Is Trauma the Dark Matter of the Social Sector?

Nov 16, 2017

IN MARCH 2017, four Ashoka Fellows began to discuss their work challenges in a cramped car ride. Questions arose about why — despite enormous focus and energy — we often do not see the results we anticipate. Why does any pause in the work immediately threaten our “progress,” and, why are we so exhausted?

We speculated: Maybe the deep and abiding trauma — experienced across our communities, our staff, and in our own lives — acts as a barrier to our dream of effectiveness, productivity and progress. Maybe the impact of trauma repeatedly deflects our efforts in ways seen and unseen. If this is even partially true, what could we do about that? From these questions, the Ashoka Resilience group was formed to “just be together” with these observations, rather than setting goals. This blog is a summary of the questions we’re holding, and an invitation to join the conversation.

Physicists say that Dark Matter makes up ninety percent of our universe. As the name implies, dark matter does not interact with light: It cannot be seen directly, but it can be detected by measuring its gravitational effects.

Somewhat like dark matter, trauma is a powerful, abundant and often-overlooked (or downright undetectable) element of the human condition: Whether one has lived a privileged existence or through harsher conditions, almost everyone has experienced trauma in their lifetime. How these experiences impact our lives is nuanced and context-specific, but we know that different factors influence the severity of trauma. In particular, we know that living with high levels of environmental stress (conflict zones, communities with severe economic and social challenges) can magnify one’s personal experience of trauma. Hence, people in under-resourced communities are faced with the impact of both their own trauma and their community’s collective trauma. This trauma is often exacerbated and maintained by structural inequalities in society.

Many self-identified changemakers are deeply engaged in trying to make the world a better place. Our solutions-oriented mindset compels us to gravitate towards the light: We see possibility everywhere we look. We focus on impact. We change underlying conditions in order to solve the problem, and we don’t stop until we get there. But what are we missing in this approach? When does optimism prevent a deeper examination of the “dark matter” in our own communities, our participants, our staff and ourselves? And what effect does that have on the long-term viability of our work?


The Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) Study, in motion since 1995, has been a critical influence on our exploration of these questions. It reveals profound insights into the hidden levels of trauma impacting people of all identities, with data that clearly illustrates trauma’s relationship with mental illness, substance abuse, educational challenges, health, teen pregnancy, family violence and much more. The list looks, for all intents and purposes, like the issues that we, as social entrepreneurs, work to change. If trauma is the dark matter of the social sector, then the social challenges we work on alleviating are its gravitational ripples.

There is an important limitation of our metaphor: Dark matter is an unchanging fact of our universe. Trauma is preventable, mutable and can be healed. Instead of our emphasis on the metrics of “maximum results,” what if we focused on creating healing and sustainable impact with our communities? If we look more closely at trauma, we might be able to equip ourselves, colleagues, participants and communities to strengthen the light of the resilience we know is there. This might mean doing our work in deeper, less “scalable” ways, but maybe with more lasting results.

A New Approach

We want to be impactful and effective. We strive to make this world more just and fair. But we are beginning to consider whether new approaches — ones that help us to look at ourselves, co-workers, participants, communities, and social structures — might support our goals in ways that are also healing in their process.

Our hope in prompting this conversation is to raise awareness of trauma and its effects, to gather resources for new approaches, and to inspire new steps toward supporting internal reflection and healing (self-care), trauma-informed management practices at the organizational level, and trauma-informed programming in our communities.

While we know this “dark matter” exists in our work, we are excited to activate and nurture the resilience within ourselves and our communities. Please stay and contribute to the conversation by:

1. Checking out (and contribute to!) our growing resource list

2. Share your own experience in our Fellow-wide survey about trauma & resilience.

3. Join an Ashoka Huddle on Dec 14 at 2pm ET to explore this topic further. *this Huddle is for Ashoka Fellows and staff of Ashoka Fellow organizations.

Co-authored by Ashoka Fellows:

Alisa del Tufo, M.Div, Founder of Threshold Collaborative

Mathias Craig, Co-founder and Executive Director of blueEnergy

Noran Sanford, Founder and Executive Director of Growing Change

Is Trauma the Dark Matter of the Social Sector? was originally published in A New Game on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Other news

By continuing to use the site, you agree to the use of cookies. More information Changemakers Terms of Use Changemakers Privacy Policy