What will it take to shape the next generation of social workers, individuals poised to support communities who have experienced unimaginable disaster and trauma?

Perhaps there is no university better suited to address this challenge than Chico State—or at least, that’s the premise of a new course in the School of Social Work. This summer, three professionals and educators came together to teach “Contemporary Issues in Social Work Practice and Research.”

Using the Camp Fire both as a lens and a shared experience among the students, social work professor Molly Calhoun, alumna Kate Scowsmith (MSW, ’17) of the Camp Fire Collaborative, and psychologist Juni Banerjee-Stevens, who formerly served as the clinical director of the WellCat Counseling Center, united to provide an immersive and research-driven course. The vision is that graduates of the University’s MSW program will become mentors who inform future disaster education and response at all cycles and all levels.

“It was such an honor to come back to teach and have insight for some of the content I wish had been there when I was in the program, even though my experience was great,” said Scowsmith, who is also a Camp Fire survivor. “But with any program we need to be constantly adapting to change. We need social workers out there more prepared to question, challenge, and change organizations they are working in and speaking up to change how those systems are working.”

Perhaps a more apt name for the course might have been Community Healing 101. By its end, students are expected to understand how trauma impacts behavior, how healing-centered research and practices mediate the effects of trauma, and how healing-centered leadership facilitates self-healing organizations, which, in turn, facilitate self-healing communities.

“Chico State is really well poised to do some national and global leadership on what healing-centered care means. because it’s happening all over the world, really,” said Calhoun. “The brilliance of the people here in Chico can really add to the larger conversation.”

Capturing all of this in a compressed, four-week summer course is an ambitious undertaking, but it reflects the latest in social work best practices and meets the growing need of serving individuals and communities who have experienced significant trauma from climate disasters, social injustice, economic crisis, and other challenges of the 21st century.

“As we learn more about the neuroscience, I can’t unsee it,” Banerjee-Stevens said. “People are more than their trauma. It’s shifting from ‘What’s wrong with you?’ to the trauma-informed ‘What happened to you?’ And healing-centered is ‘What’s right with you?’”

In all social work, but especially in disaster relief, that supportive attitude is critical, the educators agree. Understanding the nuances of an affected individual or community is essential to provide proper support. Using the Camp Fire as an example, knowing that the population of Paradise was culturally and socioeconomically distinct from Chico and even the other communities like Butte Creek Canyon and Concow helped service providers tailor their outreach and kinds of support offered.

Of the 19 students in the class, several were Camp Fire survivors and a few had served as disaster case managers in some capacity during the immediate or ongoing recovery. The educators wanted them to bring their lived experience into the classroom for a reciprocal teaching experience.

“With a healing-centered approach, you already have a lot of expertise and you know what works in these communities because you are the community. That was a cognitive shift for a lot of these students, like, ‘What, you think I’m an expert on something?’” Banerjee-Stevens said. “We [the course instructors] may have extra letters after or names or more schooling, but I don’t know what it means to be a survivor of the Camp Fire. I was affected by it, certainly, but I didn’t actually experience what it was like standing in line at [FEMA’s Disaster Recovery Center], and some of those students did.”

The four weeks were rich with discussions on adverse childhood experiences, positive childhood experiences, emotional literacy, and the neurobiology of empathy. The students also spent a lot of time talking about the difference between helping and rescuing, trying to get away from the “superhero” model of relief work. Instead, they examined how it’s more effective to give healthy support that empowers the community to create resiliency for the long term.

“While well intentioned, there are some really harmful ways that help can arrive,” Banerjee-Stevens said, noting certain approaches also can be damaging to the social workers themselves, as well as their organizations. “We have to start looking at how our systems promote—or hinder—community healing.”

The students also examined the impact and burden of disaster response practices, such as asking survivors to fill out yet again the list of every item they lost in a wildfire.

“If we can all understand better what it means to live through something traumatic, we can redesign those policies and procedures,” Banerjee-Stevens said. “The hope is to get this future generation of managers at Butte County Behavioral Health and people working at agencies in town to be thinking through this trauma-informed lens.”

MSW student Shelby Bruce (Social Work, ’21) said the class was deeply educational and affirming of what she’s known to be true, both personally and professionally.

“Trauma is one of the most important pieces,” she said. “It’s going to be part of everyone we work with. And it’s hard to gauge trauma, even if two people experienced the same thing. It’s important to be compassionate and open-minded and validating of everyone’s experiences. They are the expert in their loss.”

A Camp Fire survivor herself, Bruce noted that she and her partner both responded differently in the wake of the fire, and needed different approaches to process what they lost and the trauma they experienced. She is confident that personal experience and the phenomenal trauma-informed lens that shaped her undergraduate and now her graduate studies will make her more effective as she moves forward with her career.

“This class really changed my mindset to look at what is going right and what is going well,” she said. “It’s positive, and strength-based, and that’s so important.”