Generational Trauma In Milwaukee: 'Even If They Can't Name It, They Feel It'

Mar 23, 2020

The American Psychological Association defines trauma as an emotional response to a terrible event like a natural disaster, an accident or a rape. But trauma can have many “flavors,” according to Joshua Mersky, Ph.D.

He’s a professor of social work in the Helen Bader School of Social Welfare at UWM. He says, "Typically speaking, we’re talking about profound adversities that have long lasting consequences."

Rates of adversity are measured by the Adverse Childhood Experiences that respondents report. Those are experiences before the age of 18, such as witnessing or being a victim of violence or abuse, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Earlier this year, WUWM reached out to our listeners to find out what questions they have about trauma and its impact on Milwaukee. One of our Beats Me question askers wanted to know:

How prevalent is generational trauma in Milwaukee? What resources are available to help break the cycle?

Mersky says there’s no precise definition of generational trauma. But he and his colleagues have done research in Milwaukee and the state that help paint the picture.

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For instance, they’ve found patterns of trauma among 200 men from low-income, racial and ethnic minority groups who are seeking jobs. "This is a very disadvantaged population and you see rates of trauma there that far exceed what you’re going to see in the general population." He says his collegue, Dimitri Topitzes, found that nearly 85% reported at least one adverse childhood experience (ACE), and 74% reported two or more experiences.

And another study focused on low-income expectant or new mothers recieving home visititing services who reported high rates of childhood and adult adversity. They found that over 80% of more than 500 women in Milwaukee getting these services reported at least one ACE. More than 45% reported two or more.

"Trauma is widely distributed in society, meaning very prevalent throughout society, but it’s not equally distributed," Mersky says.

Sonny Jackson, 27, hopes to become a facilitator in the future so he can help other men talk through their issues as he's been able to do at the Alma Center.
Credit Teran Powell

At class called Men Ending Violence, Sonny Jackson talks about how what he lived through as a child affected him. The sessions are held at the Alma Center in Milwaukee’s Harambee neighborhood. It helps people heal the unresolved pain of trauma to break the cycle of violence and dysfunction. The Alma Center works mainly with men who are at-risk or involved with the criminal justice system.

Jackson says he was raised primarily by his mother and is the third oldest of 15 kids. He says he was trusted with many responsibilities when he was just 12 years old, and he felt much like the man of the house.

But he says he was an angry child, and the class facilitators focus on that.

Jackson says he’s realized the negative way men treated his mother impacted his relationships with women. This is Jackson’s third session — he has to complete 50 in order to successfully complete the Men Ending Violence program.  

"Being in these classes basically taught me how to express myself, you know, to be at peace, to know how to come to a realization that not all change is bad. Everything is going to be okay," Jackson says.

Jackson says once he completes the classes, he hopes to be back with his fiancé. And he’s interested in becoming a facilitator at the Alma Center, helping others talk through their issues.

Another organization working to break the cycle of trauma in Milwaukee is SaintA.  Its services are based on trauma informed care — practices that apply what neuroscientists understand about how the brain develops, functions, and recovers from trauma.

While researcher Joshua Mersky says there’s no precise definition of generational trauma, Dwayne Marks describes it as trauma that passes from one generation to the next if left untreated. He is SaintA's vice president of Child and Family Well-Being.

Marks says there are factors in Milwaukee that contribute to trauma — other than what happens within families. For instance, factors like generational unemployment and segregation.

"The less you deal with systemic issues that cross systems and affect marginalized people, the more prevalent you’re going to see issues surrounding historical trauma," he says.

Kenyatta Sinclair, SaintA's vice president of Equity & Human Capital, echoes Marks: "It has a historical perspective that still feeds into what people are experiencing now. Even if they can’t name it, they just feel it."

She says a number of individuals and organizations in Milwaukee have been doing work around trauma for years, but they tend to be in their own silos.

Sinclair says the community can do a better job moving toward healing generational trauma, if those people and groups come together and collectively address the problem.

Do you have a question about race in Milwaukee that you'd like WUWM's Teran Powell to explore? Submit it below.

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