Situating Strengths Alongside Trauma

Written by Addison Duane

When first learning about trauma from an intellectual standpoint, it’s common for people to share a list of traumatic experiences and trauma responses. This is important because it can illuminate the harsh reality of trauma and its impacts.


If we only ever present and talk about deficits and struggles, we run the risk of ignoring the inherent strengths embodied by individuals and communities.

Many have talked about the importance of seeing strengths alongside pain and trauma. Not in a way that promotes toxic positivity, but one that complicates the picture and promotes a more holistic view of the human experience.


In a world suffused by White supremacy culture, it may take work to resist the either/or, binary thinking. Rather than seeing a person— or ourselves— as solely defined by trauma, we can take up a strengths-based, asset-filled, holistic lens. To hold two truths at once.

As an elementary teacher, I worked to situate strengths alongside the struggles of my students. Not to ignore the very real trauma that some had endured, but to take up a more holistic lens. For me, this meant starting with strengths, quite literally. Asking students and their families via conversations and surveys and phone calls and conferences and community circles what is already present to start with— not to fix, but to build on. For kids, this meant asking about their interests, talents, favorites, activities after school and on weekends. Observing tiny moments and interactions from a strengths-based lens. Talking about things other than academics. For adults this meant asking about their children’s strengths, and also their hopes and dreams for their child as well as their familial and generational strengths. Now as a researcher I think about what it means to ask research questions and conduct studies with and for communities that start with the essential question put forth by Dr. Sara Lawrence Lightfoot: “What is good here?”


I still mess up. I get it wrong. I connect with my community to continually learn and grow. The act of seeing strengths is not a final destination, but rather an ever-evolving journey.


Regardless of our role— be it educators, clinicians, parents, researchers, organizers— we must insist on seeing strengths. On starting with the good. On resisting Pollyanna narratives that ignore the harsh realities of a racist and unjust world while doggedly insisting on starting with strengths at the same time. On holding two truths. It may not always be easy.

And, it is wholly possible.