Laura van Dernoot Lipsky
Laura van Dernoot Lipsky is the founder and director of The Trauma Stewardship Institute and author of Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others and The Age of Overwhelm. Widely recognized as a pioneer in the field of trauma exposure, she has worked locally, nationally, and internationally for more than three decades.
Laura found her calling at age 18, when she regularly spent nights volunteering in a homeless shelter. She went on to work with survivors of child abuse, domestic violence, sexual assault, acute trauma of all kinds, and natural disasters. Simultaneously, she has long been active in community organizing and movements for social and environmental justice and has taught on issues surrounding systematic oppression and liberation theory.
A decade into her career, Laura experienced what can best be described as a near-psychotic break—which, she came to realize, was the result of years of witnessing and being intimately involved in trauma while lacking insight into how to sustain herself amidst such conditions. As a part of her attempt to come back from the brink, she began a journey of inquiry into the lasting effects on both individuals and communities of exposure to the suffering, hardship, crisis, or trauma endured by humans, other living beings, or the planet itself.
Since then, Laura has worked with groups as diverse as zookeepers and reconstruction workers in post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans, community organizers and health care providers in Japan, U.S. Air Force pilots, Canadian firefighters, public school teachers, private practice doctors, tiny non-profits, massive state agencies, libraries, the Pentagon, alternative colleges, and Ivy League universities. Much of her work is being invited to assist in the aftermath of community catastrophes whether they are fatal storms or mass shootings.
Increasingly, the issues surrounding trauma have attracted the attention of private corporations as well. Facebook sought her out to consult with their teams, and film and television companies have asked her to educate actors, screenwriters, and production staff on the consequences of replicating trauma on screen.
Laura became one of the first in the field to talk publicly about the profound price that the witnessing of mass extinctions, potentially irreversible ecological losses caused by global warming, or other forms of human encroachment is exacting from the individuals and organizations who are attempting to save our planet. The environmental community has embraced Laura’s work. She has met with some of the world’s preeminent ecologists and been invited to serve on the boards of several environmental groups.
The book, Trauma Stewardship, was written at the request of fellow colleagues. In 2005, she traveled to post-Katrina New Orleans to help in the aftermath. As Laura was coming to the end of her time there, residents asked if she had anything in writing to leave for them. She did not, but the palpable need for resources on trauma exposure compelled her to collaborate with others to write and independently publish Trauma Stewardship in 2007. Several thousand copies were sold out of her basement. The book immediately was nominated for and received international award recognition and went on to become a bestseller.
In 2010, Berrett-Koehler Publishers asked to publish a revised edition of her book. Laura prioritized pitching a wider tent to assure the book was relevant for the countless caregivers in homes and communities as well as increasing the relevance for those doing frontline work in environmental and conservation movements around the world.
Through word of mouth, Trauma Stewardship has sold more than 188,000 copies. From being referenced as part of a discussion on the plight of Pakistani writers in the New York Times to its inclusion in yoga-teacher trainings to it being required reading in more workplaces and educational institutions than can be listed, its influence has touched individuals and groups throughout the world.
The book’s concepts continue to evolve under the rubric of The Trauma Stewardship Institute, which Laura established in 2011. In March 2015, Laura was invited to give a TED talk—one of the first delivered inside a women’s correctional facility.
Over time, Laura began to recognize that the sense of overwhelm familiar in the fields in which she was working was spreading—permeating society and visible in folks young and old, from all walks of life. In The Age of Overwhelm¸ published in 2018, Laura builds on her work in trauma to offer a resource to those who are experiencing a sense of overwhelm that may stem from inherent external or internal forces; families, school, or work; or the unique environment in which they’re living. Drawing from three decades of experience, her own research, and personal observations, Laura has prepared an inclusive and practical guide to help people recognize, navigate, and ease the burden of overwhelm in their daily lives.
Laura founded and served as director of a Spanish-language preschool guided by a curriculum in social and environmental justice. She is on the advisory board of ZGiRLS, an organization that supports young girls in sports. She is a founding member of the International Transformational Resilience Network, which supports the development of capacity to address climate change. Laura also served as an associate producer of the award-winning film A Lot Like You, and was given a Yo! Mama award in recognition of her work as a community-activist mother.
We have the privilege of helping people who are affected by cancer. While being able to share the most up-to-date, evidence based information with people about often emotionally charged topics is an honor, it can certainly take its toll on our staff.
I left our work with Laura feeling rejuvenated, challenged (in all the good ways), and excited to implement the concrete strategies that Laura suggested. Supporting staff and opening up conversation about secondary trauma is a must in the work that we do, and Laura was an invaluable resource in helping us learn new ways of creating a culture of sustainability, which is an ongoing effort.
I would highly recommend her to any organization or company working in health care, and would strongly encourage her consulting services from both the management and staff perspective.