The annual BizTimes Nonprofit Excellence Awards event featured a panel discussion about psychological trauma and its effect on Milwaukee’s workforce.
Panelists included Mike Lovell, president of Marquette University; Amy Lovell, president of REDgen; and Frank Cumberbatch, vice president of engagement for Bader Philanthropies. The Lovells and Cumberbatch serve on the steering committee of Scaling Wellness in Milwaukee (SWIM), an initiative that is bringing various stakeholders together to make the region a more trauma-responsive community.
Trauma, a term that describes an individual’s psychological response to an adverse experience, is pervasive, affecting urban, suburban and rural communities.
“Studies have shown that two out of three people experience trauma in their life, so most of us in this room today have experienced trauma,” Mike Lovell said.
When trauma isn’t addressed, it can translate to absenteeism, difficulty establishing professional relationships and other job-related challenges.
Panelists implored employers to view those issues through the lens of trauma.
“You hear employers say, ‘I can’t get the employees I need. These guys don’t show up on time. They don’t know how to work on a team. They have this issue or that issue,’” Cumberbatch said. “Those are the wrong questions. You need to begin with finding out from every employee … ‘What happened to you? What is the reason why you cannot focus on these tasks?’ Once you start to work on that, you will see they will show up, they want to work, they want to raise their families just like everyone else.”
With new employers entering the region, a host of new developments happening in downtown Milwaukee and a low unemployment rate, there is an increased urgency to connect those who have previously been disconnected from the workforce with jobs. However, Amy Lovell said, the Milwaukee-area community must address historic racism and pessimism to ensure all community members benefit from the region’s economic development.
“Until we start addressing systems that are inherently racist, we are not going to really move the needle in Milwaukee,” she said.
Individual employers can create a more trauma-informed culture by promoting practices such as mindfulness and providing calm spaces to allow for emotional regulation, panelists said.
“As employers you need to examine the culture of your business,” Cumberbatch said. “You need to start by making sure that every employee in your business sees each other as people … If you recognize the potential, the value and the purpose of every single employee in your business, and start to work towards asking what do they need in order to be successful, you will start to realize there are issues under the surface that need to be addressed.”
The SWIM initiative, an effort that began in January 2017, has brought together representatives from various sectors, including health care, social work, academia, criminal justice, social services and nonprofits. The coalition, which has grown from about 30 people to 350, meets every six weeks to discuss how those sectors can work together to address issues of trauma in the community.
In September, SWIM hosted a conference in partnership with Milwaukee nonprofit organization SaintA at Fiserv Forum that drew in 1,500 attendees and some of the nation’s leading trauma experts.
“It showed how interested people are in this issue and how they want to make Milwaukee better,” Mike Lovell said.
Cumberbatch said his involvement with SWIM has made him hopeful about the community’s ability to tackle what have long been thought by many in the area to be intractable issues.
“I’ve always thought that we’ve been putting Band-Aids on solving the city’s issues, but I could never put my finger on what is the real problem until I attended the first meeting (of SWIM) and realized, ‘Ah, I think this variable could be it,’” he said. “And fast-forward from then to now, and I think we’re on to something.”
The discussion was followed by the BizTimes Nonprofit Excellence Awards ceremony, which honors top area nonprofit organizations for their work in the community, as well as private individuals and businesses that support area nonprofits.