Survivors Recount Stories of Violence

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Perhaps the most powerful and moving part of the 15th annual Interpersonal Violence Conference, held November 14, came at the close of the day with the Survivors Panel. Participants convened in Cole Hall to hear survivors of trauma tell their stories. Afterward, moderators asked the audience to say one word to describe the stories and the day.

One by one the words started. “Brave.” “Empathy.” “Resilience.” “Power.” “Love.”

For children living under a constant threat of violence, much of the trauma is not physical, said Howard Pinderhughes, PhD, an associate professor in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at UCSF and the keynote speaker for the conference, held at the Parnassus campus on November 14. 

“Some kids go to too many funerals,” said Pinderhughes.

Focusing on community trauma, Pinderhughes said that in underserved communities, structural violence, social inequities and intimate partner violence create “many levels of trauma, centered on the individual.” To not learn about and structure care around this trauma, he said, is to do a disservice to our patients.

The conference saw around 200 students and faculty come out on a sleepy Saturday for what was, as many admitted, a heavy topic. However, a day of inspiring speakers and tough conversations showed the commitment of the participants to advocate and care for those who have been affected by violence and trauma.

Formerly know as the Domestic Violence Conference, the student leaders who coordinated the conference this year made a conscious decision to cover a broader definition of violence and trauma. Ilana Garcia-Grossman, a second-year medical student, said that the change was prompted in part by a larger nation-wide discussion about race and violence, and the #WhiteCoats4BlackLives movement here on campus.

“When we talk about violence and trauma, we also need to consider we’re actually talking about systemic issues. In this year’s conference, we are trying to find meaningful ways to address institutional and community violence [as well as inter-personal violence],” she said.

The day was filled with both practical instruction for the different health professions and conversations about the bigger-picture implications of subjects like racism, sexism, and culture. Panelist Markita Mays, LCSW, of the UCSF/SFGH Child Trauma Research Program, led a challenging break-out session on "Courageous Conversations” about race. After setting some ground rules, she ended her talk early and assigned the audience members to groups, where they were told to talk about how race had affected their lives. Audience members were encouraged to be “uncomfortable,” and accept that they may not come up with a tidy agreement at the end of the conversation.

Other break-outs were more didactic, but no less informative. Emberly Cross, JD, MSW, of the Cooperative Restraining Order Clinic, gave a down-to-earth talk about what the legal system can and cannot do for those experiencing violence and trauma, and how healthcare providers can advocate for their patients legally. Cross spoke of how restraining orders and the civil legal system can aid patients in reducing trauma and violent situations, where engaging in the criminal system can be lengthy and disappointing.

Started in 1997 originally as a violence-prevention class, the Interpersonal Violence Conference was initially run by School of Medicine faculty Drs. Elizabeth McLoughlin and Leigh Kimberg, but transitioned to student-led conference in 2000. It is the longest-running student-led conference at UCSF and “an opportunity to address violence and trauma as a public health concern,” according to co-organizer, Olivia Park.

Kara Harvill, a second-year medical student and a fellow organizer, saw the conference as a supplement to her medical education at UCSF.

“We don’t really address violence and trauma in the med school curriculum,” she said. “We actually don’t really talk about violence at all — only in a few elective classes.”