are about what this is and what it looks like. Like we can give them the language, but they're the ones who are going to walk it. We have to then provide the air cover so that they can actually do the things that are necessary. So for me, I think these trauma-informed conversations are really important because they're providing air cover to push an agenda that every American is extremely valuable and that we should be thinking about value in that terms, that no one can be left behind in this value proposition. They just can't be, because that trauma winds up being American trauma that we just cannot afford.

00:14:57 Yeah. That's beautiful. Well, and so the the emphasis on informed leads me to something else I wanted to ask you about. So in communications for messages to resonate, they say the magic formula is I hope I don't butcher this like messenger. Plus I'm going to look at my notes. Message plus messenger plus delivery plus moment equals your message actually getting across to the audiences that you're trying to reach. Right. And so even just anecdotally, like how have you gone about doing that again, particularly living in such diverse communities that you've that you've served.

00:15:31 Yeah. So if you think about that formula, if you think about message messenger and, and and the timing and all of those, if you think about that and then you say to yourself, what's the message? Right. Like what's the message that I'm developing? And who am I developing this message for? Right? That for me, that's the brass tacks right there. Because the easy part is, now that I know the message, who should I have say this? I can identify a leader who is actually done the work. Right? Because again, that's let's be intellectually honest. That's the lazy part. The lazy part is to look at someone who's actually already done the work and say these words coming out of your mouth is going to make a difference. Great. I agree with that 100% because there's value in having folks like that to do those. But there's also this, this kind of trust transference that's really important that those messengers have. The real question is at the message, the message that's being created and develop, who's helping to create and develop the message? Are we challenging ourselves around this message in a way that we are? We are acknowledging the things that we know. We are acknowledging the things that we don't know, and we're bringing into the room the people who can help us with the things that we don't know, so that we can then get the right kind of message to the messenger, because the messenger can then help us to understand if this is the right time, because even if we have the right message, the right messenger, we may have missed the time, or the time may not be now, or the messenger understands that, hey, we're at a space right now that the right place is next week, right? Again, being really comfortable with what we know, being really comfortable with what we don't know, but also being really comfortable with seeking the individuals who can actually be helpful in moving that. So I absolutely believe in the formula. But again. The real work is it's like a math problem. You know, they always told us, show your work. I understand that you can do it in your head, but I need you to show me the work to getting it done. And that's the I think that's the beauty of our country pushing this agenda around language now, like if, if there's anything that we've seen over the last five, ten years is the use of language in nuanced ways, do I agree with the way that all of us are being used? No, but it ain't. It's not for me to agree with. But what I do agree with is us forcing ourselves to think a bit differently about message, forcing ourselves to think a bit differently about messenger, about when in those things. I think the formula is a beautiful formula. I think who's around the table to administer the formula is the critical component to this.

00:18:16 Well, and to that point, right. When you say that, I think of co-creation. Right. So being sure to, you know, so often best intentions, you come up with a program and you drop it into a communities lap here. Resources toolkit go. And it sometimes doesn't land because the people who are actually, you know, going to be the end users were not involved in the process. So what's been sort of your experience with co-creation, particularly with the Urban League?

00:18:45 Yeah. So so it's interesting that you should this is it's funny, I've been doing this work for a very long time. I got the luxury of being very young and being in the room with amazing people who taught me. I felt like The Karate Kid forever. I felt like I've been in this laboratory forever. So I've quickly to the front of the line because of the people that I've learned from. And it's funny that you should mention what you've mentioned about best intentions. Right? And. I have so many hands on examples of best intentions gone wrong, and I like to give them because I don't want these conversations to be myopic. I actually want them to be pinpointed so that we can get better. Right? So so best intentions. So if you think about large governmental programs like empowerment zones, hub zones, and then you think about things like opportunity zones, you think about things like new market tax credits. All of these things were created with a specific thing in mind. Let's go into low-income communities, let's create job opportunities, and let's get folks back to work. And then it's going to put money back into the tax base. Now what we'll do is we will incentivize large businesses and folks to actually put their businesses in these communities. Then they're going to hire folks. Each of these programs some success, but the amount of time, money and effort that have actually been put into them are challenged. And this is as a person, and I always like to tell folks, I'm not telling you what I heard. I'm telling you what I know. We did a new market tax credit program project in New Orleans intentionally because I said, if we're going to use the tax code, if the tax code is going to be used so that other people can purchase land and they're supposed to put people to work, then organizations like ours should be using the tax code to do that. And for me, it was we're going to use the tax code to build infrastructure for our communities. If you go look at if you go look at programs like that, programs like opportunity zones right now, and you'll see what's happening with them is that they are over-indexing with large individuals from from a cash standpoint and companies using them as real estate plays to buy real estate in these communities, not jobs, not putting people to work, not creating better environments. Real estate investment plays. I look it up. Everyone who's listening to this, go look at it. Opportunity zones. So seemingly best intentions, but how it actually works in in real practice, that's where the challenge becomes. So for me, best intentions have to be surrounded by people who can not only hold us accountable for what we're attempting to do, but also hold us accountable in the execution portion of this. And I think that's the critical component. It's the right people at the table while we're creating and co-creating these ideas. But it's the right people at the table while we're in the execution mode. How do we execute in a way that's going to ensure the greatest possible value? And I'm going to take us back to a beginning portion of this conversation in a specific area, not boiling the ocean in a specific area. How do we create tremendous value in a specific area that shows the impact and outcome that a taxpayer in some other place would want to see, that a teacher would want to be able to say, now my students are able to work here, that in an industrial school can now say, hey, our kids are now working on rebuilding here. Like, like those are the kinds of things that I think are critically important about kind of co-creation, because co-creation fundamentally means that it is not an individual who's creating something for the masses. It is literally a, a cooperative process to create something for a group of folks that is actually going to create, that is going to give us the outcome that we're looking for in terms of impact. So I think co-creation is critically important. But again. The conveners of the co-creation are important because if you don't know anyone who can help you think about what's happening in these cities or in these rural areas, because, again, this isn't just a city problem. This isn't just an urban problem. It's a rural problem also. So if you're if you're open to co-creation, but your social network is limited by your social network, you're still going to have the same outcome. And I think, again, forcing ourselves to think outside of those boxes are really important when we think about co-creation and the impact that it can and should have on communities around the nation.

00:23:51 Yeah. And that emphasizes the need for them to be community-led.

00:23:55 Absolutely. Yeah.

00:23:56 For sure. Well, so to wrap up what may, you have been in this space for a very long time. So in thinking about the future, times are the world is very wild right now. What makes you hopeful for the future, particularly in the ways that America is? And, you know, there's a lot of folks at the table trying to shift, you know, a full paradigm societal shift to how we prevent, mitigate and address trauma. So when you think about that, what makes you hopeful for the future?

00:24:24 You know, like CTIPP is here. Like if you guys weren't here, we'd have to create you. Right? Like, I mean, that that kind of thing is really important because. Because now we're identifying that this space, again is a valuable space for us to be working in. And I think those are the kinds of things that are really exciting for me that we recognize, and we're doing something about it. And there's something you, my grandfather, would always say, son, if you see something that needs to be done, you're the person who should be doing it so that we see, CTIPP out here doing this work that we're partnering the way that we're partnering right now to push a conversation about this. I think it's critical. And that's the thing that I love. The thing that I love is, is these I've been I've it's interesting. I've mentored and sponsored a bunch of these really brilliant kids that just run around me all the time, and watching them start where I've ended, I think is amazing, because they don't think about the shackles that we were. You know, again, we thought, you go to school, you get this job and you do this right. That's actually not how the world exist anymore. But if you provide them the strength and the courage I have, I have one young lady who always says to me, I just thank you for providing for me the confidence to say what it is that I need to say. Right? That confidence is a huge thing in what's happening, is the world is opening up in a way that the confidence of these brilliant voices is it's happening more than ever before. I mean, I'll say it quickly, if you think about leadership over time, leadership in our country and around the world, quite frankly, has been cult of personality, and it's been limited to a very few people. Think about what leadership is looking like now. There's leaders all over the place. You may not know them, but that doesn't mean that they aren't leaders. That just means you don't know them. That just means we don't know them. But they're leading in a very decentralized way. And I just think that kind of decentralized opportunity to hear voices and different voices is going to force us to think about things differently. And back to my original premise is going to force us to think about the value proposition of every single person who lives in this country and think differently about what the future has to hold. So I am bullish on the future. With everything that's happening right now. We are in some crazy times. But I say to everyone. While the times that we are living in right now are insane, we don't have slavery. While the times that we were living in are insane. Women can vote. While the times that we're living like the list can go on and on. So our job is for all of the people who provided the space for us to be able to say what I just said, we need to actually do something so that the next young folks who are having this conversation are saying, the times are different. This is what they did for us. And that, for me, is what I'm truly bullish about.


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