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Moving toward the ACEs tipping point: Communities, their ACEs initiatives and ACEs billboards

  • Aug 22, 2016

The following was written by Jane Stevens and originally posted here on ACEs Connection, 8/22/2016.


David Bornstein, a columnist for the New York Times, posted the third of a three-part series (Putting the power of self-knowledge to work) about communities that are integrating trauma-informed and resilience-building practices based on ACEs science. (Part one —Tapping a troubled neighborhood’s inner strength, and part two — How community networks stem childhood traumas.)

It’s a terrific series, with information that we can all use, and I highly recommend reading them all. 

Some members of ACEsConnection appear in the series. (Laura Porter, Teri Barila, Dr. Vincent Felitti were in the first two). 

And so many, many more don’t appear, which is all to say that it’s just incredible how many people and communities have started along this ACEs journey in the last few years. By “many people", I mean the 10,359 people who are members of ACEsConnection (as of this writing), plus hundreds of others who haven't found us yet. By "many communities”, I mean the neighborhoods, towns, cities, counties, regions, states and nations, which number in the low hundreds now.

Once they decide to embrace ACEs, some communities embark on a guided journey, and have participated or are participating in the Sanctuary Institute’s certification program or the National Council on Behavioral Health’s Trauma-Informed Learning Community. Others are part of initiatives, such as Building Community Resilience and the Change in Minds initiative. Most communities start on their own. A few people hear about ACEs science, the light bulb goes on, and they say, “This knowledge can help us finally solve our most intractable problems! Let’s get started!”

Montana’s an example of a self-starter. Todd Garrison learned about ACEs science in 2008 and jumped on the small ACEs bandwagon that existed at that time. He'd been doing fund-raising and project development with Montana-based Intermountain, a 100-year-old organization nationally recognized for its work in treating children with emotional and mental health issues. 

One of those projects was ChildWise Institute, which the board of Intermountain founded in 2010 to “advance awareness, accelerate knowledge, and advocate for positive change to optimize society's resources for the well-being of children”. Garrison became its executive director. Four years later, it had gained so much momentum that it was one of 14 communities awarded a two-year Mobilizing Action for Resilient Communities (MARC) grant last year to expand their work. It’s pretty amazing what a small team of two can do (before modest funding doubles it to four), including designing an ACEs billboard! 

Garrison described his approach in a comment to a question that Elizabeth Fitzgerald asked about ACEs community awareness campaigns. It was so pithy, I asked him if I could republish it so that nobody would miss it. Here it is, with a few edits and additions:

In late 2012 we decided that the ACE Study is the foundation and direct connection to almost every child well-being issue, and something every person in our state needs to embrace. But how? When I think back on every major social change that has happened in America, I see a movement of the people that created that change... not an organization or an individual. Yes, it was started/initiated by an organization or individual, but they didn't create the movement... it was created by the passionate public.

So, we introduced Elevate Montana at our first ACE Study Summit in September of 2012. Its mission is to “elevate the well-being and futures of Montana's children." We created a website, logo, corporate identity, etc. because we believe this cause doesn't belong to our organization, it belongs to everyone. We were hopeful that in doing this (not making it about ChildWise) it might grow into a movement. And it is well on its way!

We have an annual Elevate Montana Summit 2016 in the Fall. The summits have focused on advancing awareness and accelerating knowledge of the ACE Study, trauma-sensitive approaches, and building resilience. They are very well attended for Montana (about 400 people)... keeping in mind that the entire population of our state is a little less that 1 million people!

Because we are focused on moving the discussion and action in regards to ACEs and resilience, and because we know that everyone needs to be part of the solution, we were faced with the challenge of doing this with everyone in Montana. But how does a tiny non-profit with only four staff members do that?

Based on research, we know the most effective way for someone to learn is if they seek knowledge or understanding. So we figured the best way to stimulate that "desire to seek" is to create curiosity. That's when we created a design for a billboard and placed 11 in the area of our 2014 Elevate Montana Summit for 30 days prior to the summit. The billboard prompted more than 400 people to visit the Elevate Montana website, calcluate their ACE score, and learn about ACEs and resilience (they take a resilience survey, as well). By the way, we strongly suggest that no one be handed the 10-question ACE survey without context of the study. We believe without context, it can trigger people and upset them unnecessarily. That can happen even with context, but our experience in training almost 7,000 people in the last year and a half is that almost everyone has a better understanding of themselves and others, and is motivated by what they've learned.

After the billboards were removed, we created cards that duplicate the billboard on one side and have stats about the well-being of Montana's children on the other. We hand these out everywhere we go, and at all of our ACE trainings and presentations. It serves as a learning tool, as well as a conversation-starter for them to use with their peers, friends and family to further advance awareness.

The cards inspired another 2,600 people to take the ACE survey. We've just added a required box to the website for zip code, so we'll be able to identify ACE scores geographically. It's not science, but it will be helpful in the coming years. We also have our training  audiences fill out the survey, collect those, and enter them in our ACE score data.

All of this goes to your question about culture change. Ultimately that is what we're after... a change in thinking, which results in a change in behavior -- and when enough people do that (think: movement), there is a change in culture.

I could write a lot more, but I don't want to bore you. We are involved in this movement to elevate the well-being and futures of our children and now have about eight communities in our state flying the flag of Elevate Montana. They have chosen (with a "backbone organization" in their city) to become official Elevate Montana affiliates! This is why we know a movement has started and is spreading.