The Keys to Overcoming Poverty and Trauma With Rebecca Lewis-Pankratz

"I always tell people that in the trauma-informed world, it's less about the bad stuff that happened to you and more about the power of healing collectively."

Rebecca Lewis-Pankratz is the Director of ESSDACK Learning Centers. She helps solve poverty by engaging educators, community members, and families into deeper conversations that result in truly lifting youth out of poverty. By using trauma-informed and restorative justice principles, she believes we can resolve poverty and make sure that it is no longer students or their families' destination. Rebecca is passionate about helping all people find the tools necessary to turn kids from at-risk to at-promise!

SWY: Can you please describe what you do and the way you came into this work? What inspired you?

RLP: I wear three hats. Firstly, I work for an organization called ESSDACK, and it is a service center for school systems. At the same time, I was working for a non-profit for 5 years that helped families get completely out of poverty. Mostly generational poverty. Having both of these jobs allowed me to accomplish my dream of building multiple poverty projects, in multiple communities in Kansas and beyond. So essentially, I consult inside of school systems, churches, health departments and beyond about trauma-informed care and resilience. I build poverty projects with families in a two to five-year process to get them out of poverty completely. Lastly, I am the director of high school learning center programs for high school dropouts.

What inspired me to come into this work is my experience with poverty, addiction, and trauma. I was a single mother living in a trailer in 2011 trying to put my life back together. I came across a non-profit and started to experience that non-profit, which allowed me to finally graduate college. A job position opened at this non-profit and I took it. We went on to creating the largest poverty project; getting more people completely out of generational poverty. When I began consulting, I found the trauma-informed movement. There is now huge energy around healing. I always tell people that in the trauma-informed world, it's less about the bad stuff that happened to you and more about the power of healing collectively.

SWY: What do you believe the trauma-informed movement is really about? What are the goals of the movement?

RLP: The movement combines external and internal pieces; it helps us to understand human behaviour in a very different way. We have been spreading the belief and the notion that all behaviours are a form of choice. When people don’t make the “right choice” and are making poor decisions, they deserve the consequences that come of this. Now, with neuroscience we know that there are three parts to the brain and choosing happens in one of those. So how do we create more access so people can really build the part of their brain that can choose? In the school systems, zero tolerance has crippled us as a society, and we thought in theory that it sounded great. We will use a hammer and hit kids swiftly when they make a bad decision. So, punishment will make a behaviour change. Instead, we have created this shockwave of alienating kids and arresting kids, etc. The problem prior to the kids acting this way rarely has to do with the lack of punishment, it has to do with neglect, abuse, stressed-out families and communities, poverty, racism, etc. There are all of these external factors creating this internal behaviour in our children. Instead, we are coming at our children with more heat and more pain. So, this trauma-informed movement is that we are healing a brain thing with a love thing. Relationships are what change behaviour; creating communities where people are connected, seen, and heard is how we get there. We all suffer pain, trauma, and loss, and we’ve all needed certain ways to get through that. The primary way that people use to get through hard situations is other people, known as co-regulating.

"There are all of these external factors creating this internal behaviour in our children."

SWY: What more do you think we need to do as a society to help those suffering, especially children and youth, from poverty and trauma?

RLP: Well, how do we build a world where you are you and I am me and we are all in this together? We have become so divided and consumed with this division that it has almost become second nature for us. However, in order for us to build resilience, we need to use the recipe that says, “ I see you; I hear you; I am with you.” We can then become active in asking questions and looking around our decision-making tables and thinking “Who is missing?” In the work that I do, we try and get people from all walks of life together. Whether it be students or parents who suffer from trauma and poverty, along with the pastors, teachers and other people who are there to facilitate help. Everyone has to come to the realization that we share a common language, science, and hope. That way, when we look at our leadership tables we can ask ourselves “What authentic relationships do we have with these people? Do we have all the people at the table we need?” I think as a society what we need to do is collaborate, design and dream, together. We need relationships with others in our community in order to tell us what we need to do to make it better.

SWY: A lot of your work focuses on the intersection between poverty and trauma. What piece of advice you would give to someone who is suffering and wants to heal?

RLP: When I work with youth, we really start to talk about what is resilience. There is a science, and this science tells us that the brain does want to heal and can heal at any age, but it needs supportive available adult relationships to do so. Experiencing trauma really likes to screw with our trust response in people. To help build trust in others we need to meet people where they are, help them identify what a safe supportive relationship looks like, and then create a way for people to access power and resources. Often times, the youth that I see come from poverty or trauma or both. They don’t want to be fixed, they don’t want to be a project, and most of all, don’t want to leave their family and their people. They don’t want you to judge their mom, their siblings. They want access to power and resources for their entire community and family. They want to be seen for what makes them brilliant and amazing and strong. They want their culture to be understood. There is a lot of strength that comes from poverty, and I think that there is a lot we can learn from it. What people want the most is honour, connection, and safety. I would remind kids that are going through poverty and trauma that you and your culture are beautiful and amazing.

SWY: Can you speak to the intergenerational aspect of poverty, trauma, and childhood abuse. Why do these cycles of violence continue for so many generations?

RLP: It’s really about our stress responses and the lack of safe supportive adult relationships to coregulate kids. The cycle of adversity is just handed down to our children. In my experience, I was so scared to access help because there is a real threat that they will take your children away from you. We have turned our schools into welfare police. Families in poverty live in terror of having their children taken away from them. So, when families need help, we have driven them underground because to them, it is not safe to get help. So, how do we create a place where we start to bring awareness to the fact that human beings aren’t perfect? We need to make healing more accessible, not try and take people's children away from them. Instead, try to wrap around the whole family for healing and support.

SWY: What is one thing you would say to a child suffering from poverty, trauma, and abuse to help them turn from “at-risk to at-promise”?

RLP: I would say that healing is possible, some of the things you have gone through are not okay, and that you are going to have to fight to overcome them. But the biggest thing you can do for yourself right now is find safe people who will love you no matter what, meet you where you are, and listen to you. Realize you are not alone in what you have gone through. Healing is possible. I am now on the other side years of abuse and trauma, but I can tell you I am not broken, I am powerful. Because of what I went through, I now have this automatic ability to get inside of people’s lives and share a little bit of my story. There are a lot of powerful components of surviving trauma. For kids and youth just know there is hope, and that you have a level of compassion that other people are not able to access. So, use that compassion not only for yourself but for those around you.

"Healing is possible. I am now on the other side years of abuse and trauma, but I can tell you I am not broken, I am powerful."

Thank you Rebecca for taking the time to speak with us about poverty and trauma! If you would like to read more about Rebecca and the incredible work she does, visit