This fall, Karen Simms was award the Freedom Fighter award by the NAACP of Champaign County, and when you take a look at the work she has committed herself to over the course of her career to this point, it’s quite easy to see why.

She initially set out to be an attorney, but while working at an internship with the Chicago AIDS Project, she decided that she’d rather be “on the front end of helping people.” That desire led her to Indianapolis, where she helped create an HIV/AIDS program for women. It was through that work that she realized she wanted to dig even deeper into the issues that these women were facing. “I was talking to women who (had experienced) domestic violence, childhood sexual abuse, lots of traumas and I was hearing stories of abuse over abuse over abuse and so I thought...something is wrong.” She pursued a graduate degree in marriage and family therapy, with a focus on how communities and organizations and groups form systems and promote health, wellness and recovery.

Eventually, the intensity of the HIV/AIDS work started to become overwhelming, and Simms sought to do something different, and to separate herself from Indy in order to truly make a new start, though she jokes:

“I was like ‘I want to move, I want to do something less stressful, I want to go to a smaller area, and I’ll go to the first place that I find a job.’ So I took a job as the program director for local rape crisis center (that is now R.A.C.E.S.).”

So much for less stress.

Eventually, Community Elements (now a part of Rosencrance) was looking for more people of color to do outreach in the community, and Simms took up the charge. Her team was “committed to improving access and coordinating care” for marginalized communities within C-U. Through the work of Community Elements, she helped write a federal grant that came through a month after Kiwane Carrington was killed by a police officer. “As you can imagine, that reshaped and redefined everything that we were doing. Kiwane had been involved in multiple systems, so for us it was a reflection of how when systems don’t work together people fall through the cracks. He was a young man who had multiple traumas, and his death caused multiple traumas for the community. We were also realizing that as helpers and healers we came with our own traumas that made doing the work difficult...collectively we all made a commitment to being trauma-informed.”

According to Simms, their work was pretty isolated — they were mostly educating various service providers in the community, and maybe working with a few families here and there. Then the Champaign Community Coalition was formed as a local network of community leaders “designed to identify critical community issues that impact the lives of youth and their families.” It was then that their work began to expand beyond just helping targeted communities. “The work went from sort of a project to a part of the community.” Says Simms, “This lightbulb went off. If we’re only talking to directly to communities that are affected by gun violence, we don’t necessarily transform the community, nor does it change the system...we need to broaden the lens.” Since then they’ve been working on broadening that lens to create a trauma-informed community through the CU Trauma and Resiliency Initiative.

The initiative focuses on what they call Adverse Community Experiences. That would include poverty, lack of housing access, lack of food access, racism — all of those structural and systematic forces that feed into a cycle of community violence. As Simms says “when you take away protective factors, when something bad happens it’s harder for people to rebound.”

Simms defines “trauma” as “events, experiences, and exposure that are so overwhelming that they interrupt your ability to cope, rebound, respond.” This goes beyond specific traumatic experiences such as you or someone close to you experiencing gun violence, abuse, etc. Those previously mentioned systematic factors such as poverty and food insecurity fall into that category as well. As a result, her work is centered around not only educating and informing those that might directly deal with folks who have experienced or are experiencing trauma — such as teachers — but also “building up resources and protective factors so people can rebound from stressors...well people are more resilient.” That means community organizations, services, leaders will see how structural trauma and more immediate traumas are connected. “If you want to do something about gun violence, you also have to make sure people have food. The two go together.”

Ultimately, their goal is to create a more interconnected community. The more we are connected, naturally the bigger support system we have. Simms references Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as we approach the celebration of his life, and his concept of The Beloved Community. “Committing ourselves to (the idea of) I am my neighbor’s keeper, and I want my neighbor to be well and I see myself as a part of a larger family. It sounds idealistic, but that’s the community that we all want to live in.”

As C-U has seen a rise in instances of gun violence, the initiative has become a vital part of the community response, with a goal of being “more robust” in how they respond to that violence. They are in the very preliminary stage of making in-roads with Carle to possibly have a hospital based interruption model. In addition, local schools are looking at creating responder teams. Simms sees a need to “improve the families’ capacity to heal and rebound in a more intensive way.”  CU Trauma and Resiliency partners with Truce, a local organization that seek to interrupt violence, to prevent retaliation, and as she says “help people land well” after a violent incident. “We believe that increases in gun violence are multi layered. Part of it has to do with access, and the other part has to do with impulse control skills.” As a result, they are starting a group at CU Public Health for women on how to deal with stress and de-escalate, hoping that they will then transfer those practices into their homes.

This type of community work can certainly lend itself to burnout, but Simms seems to maintain a healthy awareness of her capacity to take things on and what boundaries she needs to keep. “Knowing that I’m a part of a large collective of people that are all committed to moving the boulder together helps...I can see buy in.” She also finds reward in having families and young people say that it matters...that it makes a difference.

Simms and her team are hoping to continue to grow this effort, and make Champaign County a “trauma informed county...on every level there would be broad and deep understanding about trauma and resiliency and that would be language infused in everything...how schools operate, how businesses operate, how local government operates...that is the goal.”

There are multiple ways for community members to be involved in these efforts. Simms encourages folks to follow them on Facebook and join their listserv by emailing her at cuneighborhoodchampions@gmail.com as a way to keep up with events and trainings. Every 2nd Tuesday at 4 p.m. they have a working group session at the Champaign Public Library that is open to anyone. In addition, while they have a bit of grant funding, small donations are always welcome.

Photo from Champaign Community Coalition Facebook page