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Trauma-Informed Futures: Part 1

Updated: Apr 12, 2023

How Trauma Influences Futures Thinking and Increases Futures Consciousness

In this two-part blog series, I will explore the concept of trauma-informed futures and its relationship with futures consciousness and futures unconsciousness. These two blogs represent the core components of my recently completed research for my MPhil in Futures Studies at Stellenbosch University in Cape Town.

Youth and adolescents in Kenya and across much of Africa are exposed to traumatic events such as violent crime, electoral violence, witnessing extra-judicial killings, and terrorism (i.e., youth being recruited by al-Shabaab). Additionally, they live with the residual effects of historical trauma (British colonialism) and related forms of transgenerational trauma. These young people also experience chronic stress due to high levels of poverty, unemployment, domestic violence, abusive home life, and police harassment.

Studies in the field of experimental psychology have shown that various types of trauma (individual, communal, intergenerational, developmental, etc.) can reduce foresight/futures thinking skills and aptitudes, and thus impair an individual’s futures consciousness and ability to think about the future. Neurobiological studies using fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) reveal that past thinking and future thinking are processed in the same regions of the human brain, thus our semantic memory works to project the past into the future. Therefore, unresolved, constraint-laden, traumatizing, and unhealed pasts can lead to limited abilities to envision a better future. However, if these traumatized pasts can be reconciled via community-led trauma healing programs, the brain’s neuroplasticity can facilitate a reset and thus enhance futures thinking.

In my research, I partnered with the Green String Network (GSN), a local Nairobi-based non-government organization. GSN facilitates Kumekucha Quest (Swahili for “new dawn), a 12-week community-led trauma healing program that utilizes a mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS) approach to assist these youth with reconciling and healing past traumas. GSN’s program focuses on two communities—the Majengo area of metro Nairobi and Kombani, a suburb of the Ukunda community in Kenya’s coastal Kwale County.

Based on data I collected from trainers and trainees, there is preliminary evidence to suggest that the neurobiological foundation for engaging with more informed and effective futures thinking is possibly being restored. This in turn is equipping current and future generations with the ability to proactively identify new pathways for fostering the conditions and behaviors that will allow human and non-human life to flourish in Kenya—or what I refer to as the positive side of trauma-informed futures (I will explore the shadow side in the second part of this blog).

My research methods consisted of workshops, surveys, and interviews. In the futures workshops, I used the Futures Triangle and Causal Layered Analysis to guide participants in examining the challenges and opportunities in their local community. A follow-up discussion then explored how GSN’s training changed how they think about the future. I used the five dimensions of futures consciousness, as developed by a team at the University of Turku in Finland, to guide the workshop conversation. The five dimensions consist of Time Perspective, Systems Perceptions, Concern for Others, Openness to Alternatives, and Agency Beliefs. These dimensions and related components are captured in the visual below.

The survey component consisted of 20 questions—four questions per dimension. Sixty-three respondents were asked to reflect on GSN’s program that they had taken part in, either as a trainer or as a general participant. Evidence from my research suggests that GSN’s community-led trauma healing interventions that utilize MHPSS approaches within marginalized groups result in increased capacity within the five dimensions.

The following pie graph shows 82% stating that the trauma-healing journey increased their futures consciousness (aggregation of all five dimensions). Over half (55%) reported a major increase and more than a quarter (27%) stated they saw a minor increase in their futures consciousness.

If we disaggregate the five dimensions, we find:

· 90% of the respondents stated an increase in their Time Perspective

· 91% saw their Concern for Others increase

· 86% reported an increase in Openness to Alternatives, i.e., they are more willing to explore other ideas, practices, and behaviours

· 84% claimed an increase in their Agency Beliefs

· Only 47% responded that they had an increase in their systems perceptions, but an equal percentage stated they found no change. This dimension saw the least amount of change. This could be due to the wording of the question or the fact that systems perceptions represent difficult concepts to assess with a survey.

This study demonstrates how MHPSS projects among adolescents and youth can influence a proactive engagement with their future and provides empirical evidence to support the World Health Organization’s concept of Triple Dividend. This concept holds that with increased investments now with adolescents (10-19-year-olds) on issues related to their health and well-being can potentially yield a “triple dividend” of benefits. These three dividends will transform: 1) the capabilities of the current adolescent population; 2) their future trajectories of health/well-being into adulthood; and 3) their ability to increase the welfare of their children, i.e., the next generation.

My research sheds important light on the relationship between trauma healing and futures consciousness, but what about an inverse to futures consciousness? If futures consciousness exists, can there also be a parallel futures unconsciousness? In my next blog, I will unpack this comparison. Stay tuned for Part 2!

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