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Media Coverage | FOCUS Pittsburgh trauma recovery model drawing national attention

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Photo by | Diana Nelson Jones

By: Diana Nelson Jones | Pittsburgh Post Gazette | June 18th, 2018 | Read the full article

FOCUS Pittsburgh knew it was onto something when it piloted its model for strengthening communities — starting with the knowledge that social service help will not stick unless trauma is confronted.

In 2015, FOCUS chose the 2900 block of Webster Avenue in the Hill District to start a block-by-block approach of bringing people together toward healing. The group is only into its second area — the 900 block of Bryn Mawr — but people around the country are validating that it is onto something.

A FOCUS training sessions last week at Duquesne University drew more than 30 people from organizations in Indianapolis, Kansas City, Petersburg, Va., and the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, among others.

FOCUS is a Hill District nonprofit that is modeling research that connects generational trauma to neighborhood dysfunction. It recognizes trauma’s grip on people. Poverty, stress, abuse and neglect beget trauma, then trauma perpetuates poverty, stress, abuse and neglect. Trauma makes it hard to hold onto jobs and homes. It messes with relationships. It sabotages early successes.

And it is impossible to fight alone.

Going block by block is arduous, and success will tell only over time, but the concept is obvious and clear: If people can get expert help digging out from trauma, connect to neighbors and start to heal, they can get traction to improve their lives, focus in school, get good jobs and keep them, build happier relationships and defend the well-being of their blocks.

The buy-in initially comes from trust in FOCUS’ community organizers who knock on doors, sit with people on porches and stoops, explain the process and encourage word of mouth. The process depends on a 75 percent buy-in.

A home repair component sweeps in early with volunteers and staff from Rebuilding Together Pittsburgh. Mental health professionals and researchers from Duquesne University and the University of Pittsburgh conduct health and well-being assessments for each participant. Residents are interviewed about their social circles, support networks, troublemakers, anger, diet, coping and other skills.

FOCUS’ work has been funded by the McAuley Ministries Foundation, the grant-making arm of Pittsburgh Mercy Health System, and Neighborhood Allies, a community development nonprofit.

On the first day of last week’s training, Matt Walsh, a therapist and community coordinator at Duquesne University and a FOCUS team member, called for volunteers in a role playing exercise. Annie Mickens of Petersburg, Va. was assigned the role of a child in the middle of concentric circles.

People encircling her played the roles of family, church, school, peer groups, cultural values, the economy, political philosophies, institutions and the mass media.

As others called out situations that instill trauma — “Mom is depressed,” “Gunshots every day,” “Peer group is a gang,” “hunger,” “bad housing,” — Mr. Walsh darted from Ms. Mickens to the pertinent entity around her, stringing yarn from one to the other.

Soon, she was engulfed in yarn, like a fly in a spider’s web.

She said the experience felt like “being pulled in all directions. I was in a position of being unable to move.”

The negative influences seem to overwhelm the positive, but Mr. Walsh said that bolstering the positives makes it easier to cut people free of the yarn.

When a block of residents begins to feel empowered, it even confronts its troublemakers, the Rev. Paul Abernathy, founder of FOCUS Pittsburgh, told the trainees.

“Our micro-community [2900 block of Webster] was feeling like hostages to drug activity, so they decided to approach the neighbor [culprit] as a group,” he said during a training session. “They told him, ‘We love you and we want you to stay, but if you’re not willing to change your behavior, we’re going to have to ask you to leave.’

“The person did leave,” he said. “It’s not that we want to push someone” to another place, “but this is about respect, saying, ‘That’s not acceptable anymore.’”

The neighbor-to-neighbor piece resonated throughout the room.

“It should not be institutions but my next-door neighbor,” said Val Tate, who works on trauma-informed community development in Indianapolis. “If she knocks, I may start to get to know her.”

Ms. Mickens, a community advocate for the Petersburg Health Department, said she came to the training having met Rev. Abernathy at a conference last year.

“Trauma-informed community development is our focus,” she said. “We’re here to learn how to do that better. We can’t pretend what we’re doing is enough. We have to be healthy enough to sustain. If we have to, we’ll do it person by person, block by block. It sounds possible.”

Diana Nelson Jones: or 412-263-1626.

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