Laura Porter: A Commitment to Self-Healing Communities
Washington’s Cowlitz County is not unlike Southern Oregon counties in some key ways: when timber, fishing, and manufacturing industries went bankrupt, jobs were lost, as was a way of life, which has not readily been replaced. Underemployment, health, education, and social problems were chronic and among the worst in the state. The Self-Healing Communities Model (SHCM) was adopted in Cowlitz County as a response to a region in broad decline, and the stunning success achieved there by Laura Porter and her collaborators has brought hope and energy to community leaders across the nation, including many in our region.
Shifting from a model focused on direct services targeted at families to one that supports parents as agents of their own culture change had profound impacts in a broad range of outcomes while shifting communities from a focus on need and illness to self-healing and empowerment. Over 10-15 years, the county saw improvements in infant mortality, child injury hospitalizations, suicides and suicide attempts, and high school graduation to name a few.
This success led Laura to join with Dr. Robert Anda to co-found ACE Interface, LLC, and bring their successful results nationwide. ACE Interface was hired by local Coordinated Care Organizations AllCare Health and Jackson Care Connect to replicate this work in Jackson and Josephine counties. Many of us have had the chance over this past year to attend trainings and extended workshops from Laura and Kathy Adams. As the ACE Interface contract with our region moves into its last phase, we wanted to share a little more about Laura and how she thinks the work is going here in Southern Oregon.
Along with co-founding ACE Interface, LLC, Laura serves as the senior director of The Learning Institute at the Foundation for Healthy Generations. She supports leaders in over 25 states with education, facilitation, and empowerment strategies for building flourishing communities.
Laura likes to describe her work as helping communities to fully engage in ways so that people want to be with each other rather than in the more formal ways that encourage feelings of disconnection. “Early on I worked with a lot of older adults helping retired people find volunteer work that gave them meaning,” Laura shares. “One thing that really struck me is how often people would say that, looking back, so much of their lives lacked human connection which they now understood was most important. I like to think I am helping people find that at the community level.”
Laura found herself immersed in the ACES work after getting elected to county commissioner in a place where over 20% of the adults had ACE scores of 6 or higher. “I didn’t know what that meant then, but I knew my community was experiencing an epidemic of social and individual ailments, and that many people needed a partner with resources who they could trust. I wanted to be that person.”
As Laura began to improve conditions in her own community and, later, across the State of Washington, she came to understand that, while there is tremendous value in surfacing indigenous leaders to build community resilience, there is also benefit to the outsider’s viewpoint – someone neutral and trusted coming in from outside the community who can provide a fresh viewpoint. “When I thought about leaving State government and going out on my own, I picked the part of the work that was most fun for me: being in dialogue with community.”
In her state employee role, Laura was essentially a funder for communities willing to engage in community building. When she left, she was immediately confronted with the question of why communities would engage with her if she wasn’t bringing money or resources. “What are the other ways one can become a magnet to draw in community?” ACE Interface, LLC emerged from that question as a resource for communities trying a different relationship with the service professions than the one that leaves both sides feeling dissatisfied and discouraged.
“In Southern Oregon and elsewhere, there is a great divide between people who deliver services and people who receive service – or are trying to receive service. This very fact of one person perceived as having something and one person being perceived as needing something creates a veil from true connection. Professionals and systems leaders have a bias toward service, but most people don’t see themselves as a recipient of services – they see themselves as something more than that.
“If we can learn to talk less about where and how services are delivered and act more in ways that jointly lead to change,” Laura offered, “we can begin to see the profound level of change here we’ve experienced elsewhere.”
Laura and her project partner, Kathy Adams, have been working in Southern Oregon for 18 months, and have come to know our qualities and quirks pretty well, so it is valuable to get that neutral outsiders view now that they’ve been here for a while.
“Kathy and I have been struck by the ambiguity here,” Laura confides. “It’s a really great place to live in so many ways – tremendous creative spirit across the arts and academics and, at the same time more people struggle here than most places. People are passionate about their commitment to children and their desire to do something about known issues like educational attainment, depression, and homelessness, and still children continue to suffer. It’s fun here, but not for everyone.”
One of the key issues she sees is a pattern of trying to solve problems by making committees. “When people identify a problem, the reflex is to form a committee.” She thinks a challenge is to focus efforts less on the committee level and more on the human and community group level, where people actually live their lives. “Southern Oregon can use less planning and orchestrating and more action in the places where people live. Often it’s more important to do something that comes from the people than it is to develop the perfect plan.”
One of the challenges is finding funding to interact with communities. “A great intermediate idea that we’re starting to see here is the creation of Navigator and Community Health Worker (CHW) positions. This is still a step removed from the community doing its own work, but Navigators and CHWs tend to be closer to the community than other service professionals and they are trusted as more of a peer.”
The ACE Interface contract will be winding down in the first half of 2017 and Laura and Kathy are focusing on transitioning the work and energy underway so that momentum continues. They will be providing a new multi-day training in the spring, like the popular NEAR trainings, but with a greater focus on a lay audience. “The NEAR training was impactful to therapists and counselors, but we want to provide something similar, called the Seven Essentials of Trauma Informed Care for parents, foster homes—any caring, loving people who want a deeper understanding of ACEs.”
The developers of Seven Essentials will be providing their first west coast train the trainers program here so they can more broadly integrate Trauma Informed Practices across the region.
The second key task remaining is to help the Coordinated Care Organizations and community monitor data that’s more meaningful. “There’s a fire hose of information now,” Laura explains, “but most of it doesn’t tell a very deep story –we need data that tells a more complete and accurate story. When we look at generational adversity, we have to ask ourselves if we are applying band aids or really making a difference.”
The final focus is the outlying counties of Curry and Coos, where children’s depression and suicide statistics are truly disturbingly high. “These are places with minimal formal delivery systems, and so they have to rely on meaningful and sustainable relationships.”
Of course, ACES work was going on in our region before ACE Interface arrived and other efforts continue to emerge. Laura thinks this explosion of new ideas and actions from a multitude of sources is exciting. “People are seizing on this as their own – moving really fast and wanting to act while it’s fresh and they’re energized. The ‘Wild West’ feel can be volatile and feel threatening to professionals, but we all have to recognize we can’t control everything and that’s really positive.”
Laura offers a metaphor of boiling water: “Some people want to keep the action at medium heat so the water won’t boil over. They would say if you turn the heat up it will get chaotic. But it’s also true if you turn the heat up even more, you reach a new state of being, called steam, and things stabilize again in a different way.”
Laura and her partners are moving into a new level of research as they wonder about what types of positive adult experiences can overcome high ACE scores; for example, a healthy social network seems to have a positive impact.
In the meantime, she has a lot of hope for Southern Oregon. “People here want to know what will make things better – you are willing to wrestle with tough realities.” She sees Southern Oregon leaders on the leading edge in many ways: looking carefully at how lives are truly unfolding; being flexible and sensitive with the small amounts of discretionary money; and showing great willingness to collaborate. “I see so many of the leaders of large systems willing and even happy to turn decisions over to employees—this is rare and refreshing.”
Her advice moving forward: “Continue to follow the energy that came up at Next, NOW. Fuel people’s willingness to take next steps. Let people try, and catch them if they fall. Outcomes grow from that creativity.”