Nadine Burke Harris is the founder and CEO of the Center for Youth Wellness in San Francisco’s Bayview-Hunters Point district. She is the author of The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity, and her TED talk “How Childhood Trauma Affects Health Across the Lifetime” has been viewed over three million times. Before taking part in a Zócalo Public Square event titled “Does Childhood Trauma Live In The Body Forever?” at the National Center for the Preservation of Democracy in Little Tokyo in downtown Los Angeles, she spoke in the green room about mental illness in her family, thinking about San Francisco while working in Haiti, and what’s most Jamaican about her.
What do you do to decompress?
I meditate. I spend time with my husband and my kids. I go for walks. And I shop. Clothes.
Are you a little bit of a clothes horse?
Did you, or anyone close to you, have a personal connection to the kind of trauma that you’ve spent so much time researching and treating?
Absolutely, I think we all do. That’s part of the reason why I wrote the book, is because I think all of us are one degree of separation from a person with really significant adverse childhood experiences.
Can you tell me about the personal one?
Well, I actually write about it a little bit in the book, at the very end of the book. My own experience was growing up with mental illness with my mom. And that was a really very difficult and scary and challenging situation. And I feel very grateful that I’ve had lots of wonderful supports in my life. But it was definitely a motivator for me when I saw what my patients were going through, to really try to understand how we can break the cycle and change outcomes for folks.
What do you feel most connected to about your Jamaican heritage?
Oh, my goodness! The music and the food. Actually, the thing that is most Jamaican about me is, Jamaicans have this bizarrely optimistic self-confidence. I don’t know if you’ve seen Usain Bolt, where he’s like [Burke Harris strikes a triumphal pose], ‘I’m the best!’ Jamaicans, we believe that we can do anything.
Well, if it goes well tonight, you can do your victory dance for us.
Where does that confidence come from?
Honestly, I have no idea. But it is pervasive throughout the country, that we are a real go-get-’em, we think that we’re the best country of people.
Was there a teacher or professor who really influenced you?
It was Faye Morrison, and I actually thanked her in the acknowledgements to my book. She was my fifth- and sixth-grade teacher at Ohlone Elementary School in Palo Alto. The two things I always wanted to do, when I was growing up, was to be a doctor and be a writer, and I thought that I had given up that writing path. But she really mentored me and encouraged my love of reading and writing.
What are you reading for pleasure right now?
My last couple of books that I read were Hunger, by Roxane Gay—oh, it was so good! She’s the most artful writer. It’s a thing of beauty the way that she puts these sentences together and connects these words. For me, having just written my first book, it’s like, ‘How does she do that?’ It’s unbelievable. My other favorite books are actually some of the authors who were kind enough to write blurbs about my work: Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance—I couldn’t put it down. Just Mercy, I finished it and then I went back and read it again, because I loved the experience of going on that journey with Bryan Stevenson.
I know you’ve told this story before, but how did your work bring you and your husband together?
It’s so funny. I definitely would say that this research and this science was a big motivator for me to marry my husband. Because when we talk about safe, stable, and nurturing relationships, he is that for me. He just makes my day. Even just now, I was on the phone with him, in the car on the way over. But interestingly there’s a circular nature to that, because my husband is an entrepreneur, and he’s also been a coach for me in going through the process of starting an organization and leading a movement, and he is my absolute No. 1 biggest cheerleader. I definitely could not have accomplished the book, the work, without his cheerleading and his guidance.
Are the qualities in him, in that kind of person, that you would recommend we look for in a partner?
What was powerful about when I met my husband was that he’s not a perfect person, none of us are. But he’s so extraordinarily committed to honest and open and kind communication. He’s also hilarious. We have four boys, and he is a kid! Like a lot of the things that we do with our little ones, I’m like, ‘Who is enjoying this more, you or the boys?!’ And I also find smarts and intellect very sexy, so that was the number one thing that hooked me.
How do you like being a mom?
I love it, it’s so joyful. My husband had to convince me not to have one more.
You work in San Francisco, but you have devoted your career to working in poor areas of it. How do you process that?
So in 2010, after the earthquake in Haiti, I went down there, and I was working in the general hospital in Port-au-Prince. And I was looking around and I was seeing these kids, and I was seeing them having these terrible outcomes; kids were dying. And we were in Haiti, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, and I remember standing there in the middle of Haiti, and feeling burning outrage that a mom in Haiti who has four kids may expect two of them to grow up to adulthood, and a mom in Bayview-Hunters Point who has four kids may expect two of them to grow up to adulthood outside of incarceration—if she’s lucky. How did that happen in one of the richest cities in the world? It just fills me with burning outrage. It makes me so angry that in this incredibly wealthy city we can’t meet the basic needs, we can’t provide a safe start for every child. What are our priorities?
Where would you most like to travel next?
India. My husband has spent a fair amount of time in India and he just loves it. And I’m excited to experience the culture. As an immigrant to the U.S., there’s something about these warm, family-friendly, messy cultures that I just love.