Trauma & Society

Trauma & Society

To learn more about the T&S program and the work we do at GFT, check out Washtenaw United's interview with T&S developer Julia Seng:

"Washtenaw United: 'Growing Forward Together' to address trauma-related mental health in area schools and organizations"


Julia is co-developer, with Marin Seng, of the Trauma & Society curriculum. She founded the Growing Forward Together nonprofit as a spin-off from the University of Michigan where she is a Professor of Nursing. Julia is a nurse and midwife, but she was a high school teacher in her first career. She is using her expertise as a posttraumatic stress disorder researcher to create this trauma program.


David Fair: When the pandemic hit and the shutdown was ordered, it bottled all of us up for a while. For some, it had profoundly adverse and traumatic impacts. That seems to be particularly true for many of our young people. I'm David Fair, and I'd like to welcome you to this week's edition of Washtenaw United. Certainly, early life trauma is not exclusive to the pandemic. What we know for sure is these traumas can impact the remainder of a person's life, if unaddressed. Our guest today wants to make sure we do address trauma and give young people the tools to move forward. Julia Seng is co-founder, president, and CEO of the nonprofit organization Growing Forward Together. It is going to move forward to a trauma intervention and education program in a high school classroom this coming fall. Julia, thank you so much for taking time today.

Julia Seng: It's a pleasure to be with you, David.

David Fair: Now, this organization is relatively new, and this is our first opportunity to talk, you and I. So, I want to first get to know you a little bit. You're a nurse and midwife and serve as a professor of nursing at the University of Michigan. Certainly, nurses and educators were put through excessive stress through the pandemic. Did you personally find some trauma through that period?

Julia Seng: Well, that's a good question, David. I think one of the things that I did get to do was spend a lot more time thinking about people. I think that I've been doing some work on how to get things to nurses who need them, even though they're working overtime in really busy schedules. And I've always wanted to do something for high school kids. So, the youth mental health problems have really come to the forefront since the pandemic. And so, I've used the shutdown time and the opportunity to just try to get creative and figure out what we could be doing that's more frontline.

David Fair: You began your post-college career as a high school teacher, if I'm correct.

Julia Seng: I did.

David Fair: How apparent to you back then was it that some of the kids were experiencing trauma and unaddressed trauma at that in real time?

Julia Seng: Yes. You know, on a daily basis, it was always pretty taboo to talk about the trauma issues that students were facing. But you could tell if you spent 180 days a year with them that sometimes they were fine and sometimes they weren't. And I just felt that, back then, I didn't have any way to put a name to it or to address it. And that was back in the 1980s, so quite a while ago. But once I became a health care provider, and I started working more closely and 1 to 1, it became pretty clear to me that trauma was a big factor in some of the behaviors and challenges that young people were facing. And so, I actually continued to work as a midwife, but used my time as a graduate student to learn more about post-traumatic stress disorder and how that might be affecting the health of women and girls.

David Fair: WEMU's Washtenaw United and our conversation with Growing Forward Together President and CEO Julia Seng continues on WEMU. At the moment, your organization is beta testing a program you intend to put in a social studies classroom come the fall. It's called Trauma and Society. How exactly are you testing out the program and all of you've learned over these years?

Julia Seng: Well, it's an exciting program, and we are really uplifted by the support that we get when we talk to educators about it and when we talk to students about it. My daughter, Marin Seng, who is a high school teacher in Philadelphia, and I have been building the curriculum, and we engaged the community, both adults and youth, last fall to examine our prototype and to provide a lot of input through surveys and focus groups with young people to tell us what they liked about our prototype, what they thought we should change. And we've been able to use their input and carry forward to a more stout version. I would say now that is being beta tested. Marin is teaching virtual lessons from the curriculum in the evening to students from around Washtenaw County. And then, we'll be ready to teach through a training activity in the summer some teachers and nurses, social workers and counselors to be ready to offer it as a social studies course in the fall. And then, we'll be looking at what the staff members think of it and what the students take away from it, and then, hopefully, make a finalized version and get ready to go.

David Fair: What are you learning about the kids of today through this process?

Julia Seng: One of the things that we're really learning is that they are eager to get help that supports them and staying on track and understanding themselves and to continue reaching their goals. They're also really interested in having tools so that they can help friends and family members who are struggling with things as well. We expected that they would learn something about mental health careers and frontline, you know, trauma engaged work and that they would use it someday when they were adults and working. But we're finding that they're using it right now with friends and family.

David Fair: I would imagine that faculty and staff at a particular school would have the additional benefit of being able to perhaps earlier identify existing trauma and apply potential resources.

Julia Seng: Exactly. They love the idea of having a curriculum to use. Schools have become much more aware of how important trauma is in the life of students and how derailing it can be. But awareness and being able to do something are two different things, and it is possible to refer students for treatment, but it's not always possible to get treatment early on, and some students aren't ready to engage with that. So, the Trauma and Society curriculum is a really nice middle ground. It allows teachers to engage with students on the topic of trauma in a way that really is like school and not like mental health treatment. And if students don't want to seek treatment, the knowledge and skills and emotional support and peer activities are enough for right now. But also, it's groundwork for seeking treatment and knowing what you want and knowing what's out there and knowing how to get it. So, teachers are pretty excited about it. They're pretty excited about the idea of being able to get social studies credit too, so that they can spend a whole elective course worth of time with these students working on the topics.

David Fair: We're talking with Julia Seng on this week's edition of WEMU's Washtenaw United. She is co-founder of the nonprofit organization Growing Forward Together. Have you found through the feedback that you've received at this point and through what you've experienced in your professional career inequity and resources available to those who have suffered trauma?

Julia Seng: Absolutely. Trauma is a major factor globally. About 2 to 3 out of every four people will experience trauma in their lifetime. Most of them recover from it, but about 5% of men and about 10% of women have had PTSD at some point or another. And, basically, in the United States, we address PTSD with mental health treatment. But the inequities in the health care system for physical health are just as true with mental health and changing the structural inequalities in the system, it's a long-term project. So, we're kind of enjoying doing an end run right now and taking something frontline into the schools and tapping the power of collaboration among teachers and nurses and social workers who work with kids every day.

David Fair: Now, I want to go back to something you touched on earlier. It's the role of stigma. I grew up in a generation where much of the parenting adhere to the old "shake it off or rub some dirt on it" mentality. Obviously, that was a while ago. But do you find that both kids and parents today are more amenable to both recognizing and taking the steps necessary to address trauma?

Julia Seng: I think that when they hear about it, it clicks for them. So, I'm not sure that all parents are really aware of the extent to which perhaps depression or anxiety or challenging behaviors among their youth are related to traumatic events. But when they hear about it, it makes sense to them, and they tend to be very supportive as well.

David Fair: The Trauma and Society pilot program--you want to get it into the schools in the fall. Have you identified a district or building wherein you're already set to go?

Julia Seng: Well, we have had a lot of support from numerous organizations in the Washtenaw Intermediate School District. And so, it is still a question because, of course, schools have a lot of processes to work through to embed a new curriculum. But we have had great interest from the principal at the Washtenaw International High School. And the Corner Health Center has been awesome at helping us to do this outside of school settings because Trauma and Society also is designed to be used in alternative settings. So, virtual high school and the Washtenaw County Virtual Education Group is also on board with this. Their youth are involved in the mock lessons. Community organizations, like Elevation Youth Corps in Ypsilanti that do anti-violence work, we're plugging in with them, and some of their students and artists are working with us right now. Justice organizations, foster care systems, in-patient hospital settings for youth, post-trafficking residencies--all of these organizations are quite excited to have the tool available to them, even if they use it on a tutoring basis or an independent study basis, rather than a classroom basis. And then, in the state of Iowa, we're going to be piloting in some classrooms as well.

David Fair: Well, congratulations on putting this together, and I thank you for taking time today to share your perspective and inform us about what we can look forward to in our schools in the future.

Julia Seng: Thank you so much. David.

David Fair: That is Julia Seng. She is co-founder and CEO and president of the nonprofit Growing Forward Together. For more information on Growing Forward Together and the work that Julia and her team are doing in the community, visit our website at WEMU dot org. We'll have all the background and links to get you to where you want to go. Washtenaw United is produced in partnership with the United Way of Washtenaw County, and we bring it to you every Monday. I'm David Fair and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM, Ypsilanti.


Growing Forward Together

Julia Seng’s UM School of Nursing home page

The UM School of Nursing’s faculty group that studies and works with youth exposed to high levels of trauma

National Center for PTSD

National Child Traumatic Stress Network


Growing Forward Together is a recent 2023 recipient of the Opportunity Fund, which is a resource for local organizations and groups whose efforts address poverty, racism and trauma: root causes of systemic oppression that hold opportunity at bay for all people in Washtenaw County.

Growing Forward Together has received a reward of $4,930 to pilot a project that will address:

  • Problem #1: The lack of targeted or “tier 2” trauma interventions in schools and youth services.
  • Problem #2: The worry about the sensitivity or stigma of receiving or delivering a trauma intervention, and
  • Problem #3: The shortage of Black and Indigenous people working in many helping professions.

WEMU has partnered with the United Way of Washtenaw County to explore the people, organizations, and institutions creating opportunity and equity in our area. And, as part of this ongoing series, you’ll also hear from the people benefiting and growing from the investments being made in the areas of our community where there are gaps in available services. It is a community voice. It is 'Washtenaw United.'