Trauma is a near-universal part of the human experience and an invisible force contributing to the “stuckness” of virtually all social systems—including child welfare, criminal justice, education, health care, and housing—even as humanity barrels headlong into the most destructive systemic breakdown of all: the climate crisis that threatens life on Earth.

Yet the impact of trauma remains all but absent from mainstream discourse about systems change. Part of the reason is that we have a common tendency to believe trauma is “out there”—that other people are traumatized and need help, but we’re fine—when in fact we all carry trauma. The trauma we carry affects the way we look at the world and ourselves, and therefore plays a role in determining the future course of social systems. Unless we acknowledge trauma, engage with it, and find ways to support individual and collective healing, our systems will stay stuck.

Over the past year, we have been working with a multidisciplinary coalition of partners led by The Wellbeing Project and Georgetown University to apply insights from the field of trauma healing to the practice of systems change. Dozens of social change, Indigenous, and community leaders working in different systems in geographies as varied as Sri Lanka, Romania, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Colombia, India, and the United States shared their time and experience with us in the hopes of helping the social sector forge a common language around trauma and advocate for collective healing as integral to the work of systems change.

As noted earlier, trauma within systems, or systemic trauma, includes the unaddressed impacts of individual, intergenerational, collective, and historical trauma, as well as fresh trauma created by harmful present-day system structures and relational dynamics (see sidebar). Left unhealed and unintegrated, the system’s response to trauma can rupture relationships, sap collective energy and creativity, and diminish the interconnectedness that serves as the lifeblood of thriving groups and communities.

But what does systemic trauma actually look like? How can we recognize it when we experience it? And how do we begin to heal it? Our interviews with systems change leaders revealed five important characteristics.

Read the full article about trauma by Laura Calderon de la Barca, Katherine Milligan and John Kania at Stanford Social Innovation Review.