Equity, News, Research

By Ijeoma Njaka & Duncan Peacock Jan. 21, 2021

In the 1860s, American abolitionist Frederick Douglass noted that people invested in social change “endeavor to remove the contradiction” between “what ought to be” and “what is.” This contradiction seems ubiquitous today as social change advocates struggle to address multiple, overlapping crises. Systemic racism, climate change, the forced displacement of millions of people, a devastating global pandemic, and other widespread social issues highlight how far we are from “what ought to be.” And each of these problems requires urgent and sustained attention.

In the 1860s, American abolitionist Frederick Douglass noted that people invested in social change “endeavor to remove the contradiction” between “what ought to be” and “what is.” This contradiction seems ubiquitous today as social change advocates struggle to address multiple, overlapping crises. Systemic racism, climate change, the forced displacement of millions of people, a devastating global pandemic, and other widespread social issues highlight how far we are from “what ought to be.” And each of these problems requires urgent and sustained attention.

Illustration by Helena Pallarés

At the same time, another problem is inhibiting and limiting sustained attention to these complex crises: trauma. We are learning that trauma, or distress resulting from exposure to chronic or extreme mental or physical stress, is a common human experience with the power to spread across people and time. Research reveals that if nothing is done to mitigate the influence of traumatic experiences, individuals afflicted by today’s challenges may pass their trauma to the next generation. This kind of transfer, known as “intergenerational trauma,” isn’t new to human experience, but research on it didn’t begin in earnest until the 1960s. Currently, the American Psychological Association describes it as “a phenomenon in which the descendants of a person who has experienced a terrifying event show adverse emotions and behavioral reactions to the event that are similar to those of the person him/herself.” Intergenerational trauma can persist long after the memory of the initial traumatic event has faded.

Related concepts about the way sources, experiences, or effects of trauma include but are not limited to individuals also sheds light on the problem. Collective trauma, for example, is a shared traumatic experience that can negatively affect entire communities. The “demoralization, disorientation, and loss of connection” of survivors at the Buffalo Creek disaster of 1972 is just one example. It can also refer to mass suffering incurred by the kind of high death rates and economic and social shutdowns we’ve seen during the COVID-19 pandemic. While researchers and others make appropriate distinctions between terms such as collective, historicalcultural, multigenerational, transgenerational, and generational trauma based on context, each expresses the phenomena of inherited or shared trauma.

As previous articles in this series have discussed, change makers—those actively engaged in building a healthy and just society—not only face and address trauma among the populations they serve, but also commonly experience personal harm and trauma as a result of their work. There is also growing evidence that these experiences impair their ability to foster organizational and social change, and that supporting personal well-being lies at the heart of effectively addressing social challenges. Until we better recognize the impact trauma has on individuals, organizations, and society, those working for social change will be limited in their ability to support human dignity, well-being, and resilience. Indeed, we must better understand trauma, discuss it, and integrate awareness of it into the culture of social change if we are to effectively address issues in which trauma and intergenerational trauma are factors.

With this in mind, a think tank launched by The Wellbeing Project and Georgetown University recently started a research program to better understand the connection between inner work (including self-inquiry, reflection, and self-care), outer change (work that individuals do to effect change in the world), and intergenerational trauma. The program is exploring intergenerational trauma with the idea that understanding its impact might advance the well-being of individuals working toward social change and the communities they work with, as well as increase the impact of their work. An initial field scan and literature review conducted in 2020 has revealed a diverse range of perspectives on intergenerational trauma through human stories and a variety of research-based disciplinary approaches. Here’s a look at what we’ve learned so far.

Defining the Challenge

Intergenerational trauma was initially documented in 1960s and 1970s studies of the Holocaust. Helen Epstein’s article “Children of the Holocaust” investigates how the experience and wounds of Holocaust survivors effected the lives of the following generation. Over time, the field has expanded to examine intergenerational trauma as a result of war, genocide, refugee experienceshealth disparitiesapartheid in South AfricaIndia’s caste systemAmerican slavery and its legacies, poverty, and the oppression and violence against Indigenous PeoplesThese and similar phenomena have been the source of mass trauma that has directly or indirectly affected multiple generations. However, intergenerational trauma doesn’t necessarily result from widespread social calamity. It can also result from unresolved trauma endured by mothers, or from trauma experienced by parents, grandparents, and further descendants, who can, knowingly or unknowingly, pass it down through feelings, memories, and even language.

Defining the problem isn’t just about identifying historical or ongoing instances of violence that cause this sort of trauma; it’s also about using the questions, methods, and tools of different fields and disciplines, as well as human stories, to examine and ultimately heal the damage at hand. A range of documented cases that incorporate epigenetics, or the study of heritable changes in gene function that aren’t part of the genetic code, show that stressors and trauma can change gene expression, and thus pass between generations. Historical trauma, such as trauma resulting from the forced displacement and destruction of Native American communities, has deleterious effects on physiological, psychological, and social dimensions of generations of lives. In addition to biology, this complex challenge is therefore also a concern of psychology, economics, and education. Given the relationship between social media, mental health, and democracy, the spread of trauma is also a concern of technology and ethics.

We are all situated in relation to historical and cultural narratives. If marked by trauma, the narratives people tell themselves and concepts of self can be maladaptive and can become mechanisms of historical trauma. The arts and storytelling are necessary tools for creating healthier narratives, and for creating narratives that honor the past but enable healing in the present and future. Going forward, researchers and practitioners must use a wide spectrum of interdisciplinary approaches informed by cross-sector and global perspectives to explore and document this topic.

Intergenerational Trauma as a Lens for Practicing Social Change

Over the past year, we’ve gleaned five initial insights about the connection between intergenerational trauma and the social change sector. In addition to undergirding our future research, we hope these insights can offer thought-provoking framing for current social change leaders.

1. Finding root causes and compounding factors. Recognizing intergenerational trauma can help spotlight and define the roots of social change issues.

Consider the high costs of poverty in the United States. Getting to the roots of the problem includes recognizing that the problem is not simply about individual failures and shortcomings. Addressing poverty requires that we ask questions about underlying systemic factors, such as structural racism, which compounds impoverishment by the mechanisms of discrimination and racial health disparities. It also raises questions about the unequal distribution of power and wealth, which affects economic, social, and political agency, including mobility in any of these areas.

Poverty also creates major challenges to mental well-being, not only due to lack of access to vital resources, but also because the chronic stress of living through poverty can lead to atrophy of the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain needed for higher reasoning and control, judgement, and decision making. In other words, trauma caused by poverty itself can become a compounding factor that makes it more difficult to exit the cycle of poverty.

By looking at root causes and compounding circumstances, social change makers can deepen their understanding of the challenges they wish to solve and, in turn, shape more effective, future interventions.

2. Supporting change makers and the communities they serve. Addressing intergenerational trauma can help support change makers who have experienced intergenerational trauma themselves, including those who have chosen to work in social change partly to address the source of their trauma.

During the Rhodes Must Fall movement at the University of Cape Town (UCT), for example, student activists demanded the removal of a statue of imperialist Cecil Rhodes, who implemented policies that enabled the institutionalization of apartheid. Although many of the students were born after apartheid formally ended, the legacy of apartheid and colonial trauma remained. In 2016, the students created The Fall, a play about two UCT movements: Rhodes Must Fall and Fees Must Fall. These activist-artists found the process of creating the play and sharing their experiences therapeutic and healing for both themselves and their audience.

This type of process, which links the inner work of confronting intergenerational trauma with social change focused on its effects, is an effective way to both enhance well-being for change makers and broaden the reach of social change.

3. Recognizing trauma in the interconnectedness of the world. We are also learning that there are porous boundaries between the social problems we face today and the collective trauma that exacerbates them. In some instances, foundations of trauma cascade across seemingly unrelated areas of life and society.

Road congestion and gridlock in Atlanta, Georgia, for example, have roots in its interstate’s design to accommodate racial segregation while prioritizing white neighborhoods. They also reflect resistance to expanded public transit access from predominantly white areas. More broadly, capitalistic mechanisms that lead to increased economic mobility for certain populations (for example, educated or corporate groups) have negative impacts on personal health and families and the futures of low-income children.

For social change leaders, examining interconnectivity adds nuance to the social problems they work on and expands the possible types of resources that may address these issues. The interconnectedness of the world necessitates the use of many disciplines and human perspectives in concert with one another.

4. Activating healing from trauma. In his book, “The Body Keeps the Score,” trauma expert Bessel Van der Kolk explains that trauma compromises a person’s agency and ability to cope with overwhelming situations, implicating the well-being of the body, brain, and mind. However, it’s important to note that factors such as social support can mitigate the degree to which trauma takes hold in any given individual, and how it impacts even those who experienced the same event or conditions. And while trauma has the pernicious ability to become a vicious cycle, the pursuit of agency, dignity, and well-being can create the reverse—a virtuous cycle of healing.

The story of Desmond Meade, president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, provides an example on the individual level. Voting for the first time in 2020 motivated him more than ever to continue restoring millions of other people’s right to vote. The agency he experienced when voting helped him reconnect with a sense of dignity—his inherent value as a participant in the democratic process. It also helped his psychological well-being, particularly as he considered the challenges of both his life and the lives of his historically disenfranchised Black American ancestors.

Another example is the therapeutic storytelling practice Testimony Therapy, which has helped survivors of war and political violence, and political refugees heal from trauma by sharing their personal stories in a way that rigorously documents and preserves their testimony.

Social change initiatives of all kinds can also incorporate measures to heal trauma. For example, restorative-justice initiatives such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa and the Colombia Peace Process both included reparation and rehabilitation measures, with the aim of giving formerly oppressed people a voice and fostering agency. And from their inception in the United States, both the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, and the current Black Lives Matter movement have asserted the dignity of all, and demanded political, economic, and social agency for those who have been oppressed and excluded.

These examples illustrate how social change leaders can develop their own initiatives and movements in ways that use agency, dignity, and well-being as methods for addressing cycles of trauma.

5. Honoring the role of time and connection. When American civil rights leader Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. emphasized the maxim, “Justice too long delayed is justice denied,” he recognized the role of time in achieving justice. In a similar way, healing that is too long delayed not only is denied, but also can allow problems to worsen. The longer people experience traumatizing conditions or unresolved trauma, the more trauma can compound, and the more it can fatigue people, even spreading to others who otherwise may have remained resilient or whose particular experiences were radically different.

Scholar Suraj Yengde has described the traumas he and other generations of Dalits have endured from the caste system. In addition to shared conditions of diminished mobility, poverty, abuse, and cultural erasure, Yengde notes how trauma can even limit the dreams and aspirations other community members. Time is therefore of the essence when it comes to healing. And just as unaddressed trauma can permeate through generations over time, addressing trauma requires sustained attention and support.

Connection—between body to mind, one human to another, one generation to the next, and inner selves to outer environments—is another distinctive element of healing. Interoception (awareness of what’s going on in the body), somatic therapy (grounding in the body through movement), and relationships and a sense of belonging all facilitate healing by re-establishing connections that are fundamental for humans.

Writer and founder of the Academy of Inner Science Thomas Hübl suggests that one of the most important connections for healing collective and intergenerational trauma is between science and spirit, which he argues brings together the “double helix of ancient wisdom and contemporary understanding.” Humans experience well-being when we have agency, dignity, and health, and are connected to ourselves, each other, and our world in sustainable and life-giving ways. Trauma is the disconnection from these things. Those working on social change, therefore, need to identify the connections and disconnections in the issues they care about. They also need support when they experience disconnection in their own lives.

A Call to Action

The social sector needs to take a few steps to address intergenerational trauma, and achieve the inner well-being of individuals and communities. First, we must recognize intergenerational trauma as a widespread challenge to achieving well-being at scale—one that requires ongoing attention and healing in different forms for different human experiences. Second, we need to advocate for the active exploration of intergenerational trauma within the social change sector—indeed, for it to become a core focus, integrated with mainstream work. Third, we must deepen scholarship on intergenerational trauma using an interdisciplinary approach informed by a range of diverse human experiences and stories. And finally, we must develop methods and practices for healing that join inner and outer work, and connect dignity, agency, and well-being to avenues for social change.

Over the next year, The Wellbeing Project and Georgetown University—in conjunction with a global, multidisciplinary panel of experts and associate voices—will continue to explore the effects of intergenerational trauma on individuals, communities, and the social sector, with the following principles in mind:

  1. Examine the roots, not just the symptoms of these problems. Instances of intergenerational trauma can often be broken down into a multitude of interrelated factors.

  2. Synthesize a range of perspectives and connect them in new ways. This includes using many disciplines, examining many sectors of human life, and listening to many human stories to understand how intergenerational trauma begins and unfolds.

  3. Establish a range of approaches to healing, including using varied forms of therapy or well-being practices, using the arts and storytelling, bridging cultural divides, advocatingresearching, enacting policy, and changing laws.

  4. Engage and contribute to the work of various sectors, including social change, policy, and education.

In a November 2020 interview, former US President Barack Obama said that the country will continue to fall short in the change Americans seek if we only address symptoms and ignore the underlying causes of social problems. He described how the deaths of too many Black Americans “is part and parcel with a legacy of discrimination, and Jim Crow, and segregation,” and that the only way to address the injustices of the criminal justice system is to look at the economy, housing, and other interconnected factors that impede progress. “The good news,” he said, “is that we can all take responsibility.” These insights also apply to social change leaders addressing intergenerational trauma and well-being. We can begin to address traumatic experiences that have permeated communities through identifying root causes, supporting change makers’ healing, and understanding interconnected problems and outcomes. The ubiquity of these obstacles means that the opportunity for change is ubiquitous as well.


Ijeoma Njaka (@anotherijeoma) is an educator, writer, and artist in Washington, DC. She serves as the senior project associate for equity-centered design at the Red House and the inclusive pedagogy specialist at the Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics at Georgetown University.

Duncan Peacock serves as a senior program developer at Georgetown’s Red House, with a special focus on curricular innovation around well-being, interdisciplinarity, and integrative learning.