Oprah Winfrey said Tuesday that a newfound understanding of childhood trauma has “definitively changed” the way she sees people, the way she wants her school in South Africa to operate, and the way she will direct her future philanthropic efforts.
Winfrey is devoting an upcoming “60 Minutes” segment to the epidemic of childhood trauma in America. The problem is most concentrated in urban centers, where exposure to traumatic experiences is an everyday event for children who grow up amid violence, neglect, incarceration, alcohol and drugs, physical and sexual abuse, and hunger. Many live with post-traumatic stress disorder but are neither diagnosed nor treated.
The “60 Minutes” segment was inspired by a groundbreaking, five-part 2017 Journal Sentinel series, “A Time to Heal,” which mapped the impact of trauma in the urban center of Milwaukee, one of the nation’s most impoverished cities. Marquette’s Law School sponsored the Journal Sentinel’s series through a research fellowship from the Lubar Center for Public Policy Research and Civic Education.
A follow-up two-part package in December used the same metrics of economics and trauma to show that the underclass in rural Wisconsin suffers with the same dysfunctional demographic profile as the urban underclass.
Either rural or urban, newly available data collected in the last decade reveal how early trauma is the root issue for many who struggle with depression, mental illness, suicide, an inability to find and hold a job, and symptoms of post-traumatic stress that often are similar to that seen in military veterans. The Journal Sentinel’s multimedia series showed how traumatized children struggle in school and in relationships, and have difficulty finding and holding a job — impairing the workforce and the economy.
Winfrey and her camera crew traveled several times to Milwaukee to work on the segment, which incorporates Journal Sentinel reporting. Winfrey grew up in Milwaukee.
Speaking Tuesday on “CBS This Morning,” Winfrey repeatedly said that society’s answers to many economic and social problems “are working on the wrong thing” because they’re oblivious to neurological impairments in people.
Like the Journal Sentinel, Winfrey concluded that standard solutions — job training programs, educational efforts — will never address a problem that’s fundamentally neurological. The Journal Sentinel reported that a half century of anti-poverty and jobs programs never stopped the city’s downward spiral. “If you don’t fix the hole in the soul, the thing that is where the wounds started, you’re working at the wrong thing,” Winfrey said.
Winfrey expects that any new dialog on trauma, which had been invisible in statistics until the last decade, could be a “game changer.”
“It has definitively changed the way I see people in the world, and it has definitively changed the way I will now be operating my school in South Africa and going forward any philanthropic efforts that I’m engaged in,” Winfrey told the TV talk show.
“What I recognize is that a lot of NGOs (non-governmental organizations), a lot of people working in the philanthropic world, who are trying to help disadvantaged, challenged people from backgrounds that have been disenfranchised, are working on the wrong thing,” Winfrey added.
“Unless you fix the trauma that has caused people to be the way they are — literally change the way brains operate if you are in a chaotic environment as a child — unless you fix the trauma, you’re working on the wrong thing,” she said.
The “60 Minutes” segment airs at 6 p.m. Sunday on CBS.
Winfrey’s comments came the same day that Marquette University President Mike Lovell challenged his school’s faculty, as well as local nonprofits and social agencies, to come up with ideas to break the cycle of childhood trauma in Milwaukee. Lovell wants the university to collaborate on pilot projects, which would compete for funding.
The university president said he had both an obligation, and a platform, to address the issue. Roughly a quarter of the homeless beds in the state of Wisconsin are located in the immediate vicinity of the university, Marquette’s researchers have found. And too often, trauma in parents repeats itself as children grow up with traumatic experiences, creating a generational cycle, Lovell said, echoing the findings of trauma researchers.