In January 2015, business, government, community and philanthropic leaders who formed the ACE Awareness Center (now the ACE Awareness Foundation) released the results of a survey of Memphis and Shelby County residents about the incidence of ACEs in the population. Vince Felitti, one of the principal investigators of the original ACE study, provided technical assistance. The mayors of Memphis City and Shelby County declared Memphis would not sacrifice another generation of young people to ACEs. The state’s First Lady, Crissy Haslam, prompted then Tennessee Department of Children’s Services (DCS) Commissioner (later Deputy Governor) Jim Henry to attend the meeting. This experience made a lasting impression about the benefits of prevention of ACEs on quality of life contrasted with the human and financial costs of interventions after the fact.

At about the same time, Robert Anda, the other principal investigator of the original ACEs study, was invited to address a convening of leaders from each of three branches of state government known as the Three Branches Institute (3BI) and other leaders from across the state, including Deputy Governor Jim Henry. Dr. Anda put the original research in the contemporary contexts of brain imaging and of genetics and epigenetics. Underwritten by Casey Family Programs, 3BI proposed a summit be organized about ACEs-related activities occurring statewide. Originally intended to have a two-year horizon when it was started in the summer of 2012, 3BI continued through 2018 with support from Casey Family Programs, which has provided many opportunities for Tennessee to make contributions at multi-state and national levels of interest in the Institute and Building Strong Brains Tennessee.

With invitations from the Governor, First Lady, Deputy Governor and his wife to state and local government officials, community leaders, academia, faith community, philanthropists, trade associations and business, the first “Tennessee ACEs Summit” occurred on November 12, 2015. It served as the kick-off to the robust set of activities that eventually became Building Strong Brains Tennessee. The summit provided the audience with early exposure to the FrameWorks Institute, brain science and communication science. The kick-off created the impetus for goal-directed efforts to address, prevent and mitigate the effects of ACEs statewide.

As Building Strong Brains Tennessee was taking shape, momentum was building throughout Tennessee, in rural areas as well as the larger cities. Among the early and formative activities were these:

  • A Tri-Cities coalition of organizations who practice the same service-based technique resulted from the establishment of a Johnson City/Washington County Family Justice Center. The partners devised a plan to train local agencies with material from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)’s National Center for Trauma Informed Care (NCTIC). In October 2015, 383 professionals attended a presentation from the NCTIC director at East Tennessee State University (ETSU), demonstrating the growing interest in the region. The momentum that built in those early years in Johnson City remains strong, as the partnerships formed have continued to do great work both within and outside the framework of Building Strong Brains Tennessee.
  • Fall 2015 marked the launch of Grundy County’s Discover Together Community Ambassador program. Discover Together Grundy is a partnership among Scholastic Publishers, Sewanee: The University of the South, the Yale Child Study Center, and the community of Grundy County designed to build family resilience through programs focused on place, community, and literacy.
  • The Metropolitan Nashville Public Health Department, in partnership with local nonprofits The Family Center and Prevent Child Abuse Tennessee, became founding member organizations of All Children Excel (ACE) Nashville. Born out of the Community Health Improvement Plan (CHIP), ACE Nashville was a response to the city’s priority of supporting mental and emotional health through the promotion of positive parenting and violence-free homes. This original goal has grown into a more comprehensive vision to use a collective impact model and public health approach to improve health and well-being at the population level in Davidson County.
  • Tennessee Department of Health (TDH) included optional ACEs questions in the Behavioral Risk Factors Surveillance Survey (BRFSS), which yielded a snapshot of a state experiencing the effects of trauma and its inter-generational transmission, motivating staff from the department’s Division of Family Health and Wellness to place a greater emphasis on recognizing childhood trauma as the public health issue it is. With the issuance of ACEs: Fact NOT Fate in 2015, TDH was at the forefront of spreading public awareness of the impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences, and the crucial role resilience plays in mitigating this impact. The one-time publication catalogues the prevalence in Tennessee of ACEs, negative health outcomes and risky behaviors associated with them.

In the short time since that catalyzing summit, Building Strong Brains Tennessee has become a national model for states striving to be more ACEs/trauma-informed. An extensive partnership with the Frameworks Institute yielded significant advances in the field of communication science, specifically around early childhood policy. In partnership with the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard, the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, FrameWorks Institute, the Yale Child Studies Center, Working for Kids©, and key state and local experts, The Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth (TCCY) developed a Training for Trainers curriculum to raise multisector and geographically diverse awareness of the impact of ACEs and strategies to prevent and mitigate them, and to create and promote a common language among Tennesseans for discussing these issues.

Momentum continued to build, as Building Strong Brains Tennessee remained a priority for both Governor Haslam and the Tennessee General Assembly. Consecutive years of inclusion in the state budget enables Building Strong Brains Tennessee to fund unique ACEs Community Innovation projects throughout the state.