Q&A with Rebecca Lewis-Pankratz

Q&A with Rebecca Lewis-Pankratz

Rebecca Lewis-Pankratz likes to “follow the energy.”

And for the director of ESSDACK Learning Centers who said her brain finished wiring at 37 years old, that makes sense. That now fully wired brain carries intense, high-volt energy and passion for solving poverty and building trauma resilience.

Rebecca Lewis-Pankratz

In her many roles leading poverty projects and helping teachers and children find ways to realize their full potentials, the work is rarely neat and tidy. The business of helping people who have only known deprivation, isolation, and extreme moments of prolonged toxic stress is messy and a bit like coaxing a leery animal out of hiding. No silver bullets will dispatch the problems they face, Lewis-Pankratz said.

The notion may seem simple in the face of such complex issues, but Lewis-Pankratz believes solid relationships with others, built through trust, and ensuring people who live in poverty and trauma own a place in the discussion of how to address them serve as our best countermeasures to Adverse Childhood Experiences and their effect on children and adults.

“It’s just really amazing to watch people come together around healing and realizing that people aren’t doomed,” she said. “If they’ve had rough circumstances, people can heal at any age the brain wants to heal. It has plasticity well into our older years of our lifetime. So people can heal, they want to heal, and we do that. Resilience is built through supportive community and classroom environments.”

Hutchinson Community Foundation sat down with Lewis-Pankratz to discuss her work and the journey that brought her to it. What follows is that conversation, edited for clarity and length.

CF: Describe what you do.

RLP: I wear several different hats here. My main title is director of student services. I have 10 learning centers, which are high school completion programs in the state of Kansas, that I oversee. Two of them are here in Hutchinson: one is here at the mall and one is down on Second Street. And what’s unique about the ones here in Hutchinson is they actually have kids; the other learning centers that I have are high school-completion programs for adults. So here I have teenagers, though. I have kids that have really high trauma. Most of them come from poverty and backgrounds of poverty and most of them have been kicked out of school or dropped out of school, so they come here and we work with them to really help them realize their worth as a human being, which helps them figure out where they want to go.

CF: How many kids do you help at the learning centers here?

RLP: Throughout the course of a year, I think we probably see a hundred come through – not all at one time. That could be a low number; I’m going to give you a low number. I think right now, between kids and adults in Hutchinson, we have 80 enrolled. I worked all day with about 35 kids today to help them understand their own ACE score, their own resilience. How do we build that? What does it mean to be impacted by a childhood of adversity?

And the other hats that I wear, I’m also the consultant for ESSDACK on poverty resolution and trauma informed with school systems and communities. So I go all over the state, sometimes out of state, and help teachers understand what it means to be trauma informed and change their culture to where they can respond to kids that are coming to us with these backgrounds so that we can become brain-builders.

CF: Elaborate on what you mean by brain-builders.

RLP: It’s really what the trauma-informed movement is about: healing and building our brains.

Then the other hat that I wear is when I took the position as the learning center director, it was under the request that they let me start poverty projects out of the communities that I have learning centers but don’t have poverty projects. In the last year, we’ve got a poverty project off the ground in Stafford, St. John, Great Bend, Augusta, and Larned came online in November [2018]. I’ve currently got around 60 to 70 parents, families … in these different projects. We work with those families in a two-to five-year process to get them out of poverty permanently and as well as help them become trauma-informed parents so that they can understand their own backgrounds and how it played out into where they ended up and, more importantly, how to buffer their own kiddos because that stuff gets handed down. Stress gets handed down in households.

CF: How did you come to this work?

RLP: In 2011, I was seven months clean and sober with three little boys, three little guys. We were living in a trailer house in McPherson in the west end of town in the hidden ghetto that should have been condemned, and I bumped up against a poverty project in McPherson by accident. I went in there and I had all these supportive people get around me and I started to recognize that I was raised, and was raising my own kids, in the language of survival. You need to know that language if you’re in survival, but your brain doesn’t have the capacity to think your way out of it. So those safe, supportive relationships really started to shift paradigms for me. And I’d already been in college for almost a decade trying to get a four-year degree but just lots of chaos, lots of crisis, lots of stuff happening. So I graduated college and then a job came open for that poverty project, then I applied, and they hired me because nobody else applied for the job, I think, and from 2012 to 2017, we built the largest and most successful Circles site in the country, getting more people out of poverty than any other project had ever done.

At some point, teachers in my own community became interested in me because I was really vocal – [jokingly] it’s hard to imagine, probably – but my kids were the kids that had kind of taken over the building – so flipping desks, running out of classrooms, hitting other kids. And they started to watch this transformation happen with me and then with my kids, and so teachers felt like I was a safe person to talk to because they were like “Rebecca, we don’t get this. We don’t get these families. Everything we try seems to be counterproductive with families and kids.” And so at some point, ESSDACK found me, because that’s what they do – professional development with school systems, that’s their largest DNA – and I started consulting for them. They approached me in January of 2017 and said, “Hey, what would you do if we made you the director over 10 learning centers?” and I said, “I will if you let me solve poverty out of there.”

I was really fascinated with the brain research around poverty because I felt my own brain finish wiring at 37 years old after a lifetime of trauma and addictions. … In nerding out with that stuff, I found the trauma-informed movement and started looking at the brain research, realizing how it’s stress that does this to people – the brain on poverty, the brain on trauma. Without poverty, stress wires our brain for survival and it changes our trajectory of who we’re supposed to become and that’s all amazing and fascinating. But what’s really powerful is that to heal people, they need safe, supportive relationships, and we now have the science of resilience – the brain science of resilience – that confirms that. So now I feel like we know which way we’re supposed to go. People need to be informed about what’s happening to them, and they need safe, supportive trusting environments so that they can start to become the people they are supposed to be, and I’ve watched that happen time and time again.

It’s really powerful because I feel like public education and communities have been really throwing a lot of stuff at the wall trying to see what sticks, and now we have this science and it’s like “OK, now we know. Now we know and there’s no argument.” When people hear the science, they come alive because it’s like “Finally!” It’s just really amazing to watch people come together around healing and realizing that people aren’t doomed. If they’ve had rough circumstances, people can heal at any age the brain wants to heal. It has plasticity well into our older years of our lifetime. So people can heal, they want to heal, and we do that. Resilience is built through supportive community and classroom environments.

CF: When did you emerge from poverty?

RLP: Jan. 1, 2014, we crossed the income threshold into middle class.

CF: What was that like?

RLP: It was really, really stressful. We had to work so much. I worked three jobs for a couple of years with three little boys because I had this goal, so it was really, really stressful. You have kids and you’re in the trailer park and you dream about that stuff and finally there was a flashlight that was bright enough, I could see it, I could go that way and I had people around me that weren’t going to let me give up. Now that we’re on the other side of it, it’s amazing. All the stress that my kids have is their own stress about their own lives … it’s not my stress.

We got a Habitat house. I’d moved in my lifetime like 74 times, and before we got out of poverty, we signed up for a Habitat house. We were selected, so we built a house. That was the first home I ever owned. Then God sent me a husband and so now we have this life that’s incredible. It’s just miracles and my kids are doing amazing. I really feel like they have a good shot at becoming who they were designed to be versus how their environment shapes them through stress and adversity. It’s really amazing.

CF: You’re the example, then, for it working?

RLP: And that gives me a lot of automatic connection with families because they hear my story and they hear their own lives in my story and so I get close to them really fast and win them over and build trust.

CF: You’re not just this person who’s speaking about something they know nothing about.

RLP: Because I’ve been in both places and know how to speak middle class, like bilingual.

CF: What does a typical day look like for you?

RLP: Well, kids have got to go to school, and so there’s that kind of stuff – you know, just the life stuff that people do. My husband I both have cars that run and good insurance and good tires, so life is easy to do in that respect, but there really isn’t a typical day for me because I do so many different things. Some days I get up super early in the morning and I go to schools and I’m with school systems for an entire day. I’ve trained up to … I think the most I’ve had in a training with me is 200. I built a poverty simulation that I go to schools and run, and then I usually like to work with schools for over an 18-month period – so three full days with the school system to totally shift their paradigm because you need the buy-in, right? If you don’t have buy-in and you implement, it just falls apart, so really working with schools in a longitudinal process to get the buy-in to become trauma-responsive and then helping them implement and watching things change. And then I have nine site directors over learning centers, and they’re pretty self-sufficient. I try and spend as much time as I can with kids. … I spend a lot of time on the phone. I send a whole bunch of emails all the time and respond to emails.

And then we do stuff here. We do conferences. … We bring kids in; kids will speak. We bring teachers. We bring community leaders: mayors, corrections, pastors, health departments. We really want to break out of this mold of “This is a teacher conference” … and we want to have the people who are experiencing the issue we’re all talking about solving in the room with us. It’s really important to me because that’s what happening to me. The components of trauma are powerlessness and overwhelm – it messes with the brain – flight, fight, freeze. But where it gets tricky for humans is powerlessness, overwhelm and isolation; that’s toxic stress, that’s what makes us sick. And I always tell people poverty is powerlessness, overwhelm and isolation all day every day. One of the ways you build resilience is through countering these three components and so one of the ways to counter powerlessness is to give people power. So these families come to our poverty projects, these kids, I mean they’re contributing. Contribution is sharing power, right? Like “We’re contributing to something.” So that’s really important to me is that we build these processes by design, that we’re teaching people to start realizing that we’re not going to get where we want to go until we start to truly cultivate relationships with the folks – and I’m not talking about clinical relationships; I’m talking about real relationships and bringing people into the room with us so that we can all collectively work on what we want.

I always tell people poverty is powerlessness, overwhelm and isolation all day every day.

CF: When you go into schools or wherever, are there certain tools you want teachers, students, etc., to implement?

RLP: Yes. With the trauma-informed movement, the science of ACEs, the original study was done on 17,000 primarily white all middle class people, so we help people understand this stuff’s universal. It’s not just the poor kids that deal with this. They deal with a special type of stress, but when we’re talking trauma informed, it’s the entire population. I just happened to come through the poverty process, so poverty has my heart – single mom in the trailer park has my heart, right? So again, the powerlessness, the overwhelm, and the isolation. [Countering] Powerlessness in school is helping kids contribute to a higher process. So civic engagement for kids – and I’m not talking about raking leaves; I’m talking about what is not OK in the world that you want to contribute to solving – that gives people power. Helping kids create and design classroom structure. There’s something called Project Based Learning, PBL, which is really important for the kids to come off the edges of the group and start to contribute because Project Based Learning kind of evens the playing field because kids aren’t competing against each other; they’re building projects. …

The overwhelm, we’re helping teachers understand that mindfulness in school, calm corners, all kinds of different regulation strategies for kids helping them, safe spots. I think what’s really off the wall for kids is when they see a lot of fight, flight, freeze – kids are running out the classroom; kids are hiding under tables; they’re flipping desks; or they’re shut down and they just look like they’re lazy – so we help them. They’re just different regulatory practices that we’re helping teachers to understand how to put into the classroom and into the building, check-ins and zones and regulation – so the kids coming in in the morning and they check in with a color like “I’m in the red zone. I’m in the blue zone. I’m in the green zone.” Green’s ready to go. …

And then, the last piece is easy. If people are isolated, we build relationships of support. And you should watch the paradigms. Teachers are feeling a lot of powerlessness and overwhelm in their profession and they’re getting it from so many directions. But now the science – there’s this hard affirmation for teachers to be able to have permission to build relationships first with kids. Teachers feel like they have this huge laundry list of stuff they have to accomplish, and it causes stress, which stress causes cortisol, cortisol is contagious. Watching this movement happen … there is implementation inside of school systems for all ages of kids, and the outcomes for this are decreased suspensions and expulsions, increased graduation, reduction in suicides, math and reading go up, teacher sick days go down, teacher well-being increases to where teachers are saying they feel hopeful about coming to work again. It’s powerful. …

If you want to go deeper with the science, if you think about kids that are in really stressful environments and their fight, flight response system is activated. You’ve got an open cycle and a closed cycle, so kids that are in really stressful situations, that thing is open and it’s running dysregulated a lot. To build resilience in the brain, one of the really important critical pieces is making sure that kids, human beings, have a place to go to get that fight-or-flight response cycle shut down. So I’m asking teachers when I’m working with them and I’m kind of laying all this out there, “Are schools stressful too?” And they’re like “Yeah, they are.” And I’m like “Could schools bake in some practices to where kids can come in and get that fight-or-flight response system shut down so they can get regulated because that’s how we build that in the brain?” If kids develop where they are always running dysregulated, their fight-or-fight response system closed cycle never ever develops fully, so that’s how we can end up with complex PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] with kids when they grow up. We’re understanding these pieces now – safety; support; connection; white space, which is your calm corners and your mindfulness. …

Where it gets tough for teachers is there’s something called vicarious trauma. Teachers who are in schools with kids with a lot of trauma, their brains actually start to experience trauma from being around all the trauma. They can start to really have some of the symptoms and signs that our families and kids have, which can cause people to do “good guys” and “bad guys,” which can cause “us” and “them.” That’s why I like to spend three full days with the building and get the buy-in; I’ve never not got the buy-in. It could happen, but I very prayerfully and carefully go in and work with schools to win over those tough teachers because what’s usually resting underneath of that is a belief system that’s rooted in love. The belief system says “These kids who are acting like that have been allowed to get away with everything and they just need a harder hammer. And if we don’t hit them with a harder hammer, we are actually increasing the likelihood of them going to prison.” So what sits underneath of that is love: “We love these kids so much that we’re going to make them walk the thinnest possible line because if we don’t, we’re failing them.” But that’s not what the research says, and kids who are coming to us and acting like that, we see it as a character thing, as a parenting thing, as a choice thing. What the research is telling us is that it’s a brain thing. We can’t heal brains and get people to act the way that they’re supposed to act unless they have these safe, supportive environments.

CF: Do teachers ever encounter children for whom these methods don’t bring results and what do they do?

RPL: We’re still out there inventing very wise action … like the mindset shift and the heart shift, but I have teachers that reach out to me all the time, and they’re like “Oh my gosh, this one kid, Rebecca, and I did this today with them like you said and they just melted in my arms and started balling. And you’re right it wasn’t about us; it was about what’s happening at home.” What people who’ve done this work for a long time are telling us is that it’s always about something, there’s always a stressor, there’s always something. Kids that get pulled out and they’re in placement and they go to juvie and there are all those things – I mean, you get to their stories. And so, is it easy? No. Is it messy? Yes. Are there really silver bullets? No, but we know from the research that safe, supportive, adult relationships are what grow kids’ brains.

CF: Who all is at the table having a say in this and contributing?

RLP: Our belief system is that to both heal trauma and solve poverty we use the same resilience-building framework, which is super exciting because the science of ACEs and resilience – the health care community gets around it, corrections gets around it – but the resilience we can all get around. … And the other piece is that school systems are our heart here at ESSDACK, and school systems have been fighting this battle for a long time and they feel like they’ve been fighting it alone. It’s primarily teachers, I would say 60 percent, but our teachers that come and administrators, and then there’s this 40 percent of people that come from these other backgrounds – all different types of backgrounds. … We use a lot of restorative justice sessions because people have restorative justice; that’s been happening for a long time in communities and it’s been trauma-informed forever because it’s all about relationships.

CF: Define restorative justice.

RLP: Right now, what we do in our country is punitive justice. We do punishment. Somebody commits an offense, somebody reports it to the police, the court process is started, someone goes to the court process, they go pay fines, they go over here. … Restorative justice has to do with restoring brokenness and broken relationships and restorative justice practices are in communities and school systems because punitive justice doesn’t work; it doesn’t teach. We’re kind of wired for punishment in America. I have teachers, when we do punishment in school, I have them look up the word discipline and I’m like “What does it say?” It says to teach. Restorative justice, restorative practices inside of a school system, inside of a community, inside of a family – they’re harder. It’s easier just to ground your kid. It’s easier to kick a kid out. It’s easier to send somebody to prison like we did something. But does it work? Especially if you have brains that are wired for trauma, that are wired for survival. If you ground your kid and it works, it’s because kids are wired for cause and effect. So that happens, that’s up here. But if you’ve got people who are over-wired here and under-wired here, cause and effect doesn’t work. It just alienates and causes all these other problems to happen.

Restorative justice has to do with restoring brokenness and broken relationships and restorative justice practices are in communities and school systems because punitive justice doesn’t work; it doesn’t teach.

CF: That other 40 percent, who is that?

RLP: Pastors, corrections, health departments, adoption, foster care was there with us. Poverty projects come, different poverty projects come. Restorative justice – so KIPCOR out of Newton, Bethel, Kansas Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution – that’s all restorative justice stuff.

CF: Expand more on what you think the role of collaboration plays in addressing trauma and poverty?

RLP: Collaboration is super important to communities healing and moving forward. Where collaboration gets powerful is when we’re looking around the room saying, “Who’s missing?” That’s where it gets powerful because when you get these unusual voices to the table, that’s also how people heal because they contribute. There’s something very interesting about the middle class that I’ve noticed is that they have the adversity of hiding. … What I’ve noticed around collaboration around trauma informed is that people are starting to talk about their own stuff. It’s a trip. I’ve had several powerful women that have approached me and said, “I’ve got an ACE score of 6 or 7. I’ve never told anybody.” And they’re between 50 and 60 years old, and it’s like “Wow! I’ve never told anybody. I’ve been dealing with this my whole life.” Collaborating is how we share power and listen to each other and heal. It’s not just Hutchinson; I work with lots of different communities. There is a profound brokenness in our culture and when you start talking about coming together and healing, things start happening inside of people. And maybe 10 years ago it wouldn’t have been that way, but where we are currently, we’re ripe for this conversation. Collaboration, when there’s disfunction in a community, is funky. You get these voices and there’re power struggles happening and so sometimes it can cause dissention and people just pack up, go home. But collaboration when there’s synergy, that’s powerful.

CF: What do you mean when you say, “Parents in poverty aren’t anti-education they are just pro-survival?”

RLP: There’re other poverty simulations that are out there and I’d been through them, but they weren’t really wired for school. They were wired more for communities. When I started doing this for schools, I was like “What tool?” because you’re looking for tools. Believe me: I’ve heard some yucky stuff out of teachers, not all teachers, but I’ve sat with many teachers. Their belief system is that parents don’t love their kids. If parents loved their kids, they wouldn’t do X; they would do this. Parents don’t care about education, parents. … So I built my own poverty simulation to run in schools to help put teachers in poverty for an hour. … There’re IEPs [individualized education programs] in the poverty simulation, all the kids have science projects and Valentine’s boxes due, and they all have mental-health diagnoses and they all need medicine … and so the families blow off most of that stuff because they are focused, all of a sudden, on lights and rent and keeping CPS [Child Protective Services] from getting their kids. When they come out of that, I can tell them “Parents in poverty are not anti-education; they’re just pro-survival.” And all of a sudden, it makes sense for people and they’re like “OK, I get it.” Because teachers feel beat up by families, because teachers are so invested in kids and kids’ futures. We know from Ruby Payne middle-class people are wired for the future and we know from survival you’re wired for today. So there’s this disconnect between relationships and people feel beat up and parents are like “We just want you to love our kids and connect with our kids, and teachers are like “We do love your kids and we do connect with them and therefore we’re going to help them get this future.”

Understanding cultures – it makes people nuts. I believe poverty’s a culture. I believe there’re different cultures of poverty, and I believe there’re really special things that are happening in the culture of poverty that get missed. There’re people out there that have a lot of letters behind their names that have never been in poverty that say there is not culture to poverty. … I’m like there is a culture; families will talk about it. When you’re in a culture, what you do makes sense. Your environment – that’s how it shapes. One of the things I help people understand, when I had little boys in the trailer park, they needed to fight because that’s how my kids were going to come home at night. Now that we’re middle class, my kids don’t know how to fight. So parents are doing that because it’s how they protect their children, but we judge that stuff as a society because it’s not the norm and people don’t understand it and so we think they’re just bad parents. A quote I put out recently was like “We need to stop blaming parents in poverty for all the things that are wrong with the kids.” These kids are struggling because of poverty, not bad parenting. … And it doesn’t mean that parents aren’t responsible to get their own children out of poverty because I believe very strongly in that responsibility. It’s my responsibility to heal my trauma, it’s my responsibility to learn about this stuff and buffer my kids, and it’s my responsibility to get myself and my kids to where we’re supposed to go. But people need support, not isolation. People don’t get well in isolation.

CF: Acknowledging trauma is not meant to absolve people of personal responsibility?

RLP: No, it’s not. Neither is restorative justice. That’s what I spent today talking with my students about was what is accountability and what is the consequences? They finally came to the idea that we didn’t have to have a blanket deal, that we could individually design a process with each student when they screwed up or when staff screws up, but people have to have boundaries. If you’re a kid, you’re talking about behavior, or an adult, you’re talking about society. People need boundaries to push up against; it’s how we have safety. If you screw up, when we’re all calm, we need to have retribution. There has to be consequences. With my families in poverty … I either see them kind of like “Oh, you know, this mom, she’s been through so much she really can’t get out of poverty.” So they excuse them or I see them try and prescribe a path out of poverty for people, and those things make me nuts because I’m like “Any individual can get out of poverty.” If you can’t see it for them, they can’t see it. You have to see it for them.

CF: Who else is a good support system for rising above trauma and poverty?

RLP: People. Safe, supportive, caring relationships. I think there’s a lot of supportive, caring relationships in communities where there’s a ton of adversity but they’re not always safe relationships. And what I mean by that is that there’s so much adversity happening for all of the people in a community experiencing that that people are just dysregulated. There’s high stress and a lot times people are using coping strategies that just aren’t healthy, so that creates instability and danger. So safe, supportive relationships with people that are not engaging in self-destructive behavior. That can be anybody, anybody that’s not engaging in self-destructive behavior.

The culture of poverty’s not bad. It’s very relational. It’s very communal. It’s very tribal. What you do to one you do to all of them.

CF: What are the next steps? Where does this go next?

RLP: I think it’s energy. We follow the energy. It’s what I’ve noticed about this movement and I think people need a place to contribute. And I think the families – we also know that people that have had a lot of adversity, they have a profound need to contribute, so I think we cultivate. … In my other poverty projects, I’m having parents with high ACE scores that are working their way out of poverty work with ACES Connection to build parent projects to where my parents are figuring out how to go out in the community and facilitate conversations around ACEs awareness and resilience building. So they’re out there championing; they’re out there with a slide deck; they’re out there showing the documentary “Resilience” and starting conversations; they’re out there helping people understand their ACE scores; they’re out there talking to other parents. And I believe that once people get ahold of the science and we start to understand this, that people start inventing wise action and energy starts happening, and we start having events and we start realizing connection and bonding and these really simple human things are what are going to save us and we just let people start running. …

Parents in poverty love their kids. Families love their kids. … And the culture of poverty’s not bad. It’s very relational. It’s very communal. It’s very tribal. What you do to one you do to all of them. If we can be fascinated by that and curious instead of … you know when I became fascinated with the middle class and curious because I fell in love with some middle class people … and I started realizing “Wow, you guys aren’t anything like I thought you were” because I thought their motives were different. So it’s not that the middle class are judgmental. People are judgmental until we start spending time together and then we go “Oh, OK.”

CF: Anything else you’d like to add?

RLP: I think Hutchinson’s amazing. I think there’s been a lot of trauma in Hutchinson for the community, and just to watch people continue to pull together and create hope.

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