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Interview with Alumna Kate Keisel
January 13, 2021

Kate Keisel is the co-founder and CEO of Sanar Institute, which is dedicated to healing individuals and communities impacted by trauma. Kate received her MSW from Rutgers School of Social Work through our Intensive Weekend program. In honor of the program's fifteen-year anniversary, Kate shares her journey to social work, a glimpse into her job at Sanar Institute, and how her work has been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Why did you choose to pursue a career in social work?
I have worked for the duration of my career supporting individuals and communities impacted by trauma. I started my journey working in central Mexico working with survivors of gender-based violence. That path brought me to Washington, D.C. to work directly with individuals impacted by all forms of human trafficking. I worked with an international anti-trafficking organization fora eight years, which was the catalyst that first sparked me to further my formalized education to better support the clients I served. 

As a part of that work, I moved to New Jersey to head a direct services office to support individuals exiting human trafficking. The satellite office focused on comprehensive services ranging from crisis response to long-term service provision. While serving as the director of the New Jersey office I made a decision that a career in social work would fundamentally provide me with the tools and skills I needed to best support each individual we served, to process my own lived experiences with trauma, and to support the team I supervised. While it took me many years to decide that social work was the right path, there is not a day that goes by that I am not grateful for the opportunity to continue my education through a Master in Social Work. I use the tools I learned in the Rutgers program and my continuing social work education in every part of my life, and they inform much of the empathic way in which I strive to approach life.

Why did you choose to study at Rutgers School of Social Work, and specifically the Intensive Weekend Program?
When I finally decided that social work was my next educational journey, I went into research mode. I was unsure how I would juggle a full-time job as a director of an anti-trafficking direct services office while also pursuing a master’s degree – not to mention a clinical internship. In my research I came across the Rutgers School of Social Work Intensive Weekend program. In that moment my dream suddenly seemed like it might be attainable. As I read more about the program I realized, while it would be difficult, I was willing to commit three years to complete this program. As I read further I saw the application date was in three days. I worked diligently to complete my application, receive letters of recommendation, and submit all of the necessary documentation. I waited anxiously and was ecstatic to learn I was accepted into the program.

For the next three years I worked daily to complete the clinical internship hours, spent my weekends in class with my cohort (that were critical to my success), and worked full time. The Intensive Weekend program taught me about sacrifice, commitment, time management, and the grit it takes to really want something. It also taught me so much about myself, provided me with invaluable tools to support clients, and humbled me in countless ways. I am forever grateful that the Intensive Weekend program exists as there would be no other way I could have completed my master’s degree.

Tell us about your work as CEO of Sanar Institute.
The Sanar Institute is an NGO that focuses on healing from complex trauma and fostering post-traumatic growth for individuals and communities that have experienced interpersonal violence. I am truly honored to have co-founded the Sanar Institute and serve as the Chief Executive Officer. We were founded with one fundamental belief: that healing from trauma is a fundamental human right. As someone with my own lived experience in trauma healing and as someone that has dedicated my career to understanding posttraumatic growth, I am inspired every day to work at Sanar with a dedicated team of mission-aligned professionals that help us to achieve our vision. In my role I oversee three distinct programs that work in tandem to achieve our organizational mission.

Sanar’s Newark-based Wellness Center provides long-term, trauma-specific services. Sanar’s Clinical Team provides evidence-based, therapeutic, and advocacy support for each individual in their journey to healing. Sanar believes that all individuals impacted by trauma are entitled to the highest level of services regardless of their ability to pay. Our team works to ensure local, national, and global access to evidence-based, inclusive, and trauma-specific healing services is available for individuals, families, and communities throughout their healing trajectory. Sanar also focuses on data collection, analysis, and inclusive definitions of success that are person-centered and trauma-conscious. This has allowed Sanar to identify best practices that are correlated to trauma healing, resiliency, and posttraumatic growth for individuals and communities impacted by complex trauma. 

Our Wellness Center provides direct services to survivors of human trafficking, sexual violence, interpersonal violence, individuals marginalized based on their identification on the LGBTQ+ spectrum, unaccompanied minors, custodial and non-custodial sponsors, families and community groups. These services are facilitated through a suite of person-centered, long-term, and evidence-based trauma healing services that allow individuals to rebuild their lives. These services include one-on-one therapy, group sessions, workshops, and community engagement.

The Sanar Institute also works globally to address the impacts of traumatic events with a specific focus on all forms of human trafficking and exploitation through its Thrive Initiative. This training and technical assistance program has integrated learnings from direct trauma-specific work and identified best practices to build capacity strengthening efforts throughout the United States and hotspot regions across the globe. Our Thrive Initiative has led programs in East Asia, Latin America, and West Africa through collaboration with local NGO partners building wellness and trauma support within their communities. The Sanar Institute focuses on building trauma-conscious and person-centered approaches that honor and integrate the wisdom of lived experience.

Lastly, the Sanar Institute provides customized training and coaching initiatives for frontline staff and organizations working with individuals and communities impacted by complex trauma through its Organizational Wellness Program. Sanar has worked with numerous organizations to develop customized solutions that are scalable, sustainable, and collaboratively created. Sanar’s team has worked chiefly in the areas of trauma and interpersonal violence with a focus on human trafficking, child exploitation, unaccompanied minors, and other vulnerable communities.  Sanar specializes in providing trauma-informed support to professionals who may be exposed to primary or vicarious/secondary trauma in addition to other work-related stressors. The Sanar Institute takes a holistic approach in addressing the complexities of secondary trauma and compassion fatigue that impacts countless professionals throughout allied victim service agencies today. Sanar has identified best practices that reduce the impact of secondary trauma and work-related stressors for professionals at all levels of an organization while focusing on building solutions that are scalable, sustainable, and implemented in a collaborative manner. This approach ensures organizations are equipped with the knowledge, tools and ability to customize, develop, and maintain strong workplaces that foster wellness, person-centered supervision, and excellent trauma-informed client work. 

In 2016, you were chosen to be one of our alumni speakers at the 10th anniversary celebration of the Intensive Weekend program. Tell us about what you’ve been up to since then.  
Since the 10-year anniversary celebration, much of my time has been dedicated to my work with the Sanar Institute. I have been fortunate to continue my education through Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing certification, I traveled to Costa Rica for a multi-week yoga certification program to receive training on how to integrate movement-based healing into my practice, and have worked to continue my own professional growth.  I have also been fortunate to work in Ghana, Haiti, Mexico, the United Kingdom, and India to support communities in trauma healing work. These have been rewarding, exciting, and inspiring opportunities that have facilitated tremendous growth for me as a person, understanding the universality of my lived experiences with trauma, my practice therapeutically, and in my role at Sanar.

In addition, I have worked tirelessly to move towards a healthy work/life balance to ensure there are many parts of me, outside of the social justice space, that are cared for and invested in daily. Prior to COVID, I made it a practice to engage in travel, one of the most impactful ways I have found to connect with myself, grow, and spark creativity. Outside of work, I have been fortunate to visit Turkey, Morocco, Thailand, Cambodia, Japan, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Hungary, Slovenia, Ireland, Mexico, Guatemala, Ecuador (including the Galapagos Islands), and the Dominican Republic. These journeys have been critical in shaping my current self and expanding the horizon of how I hope to grow as a person.

Lastly, I have worked to identify the type of life that is sustainable, grounded in my own values, and centered in joy. My partner, our Chiweenie fur companion, and I live in the mountains where we can hike, enjoy nature, and embrace each day. Working towards this work/life balance and active self-care continues to be an ongoing practice that I strive to maintain – sometimes more gracefully than others.

How has your work changed because of the COVID-19 pandemic?
At Sanar, we were fortunate to have a strong foundation in technology-based service provision to increase service access prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. This infrastructure allowed us to continue our work without disruption. In fact, we have experienced an exponential increase in all three of our core programs. Our team primarily works remotely but also trades off days in the office if appropriate, safe, and necessary to achieve our mission. Moreover, Sanar has worked widely to pivot in-person training support to technology-based solutions through monthly webinars, specialized technology-based training solutions, coaching sessions, case consultation, and comprehensive resource creation and dissemination.

Given the deep wounds and collective trauma from the past year, Sanar also focuses on internal wellness for our team more than ever. Whether it is going on a virtual animal sanctuary tour, getting our own support therapeutically, or building out flexible work schedules, we strive to support each of our team members during this time. I have consistently been inspired by the creativity and unwavering commitment to the social justice space that the Sanar team has led during this global pandemic. 

Is there anything else you’d like us to know about you?
I am very passionate about the inclusion of individuals with lived experience in social justice movements and change. I am deeply dedicated to doing so in a non-tokenizing, inclusive, and trauma-conscious manner. As an individual with my own lived experience, I am also excited to work with individuals and communities to dispel stereotypes that say we are defined by our past traumatic experiences. At Sanar, and in my work as a consultant, I am committed to being a part of expanding the narrative, opportunities, and language that have minimized lived experiences and move towards a non-pathologized lens pertaining to trauma that fully embraces posttraumatic growth resilience and full personhood.

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