By Avery Haller

At the end of her popular TED talk on childhood trauma, Dr. Nadine Burke Harris rallies the crowd, saying, “This is real, and this is all of us.”

She’s right. Childhood trauma often referred to as Adverse Childhood Experiences, is incredibly common and clearly affects brain and body development.

But there’s something deeper here than the statistics that Burke Harris references. The N.E.A.R. (Neuroscience, Epigenetics, Adverse Childhood Experiences, and Resilience) sciences are together the science of hardship. The science of grief. The science of how we express love, and how we can love our children more tenderly. Ultimately, the N.E.A.R. sciences are the science of what it means to live together in this world.

There are practical implications for the structure of public health work in the wake of the (re)discovery that human relationships are integral to human development and self-regulation. If loving relationships are central to human health, then public health professionals must model love in the same way we would model eating well and exercising.

A N.E.A.R.-informed public health takes relationships as seriously as statistics. Disease prevention becomes collaborative, rather than authoritative. Our role as public health professionals shifts from that of self-perceived superhero to equal partner. Our present task shifts to one of building shared resilience.

Relationships: a key to community change

So, how do we model loving relationships on the ground? As an outsider looking in this summer, I found one answer in the way Healthy Gen supports Community Health Workers around the state. Gretchen Hansen, Health Advocate Coordinator with Healthy Gen, recently told me “People are always asking me how to do community engagement, and it’s just not that hard—you go talk to people!” She went on to say, “Sometimes you have to give people rides or print out their documents.” Later, she said “You know, you have to spend time with the CHWs and the community.”

Gretchen was describing the truth that public health professionals often ignore: that to walk with people in their pursuit of health, you must first encounter them as human beings, not data. CHWs are not statistics for your grant report; CHWs are indispensable co-developers on the public health team. As teammates, we are equal. As teammates, we spend time together, lend each other a hand, and participate in mutual exchange.

In the give and take of teamwork, we practice the art of loving relationships. We listen to expressed needs with deep concern. We trust in our teammates’ self-determination. We talk solutions out together, rather than delivering out-of-the-blue mandates.

Community change is not solely analytical work. Building community trust requires a genuine pursuit of the shared values that emerge from teamwork. Change happens when we allow the messiness and joy of human relationship to enter our work.

A N.E.A.R.-informed public health is one where we let our hearts into our efforts. We create enduring health equity when we are able to break down the facades of superhero and damsel, when we can partner as teammates in health. Only by moving forward in genuine relationship can we create lasting, powerful change.


 

Avery Haller, a Summer 2017 Graduate Student Fellow at Healthy Gen, is pursuing her Masters of Public Health (MPH) at Bastyr University. Her commitment to social justice stems from witnessing the powerful example of the women religious at her high school, Holy Names Academy. After graduation, she plans to work with faith-based organizations to lead the charge for a healthier society which lets all people thrive.