Transforming Pain into Power through Youth-Centered Clinical and Group Work

J. Prodis Headshot

In March 2023, Broadsight’s founder, Dr. Jessica Payne interviewed Jessica Prodis, a licensed, independent clinical social worker with a focus on supporting the healing of trauma through individual and community empowerment. 

Prodis is the Founder of the Center of Resilience (CFR) in Holyoke, MA. CFR is a therapy practice focused on creating spaces and techniques that support individuals engaged in the process of healing from experiences of trauma. Prodis was first inspired to be a therapist after observing social workers at her New Haven, CT high school and witnessing the profound role they had in supporting students navigating the complexities of race, class and trauma. After receiving a BA in education and an MA in social work, both from Smith College, she began her work in Holyoke 13 years ago as a school based therapist focused on client-led trauma treatment. In 2020 she founded CFR to offer individual and group therapy for youth and young adults. CFR is also a home for a youth-led approach to group work, youth leadership development, and community action that have become central in Prodis’ work. Below are edited excerpts from the interview, intended to deepen our knowledge and understanding of resilience as a vital aspect of being human.

What is the Center for Resilience? 

The Center for Resilience is a place where people feel welcome and they can relax their defense systems and start to explore the benefit and cost of patterns of self protection that they have developed. What's working for them? What's not working for them? Are there more adaptive options at this point in their development and in this safe space they have encountered at CFR? We are the experts on our own experience and we are connected with nourishing people, spaces and experiences, our internal wisdom can really show up. How do we bring this internal wisdom and self-leadership/expertise into our experience of self, and into our community to impact a larger change? CFR is actively engaging young people in exploring these questions as individuals and within group settings.  


How is resilience built into our neurobiology?

As humans, we're hardwired for resilience and evolution. The brain is always striving to adapt and find the most adaptive response to any given situation or challenge. We all have a specific set of tools that we have developed through our life experiences. Some tools are more socially acceptable or pro-social than others but all human behavior is an attempt at resilience and safety within a given environment or situation. That's true regardless of whether you have experienced extreme trauma, or had a traumatic brain injury, or any other emotional or psychological injury. Your brain is wired to opt for the most adaptive, resilient response to any given scenario based on the information and skills that have been gathered along the way. Moments of fight, flight, freeze or fawn(an attempt to stay safe by appeasing others) are examples of the brain’s instinctual, survival response to stressful or traumatic situations. 


How is resilience important in the work that you do? 

Resilience is transforming our pain, struggles or challenges into a source of strength, power and confidence. It's a process of moving from feeling like a victim of our pain to feeling a sense of empowerment and identity based on the things that we've been through. That’s where I center my clinical, group, and community practice.

There is a conception that some people are more resilient than others, and there is a big question around what makes one person more resilient than another. This very question signals a value judgment on individuals that negates their developed skill set for safety and survival and their expertise based upon their own experience. This question also perpetuates an oppressive societal paradigm where one must show up with socially acceptable behaviors to be integrated into the institutional human service systems established over many generations. It assumes that there's something wrong with the individual, not something wrong with the society. What's the measurement of somebody's resilience? Is it their capacity to function in our society? Whose society is our society? As an example, I work with many young men who have been living with untreated PTSD. They have all been diagnosed with ADHD (Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder) and/or ODD (Oppositional Defiant Disorder). They have all performed poorly in our mainstream academic settings and they all believe that they are not good at school and have either dropped out of high school or are at a high risk for dropping out. I would love for our society to see people as differently resilient and move out of a paradigm that judges, exiles and disempowers individuals, whether intentionally or unintentionally. We need to start assuming that, when a student is “failing” it actually means that our schools and institutionalized “support” systems are actually failing to see that child’s strengths and failing to integrate that individual’s brilliance and skill set into the community. This is an endeavor that will benefit the dominant groups and marginal groups equally within our society. 

For every choice that every person has made, their nervous system deems that choice to be the most resilient choice for them based on their life experiences and the options laid out in front of them. We can choose to define any action as a resilient action. All behaviors are an attempt to adapt, stay safe and thrive. At the CFR, we focus on the following questions; Who is this person? Who are the folks within this group of people? Who are the people within this community? How have they been resilient? The clinical approach at CFR makes the unwavering assumption that every person has been incredibly resilient in their lives, even if they've taken in endless overt and covert messages that suggest the contrary. We honor the resilience that a person brings, we honor the innate resilience and adaptability in EVERY group and community, even if we do not like or understand the behavioral patterns and choices, we honor that we are NOT the experts on the process of resilience and adaptability in the lives, groups or communities of others. We honor each person's expertise based on their own experience, and then we build off of that.  

As we create safe spaces together and experiences and opportunities that offer a different array of  options that feel good, a person’s nervous system will deem a most resilient or adaptive choice for that individual. Instead of, ‘What's wrong with you?’ we move to what happened to you and what is your experience? How do we come together to cultivate reparative experiences? How do we generate access to new experiences that are going to give your brain the opportunity to discover additional adaptive responses and resilience tools? My work is really about offering young people the opportunity to co-create a new generative, community experience that meets them in a new way. Individual therapy supports the nervous system in feeling safe enough to open up to experiences and connections so a person can feel a sense of ownership, deep connection, leadership and sovereignty. Once the groups are established and solidified, participants naturally seek to engage in more and more spaces and experiences that will allow for new neural pathways to be developed.


How has this strength-based, resilience-focused approach especially poignant in your work with young people in Holyoke?  

We come with a foundational belief that when we offer spaces and experiences with options that feel like love, connection, leadership and community, that a person is going to continue to grow exponentially in their resilience. We can come from a strengths-based perspective and view an individual or community as innately resilient and adaptive. My practice is centered around supporting young people moving into adulthood and beginning to root down into their adult identities. A lot of the young people I work with have experienced extensive institutional trauma. They've had a lot of narratives projected upon them from society about their capacity as learners, workers, friends, family members, etc. They've been put in that negative category of functioning against our societal standards and norms. The demographic I work with have intersecting identities and many of those identities have been “othered” in our society. They have been deemed the “less resilient” group. When you have a lot of adversity and there are limited spaces where you feel like you can access support and really share about what's going on for you, it can be very isolating. 

  The way that we frame resilience at CFR is really rooted in the ideology that kids who have been through so much and are still standing have so much to offer our community. They are the experts on resilience and survivorship. Without that focus, we're exiling and completely missing out on all of this information that they bring. We engage young people as experts on their story, experts on their healing. We are really interested in restoring their power to them and creating reparative experiences. 


What is the relationship between resilience and ownership?  

When a person's resilience is honored instead of pathologized, one can begin the process of transforming pain into power. CFR offers spaces for young people that are focused on cultivating a sense of belonging and ownership. The professional “experts” must effectively decentralize themselves and switch the power dynamics in order for this to happen. If we asked students, “Do you feel a sense of ownership of your school?”, a vast majority of them would say not at all. As therapists, how do we write up a treatment plan or give a diagnosis and then simultaneously meet the client where they're at? There's a way to reframe the process of labeling pathologies where a clinician could say, “I'm describing the symptoms that you’re experiencing right now, and we write this treatment plan together and it's informed by your personal goals”. We have to meet people where they are at. Ownership is a pushback on the agenda of our systems. If we want young people, or anyone, to engage, we have to really drop our agenda, listen and support with a wholehearted belief in each individual's innate capacity to navigate and to heal. If we truly embody those beliefs, the person or people that we are working with will come to see that capacity more and more in themselves. 

The majority of young people I work with are recovering from PTSD and adverse childhood experiences. In conjunction with that reality there is an often repetitive experience of having their power either taken away or dishonored. Oftentimes the most adaptive response for people is to absolutely refuse to let anybody power over them, which often looks like social anxiety, oppositional defiant behavior, hopelessness and helplessness. I saw that early on and really wanted to think about how we can nourish a culture that honors sovereignty. There is a culture of violence that is gaining momentum in our society and I truly believe that these acts of violence are very often attempts at regaining a sense of power or sovereignty. If one grows up with a lived experience that they must fight for their respect and if they do not they may come to feel completely invisible, they will fight, any human with an instinct to survive and thrive would. In group work and supporting students in school settings it became very much about deconstructing archaic aspects of the power hierarchy. This idea of honoring young people as the experts of their own experience and looking to them for guidance on how we can do better is actively turning the power hierarchy upside down and having young people being placed as the leaders and experts. That is a way to really overturn some of the incessant dynamics of White Supremacy in our schools. I also want to mention that there are some organizations making great efforts in this arena. However, there is still a great struggle to engender trust between many young people and service systems or organizations. This is where peer leadership is essential. This is where professional providers would do well to use their knowledge and resources to create spaces and experiences that allow them to get out of the way while communities of young people engage in their hard-wired capacity to heal themselves and their communities from the effects of trauma and adversity. I make it a practice to attempt to turn everything that I want to say into a question. never assuming that I know what is right or true. This practice has proven to be consistently profound and expansive. 

As I have said earlier, in the healing spaces that encourage sovereignty, it is imperative that we decentralize “the professional.” I’ve been very lucky to have witnessed the development of some remarkable youth leaders in Holyoke over the last 13 years. I'm now at a point where in a group setting, I always have a number of young people in the room who are excellent facilitators and offer an unwavering therapeutic presence.  There's a lot of data and lived experience in these groups  that has nothing to do with my role but can be brought out safely if I do my role in a way that honors the sovereignty of individuals and members of the group. 


What is the relationship between resilience and well-being?

Wellbeing is where you reside in your innate sense of power that can't be taken from you. I often talk about two kinds of power in this human experience. There is one kind of power that we must protect, fight for, earn and maintain, a power that we believe can be taken from us. The second kind of power is an innate, inborn, unquestionable power. I often use the word sovereignty when I am speaking of that second type of power. When we embody this innate power, it is unwavering, it is honoring of this innate power in others and it is infectious. When a person embodies this kind of power and they enter a room, everyone in the room feels honored and empowered as well. There is phenomenal neuroscience to back up what I am talking about here but suffice it to say that an embodied sense of sovereignty, safety, well being and collectivity may be the most powerful healing force that I have encountered. 

A person can, and likely will develop very strong and nuanced resilience muscles and still not have a sense of well-being. Resilience is born from an endeavor to find and maintain one’s power and a sense of safety. We do not find sovereign power without an awareness of and gratitude for our many brilliant resilience factors, skills, tools and patterns. Once the nervous system can engage its best resilience skills to maintain a perceived sense of safety as a baseline, once the system realizes it’s capacity to self regulate and evolve through adversity, that is when a sense of well-being begins to manifest. Resilience can happen with or without a sense of well-being. When resilience focused behaviors lead to a sense of connection, safety and one’s innate, unwavering power and inner knowing, that is when we really find the gold in the process. Having access to spaces in life where there is a sense of wellbeing, connection and honor are essential in order for one’s sovereign power to come alive. It’s been my passion and mission to support the development of more and more spaces like this in Holyoke, in the surrounding areas, nationally and ultimately across the planet.


Leave a Comment