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Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Sarah Marikos of ACE Resource Network Is Helping To Change Our World

It is important to listen and learn, but it is also important to speak up and provide insight when you have the knowledge and expertise. I wish I had been encouraged to speak out more.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sarah Marikos.

Sarah Marikos, MPH is an epidemiologist, with a background in public health and an understanding of health inequities and their root causes. As the Executive Director of ACE Resource Network, Sarah led the launch of NumberStory.org, the first national public awareness and education campaign on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), childhood trauma, and other forms of childhood adversity that increase the risk for poor health outcomes and educational challenges. Sarah has a master’s in public health in epidemiology from San Diego State University; two bachelor’s degrees in Interdisciplinary Studies and Geography from UC Berkeley; and is also a Human Impact Partners’ health equity fellow.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

As a young child, I observed how wildly different the environment and experiences were for me and other kids around me. Whether it was at school, in my neighborhood, or where we spent time, I could see the differences in the positives and negatives that my friends and I faced growing up. I remember my dad — a teacher — tell me that many of the students at his school had never seen the ocean, despite his school being just a mile from the ocean. I couldn’t make sense of this as a kid. Once in college, it was clear to me as I saw friends struggle with addictions to opioids and other drugs, that for many, those issues arose from what they had experienced as children, and that they carried the hurt and trauma from those experiences into adulthood, which manifested in a new set of challenges.

Those experiences prompted me to enter the field of public health and epidemiology because I wanted to better understand what harms us and what can help us. I learned a great deal from the CDC and Kaiser study done in the mid-1990s on adverse childhood experiences — or ACEs. This landmark study told us that childhood adversity is common; and that two out of three of us experience some form of abuse or neglect as children; or grow up in a household with someone with a mental illness or substance use problem; witness domestic violence; have our parents or caregivers divorce or separate; or have a household member incarcerated.

The study also told us about the cumulative effect of ACEs, the toxic stress it creates in our bodies, and on the health conditions that can result such as heart disease, cancer, stroke, depression, anxiety, COPD, colds, viral illnesses — I could go on and on.

This study served to validate many of my life experiences and helped me better understand so many of the epidemiological patterns I was studying and seeing. This has shaped my life’s work and what motivates me every day to do everything that I can to help prevent childhood trauma, while supporting children and families who have experienced it or are experiencing it.

Tell us an interesting story that happened to you since you began leading the company or the organization(s).

What I have been really struck by over the last couple of years since we launched NumberStory.org and the ‘Story of Your Number’ campaign to raise awareness of ACEs and childhood adversity, is that every person that I have spoken with about childhood adversity, trauma, and our goals to raise awareness, gets it. I have spoken with thousands of people; from organizations large and small, to neighbors, to strangers that I meet in the park, and I have found such universal receptivity from people on this issue.

I think the pandemic was undoubtedly part of the reason. The increased stressors to families, children and people overall brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the other collective traumas many people and communities experienced, created more of an openness to conversation on trauma, mental health, and other topics that have been stigmatized, or just not discussed. One of the outcomes of this has been an openness to look at trauma in a new and different way.

There is not a single person that I have connected with, whether personally or professionally, who does not understand how critically important it is to understand the science and impacts of childhood adversity and how it can literally get under our skin.

Is there any one person or one story that stands out to you that was really an “Aha” moment for them?

I remember speaking with someone who had learned about ACEs and childhood trauma through our campaign. They told me how it made them rethink everything about their childhood and their life and family for the better, because it helped them understand their family, which had been a real pain point for them.

That was a meaningful moment for me because this was someone a bit older than me who had been carrying a lot of that trauma and hurt throughout much of their life but did not know how to connect the dots back to their childhood. Once they did, their outlook, perspective, and approach changed.

It was a powerful “a-ha” moment for them, as well as for me. After being on the fence about getting professional help, they were ready to take the next step and see a therapist.

While therapy is not the answer for everyone, it is for many. Among the common impacts of ACEs are mental health conditions including anxiety and depression. So, for me to see this person have a breakthrough moment to better understand her family and her own history and find the freedom to seek therapy for the first time was powerful for me.

Can you share a story about a funny mistake that you might’ve made when you were first starting out — what was the lesson that you learned from that?

Sarah did not have a “funny mistake or moment” that was relevant to share based on the subject matter of this piece.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

The original study by the CDC and Kaiser that identified ACEs and their impacts was published more than 25 years ago. If the public understood then not only how childhood adversity can literally get under our skin but also how it can impact us for a lifetime, and that there are ways to lessen those impacts, I think things would be dramatically different today.

ACE Resource Network’s NumberStory.org and its ‘Story of Your Number’ campaign launched in 2021 and was the first national public awareness and education campaign to shine a light on ACEs and toxic stress and its impacts since that landmark study was conducted 25+ years ago.

Through a public service campaign, social media, partnerships with celebrities, influencers, and organizations, podcasts and press efforts, and a website designed to serve as an information and resource hub, we had more than two billion potential views, with over 10 million direct engagements. Along the way, we have connected with hundreds of thousands of people by sharing stories that help reduce the stigma of childhood trauma and adversity, while providing hope and healing, and for many, a path forward.

Over the next two years, we plan to launch a more targeted public awareness campaign in Sacramento, in Northern California, and invest in community support to build resiliency and prevent and reduce childhood adversity. This new place-based strategy will focus on groups who experience a higher burden of childhood adversity due to structural factors that drive inequities. We will also continue our work towards nationwide awareness, education, healing, and hope — largely through strategic partnerships, innovative communications, and powerful storytelling.

We have an opportunity to increase awareness for this generation, that can affect change in the next generation and break the cycle of generational trauma. That is a big part of our work as well. But in the meantime, I am proud of the work that we have done thus far to close the 25-year knowledge gap about ACEs and am equally excited of the work that we have planned, as more and more of those in the medical community, public and private sectors rally in support of families and children who have experienced trauma.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

Because I believe deeply in the power of storytelling as a way to heal and connect, one of the ways that we have reached people over the past year was through spoken word poetry and a partnership with Get Lit.

During a presentation I made recently, I shared a poem from that initiative. The poem was by a young woman named Marquesha Babers. After the presentation a woman came up to me and said, “I am 57 years old, and I saw my story in Marquesha’s. That was my life.”

The woman proceeded to tell me that she was homeless as a child, moved in and out of different homes — sometimes living out of the family car. She struggled in school, did not always know where she was going to sleep one night to the next, or where her next meal would come from. She was placed into special programs, experienced violence in her community and at home.

And while Marquesha was 30 years younger, this woman connected with her story and made her feel that she was not alone, which gave her hope that she was doing the right things and was on a path to healing. Through Marquesha’s words she found validation that she was not ‘broken’. Rather that there were reasons why some things were harder for her through no fault of her own. This is just one example among many, of individuals who have connected with our message.

Are there 3 things that community, society, and/or politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

There are so many things that community and policy makers can do, and both working together are critical to address the root causes of childhood adversity, while also working towards identifying, responding to, and ultimately preventing childhood adversity.

To improve our nation’s health and wellbeing requires an uncompromising political will to do so, along with a true understanding of just how common and far-reaching childhood adversity and trauma are.

ACEs affect our health and mental wellbeing. They affect our children’s ability to learn in school and can lead to harmful consequences that many of us experience as adults in our jobs, relationships, and families.

Once we have established a level of understanding and awareness, I think policy makers can begin to look at real solutions to address the root causes of childhood adversity, and fund and support more safe and stable environments for children to thrive.

We are helping to advance efforts in this area through our support of Pathways to Resilience, a national effort to identify best practices and trauma responsive policies and programs in states across the country. The initiative is being driven by the first spouses of seven states who are leading efforts to improve the quality of life for children and families at the state level.

For example, there are effective programs and practices at the state level within the criminal legal system, in healthcare, education and social services. Pathways to Resilience seeks to harness those best practices where states are leading the way and bring leaders together to learn from one another and work towards the same goal.

And parents and caregivers can make a huge difference as well. ACE Resource Network recently partnered with the American Society for the Positive Care of Children to produce an ACEs-informed toolkit for parents and caregivers of children 0–5 years old. The purpose of the toolkit is to help parents better understand the impact of childhood adversity on ourselves and on our children and what we can do to better support our children. By learning how to recognize the signs and symptoms of stress and trauma, and by providing that safe, stable environment that children need, we can effect real change and help reduce the generational cycles of trauma.

How do you define leadership?

There are many qualities that make a good leader. They must be good listeners and be able to understand different perspectives and points of view.

A leader must also be able to consider all the information that is available to them and make the best decisions possible. Which is why it is also important when leading a team, to be able to articulate not just the “what” but also the “why” — that is, both the vision and the strategic thinking behind it.

For example, in our preparation to launch the “Story of Your Number” campaign, we spent a significant amount of time speaking with experts, and examining data from different sources, after which we devised a campaign that the team really loved and was excited about.

We then brought the campaign to various people including those with lived experiences and experts in the field for feedback and learned that there were some important pieces that our campaign had missed.

It was clear to me that we needed to take a step back, listen to the new feedback, and reconsider our approach. The decision to pause, re-think and re-tool was not an easy one. And for some members of the team, it proved to be somewhat disappointing. But once we came together as a team to talk through what worked and what did not work, we ended up turning what could have been a defeating moment for the team into an energizing and inspiring opportunity to challenge and question our original assumptions. This led to the “Story of Your Number” campaign that we launched in 2021 with resounding success.

I think a good leader also encourages learning among the staff and team members, with the understanding that people learn in different ways. When there are shared opportunities for learning, and when we create space for deep learning around important and relatable topics such as how poverty impacts us as children and how discrimination based on our identities can lead to the same or similar outcomes as ACEs, then that increases our ability to do a better job as a team because we have established a shared understanding.

I also like to facilitate meetings and conversations and strategic planning that is inclusive of all team members because I think that it not only leads to the best thinking, but it also creates a culture of trust, and creates the most buy-in for where we are going and the most enthusiasm for the work that we are doing. I also find that when a leader assembles a team with different backgrounds and professional expertise, you end up with your best thinking. That is critically important, especially when trying to solve a problem like childhood adversity.

5 things you wish someone had told you when you first started and a story or example for each one?

I am an epidemiologist by training and when I was young and first started working, I often found that I was the only epidemiologist in the room among medical and other professionals. It was intimidating, and like a lot of young people, I held back from speaking up, even on topics that I knew well as an epidemiologist.

It is important to listen and learn, but it is also important to speak up and provide insight when you have the knowledge and expertise. I wish I had been encouraged to speak out more.

It is also important to take small and calculated risks. This took me a little longer to learn because as a scientist we tend to be very methodical in our approach. Meanwhile, the world is moving at lightning speed. So, I learned to balance thoughtful, slower processes with calculated risk-taking and test and try things quickly and learn from it.

For those starting their careers, particularly in the areas of science and health, I think it is important to allow yourself the opportunity to celebrate the victories — even the small ones. For many of us, the work that we do can be really heavy, it can feel endless at times because it seems there is always more work to be done.

It’s important for the morale of our teams and for ourselves, to take note of the daily achievements made collectively and as individuals. As team leaders, we need to take the time to acknowledge the good work, the effort, the dedication, and the progress that is being made against the greater goals.

We launched the ‘Story of Your Number’ campaign about a year ago and on the one-year anniversary of the launch, I made it a priority to spend the day reaching out to members of the team individually with personal notes and messages, with a call, text, or photo to acknowledge all the hard work and the successes of the last 12 months. For me, it was important to not only say thank you, but also recognize each person’s unique contribution, because we could not have done it without their input and support. The one-year anniversary was as much about celebrating NumberStory.org as it was about celebrating each of them.

This puts a spotlight on the importance of teamwork and partnership. For many of us, knowing when to reach out for help in a work environment can be one of the hardest things to do. But we need to remember that our best work is done when we work together.

When I first started out, I thought government and academia were the only career paths for someone with training in public health. I came to learn that there are lots of ways to make a difference, professionally and personally. Philanthropy, for example, is an incredible means to advance social justice and change the world for millions of people because it can adapt, react, and respond more easily. It has been a highlight of my career to experience this through the ACE Resource Network.

When philanthropic partners team with other leaders, stakeholders, communities, and organizations, I truly believe we can transform communities and lives. Philanthropic initiatives can bring both speed and innovation to an issue. What we have been able to accomplish through ACE Resource Network and our partners in the span of one year to create a level of awareness for one of the most pervasive health crises our society is facing is extraordinary. Our mission to educate and positively change social norms that reduce violence and childhood adversity has only just begun, and through continued partnership we look forward to building on the momentum.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I am grateful to have had the opportunity to work to advance social justice in this country through naming and addressing the root determinants of childhood adversity and trauma.

I would love to be part of a movement that continues to evolve our cultural understanding of violence and adversity particularly as it impacts children and young people. I want to be part of a movement that advances our society’s understanding of structural violence; how violence spreads and how violence and trauma affects our biology and our health.

With a broader understanding of the impacts of childhood trauma, adversity, and violence, I think we could see a cultural shift as a country that dramatically changes the lives and futures of children and families.

But we must first shift the cultural understanding of violence, which is under-recognized and under-appreciated for all of its forms — both direct and indirect. As a country and a society, we cannot continue to put band aids on the structural violence so many communities experience and expect to see any meaningful change over the long term.

Life lesson quote that really drives you?

There is a quote that I have shared with my team, and it comes from a poem by Gwendolyn Brooks, and I have always found the words to be motivating. It reads: “We are each other’s harvest. We are each other’s business. We are each other’s magnitude and bond.”

I believe in those words and am convinced that as we develop a deeper understanding of trauma, violence, and adversity and how it affects children in particular, we as individuals and as a society will do the things that need to be done to care for and protect children.

Is there a person in the world or the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with and why?

adrienne maree brown’s writing and work has really inspired and helped orient and support me during the last couple of years. She writes a lot about organizing for social justice, radical healing, and collective liberation. The way that adrienne maree brown talks about resilience, organizing, and healing has motivated and inspired me in my work. I would love to share a meal with her and talk about healing, life, and what our world could be.

What’s the best way our readers can follow you online?

Readers can connect with me on LinkedIn @https://www.linkedin.com/in/sarahmarikos/. I also encourage everyone to connect with us @mynumberstory on Instagram to learn more about how to understand and heal from childhood adversity or follow the ACE Resource Network on LinkedIn.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

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Yitzi Weiner

Yitzi Weiner

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A “Positive” Influencer, Founder & Editor of Authority Magazine, CEO of Thought Leader Incubator