Q&A with Jim and Heidi Unruh

Q&A with Jim and Heidi Unruh

Jim and Heidi Unruh speak in their own kind of language, one crafted around a desire to change the system. When in the presence of their lexicon, one might hear of upper brain function and fight, flight, freeze; of safe, stable, sufficient, caring relationships; of experimentation; of collaboration; and most often, of transformation.

This is the language of their mission to eradicate poverty in Reno County.

As leaders of this community effort, the Unruhs focus not just on incomes, poverty thresholds or dollar amounts. They envision a whole system designed to foster and strengthen relationships among those in poverty; among those working to solve poverty; and among agencies, schools, and employers in a way that, as they say, doesn’t just fix problems but strengthens every family in the community.

The boldness of their vision matches the nature of their life’s vocation.

“We decided before we were going to get married that we were going to do generational work,” Jim said.

Transforming the realities of generations means their chosen occupations don’t offer an immediate payoff or set expiration date. When striving for the kind of systems change they seek, progress moves at a slow, incremental pace; wins tend to come not in quick, boisterous stretches but in small, quiet moments that eke out over months, years, decades – generations.

One funnel for this measured mission begins at Circles of Hope, based at Trinity United Methodist Church, where Jim serves as Circles Coach, focused on relationship building, and Heidi coordinates child care. Heidi also works with the ecumenical Poverty Collaborative Task Force that seeks to improve the system by better positioning churches in their natural role as first-responders to poverty.

Hutchinson Community Foundation sat down with the Unruhs to talk about their work with Circles and the Poverty Collaborative. The following is part of that conversation, edited for clarity and length.

CF: Talk more about what you do?

Jim: We moved to Hutch 16 years ago, and in ’06, the Community Foundation sent a group of us, including myself, to be trained on Bridges out of Poverty, so I’ve been facilitating that in our community since spring of ’06. And then in ’10 is when Circles started. … I was pastoring and volunteering with Circles until ’13 and then made the shift over from pastoring to focusing on Circles.

Poverty Collaborative Task Force member Heidi Unruh addresses participants at a Hutchinson Community Foundation grant-funded collaborative coaching seminar at Park Place Christian Church in March 2019. (Wendy Skellenger | Hutchinson Community Foundation)

Heidi: I wear a number of hats. … I’m a consultant and curriculum writer working with churches and nonprofits on community engagement. … I work with churches on training or coaching on community engagement.

The consulting and training work I’ve been doing for about 20 years. The Circles work I’ve just been volunteering and working with Circles since it started. And the Poverty Collaborative started with a poverty simulation. In the spring of ’16, churches started talking to each other about “How do we learn some more about poverty?” and they decided to organize a poverty simulation. It was just a very informal and very grassroots effort to self-educate about poverty, and so the poverty simulation came out of that. Then after the poverty simulation – we had about 90 people participate – people started asking “What can we do now? We’ve had this experience; it’s very moving.” So a task force was launched and that evolved. …

Now our focus is on … collaboration around better connecting needs and resources for people who come asking for help from churches, with understanding that this is just one small piece of the big puzzle. … It’s such a big puzzle that you have to engage somewhere and so you sort of have to have two lenses: One is focusing on doing what you’re doing right here right now with high impact and in a way that affirms people’s dignity, but then at the same time, the other lens is you’re also looking at the big picture and you’re saying “How do we let this one specific action maybe be a bridge toward working at developing relationships – because we know that responses to poverty have to be relational to be effective.” You have to use systems thinking. You have to be both about change for individuals and change community-wide, addressing people’s behavior but also community factors, systemic factors.

CF: It’s such a big job. Or does it feel like it’s a big job?

Heidi: That’s why you have to have collaboration. It is too big a job for anybody.

Jim: So our primary work is working with individuals and families on helping them move out of poverty. And we do that relationally based. Circles’ niche in our community is helping families develop a future story, because when you’re caught up in the cycle of economic struggle, you tend be now-focused because you’re in survival mode so whatever is the most pressing thing at the moment gets all the attention. But that perpetuates people’s staying stuck where they’re at, so we try to create a space where people can plan ahead and think about and dream about where they’d want to be and then set goals on how to get there.

But then the real power of Circles is having relational Allies who walk beside families and help them develop a social network, connection, help them stay on task on the individual tasks that they’re working on to move out of poverty. And then we’re also looking out two generations: Heidi’s working with the children, and she’s teaching the children Circles concepts so that the whole family’s onboard. … Having families working altogether toward their common future story has been transformational for a lot of families. But it’s really relational work and so that makes Circles kind of unique and distinctive. We’re really promoting that social connection is the transforming power to help families become who they want to be.

Jim Unruh explains Circles of Hope concepts at a monthly meeting at Trinity United Methodist Church in June 2019. (Wendy Skellenger | Hutchinson Community Foundation)

CF: Talk more about the importance of social connection.

Jim: Coming out of the trauma-informed conversation that USD 308 has been leading, stress is feeling overwhelmed and powerless and then the toxic aspect of that stress is then feeling isolated. A lot of families feel isolated from being around stable, caring, connected adults and so infusing in folks’ lives stable, caring, connected adults can be really transformative for families. …

Jim goes on to describe the support Circle Leaders can offer their fellow participants and how those new participants gain a new network of stable, caring, connected adults just by taking part in Circles.

Heidi: One of the things that Circles brings is having an asset-based perspective so that as you look at people in poverty, it’s not just where we are right now, not just focusing on needs, but also seeing how people’s experiences, how their lived experience in poverty often just brings in a passion and empathy for others.

Jim: And it’s a skill set.

Heidi: Right, right. Knowing how to engage with people in poverty is a skill set that most middle-class folks don’t have. … Just personally for me, what gets me the most excited is when I see somebody, not just at Circles but any of the organizations … who’s gotten help, made some changes, gotten resources that they need and then flipped it around to want to help others. I don’t think you can have a strong community without that.

Jim: And it transforms the relational Allies too because they’re walking with somebody and seeing our community from a different perspective, and it empowers and strengthens them to walk beside other folks and to be more collaborative in their thinking on helping transform our community.

Heidi: So we used words like “asset-based” and “mutuality” to describe how the relational dynamic has to be a two-way street because if it’s just giving – there’s a place in our community for just giving because sometimes when they need diapers, they need diapers right now. … We need churches and agencies that do that.

Jim: Because they provide safety and security within that family.

Heidi: Right. Because if they don’t have diapers … if they’re in crisis at that moment, they’re never going to make progress. But then we also need people who see engagement in poverty as more of an investment in the community, so that they’re saying “I’m expecting that this is going to be a cycle where I’m going to invest and this is not going to just help this family this one time but it’s also going to come back and be an asset returned to the community as a whole.” And I think part of the ways that communities get stuck is when they see poverty as a sinkhole: you give and you give and you give and you don’t see anything in return. And sometimes, that’s because the way we’re giving is designed to just meet the needs of the moment without building that stability, without building connections, without being empowering, and it becomes a sinkhole. But if you see the bigger picture of how investing in people with relationships and strategic resources then becomes a return to the community … then it really changes the conversation because you see it’s not just about these needy people; it’s about what kind of a community do we want to live in? Do we want to live in a community that brings forth the gifts and assets of all people?

Jim: Which is actually the third level. So Heidi talked about just creating stability for families: meeting immediate needs is one level, the second level is seeing people as assets, but then the third level is instead of fixing problems, we flip it and say “How do we strengthen every family in our community? How do we create safe, stable, caring, connected adults for everyone in our community?” … Instead of fixing problems, what if we created a system in which people weren’t in trauma, people weren’t facing these issues? What would that look like? For me, recent thinking is that would be a third-level type of conversation. And all this is collaborative work. All this is adaptive work. All this is trying to change the paradigm and how we see the prism of our communities.

Heidi: Here’s an example of how this relates, how this connects with the trauma-informed conversation: I was having a conversation with one of our Circle Leaders. … She’s been part of the trauma-informed conversation. And what she said she learned from that, one of the takeaways, is that it’s not just people in poverty who experience trauma but that anybody, no matter their social class, could be suffering from those experiences of childhood trauma. And to her, that felt liberating because she realized she had something to offer to people who were in a different social class.

Instead of fixing problems, what if we created a system in which people weren’t in trauma, people weren’t facing these issues? What would that look like?

That’s again a connection where you see that everybody needs each other and how we need that collaboration, not just collaboration among the givers – the agencies, the helpers – but we need collaboration that is cross-class. And ethnically diverse, as well, across all kinds of different barriers. One thing that the Poverty Collaborative Task Force has been intentional about is including people in poverty as part of that process, and people in poverty are in leadership positions in Circles of Hope, as well. Not as a do-gooder thing but just because we can’t succeed without those voices as part of the collaborative mix.

CF: Does the notion of being a leader empower people?

Jim: Yeah, it takes awhile for that to soak in because culturally people get smashed all the time. You have to create a safe environment for folks to absorb that. But that’s one of the fun parts of my job is seeing that “Aha moment” where people connect and go “Wait a second.” The tendency is to come back to me and say, “So what are you going to do about this?” and I flip the question and say, “So what are you going to do about this. You’re a leader, you’re strong, you’re capable – so what do you think we should do?” … That’s the biggest thrill for me is seeing the relational connection beginning to happen, where at the beginning of what we call “the match,” when the supportive Allies in the Circle are beginning to form their relationship, knowing this is going to be transformational for both and that it’s just beginning to see the buds of that. It’s the springtime of their relationship and this is going to blossom into something that is transformative for everybody and for our community. That’s the most fun and the most energetic moment for my work.

CF: Is it the first time for some to realize they have the power to solve some of those problems?

Jim: So when we’re at the first level, where folks are in crisis and they need immediate support, typically that’s a good time for experts to tell people the direction that they need to go, and there’re lots of agencies that kind of tell and direct folks because people are in a fog and a daze. At Circles, we try to flip that around. We’re more second level of asking questions, of saying, “Well, what is it that you want? You’ve had people telling you what you should do: What is it that you want?” And just that question begins the transformation process. The Circle Leader that Heidi [worked with], she had her guard up – here’s another agency, here’s another program – and when we flipped the question – “Tell us what you want” – it really was eye-opening. That was the first stage of her transformation was saying, “Oh wait, you’re not going to tell me what to do? I’ve got a choice and you’re not going to judge me for the choices that I make?”

Heidi: Well, [you] ask them tough questions, though …

Jim: Right. So my role is to ask the tough questions, but it’s not to tell anybody what they should do. That in and of itself is the beginning of the transformational process. And again, it’s not a criticism of the folks who need to do the direct input and tell people and to give guidelines of what needs to happen, because when you’re in crisis mode, that’s important.

Heidi: And programs like Circles can’t exist without other programs helping people to get to a place where they’re stable. Because if they’re in crisis at that moment, they can’t succeed. So using the health analogy: It’s like you need the ER, you need primary-care physicians, you need life coaches (health coaches), but the problem comes in if you expect that the ER is going to teach people healthy eating. Or the problem comes in if someone is having a heart attack in the middle of the night, and they say, “Well, you know you should have gone to see your primary physician. You missed that appointment. Sorry for you.” We need ERs, we need all of them, but we just have to expect that each piece is going to do its part, and that’s where the systems thinking comes in too. … If we look at the big picture, and we say, “The role of your organization is to provide stability. The role of this organization is to do the relational work” and “Here’s how you work together, here’s how you need each other, and here’s what we’re expecting of the people themselves in this process.”

Jim: The third level would come back and say, unfortunately, for a lot of folks, “If I’m not in the ER right now, that means I’m healthy.” So third level needs to ask the different type of questions.

Heidi: The big systems – like employers … how does that fit in? Employers may not see that poverty is a problem for them. They may think that they have a labor problem, but it’s very much connected.

Jim: So in Hutch and Reno County, we have a huge labor problem, but for me, that’s systemic of a bigger issue. … When I look at the labor issues, I see a lot of workers and business not being healthy and therefore we have a labor issue. So we need to flip that question and say, “What would it look like for this business to thrive but also have workers who are thriving too?”

If workers are being paid $10 an hour and being expected to raise a family, we’re going to have an issue down the line. We may not see it today, but we’re going to see it down the line because it takes $20-plus an hour in the household to raise a family, so that’s what it means to be safe and stable in the household. If the family’s only bringing in $10 an hour, eventually we’re going to have a crisis. …

CF: Is that what you mean when you say you’ve seen businesses that aren’t healthy?

Jim: Offering a living wage? That really needs to be a community conversation. If that’s for the product and for the consumer, if $10 an hour is what the business can do, that means the community has to step in and then figure out the $10 gap.

Heidi: Just like we’re saying you can’t go to a person in poverty and say “Here’s what you need to do to fix your problem: You need to stop wasting your money. You need to change your spending habits.” They may have all kinds of factors going on that you don’t know, and you can’t look at them and tell them what to do and fix their problem. We also can’t look at businesses and say, “You’re the problem, you’re not paying, if you would just …” I think anytime you start a sentence with “If you would just …” that’s indicative that you’re not thinking about the system.

Jim: So it could be reduced or free child care. Well, that would help a family. That’s not paying the family, but it’s reducing their cost; that benefit would actually increase their income.

Heidi: Or it could be we have better systems of moving people from lower-paying jobs and transitioning them to higher-paying jobs so they have more mobility. A $10-an-hour job is great if you are just starting out a family, but if you get stuck there, that’s a problem. There are all kinds of creative solutions that don’t come from shaking fingers at any one part of the system, but again, we can’t figure out what those creative solutions are, implement them, unless all the people are at the table and realize that we need each other.

There are all kinds of creative solutions that don’t come from shaking fingers at any one part of the system, but again, we can’t figure out what those creative solutions are, implement them, unless all the people are at the table and realize that we need each other.

Jim: We often narrow the conversation just to money, but we are so complex. In Circles, we look at at least 18, 19, 20 different resource factors – intelligence, grit, integrity, trust, motivation, persistence, social connection, emotional health, spiritual health – all those are factors, and we need to build all those resources up – everybody needs to build all those resources up. What we’re telling people at Circles is “We’re not going to judge you based on the money that you have. We’re going to be looking at every aspect of your life and knowing that you have strengths here, that you can use those strengths to help you transform your life and, equally importantly, transform our community.”

CF: Sometimes it only takes one person or a teacher to say, “You’re good at that.”

Jim: The downside with the teacher analogy is that our communities typically place all the burden with the teachers. Let’s just send them to school so the school becomes the feeding place, the psychiatry place, the health place and education, and then be the life coach for somebody. Our teachers are phenomenal, and they can do all that, but wouldn’t it be better for our community to really support and create a safe environment and infuse relationships into the schools also? Agencies like Communities that Care that get volunteers into the school, that’s part of that transforming power, and it just takes an hour or two a week that you can really transform students and teachers. And then the other issue is that teachers have secondary trauma because they’re dealing with all these students with trauma. One thing that First Presbyterian does with our connection with Lincoln [Elementary School] is if they do nothing else but love up on the teachers, they’re doing powerful stuff. But they do more than that, they do way more than that to the Lincoln students, but just providing meals to the teachers and saying, “We’re thinking about you; we’re praying for you” helps the teachers who are going through secondary trauma recover and continue the care.

Heidi: That’s another part of collaboration is we need caregivers but then we need caregivers for the caregivers, so everybody has a part in this.

Jim: Right, and for Circles, we start every gathering with a meal. We have been doing 60, 70 meals a year. That’s a tremendous gift that our community does of feeding 50 people every week, and that starts an equal, safe place for our work in Circles. So just people providing a meal is a powerful foundation for transformation at the end. And that’s another form of collaboration is taking care of those folks through a meal. … We’re all equal when we receive the meal, and so that’s the foundation for relationships to be really transformative is starting from that place of equality.

CF: How do people come into Circles? Is it referral-based from those front-line agencies?

Jim: Not as much as I wished it was. We’re still working on that networking and collaboration work. We’ve really struggled to figure out how Circles can give back to other agencies, so we’re always exploring how we can do that. We don’t want the collaboration process to be a one-way street. But mostly, it’s word of mouth by other Circle Leaders. And then some collaboration with other agencies.

Jim Unruh points to the term “future story.” Circle Leaders are encouraged to envision their future stories, that is, what they want their lives to ideally look like. (Wendy Skellenger | Hutchinson Community Foundation)

CF: You talked about the importance of asking Circle Leaders “What do you want?” What kind of responses do you hear?

Jim: For the most part, at the beginning of the journey, it’s more feeling-based, and the reason why is, typically, folks are under a lot of toxic stress and they just want to feel different and experience life differently. The reality is our class is 15 weeks; it wouldn’t have to be, but it takes about three months for a family or an individual to be in a consistently safe environment to begin to dream. So a lot of it is just wanting a safe, stable environment for themselves and their kids.

One that really stuck out early on was “I just want to be able to sit on my front porch and sip iced tea and not worry about bills.” Well, that’s a pretty powerful future story, right? That’s the definition of safe, stable, caring.

CF: That’s a dream for a lot of people who aren’t in poverty.

Jim: Absolutely! … So just even with that little imagery, we can build from there and that just needs to be a starting point. And it’s interesting … you get a couple wins along the road and then it becomes “Oh, I want my kids to go to college so they can have a better-paying job than what I have.” So in the beginning it’s “I just want to sip iced tea and not worry about bills” and then it shifts to “Oh, OK, now I want my kids to go to college. How are we going to create that for my kids?”

Heidi: You should probably mention collaboration with [Interfaith Housing & Community Services].

Jim: Yeah, so our collaboration with Interfaith Housing is really powerful because they’re the experts on helping families move toward building a savings account for education, for their own home. So I don’t have to do that; I just bring somebody from Interfaith Housing in; they’re the connecting piece. My job is to be the connector with other agencies.

CF: Who are the collaborators?

Jim: We partner with the United Way, with the health department. The health department … came in and taught about healthy cooking and inexpensive budgets because of a grant that they had. They actually brought Crock Pots for every family. Now most [everyone] had one already, but then I said, “If you already have one, take this gift and bless somebody else in our community and talk to them about eating healthy or helping somebody else, and so if you already have a Crock Pot, bless somebody else with one.”

Heidi: The churches that provide meals.

CF: Who are some of those?

Jim: Trinity hosts, but South Hutch and First and Faith and the other Methodist churches. First Presbyterian. … But also agencies and community organizations have helped with meals and providing funding. Other agencies like the Hands of Christ; we’ve been in partnership with them on various things. …

Heidi: Heartland Credit Union.

Jim: So most of our Circle Leaders come in with bad credit. Being part of the Circles program, and this is also in connection with Interfaith Housing, allows folks to do a loan through Heartland and also to develop a savings program through Heartland. They can rebuild credit that way, so that they can strive for their bigger-picture items. Heartland’s been a good partner. I’m leaving folks out. …

Heidi: There’ve been employers who’ve partnered, who’ve just been available to hire folks. There’s a community guiding coalition – it’s called Guiding Coalition – for Circles and there we try to get very broad representation from the community. We have police officers, nonprofit agencies, business leaders, people from a poverty background just trying to get a very broad cross-section sitting on that council.

Jim: I’m also doing Circles at Hutchinson High School, so the school system has been helpful – especially Lincoln, Avenue A, and then the high school. … So with that would be the Salthawk Community Support folks. They’re the ones actually driving the work at the high school. Nikki Byard at Salthawk Community Support, she actually found mentors, so I’m doing the class. …

Heidi: It’s so cool. … The last class, I just came in and sat in just for the end of it – I try to sit in when I can – and he’s having a discussion. He’s sitting at a table, and these are kids from the trauma background … and they’re talking about having a dialogue with police officers about the problem of drugs in school. Again, seeing themselves as having agency to do something about the problems in their community.

Jim: So that was a really interesting conversation because the first half it was just mostly a gripe session: “Why do the police officers do this?”

Heidi: “Harass us?”

Jim: “Harass us?” and stuff like that, and slowly the conversation changed to “How would we have a conversation with them to find out this information?” … Shifting from angry “Why?” questions to curious questions and saying, “You all have the skills and you have life experiences and you could tell them, give them, information that the police need to know, but how would you do that? Instead of an angry conversation, how can we have a curious conversation with them?” So in a half hour time, going from feeling like victims to “Oh yeah, we could do this.” …

You know, the fun thing about my job is that I get to try these experiments. We’ve really been using the language of experimentation: We don’t know if this is going to work or not, but we’re going to learn from it and we know we’ll be better people and the community will be better for whatever we learn. And using the language of Circle Leaders is really powerful, and with high schoolers, they really buy into that language for the most part. I am blessed that the community supports our work so that I get to try these experiments and go study and learn what other possible experiments we can do.

Volunteers discuss poverty and trauma at a Poverty Collaborative Task Force collaborative coaching seminar in March 2019 at Park Place Christian Church. (Wendy Skellenger | Hutchinson Community Foundation)

CF: Talk about the infusion of trauma informed. Was the information as new to you as it was to others?

Jim: So the Ruby Payne material, for me, and the Bridges out of Poverty material was hinting at this trauma-informed stuff, but it wasn’t really connecting all the pieces.

Heidi: They’re using more the language of toxic stress, right? Is that where that came from?

Jim: Yeah, but it wasn’t really defining, so we were just kind of hinting at it. The trauma-informed language has just been an “Aha!” for our community partners … so that’s really been helpful, and to have the research being done by other places nationally – instead of another place saying, “Well, these folks are saying this; these folks are saying that; these folks are saying this” – and it’s all saying the same thing. For me, at Circles, we’ve been doing relational-based work for eight years, and then to have the trauma-informed say the best way to transform families is relational-based connections and safe, stable homes and I turned to our Circles community and said, “We’ve been saying this for eight years. We’ve been doing this for eight years. We need to be leaders of the trauma informed and to say to our Circle Leaders ‘You’ve experienced this. You can lead the conversation on trauma informed.’” And for them to read the book and go “Oh yeah, we’ve been doing this” and saying, “Now how can we infuse our community and tell our story and be a part of this?” has really given our Circle Leaders lots of energy to say, “We know trauma informed; we’ve lived it. And we’re overcoming it. It’s not just ‘We’re victims.’ We are overcoming with our families.”

Heidi: I like saying that we’re becoming a resilient community rather than a trauma-informed community because it emphasizes the positive, which you want to move toward. … I think one of the contributions of this conversation that’s happening right now is that it’s helping to make resiliency less squishy. In other words, it’s not like “Just pull yourself up” or all sorts of these … you can go on Facebook and find a gazillion memes about “Put a smile on your face” and “Just bounce back” and “Be strong.” That kind of self-talk is important, but it’s not the whole picture. Now we have more data about specifically how a stable, caring, connected, safe – each of those is a piece; those words are not random – now we have sociological data behind all those pieces, and we’re learning how they translate into practices. For example, I do training for volunteers who’re going to work with the Circles kids, helping them to understand for kids that come out of a chaotic background why safety’s important to them, what it takes for them to feel safe, some of the language that you can use.

Jim: Well if they’re Circle Leaders, the first 10 minutes all I’m trying to do is build safety in the room – because I know they’re bringing chaos into the room – and trying to create a safe space. We have an hour and 20 minutes, but the first 15 to 20 minutes is just trying to create safety – to get them out of the fight, flight or freeze place up to the more creative upper brain work – and the only way we can do that is to create a safe environment and to teach them how to create safety for themselves even if it’s just for an hour.

Once you know what to look for, you can’t unsee it. But we have to accept that Hutchinson’s trauma doesn’t look like other places’ trauma, yet we have our own. We have to get more familiar with what it looks like here so we can know how to deal with it. …

Heidi: And for people who are not from a trauma background to understand that resiliency is not just letting people off the hook or coddling, and that, again, these are data-based practices that help people make different choices given very difficult circumstances. … When you start showing people there’s another alternative besides coddling or victimizing or punishment, you open up this whole middle ground, then all the people who want those outcomes can come together around that. Because if you’re just in punishment mode, there’s no collaboration; you can’t collaborate around punishing kids.

He’s [Jim] also helping open people’s eyes to how much trauma there is in our community because I think we still have the perception that Hutchinson, because it’s not a big city, we don’t have homelessness. We may not have the kind of homelessness they have in big cities, but we have so many young people who are living on somebody else’s couch – so many – or kind of cycling in and out of being kicked out and going to live with girlfriends. Once you know what to look for, you can’t unsee it. But we have to accept that Hutchinson’s trauma doesn’t look like other places’ trauma, yet we have our own. We have to get more familiar with what it looks like here so we can know how to deal with it. …

Where it kind of intersects with poverty – it’s very, very critical for understanding this – when we present about poverty, we talk about toxic stress and so we have sort of this understanding of how poverty itself is stressful and how the stress of poverty … when you’re in that crisis – “I don’t know where we’re going to live next week after we get evicted, so I have to do something about this right now” – it just takes over your whole brain. For outsiders to understand that people who are in that toxic-stress zone, they’re not thinking long-term; they’re not thinking about their retirement fund or their kids’ homework. They’re focused on “What do we need to do to survive?” So understanding that toxic stress that poverty creates is important, but then it’s a cycle so also understanding … poverty creates toxic stress. Then growing up with unresolved stress from trauma leads to poverty. … Chronic, unresolved uncared for trauma changes your brain chemistry; it changes your brain patterns. And then you can just connect the dots between somebody who’s grown up with that trauma and then makes decisions that they can’t assess risk effectively, they can’t form healthy relationships, and then you combine that with the social isolation — they’re not seeing other people making healthy choices – and it’s just a recipe. … You can just connect the dots from trauma plus low resources when you’re in a decision-making situation and you make a decision and it leads to poverty, which creates stress.

Jim: And for our community to understand we spend more money if we’re responding to trauma than if we would do preventative work in the beginning. … What would it look like if we invested or created environments where families weren’t in toxic stress to begin with?

Heidi: And that’s why Early Ed is such a critical part of this conversation.

Jim: And even pre-conception.

Heidi: Family formation.

Jim: Or what if people had a living wage to begin with so they’re not in stress?

Heidi: Or able to keep living-wage jobs once they have them? I mean, it’s all wrapped up together.

CF: It’s all so interconnected.

Heidi: That’s why, when it feels overwhelming, to say, “Here’s my part, and I’m going to learn how to do this part well, and I’m going to learn how to do this part in a way that connects me to others, and I’m going to learn how to do this part in a way that creates relational bridges.” I think if we can do that, then also in the midst of all that, recognize this is just going to take a really, really long time.

Jim: It’s generational work.

Heidi: It’s generational work, and we have to be patient with one another.

Jim: But that’s the exciting thing for Heidi and me: We decided before we were going to get married that we were going to do generational work. We’re thrilled that we get to do it in Hutch. … We have to work collaboratively. Circles alone will never ever make hardly any dent. We have to do collaborative. We have to do systems work. We have to, all of us, change our approaches. And that’s what I love about the Hutch Community Foundation driving us toward that work. … It’s adaptive, it’s collaborative, and we have to keep talking about that.

Wendy Skellenger, communications officer, can be reached at wendy@hutchcf.org.