Enhancing our social immune system: Dr. Sandra Bloom delivers keynote address to MARC Leaders

February 19, 2016

Sandra Bloom asked 75 people to turn toward one another and begin with questions: What is your name? How are you feeling right now? What is your goal for today? Whom at this table can you ask for help?

Those questions, or a variation of them, are part of the toolkit from the Sanctuary Model, a method of building an inclusive, democratic, trauma-informed organization from bottom to top.

“You will be shocked at what a difference it makes if you start a meeting that way,” said Bloom, an associate professor in the School of Public Health at Drexel University and founder of the Sanctuary Institute. She gave the keynote talk at November’s convening of Mobilizing Action for Resilient Communities (MARC), a two-year learning collaborative involving teams from fourteen places in the United States where groundbreaking work to prevent childhood adversity and build community resilience is already under way.

“These are trauma-informed questions,” she explained. “Being able to talk about what you feel, having a goal, and building social responsibility all the same time.”

To this group of community leaders, who had come to Philadelphia from places as far apart as Alaska and Florida, Bloom offered a succinct definition of community: a group of people sharing a common set of values.

She described her initial qualms about the word “resilience,” explaining, “I don’t want to give the impression that people experience a traumatic event and are unchanged by it. You’re always changed. You can be bent, but not broken.” Resilience, she said, is “the ability to adapt to changed circumstances while fulfilling one’s core purpose.”

Mostly, though, Bloom spoke of violence—moral, institutional, interpersonal—as the root of all childhood adversities, a kind of societal “inflammation” that calls for collective response. “Violence destroys trust,” she said, whether it takes the form of street shootings, domestic abuse or institutionalized racism. “We need to know what triggers violence, what are the roots of violence, how it spreads and what protects a community against it.”

When violence happens, the whole group is both implicated and affected—bystanders as well as the perpetrator, victim, law enforcers and people personally linked to those individuals. Describing conflict as “the alarm bell of the social immune system,” Bloom suggested that the most aggressive members of any community are those most likely to have been hurt or abused.

“Instead of only chasing after and punishing the violent person, we should be asking, ‘How did our social immunity break down?’ and ‘How can we enhance our social immune system?’”

Social systems, like individuals, are alive, interactive and ever-changing, Bloom said. What happens on a personal level shapes larger entities—families, communities, nations—while those larger bodies simultaneously affect what happens on the smaller scale. “As above, so below; as below, so above,” Bloom repeated. “Every part influences and is influenced by the whole. It’s all about relationships.”

That means, she said, seeking interactive solutions to problems. She urged participants to learn and follow the principles of Sanctuary: establishing a shared mission and knowledge base; creating guiding values and ways to put them into practice; training everyone from kitchen staff to top administrators.

“Every community needs a shared vision of the future,” she said—an answer to the question, “Where should we go together?”

Then she invited participants to close their eyes and imagine a world without violence, one where, for example, any man, woman, or child can walk in safety down the streets of our towns and cities: no child maltreatment, no domestic abuse, no sexual assault, no structural oppression due to race, sex or class. Envision these traumas as “perplexing and irrational problems of the past,” she said. “We should view violence as an exception to the rule of peace.”