Why we all deserve a Trauma Informed workplace: insights from a leader and a mother

Zulma Zabala
Senior Fellow, Community and Racial Equity
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September 19, 2022
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Jayland Walker turned around and faced police officers with no gun … He was a lanky young man… only 25 years old… 60 shots in his body… they shot 90 times…. These were the facts, like an earworm in my mind, interrupting a fairly straightforward task: writing and organizing a presentation for my colleagues. As my heart beat faster, I turned into my seat to face my new view of Lake Erie. Great bodies of water usually bring me great peace, but this particular morning, all I could feel was the lump in my throat of pure emotions. I wanted to literally scream, and just sob.

 I did not want to show my emotions, so I chose to do my best to ‘manage’ them.

I have a son, a Black, young, magnificent son. I thought of Jayland’s mother, his father… his family; and their crushing devastation. I took a deep breath, smiled at my co-worker as I stood to excuse myself, announcing that I was just “going out for a bit.” I did not want to show my emotions, so I chose to do my best to ‘manage’ them. As I walked down the street, the tears quietly streamed down my face and I did not hold back, I allowed them to freely flow. I focused on my breathing aiming to find comfort in that very moment, finally gaining the freedom to breathe.

One trauma can release them all

Jayland Walker was on my mind and heart during work and it shook me! His story even ignited a series of other memories of my connection to my life on the east coast. Police officers, from NYC shot 41 times and killed Guinea immigrant, Amadou Diallo, in the Bronx? He was unarmed and only 22 years old. Diallo’s infraction was that he “fit the description and his wallet was seemingly threatening.”  

Nicholas Heyward, only 13-years-old playing cops and robbers inside the stairwell of a Brooklyn apartment building, died after an officer mistook the toy gun for a real gun killed him with a gunshot to the stomach. Could Tamir Rice’s life or Jayland’s life have been spared had we paid attention to Nicholas and Diallo’s deadly experiences? A fleeting thought as so many of these events have become the norm in our lives.  

So, I have seasoned experience with “managing my emotions” while balancing my responsibilities as an employee. I am of a certain age, at a time in my life where I define myself, my peace, and the spaces that best fit my spirit. I am in a new job, happy, and minding my business. I am also Puerto Rican, and certainly no stranger to racism and prejudice. In that same experience, I am also aware of some of my privileges; my skin color, in this country, and in many parts of this world, would likely not raise suspicion, prejudice or racist acts against me. Still a threat to the lives of my loved ones exists because of the color of their skin. That seems so unreal in 2022, but it remains our truth. Constantly these traumatic experiences can disrupt a moment of peace, including our time at work.

Why employers should create a safe work environment

During the trajectory of my career in human services, I’ve adopted a leadership style that is relational and about caring for others. As CEO for East End Neighborhood House, I placed much of my focus on my team, something someone once criticized. As I lamented the need to continually seek funding, they responded, “You haven’t put yourself out there and you’re focusing too much on internal matters. Your staff is going to come and go.” Thankfully, we were at the end of that lunch because that statement made no sense to me.

 How could I possibly meet the mission of the organization by myself?

How could I possibly meet the mission of the organization by myself? How could we get anything done, if we were not all on the same path towards success for the community we served? Moreover, if we were going to meet the mission, what could I do to make sure the environment supported all of our collective efforts and individual needs to get it all done?

The principle of Ubuntu as a leadership tool

I led with a purpose to serve and was fortunate to come across the philosophy of Ubuntu, which teaches that our humanity is interdependent in the humanity of others. Ubuntu teaches us to see each other in each other! I led a Black organization; serving a predominantly Black neighborhood. Ubuntu served us organically, fostering a sense of belonging and safety. If we took care of each other, together we would focus on the mission with each other for those we served. Part of my commitment to setting this environment and culture was also, driven by my legal knowledge, consistently inspiring a duty to avoid the creation of a hostile environment. Ubuntu, I believe, eventually helped us face the murder of George Floyd and the pandemic. While I am no longer at East End, that culture of collective care remains, maintaining a sense of belonging that keeps its employees safe, and purposefully driven to service their community.  

Within my new role at The Center for Community Solutions, I have shared via other blogs that anyone focusing on a Racial Diversity Equity and Inclusion Journey for their organization must pay close attention to what is happening to their BIPOC employees. Employers can no longer say that matters regarding race and inequity towards “the other” is not their concern. The “other” is amongst you and what is happening to us is not in the past, nor did it begin with the murder of George Floyd.  

The “Great Resignation” for instance, is not the reaction of all employees for the same reasons, certainly not in the experience of many BIPOC employees. BIPOC employees are facing many similar stressors like the pandemic, job insecurities, and challenges of inflation but these are all affected, or shadowed, by the matter relevant to our race and identity. Traumatic experiences are a heavy burden no one wants to carry, but the reality is that when you least expect it, the emotions tied to each new trauma, no matter how small, can emerge unexpectedly.

 People of Color often experience fear and hypervigilance, headaches, insomnia, body aches, memory difficulty, self-blame, confusion, shame, and guilt after experiencing racism.

Trauma effects and models to consider

Dr. Robert T. Carter, Co-Author of What is Race Based Traumatic Stress Injury? In a Time of Racial Unrest, explains that Racial Trauma, also known as race-based traumatic stress (RBTS), refers to the physical and psychological symptoms that People of Color often experience after being exposed to stressful experiences of racism. Similar to survivors of other types of traumas (e.g., sexual assault survivors), People of Color often experience fear and hypervigilance, headaches, insomnia, body aches, memory difficulty, self-blame, confusion, shame, and guilt after experiencing racism. “The stress can be experienced on an interpersonal, institutional or cultural level.”  

For the past few years, I have been hearing of the efficacy of Trauma Informed Care (TIC) in direct services, and the value it adds to staff development to serve clients with the highest fidelity of care. “Trauma-informed care approaches patients’ healthcare needs in a manner that takes into account any trauma that they may have experienced, focusing on the prevention of re-traumatization. Thus, allowing patients to continue to seek care. When used effectively, trauma-informed care enables nurses and other medical professionals to ensure that healthcare processes, procedures and settings protect patients and staff from re-traumatization.

Trauma-Informed Leadership

Trauma Informed Leadership (TIL) is currently gaining momentum and growth in the workforce space. It’s derived from the clinical model of Trauma Informed Care and focuses on the value of people and their very human emotions. According to a study conducted by the Sidran Institute: “70 percent of U.S. adults say they have experienced trauma. Trauma Informed Leadership borrows from Trauma Informed Care, by placing value beyond productivity, intentionally recognizing the psychological and emotional state of their employees. Research has proven that when the frontal lobe of the brain is activated, people become scared, rushed, disorganized and chaotic. Thus, trauma affecting employees’ life could equally affect their work productivity and in response, employers should support trauma-informed leadership on behalf of their employees and the organization’s mission.”

 Seventy percent of U.S. adults say they have experienced trauma.

In the past couple of years, a pandemic has swept across the globe, even affecting many of us deeply with the loss of a loved one. The murder of George Floyd, racial unrest, natural disasters, and the state of political divisions have all created even greater stressors in our lives. “The employees who return to work have changed. The Great Resignation has shown that employees have different expectations of their organizations. Employers that show through actions that they care for their employees beyond productivity, and that they show a real interest in who they are and support them in good times and bad, will earn loyalty, engagement, and trust- and will deserve it.”

Eight questions employers should answer to create a trauma-informed workplace

How does an employer ensure that their organization has the skills, culture and resources to navigate trauma effectively? The talk at TEDx Jacksonville, by Dr. Dawn Emerick, in which she explains her devotion “to not only encourage Trauma Informed Leadership in the workplace but to commit to developing 1 million Trauma Informed Leaders to Lead today’s exhausted and traumatized workforce, she offers a test. Dr. Emerick encourages organizations to ask the following questions.

The power of collective leadership

I've shared my own experiences with race matters, trauma, and Ubuntu as a leadership principle. The fact is that too many of us in my circle of Black and Brown friends and family have many traumatic stories to share that are jarring and horrifying; and too many hostile exchanges with authorities while NOT GUILTY. During the pandemic when everything shut down (except our services and program at East End) the male staff on our team asked for letters. They wanted something they could carry with them, to explain that they were on the road on their way to or from the neighborhood center. They hoped such a letter would help them avoid any altercations with authorities, and still one faced such experience, in custody for hours. He had gone on an errand for masks for our little ones, and ended up worried that would be the final errand of his life.

 Paying attention to staff needs is imperative!

Paying attention to staff needs is imperative! Collective leadership can create space and time for the staff to share and support one another; aiming to protect from ongoing re-traumatization. While at East End, we did it in the spirit of our Ubuntu philosophy and that worked for us. And while I will continue to spread Ubuntu spirit in all that I do, the Trauma Informed Leadership model is a tool that employers should implement into their daily operations to foster a safe environment. Employers must understand and acknowledge Racial Trauma. Cleveland, Ohio has courageously categorized racism as a public health crisis, which assures me as an employee and mother. I hope it motivates employers in our city.  

There is a return on such an investment; awareness and implementation of more inclusive cultures could sustain all employees. Work cultures ought to be inclusive of diverse stories and experiences. It might be uncomfortable to know that these experiences will undoubtedly include stories of trauma; recent or past. However, if your organization wants to meet its mission, produce results and meet projected outcome, you had better check in with your staff and ask yourselves what you are doing to support each other in your collective commitment to meet your mission. See each other and make it happen!  



  1. We need Trauma – Informed Workplaces by Katherine Manning – Harvard Business Review
  2. What is Race-Based Traumatic Stress Injury? In a Time of Racial Unrest by Robert T. Carter and Alex L. Pieterse- Columbia University Blog press
  3. #racialtraumaisreal by Alumni Advisory Group – Institution for the Study and Promotion of Race and Culture
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