Center Collaborator Jennifer Jones leads the “Change in Mind Initiative” in the United States and Canada to infuse insights from brain science into the nonprofit human-serving sector. The goal is to determine if such knowledge can transform policies to move the needle on some of the most difficult social issues facing our communities such as poverty and incarceration.
She has begun introducing the Center’s science to her network of more than 450 nonprofits she works with as director of Child and Family Systems Innovation at the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities – a national organization dedicated to achieving a healthy society and strong communities for all children, adults and families.
Jones shares what inspires her work and how she sees systems transforming the lives of children and families.
What was the moment you realized something had to change?
While working in the child welfare division at the Wisconsin Department of Health and Family Services, I learned about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), which are things like physical abuse, growing up with a household member who is incarcerated, or growing up with a parent or caregiver with mental illness.
It was one of those moments when it all started to make sense. Childhood adversity doesn’t happen in isolation. We need to move beyond only addressing one adversity or another and move toward taking a social ecological approach to working with families.
I’ve worked with several of my colleagues in state government and our partner agencies to raise funds to allow us to include the Adverse Childhood Experiences module in our state Behavioral Risk Factor Survey. Once we got the data back showing the prevalence of ACEs among Wisconsin citizens, we were able to use that information to build support and momentum for programs, services and policies.
How does cultivating well-being help us solve problems?
We spend a lot of our time and energy addressing the negative – the problems and adversity in people’s lives. A lot of our systems are set up to help people address their problems – be it child abuse and neglect, domestic violence, substance abuse, mental health or food insecurity. These issues are important; people need help now. But if we are to build a culture of health, we need to move beyond the immediate outcome and create solutions that are meaningful, sustaining and focus on long-term well-being.
When we learn to be healthy and well, it creates healthy communities and fosters a greater sense of togetherness and unity. This allows us to be more compassionate and kind towards each other and view our challenges from a position of strength.
The healthy development of all children and youth is essential for a thriving and prosperous society. Through the work of the Center and others, a remarkable expansion of new scientific knowledge is available.
"Childhood adversity doesn’t happen in isolation. We need to move beyond only addressing one adversity or another and move toward taking a social ecological approach to working with families."
What are some preventative strategies for protecting youth against ACEs?
I think the first step is to invest more in prevention efforts. We spend millions of dollars on deep-end systems and very little – in Wisconsin it’s less than one percent – on prevention. We know the best, most effective strategies are to help build strong brains and foundations from the start. We need to reach children and families very early on by investing in programs like Head Start.
We’ve also spent time in Wisconsin looking at how we can better understand ACEs and trauma in the incarcerated population. Our Wisconsin ACEs data shows that of folks who reported the one ACE of growing up with a household member who was incarcerated – 64 percent had four or more ACEs. So, we need to work on mitigating ACEs and preventing adversity in the lives of these children and families.
Finally, we need to invest in two-generation approaches – ones that work with parents to help support the building of their children’s brains. There’s a lot of research out of the Center for the Developing Child at Harvard University that shows impact with science-aligned interventions that help parents with serve and return, the back-and-forth process of interaction between children and adults.
It’s important to build the core capabilities that all adults need to be successful in work and parenting.
How do you invite others to engage in this work?
I find it incredibly exciting that Richard Davidson’s research is showing us that well-being is a learned skill; that we can teach ourselves and others how to be more resilient. I think sharing this knowledge and information widely can help inspire and foster a social movement that emphasizes wellness. The Center’s research and that of others in the field has profound implications for our work with children and families. It’s a very exciting time to be working on sustainable solutions for some of the most complex challenges and issues that face our society.
The science is quite clear. Now we just need to create the answers. How do we use the science to transform our systems and policies to advance meaningful and sustainable improvements in the lives of all children, adults and families? There are leaders in our nonprofit human serving sector that are advancing this work nationally and internationally through the Change in Mind Initiative funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. But not everyone is there, so we focus on those who are – the innovators, influencers and early adopters. We are creating the how – so that together we can advance real change efforts that are aligned and infused with brain science research.