Long Way Down

A world premiere Kennedy Center commission

Grades 8-12, Family Theater (60 minutes), October 24–November 2, 2018

Adapted by Martine Kei Green-Rogers
from The New York Times Best Selling Novel by Jason Reynolds
Directed by Timothy Douglas

Sixty seconds. Seven floors. One elevator. Fifteen-year old Will’s brother has just been shot, and Will is ready to follow “The Rules”: 1) “No Crying.” 2) “No Snitching.” 3) “Get Revenge.” But on the ride down, with his brother’s gun in his pocket, his plan is interrupted by a few visitors. Told entirely in free-form poetry, Long Way Down captures the potent minute Will contemplates retaliation. As mysterious guests appear at each floor, Will realizes there might be a bigger story to be told. He knows who he’s after. Or does he?

Standards Connections:
English Language Arts - Reading: Literature (RL.7, RL.9)
Theatre - Responding (Re.7)

Student Guide

So, What’s Going On?

Sixty seconds. Seven floors. One elevator. Fifteen-year-old Will’s brother has just been shot, and Will is ready to follow “The Rules”: 1) “No Crying.” 2) “No Snitching.” 3) “Get Revenge.” But on the ride down, with his brother’s gun in his pocket, his plan is interrupted by a few visitors.

Told entirely in free-form poetry, Long Way Down captures the potent minute Will contemplates retaliation. As mysterious guests appear at each floor, Will starts to realize there might be other factors he must take into account. It is a journey that may affect Will’s decision of what to do once the elevator reaches its final destination.

Who’s Who

William “Will” Holloman — a fifteen-year-old boy

Long Way Down is a one-person show, but it features the presence of other characters whose stories and words are shared by Will. Here’s a guide:

Will’s Mom — in mourning for the loss her son
Buck — an older friend
Dani — Will’s childhood friend
Uncle Mark — the brother of Will’s dad
Mikey Holloman — the father Will never knew
Frick — a young man from the neighborhood
Shawn — Will’s older brother

More about the Play

Long Way Down is a play adapted from the free-verse novel by Jason Reynolds. It takes place in an unnamed neighborhood of an unnamed city where many members are confronting loss.

The book and play are about a boy facing extraordinary circumstances, Reynolds says. In an interview with the Kennedy Center, he described the character’s dilemma this way: “Will has to make a really difficult decision because he comes from a community…where there are codes; there are rules and ecosystems that must be followed. And so he has to figure out and to choose whether or not he’s going to follow the rules [of his community], and one of those rules is, unfortunately, to avenge his brother’s death.”

The play follows Will’s experience as he struggles with this choice. Will he follow those rules that have been handed down to him? Or make new ones for himself? Reynolds emphasizes such codes of behavior exist in every community—well-off or under-resourced, from cities to suburbs to small towns.

So how does Will’s decision-making play out in Long Way Down? The book and the play intentionally leave Will’s final decision unstated and does not herd the audience toward any one conclusion about what he should or shouldn’t do. Instead, it challenges us to sort through and connect the perspectives, the feelings, and circumstances to present an open-ended question for us to weigh: After all his experiences on the long way down, what choice will this teenage boy make?

Check this out:

Interview with Jason Reynolds. Build. Oct. 25, 2017. Reynolds discusses his career and writing process—a great watch for anyone interested in the literary arts and what it takes to become a writer. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=58hF22Yz9gs

Meet Jason Reynolds


Caption: Author Jason Reynolds
Photo by Ben Fractenberg

Jason Reynolds was born in Washington, D.C., and grew up in Oxon Hill, Maryland. He wasn’t into reading or writing as a boy, but that changed when he discovered his love for the lyrics and flow of Hip Hop. “It was through rap music and the discovery of rap lyrics that I found my path and my way into the world of poetry,” he said in the Kennedy Center interview. “And that poetry evolved over the course of ten, fifteen years into a way for me to tell my own stories.”

Like Will Holloman in Long Way Down, Reynolds says he and his friends faced a similar decision. “When I was 19, a friend of mine was murdered,” Reynolds said in a recent interview with The Guardian. “That night my friends and I went to his mom’s house and we were all planning to figure out who did this to him so we could exact revenge. So we could murder the man who murdered our friend. And I just remember the pain – the pain of the lost friend but also the pain of meeting a part of myself that I didn’t know existed. A part of myself that could lose control to the point where I could commit a murder. That’s a very human thing.” The mother of the dead friend talked Reynolds and his friends out of retaliating, saying no other mother should ever have to feel like she did at that moment.

Reynolds is now an award-winning, internationally-celebrated author of young adult books. Titles include When I Was the Greatest, Ghost, The Boy in the Black Suit, and As Brave as You. He has also written the Marvel Comics novel Miles Morales: Spider-Man and co-authored All American Boys with Brendan Kiely.

Check this out:

“How poetry can help kids turn a fear of literature into love.” Jason Reynolds on PBS News Hour. Dec. 15, 2017. Reynolds on finding genuine joy in reading lit that speaks to you and your experience. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FsQNaSLziGI

A Kennedy Center interview with Jason Reynolds on Long Way Down. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cuXNsJvNaFs

Style and Form in Long Way Down

Author Jason Reynolds explains that Long Way Down was originally written in prose, but he eventually shifted the novel to free verse. Free verse is a poetic form, but one without rigid rhymes, rhythm, or structure; it may play with words up and down and across the page. It is effective for streamlining language and condensing emotion in powerful ways. In Long Way Down, he used free verse to create a sense of urgency, discomfort, and disorientation. Reynolds felt his “60-second story” would be more believable if written in poetry than in prose. “When experiencing trauma, the brain is not working in complete sentences,” he says. “I wanted to put the brain on the page.”

Here’s an example from the book, using both the freedom of free verse and shape poetry to signal a key moment.


Back already sore.
Gun strapped
like a brick
rubbing my skin
raw with each step.

See like time
stood still as I
reached out and
pushed the button.

White light
surrounded the
black arrow.






Make sure you see the section “Get Your Write On” below for ideas about writing your own free verse.

What to Look and Listen for

Long Way Down is a one-person show, told in Will’s words and actions. With this in mind, check out:

  • the way the set and lighting create the elevator and help the audience know where and when the action takes place.
  • ways the production uses sound, smoke, and projections to create tension.
  • ways music helps create the setting and gives clues about situations and characters.
  • how the actor interacts with projections and other onstage elements to tell the story.
  • listen for interesting uses of language, like the metaphors of the elevator and teeth, like the symbolism of smoke, and like anagrams (see below). What clues do they offer about Will’s character or the action of the play?
  • ways the actor indicates his character’s thoughts and feelings about the other characters using his voice and body language.

Think About This...

  • The Rules: 1) No Crying. 2) No Snitching. 3) Get Revenge. Why are these rules important to Will?
  • Keep an eye on the setting, the presence of smoke, and the costumes. Watch for any hidden meanings and visual/verbal metaphors.
  • Will says, “[The Rules] weren’t meant to be broken. They were meant for the broken to follow.” What does he mean? What are ways he and the others follow but also break the rules?
  • Describe your sense of what Will was like before his brother was shot. Describe his behavior on the elevator as he meets the others. Describe him when the elevator reaches the lobby. How does what he experiences seem to affect him?

Use Your Words and Art

Inspiring young people to write, as well as read, is part of Jason Reynolds’s life mission. He urges everyone to express their lives in words and art, whatever form that takes—prose, poetry, song lyrics, comics, anything at all. “The greatest gift [young writers] have is the voice that feels most natural,” he says. Not sure how to start? Watch for striking images and listen for powerful phrases from your own life and experience, then write them down. Here are some other ideas to help you practice capturing your own life in words:

  1. Anagrams are word puzzles. They involve rearranging letters of a word or phrase to create a new word or words, with all the letters being used once. Anagrams appear in the play, such as in one instance when Will rearranges the letters for "ocean" to create "canoe." Will's anagrams offer clues about his thoughts and the action in the play.

    Here are a few words for you and your friends to anagram:


    (Answers: listen: enlist, silent, tinsel; drawer: reward, redraw, warder, warred; past: spat, taps, pats; rules: lures; friend: finder; discern: rescind, cinders; verse: serve, sever, veers; assume: amuses)

    What other words can you think of that are anagrams? Also, think about how the different words of an anagram may be related in interesting ways. For example, Will makes the connection between “ocean” and its anagram “canoe.”

  2. Free verse can be a graceful way to capture experience in tight, meaning-packed language. It often emphasizes the senses to connect quickly and intensely with readers. Consider the following phrases and similes from the book (page numbers in parentheses):

    a headlock

    that felt like a hug (p. 45)

    the pistol under my pillow

    like a lost tooth (p. 60)

    the stench of

    death and sweat

    trapped in the

    cotton like

    fish grease (p. 65)

    A jagged mouth,

    sharp and sharklike (p. 79)

    the cigarette dangling,

    bouncing with each word

    like a fishing pole

    with fish on bait,

    with hook through head (p. 132)


    split his face

    like cold breeze

    on chapped lip

    after attempting

    to smile (p. 165)

    Use sensory detail along with your memory and imagination to write two or more moments like these. There is no right or wrong, good or bad; there is just what you feel and know. If it helps, think about what stories are important to you—about aspects of your life, the people you know, and the community and world around you. Imagine how to describe snapshots of those things and ideas, then write! And if you’re of a mind, share your moments at #lwdfreeverse.

  3. Jason Reynolds says we are all “haunted by something.” He means there are experiences in our lives that we can’t seem to leave behind—a death, a lost love, a memory of perfect happiness. These moments trigger deep feelings—sometimes of comfort, sometimes of heartache. Write a story or narrative about what haunts you or someone you have known. You might even borrow from Long Way Down and envision an encounter or conversation with others who can share other perspectives on whatever or whomever is doing the haunting. Inject sensory detail to help your writing come alive and consider sharing it at #lwdhaunting.

Claiming Personal Power

In the play, Will feels overwhelmed by forces beyond his control. He isn’t sure what to do and doesn’t have anyone he can turn to get a real read on what he’s facing. Chances are, we have all felt like that at one time or another and wish there were some place to go or someone we could speak with to help us take perspective.

One strategy for battling a sense of isolation is to get involved with others who are banding together to celebrate shared interests, fun, and purpose. Such groups or organizations can be as social as a book club, as athletic as a parkour crew, or as political as you want to be. Here are ideas and resources to help link you up when you want to add your personal power to the company of others.

The Brown Bookshelf. This website promotes awareness of the myriad black voices writing for young readers. thebrownbookshelf.com

Dosomething.org. A clearinghouse for teen activism—from disability rights to water conservation to positivity campaigns—can link you to the causes closest to your heart and conscience. https://www.dosomething.org/campaigns

“The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Parkour.” Brett and Kate McKay. The Art of Manliness. July 19, 2013. An introduction to the freestyle urban sport with tips on how to find a group. https://www.artofmanliness.com/articles/beginners-guide-to-parkour/

These kids started a book club for minority boys. It’s the most popular club in school. Perry Stein. Washington Post, January 21, 2018. Reading and discussing books as a group is powerful stuff. https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/these-kids-started-a-book-club-for-minority-boys-its-the-most-popular-one-in-school/2018/01/21/c15620e2-fc6d-11e7-ad8c-ecbb62019393_story.html

We Need Diverse Books. A grassroots organization of children’s book lovers that advocates essential changes in the publishing industry to produce and promote literature that reflects and honors the lives of all young people. https://diversebooks.org

Youth Activism Project. This organization promotes and supports youth-led campaigns in the United States and globally. http://youthactivismproject.org/what-we-do/

Get Your Write On

Writing requires uninterrupted solo time when you can invite your imagination and creativity to come out and play. Reading writing that fires up your imagination is part of the process, too. Many writers also get a boost from connecting and sharing ideas, frustrations, and laughter with other creative types. Here are a handful of online resources to link you up with others working to get their write on:

“6 Great Websites for Teen Writers.” Iva-Marie Palmer. Brightly. https://www.readbrightly.com/6-great-websites-teen-writers/

“25 Amazing Books by African-American Writers You Need to Read.” Mentalfloss.com. Book list of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and memoir—the best from past and present. http://mentalfloss.com/article/532058/books-by-african-american-writers-you-need-to-read

“The DC Youth Poetry Slam Team.” Split This Rock. Fostering a national network of socially engaged poets. http://www.splitthisrock.org/programs/youth-programs/the-dc-youth-poetry-slam-team/

“30 Black Comic Book Writers You Should Know,” by Troy L. Wiggins. Bookriot.com, Oct. 10, 2016. https://bookriot.com/2016/08/10/30-black-comic-book-writers-you-should-know/

The Harlem Writers Guild. The oldest organization of African American writers. http://www.theharlemwritersguild.org/events.html

NaNoWriMo Young Writers Program. The super-charged write, write, write movement that inspires people to write entire novels—in 30 days. https://ywp.nanowrimo.org

“Poems for a Purpose.” Power Poetry. https://www.powerpoetry.org

Poetry Slam Inc. Psi promotes the creation and performance of poetry that engages all ages and communities. https://poetryslam.com

Dealing with Trauma

Something bad or scary happens, but we survive and hope our lives return to normal. Sometimes that’s easier wished for than done, though. Intense, negative experiences can leave us with trauma. Trauma is the emotional and psychological aftermath of a painful or terrifying experience. Entire communities that experience high levels of violence can also suffer collective trauma, even people who are not direct victims. When we suffer trauma, we may be haunted by flashbacks of what happened and feel fear that the world around us is out of control. Trauma also can affect our ability to think, sleep, learn, or relate to others in healthy ways.

If we have gone through a traumatic experience, we may need help to feel safe and hopeful again. The first step is to connect with people who help us feel protected and secure. Counselors at school, in community centers, or in places of worship can be good resources for helping us get the help we need and start rebuilding a sense of control in our lives, families, and communities. We may also be able to access resources and help online, and many support programs are free for children and teens. If you think you or people around you are dealing with traumatic stress, help is out there. Healing and flourishing again isn’t easy, but it’s very possible.

“Bulletins for Teens: Crime, Teens, and Trauma.” The National Center for Victims of Crime. A clearinghouse of information for anyone feeling scared or hopeless. http://victimsofcrime.org/help-for-crime-victims/get-help-bulletins-for-crime-victims/bulletins-for-teens/crime-teens-and-trauma

“Trauma.” Sutter Health, Palo Alto Medical Foundation. An informative site on the symptoms and effects of trauma. http://www.pamf.org/teen/life/trauma/

Teen Action Toolkit: Building a Youth-led Response to Teen Victimization. The National Center for Victims of Crime. For young people feeling the urge to organize. http://victimsofcrime.org/docs/Youth%20Initiative/Teen%20TOOLKIT.pdf?sfvrsn=0

“7 Self-Care Strategies to Help Manage Trauma, According to Experts.” Bustle. https://www.bustle.com/p/7-self-care-strategies-to-help-manage-trauma-according-to-experts-10087377


Go even deeper with the Long Way Down Extras.

Okay, you’re ready for Long Way Down.

Teacher & Parent Guide

Parents, Teachers, and Caregivers: Get the Conversation Going

For this story, this play, this production of Long Way Down, 2700 F Street invites all adults to press pause on preconceptions of what we want our young people to think and conclude. Jason Reynolds has crafted a story that defies the desire for clear interpretations and answers. “I don’t want it to lead anyone anywhere,” he said in a Kennedy Center interview. Rather, it is a galvanizing and at times raw exploration of a young person doing his best to deal with extraordinary circumstances.

The creators hope this adult guide will support such discovery.


Collaborate with your young people or students to determine how they want to prepare for going to see Long Way Down at the Kennedy Center. First up, have them review the Student Guide. Then ask: What else do they want to know to prepare for the performance? Read the book? Learn more about the author? Take an online tour of the Kennedy Center?

Consider following their lead on how they want to prepare, from theater etiquette and stagecraft to language and themes in Long Way Down. Here are some ready resources to draw on, as needed.

Learn About the Author

With his affectionate yet passionate style, Jason Reynolds is a champion of writing and literacy, especially for young people of color. Consider turning loose students to conduct online research about Reynolds and his work, including watching his Kennedy Center interview about his writing process and Long Way Down.

To celebrate writing and literature, cue up this presentation from the PBS News Hour to excite them about the joy, beauty, and power of poetry and creativity:

“How poetry can help kids turn a fear of literature into love.” Jason Reynolds on PBS News Hour. Dec. 15, 2017. Reynolds on finding genuine joy in reading lit that speaks to young people and their experience. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FsQNaSLziGI

Play with Free Verse

To prepare for the play, lead students in playing with language, like Jason Reynolds does in his book and as performed in the play. When it comes to free verse, the rules are few. It’s about capturing emotion as well as ideas in words, rhythm, and the appearance on the page. Here’s an example Reynolds wrote in his online blog: iamjasonreynolds.com/page/6/

by Jason Reynolds

one thing i’ll
never forget
about bedtime
is the feeling of
father’s tired lips
on forehead and cheek
every night his beard
dusting the day off
but his breath
never broken
never hesitant
happy like this is how
i love you
feels son
like this is what
man means

Try this free-verse experiment. Below is a short prose passage from Jason Reynolds’s novel Ghost. Have students play with the passage—moving and flipping words and phrases in radical ways, rearranging them on the page, messing with punctuation and capitalization, adding line breaks that cause pauses when read aloud.

…I continue my slow-motion journey, pausing only when I get to the bus stop. But this bus stop ain’t just any bus stop. It’s the one that’s directly across from the gym. I just sit there with the other people waiting for the bus, except I’m never actually waiting for it. The bus gets you home fast, and I don’t want that. I just go there to look at the people working out.

Consider asking students to compare their free-verse version with classmates and examine the different emphases they brought to the verse.

Pose Open-Ended Questions

As much as possible, create space for young people to explore the production in their own ways. Before and after attending the performance, pose open-ended questions instead of asking yes/no- and multiple choice-style ones.

One general strategy is to solicit specific descriptions of what students saw and experienced rather than angling for judgments and conclusions. For example, instead of asking “What does the smoke symbolize?” you might try asking, “Have you ever been in an elevator with someone smoking a cigarette? … How did you feel? … How did Will react to the smoke?” The purpose is to make space for students to connect their personal experience to what takes place on stage.

This performance is an opportunity to relax our need to be the authorities. Use and solicit questions that connect the show to young people’s experience. In a sense, explore the production with students rather than try to be the guide with the answers.


Before attending the show, plan a class preview of the Student Guide section “Check This Out …,” clarifying points as needed. (See reference directly below.) Putting these points in front of students before the show can help them be ready to spot and engage illuminating details in the performance. You might also assign teams of students to choose a point or two from the list to watch for and describe during post-show discussions.

[Reference to Check This Out:]

“How poetry can help kids turn a fear of literature into love.” Jason Reynolds on PBS News Hour. Dec. 15, 2017. Reynolds on finding genuine joy in reading lit that speaks to you and your experience. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FsQNaSLziGI

Be Trauma Aware Before the Performance

You know your young person or people better than most anyone. If you believe someone in your care may be dealing with trauma, there are ways to be ready to support them. Also, let students come to the discussion in ways where they feel safe and comfortable—don’t ask or press them to reveal sensitive personal experiences or information.

Also see the Kennedy Center Q & A with Shawn Ginwright, Ph.D. below, about trauma and healing-centered engagement.

Here are some resources to help you be aware and ready:

“6 Ways to Become a Trauma-Informed School.” National Resilience Institute. A primer on the practice. May 17, 2017. https://nationalresilienceinstitute.org/2017/05/6-ways-become-trauma-informed-school/

“7 Self-Care Strategies to Help Manage Trauma, According to Experts.” Bustle. https://www.bustle.com/p/7-self-care-strategies-to-help-manage-trauma-according-to-experts-10087377

“The Future of Healing: Shifting from Trauma Informed Care to Healing Centered Engagement.” Shawn Ginwright, Ph.D. Medium. A thoughtful piece about healing trauma. https://medium.com/@ginwright/the-future-of-healing-shifting-from-trauma-informed-care-to-healing-centered-engagement-634f557ce69c

“Trauma.” Sutter Health, Palo Alto Medical Foundation. An informative site on the symptoms and effects of trauma. http://www.pamf.org/teen/life/trauma/

“What is a Trauma-Informed School?” Treatment and Services Adaptation Center. For educators interested in developing greater supports for students dealing with traumatic stress. https://traumaawareschools.org/traumaInSchools


Join forces with your students or young people to determine how they want to process the play afterward. Let them brainstorm ways to get the most out of the experience and keep the conversation going. Do they want to go deeper into the play’s themes? Talk about acting and stagecraft? Learn more about trauma, and healing? Read other books by Jason Reynolds? Study about ghosts in literature?

The post-show deep dive can serve as a springboard to give audience members—youth and adult—opportunities to further explore the performance. In addition, here are other ready resources.

The Student Guide

Return to the two sections from the Student Guide: “What to Look and Listen for” and “Think About This …” Use them to help lead discussions about the production, scenes in the play, and its characters.

Facilitating the Conversation

Do your best to create space for young people to explore the production from their own vantage points. To set the tone, consider sharing something from your personal experience that relates to the play and its themes. The intention is to start conversations and keep them going.

At the same time, you can use questions to help students spot details they may have missed and dive deeper into the play’s content and themes. When necessary, encourage students to back up their interpretations or view with supporting details from the play.

Here are several open-ended discussion points to consider:

  • What are some of “The Rules” we live by with our friends, and in our schools and communities?
  • As a collaborative team, recount what happens in the play—at the beginning, then floor-by-floor as the elevator descends. No need to speculate or judge what’s happening, just describe the events as a means to gather detail.
  • Describe how Will behaves in the play, how he moved and spoke in different situations. What do you think his actions reveal about how he is feeling?
  • Describe the setting onstage, including the music, sound, and lighting. What grabbed your attention, made you smile or tense up? How did that stagecraft influence how you felt as you watched the play?
  • Describe some of the perspectives Will gains during his interactions with those he meets on the elevator.
  • The play ends without a clear indication of what Will decides or what happens next. What do you see as his various options at the end?

Write and Create

Jason Reynolds and his writing demonstrates how a writer accesses imagination and personal experience to create. This same creative power is available to all of us, including our young people, no matter our age, how polished our skills, or our preferred mode of expression. Graffiti can be as capable of communicating as much as a novel of 100,000 words—just look at Lady Pink or Banksy.

Encourage students to create a response to their experience with the play. A couple ideas:

  • Create their own ending to Will’s story. Using free verse, prose, or illustrations they can spin out the narrative of what happens next.
  • Have them create a story based on Jason Reynolds’ comment that we are all “haunted by something,” as discussed in the student guide.

Trauma and Healing-Centered Engagement:
Q & A with Shawn Ginwright, Ph.D.


Dr. Ginwright is an associate professor of education and Africana Studies at San Francisco State University’s College of Ethnic Studies. He is also the founder and chief executive officer of Flourish Agenda Inc. (flourishagenda.com), a national nonprofit consulting firm working with youth of color to help them and their communities flourish. You can visit his website at http://www.shawnginwright.com.

Kennedy Center: KC: What are ways young people are affected by violence, even if they are not the direct victims?

Dr. Shawn Ginwright: Most people think of violence as an individual act, outside the context of where and why it takes place. But it can have a significant impact on the wider community and contribute to more violence. And keep in mind the forms violence can take beyond the physical. It can be the fear that comes from witnessing violence, the fear of being stopped by police, the fear of deportation for immigrants. The environment becomes a significant factor in what causes violence, and how that fosters trauma in people.

KC: How do you define trauma, and what does “trauma-informed care” entail?

Dr. Ginwright: I define trauma as anything that disrupts human flourishing, anything that is a barrier to a full and healthy development of an individual in the community. The harm they experience can then affect and shape behavior.

Trauma-informed care tries to recognize and acknowledge trauma and is now being incorporated more widely in schools and communities to help young people. It is a clinical blend that tries to recognize and acknowledge the trauma they’re experiencing. It promotes coping and restorative practices that clinical workers and practitioners can use to help those they work with regain a sense of well-being.

KC: How did you arrive at the concept of “healing-centered engagement” that you discuss in your work?

I was working with a group of young men dealing with trauma, almost all African American, and we’d gather every Wednesday night. In the third session, I was trying to get them to tell their stories. I talked about the science of trauma and its impact on the brain. They shared profound stories about homelessness, stories of their own physical abuse in their families.

One participant, Marcus, began talking about his own experience. Then he stopped abruptly and asked, “Why do we have to talk about this? I’m more than what happened to me.”

I agreed with him, but it took me by surprise. So I asked him to explain himself. He said that there are things that he likes to do but that he never got to share in the group. So he began to talk about the music he likes, how he wanted to open up a business installing car radios. He started talking about his goals and the future.

It shifted the tone of the entire group. Rather than derail the work we were doing, he had actually opened another portal for healing. It was out of this that the idea of healing-centered engagement took shape.

KC: What distinctions do you draw between trauma-informed care and “healing-centered engagement”?

Dr. Ginwright: Healing-centered engagement doesn’t discount trauma-informed care and its importance in addressing traumatic events and experiences. But trauma-informed care has limits. It tends to focus on the worst thing that happened and ignores the assets—the attributes and resources that individuals and communities possess that are sources for a positive sense of identity, well-being, and agency. It draws on a lot of the same principles found in positive psychology.

Healing-centered engagement also recognizes that violence takes place in context, and to best address it requires addressing the environment where it is taking place. It considers violence not simply as isolated acts but as collective experience, removing itself from clinical definitions to a political understanding. When I say political, I’m talking about decisions that are made by stakeholders—the power brokers in education, business, and government—decisions that affect communities for better or worse.

KC: In terms of individuals, what are paths for a young person, like the character of Will in Long Way Down, to recover or gain a sense of hope and wellbeing after a traumatic experience?

Dr. Ginwright: At some point, the focus needs to shift from what happened to someone to where they want to be. How does Will see his future? What are his aspirations? These are assets he can use to heal. Based on research, future-goal orientation is an important factor for people dealing with trauma. It guides their decision-making and has a profound impact on their overall sense of well-being.

So for Will, I’d encourage conversations and activities that are future-goal oriented. It’s not that the traumatic event is irrelevant, but looking to the future is a way to process it even as he attempts to move past it.

Secondly, I’d suggest he think about the kinds of things he can do in his sphere of influence to stop it from happening to other folks. For instance, can he create or contribute to some kind of anti-violence program in his school? It’s a matter of his developing a sense that he isn’t powerless, that he has agency, and can become the primary agent in restoring his own sense of well-being. He can help himself heal by helping heal the community.

KC: What message or questions would you like audience members, especially teens, to leave the theater thinking about?

Dr. Ginwright: I’d like them to be thinking about their own experience with violence, and how that has shaped them. Think about their own future and what they want to become. Lastly, their sense of agency. What do they care about, and what can they do in their sphere of influence?

Some Additional Points to Know: Radical Healing

In his research and writing about African American and Latino youth, Dr. Ginwright explores the idea of “radical healing”—the leveraging of individual and collective efforts to transform communities and individuals. Instead of focusing on pathologies, it concentrates on assets and building from these elements of strength.

He points to five principles that educators, community leaders, artists, and youth themselves can return to as they work to support the flourishing of their lives, families, and communities. There are:

Culture—The appreciation and understanding of a collective history, identity, and legacy.

Agency—The individual and collective ability to create and transform conditions.

Relationships—The capacity to create, sustain, and grow healthy connections with others.

Meaning—To live, learn, and lead with purpose, direction, and conviction.

Achievement—The purposeful realization of one’s desired goal.


Shawn Ginwright Presentation at Inventing Our Future 2015. Posted September 16, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iyUtzcw6JJs

Shawn Ginwright at the How Kids Learn IV Conference. Posted January 19, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VzMT-VFEmUQ&feature=youtu.be&list=PLZR25tnLiAeTfOksV7weR3t-PyYQr2Kfb

“The Future of Healing: Shifting From Trauma Informed Care to Healing Centered Engagement” by Shawn Ginwright, PhD. Medium. May 31, 2018. https://medium.com/@ginwright/the-future-of-healing-shifting-from-trauma-informed-care-to-healing-centered-engagement-634f557ce69c



Sean McCollum
Original Writer

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Lisa Resnick
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Tiffany Bryant
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Kenny Neal
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