Season 2 / Episode 1

How to Influence Systems Change with Dr. Bruce Perry

Advice from Dr. Bruce Perry on shifting narratives and strengthening communities

In this episode we pick up from our conversation in Season 1 with Dr. Bruce Perry to dive deeper into strategies for creating positive change for families. Hear Dr. Bruce Perry give his advice for organizations like the Institute for Family on what it takes to make an impact—from shifting mindsets through storytelling to creating sustainable connections in communities.


Picking up from S1 E3: PEOPLE CHANGE THROUGH STORIES, Matt recalls a compelling statement from Dr. Bruce Perry: 

“If you’re interested in systemic change, we will never change systems…by having traditional public engagement campaigns [or more white paper consensus]…people change through stories.” 

What examples can we find from systems change efforts that used storytelling effectively? 


Matt asks,If our systems are a collection of individuals who make decisions, to address the issues of those who have been marginalized is it about a mass number of people changing through story, or a right select group of people that hold the right power, or some combination of [those options]?Dr. Bruce Perry answers who stories should be shared with.


What changes people’s minds? Dr. Bruce Perry notes how advertisers have learned that cognitive content is best carried on an emotional vehicle: if you can get someone to feel something while they are learning a concept, it will stick.”


Matt and Dr. Bruce Perry discuss how the Institute for Family is making progress with the strategy of storytelling to influence thinking and behaviors. 


Dr. Bruce Perry reflects on the historical impact of storytelling.

“Ultimately, the most efficiently transmitted information is relationally mediated.” 


Matt notes the difference in narrative between the status quo perspective that childhood adversity is an individualistic parenting problem with “bad parents” and the shifting viewpoint that long-term, systemic inequities are part of the issue.  

Matt and Dr. Bruce Perry discuss how this perspective shift changes where the problem is solved.  


Matt and Dr. Bruce Perry talk about the needs and challenges in solving systemic issues through community connectedness. 


If organizations want to create conditions in communities that help families succeed, what can they focus on? 


Dr. Bruce Perry examines society’s expectations on parenting. 

“Parenting is hard even if you have a bunch of people in the house,” says Dr. Bruce Perry. “If you have three kids at three different developmental ages and you need to work full time just to keep you in a crappy apartment, even Mother Teresa would fail at that.” 


To meet family needs, should systems be focused on providing better programs and direct services or on creating better community conditions? 


Dr. Bruce Perry gives advice for family providers and advocates.


Final thoughts from Matt Anderson.

Matt: Hey everybody. This is Matt Anderson. Welcome to Seen Out Loud on this show, we bring you stories and conversations that recognize child welfare transformation starts with seeing families for who they truly are. This is the first episode of our second season. I don’t want to start by saying a few words about this idea of child welfare transformation and why I really want to do this podcast.

So I’m a child welfare professional, but working with kids and families for almost 20 years. And I’ve seen where we can do really incredible work for families. And I’ve seen where we fall short, where I fallen short. And in terms of transformation of creating a better future for families, my philosophy is that it starts with us.

It starts with me. And what I’ve been reminded of so many times is that it’s, people’s stories that have the most to teach us. As Bruce Perry said in season one, “people change through stories” So what I want to do on this show is listen to people’s stories and identify opportunities where we can learn where I can learn and then apply these lessons in our work.

I also want to have conversations with other professionals in the field and learn from their expertise. So that brings me to today’s show where I sit down for a conversation with Dr. Bruce Perry. Bruce is an expert in the field of developmental trauma. I think he has really keen insights into this bridge between individual trauma and system dynamics.

I think Bruce also understands, probably more than most, this relationship between systems change and the importance of a story as strategy for compelling, that change. And that exact topic came up the last time we talked and it’s where I wanted to start today’s conversation. I hope you enjoy it.

What I want it to do to get us started. So I wanted to actually go back to our first conversation from season one of the podcast. There was something that you said in that conversation that really surprised me. So I want to go back to that and start our conversation today with that. So here, here’s what

Bruce: What did I say? Here’s what you said.

Matt: You said, “if you’re interested in systemic change, we will never change systems. By having traditional public engagement campaigns or more white paper consensus.” And then you continued on a little bit and you said “people change through stories.” It was all of that, that really interested and intrigued me.

But particularly that comment about people change through stories. Feel free to start where you’d like with that opening. But my question is around examples that might come to mind. So systemic change efforts that have used storytelling effectively.

Bruce: Sure. You know, I think probably for me, the, the example that comes to mind most quickly is the way the public health messages around HIV and aids were so effectively communicated to the public using stories. 

There was a tremendous amount of fear. I mean, people weren’t letting their kids go to school. If some, if a child had tested positive for HIV and all kinds of just really unhealthy stuff was taking place and people were afraid, there was a lot of misinformation. And one of the things I think that was very important and powerful was when the Hollywood writers got together and said, listen, we’re going to start integrating these themes into soap operas into comedies into feature-length films. 

And what happened was that the storytelling part of our society started to get saturated with stories about the humanity of people that were impacted by HIV. It’s sort of stop demonizing the subject. And it really led to a incredibly rapid transformation in public awareness and public opinion about HIV and aids.

And I think that was really. A wonderful example of how public systems spent millions of dollars, trying to develop conventional public engagement campaigns, right? Billboards on buses and public service announcements. And then they come up with some compromised homogenized set of recommendations. I mean, I’ve been involved in the change process a million times and as part of one of those, you know, usual suspects, commissions, and they get nothing done.

They’ll spend a lot of time. They’ll have some, we’ll write something. It’ll get distributed to people. It’ll sit on shelves for five years and then a new administration will come in and say, the child welfare system sucks. We need to have another commission. And this has happened in every state. Every five years or every four years it’s happened at a federal level multiple times and it’s going on right now?

I think part of what has to happen is the recognition that the system really needs not just tweaking, it needs kind of to get blown up, but it’s hard to do that when there are people that are being served within that system. And so there’s tremendous fear about big change.

Matt: Yeah. Yeah. I think that’s, that’s really well said.

We’re going to come back to that in a little bit in this conversation, because I want to actually dive into the local aspect of what you’re talking about, because I think what you’re describing is yes, very common. And I think. Those sorts of like, let’s build consensus at this commission high federal national level.

It’s too isolated from the ground where the actual work is happening. So it never really translates and it’s too structural in nature. Right. So we’re focusing on the policies and the practices, but we’re not getting at the organizational culture or the narrative. Of the humanity, right? The humanity of the people we’re talking about.

Bruce: And Matt, part of what happens is that the controversial issues that need to be confronted, even though people in the room know about them, they marginalize them because we want to get this piece done. That happens all the time. So that’s why racism is rarely talked about in these big things. But that’s why we create these little silos of policy and practice.

Everybody in the room knows that you can’t meaningfully change this without changing economics, without changing education, without changing other things. But they go, well, this is our part of the task. You know, we don’t have the ability to talk about it, but. We have to stop being like that. I think it’s okay to tell people, if you are part of a commission to say, you know what, these are the things that we’re not good at, and that we haven’t addressed here and that we need to address.

And we might come up with these little tweaky little recommendations, but we got to start telling the truth.

Matt: Yeah. And it’s telling that the truth grounded in the humanity right. Of the story, which is why I think your HIV aids example is such a good one because I personally, I remember that, right. I mean, I, I grew up in the eighties and nineties and I remember the fear.

Like I remember being afraid of the waterfall. In elementary school because of the misinformation that was coming out about how HIV aids is transmitted. And then there was more accurate information, but it was then grounded in stories too. I mean, I remember the quilt, which was sort of the stitching together of the fabric of our community from this place of seeing the fullness of people impacted personally by HIV aids.

And then it impacted my own family when I was in high school. And it makes me think too, of, of marriage equality. As another sort of larger systemic issue impacting certain people. And it wasn’t really, until the story came around, this is not about access to a certain right of marriage. This is about human beings that love each other, just like any other married, couple would love each other.

And we need to make sure that they have access to the same extended set of rights and opportunities that any. Individual would have in this country, but it just seems like these broader movements at the systems level, they do often come back to, can we see the humanity in the person that’s marginalized? And then can we relate to that?

Person’s humanity in a way that says, oh, we really do have to do something different here. And I see that happening and I see that’s where for the child welfare system, maybe we’re so grappling a little bit with the narrative around. So there’s a couple places that we could go with all of that. So in our first conversation, when you said people change their stories, and if our systems are a collection of individuals who make decisions to address the issues of those who have been marginalized, is it about a mass number of people changing through story, or is it about the right select group of people that hold the right power or. Is it some combination of, of that?

Bruce: So you’re asking who, who you should tell your stories to? Well, I think the question you’re asking is really important. You know, the old phrase it’s who, you know, that’s true about a lot of things, but even if you do know the right people and they get the right information, they may not be able to act on it in ways that will lead to significant systemic change.

So I think you kind of have to do both. I think that there should be efforts that are directed at the broad awareness in our society, that everybody should have a certain body of knowledge. About many of these issues that we just don’t have. We don’t systematically teach a lot of these really important things in public education.

We ultimately help kids learn accurate history, learn the power of the biology of connection, for example. And learn about t he power of early developmental experiences. All of these things are really important in our ability to create future leaders who can change our world. So that’s part of this. The other part of it is if you’ve already grown up and you’re out there in a position of influence, what changes your mind?

You kind of look to advertisers. I mean, advertisers have figured out a couple of important things about changing people’s minds. And they’ve learned that cognitive content is best carried on an emotional vehicle. If you can get somebody to feel something while they’re learning a concept, it will stick.

And then it will have more impact than the free-floating fact that I sort of, in my mind, what I’m envisioning is that multiple networks in your brain are kind of being activated by a good story. You know, you’re imagining you’re kind of placing yourself in that position. There’s parts of the lower part of your brain, the affect the emotion of the moment.

There’s cognitive stimulation about sort of factual content and sequential content. So literally it’s a sort of a, if you will, it’s kind of like a total brain experience to hear a good story. And when that happens, your cortex is kind of open for absorbing cognitive content. And so like a very good teacher is also a very good story teller.

Matt: It just makes me think, you know, all of what you said there. So when we started to launch or develop what the Institute for Family was going to be, the first full-time person that we hired was April who you’ve met. Her background is in brand storytelling. That was the first hire, recognizing that what she’s been bringing to the table is what is the science of storytelling in terms of how you get people to change their mind, their thinking, and really change their behaviors based on, I think what you’re saying too, is this combination of what’s the factor of the data, but how do you embed that in a vehicle in which somebody will actually take in, remember, and then be compelled to act on?

Bruce: And so let me ask you a question. How have you found that? How is it working? I mean, do you feel like you’re getting traction with that process?

Matt: I think that we’re, we’re really early in it, but yes, I think we are getting traction in it. I think that we are starting to get more and more kind of inbound inquiries from different sectors within the broader field that are saying, we see the opportunity to move in a direction that is. Better focused on meeting the fundamental kind of root cause needs of families.

We’re not really sure how to go there, but we recognize that there’s going to have to be a certain amount of change that happens at this more individual community, organizational cultural kind of level. And that storytelling is going to have to be a part of that. For example, Texas CASA. Reached out to us and said, Hey, we hear what you’re doing with this podcast it’s great. We would love for you to do like a session at our annual training around your podcast. And this is court-appointed special advocates. So they’re focused on the wellbeing, the best interest of the child. But what they said is that in this conference for the first time, we want to shift to a family focus and how do we support the needs and the wellbeing of parents as a way to support the needs of children, which is a pretty fundamental shift.

For an organization like that to take and how they want to train their people. We jumped at that opportunity because that’s exactly what we’re seeing as part of what we have to change is that if we’re going to focus on the wellbeing of kids, we do that by how we demonstrate our care and investment in their parents. And so we have to have that shift happen. So that’s just one example, but we’re seeing other kinds of things like that.

Bruce: Let me throw something out here and for you to just think about it as you are growing this process. So, you know, that I’m sort of always thinking about kind of the biology of human beings.

And I always have to just sort of ground myself in the fact that there is a biology that is deeply built-in based upon the way we used to live. For hundreds of thousands of years, human beings survived with certain strategies. And then in the last several, maybe thousand years, there’s been this sort of exponential growth in social-cultural phenomenon that has really in many ways, pulled us away from our biological gifts.

And so when I think about storytelling, I think about how relationships. We’re then scaffolding the story into the brains and reinforce that into the life of the children who heard the story. Right. Ultimately the most efficiently transmitted information is relationally mediated.

Matt: I agree. And this is, so I want to dive into this a little bit. This difference in narrative, right? This difference in perspective, is this a parenting issue of a quote-unquote bad parent or parent that’s unfit to raise their children? Or is this a question of long-term generational systemic inequities? If we’re going to extend the lens beyond, this is an individualistic parenting problem, too this is about systems and community, then where’s that work best done. Right. And I’ll share my thought. And then this is where we can dive in a little bit. I think we have the best opportunity to start that kind of work. That’s more transformative than incremental change. At a local community level where we can be more relational based and we can be more iterative and actually testing ideas, as opposed to at sort of a bigger picture kind of national federal systems level. What do you think about that? 

Bruce: Well, first of all, I agree. And I think that there are examples where smaller communities have in a lot of different routes. You know, there’s a lot of different ways to get to health in a community, or there’s been a recapturing of community connectedness. Yeah. And there have been shifts in rates of alcoholism and suicidality and mental health utilization and all kinds of things.

So we know it can happen. I think part of what the challenges is that we have a hard time providing resources to small groups that are going to have a long timeline in that process of innovating and making mistakes and having iterative change. And so I do think that ultimately we’re going to have to engage some creative funding.

Who have some patients who understand these concepts and we’re going to have to figure out a new way, not necessarily the new way, but a new way to create healthy community in a digital mobile culture, which is part of the dilemma is that if you look at many communities, the turnover in families is very high.

Um, and a lot of people move away from their families and then they’ll get another job and they’ll move and they’ll get another job they’ll move or they’ll move to a different neighborhood. And just sort of the mobility of our population provides a certain degree of fragility to this relational sort of community building process.

Matt: Yeah. It’s interesting. So, let me just share a little bit about what we’re working on. So we’ve the Institute for family we’re in the very beginning stages of establishing a national cohort. And it will first just be two sites, one here in North Carolina, one in Washington state, where we want to learn together about these same kinds of questions that we’re talking about.

So for us in North Carolina, we’re asking this basic question of how do we reduce the involvement of families in the child welfare system and the way that we want to start with that as a learning phase, we can collect administrative data, financial data, et cetera. We’ll also do more qualitative ind of structured interview data collection at the community level.

How are parents impacted by the system answering that question of what’s driving in this particular community? A seventy-five percent increase in foster care in two years. So what are the more root cause issues that are driving that. Then, you know, have a design team essentially that is made up of parents who are being impacted by the system and other leaders to make sense of that learning.

And then, okay. How can we start to design and test some new solutions that would create a better community? For parents, for families that would reduce ultimately involvement in the child welfare system, that’s a long-term process. So your point about patient funders, about ability to be creative and learn and develop is really important.

We’re already seeing how important that is and. Point that you’re raising about the fragility of community continuity over time. So when we’re thinking about an approach like that, where do you start to focus around solutions that might be about better stitching the social fabric that creates better conditions in a community for families to succeed?

Bruce: How big is the community that you’re targeting.

Matt: Yeah. So where we’re starting right now is a rural county here in North Carolina. So it’s county, it’s a county with a few smallish towns across the county. 

Bruce: Okay. I’ve been involved in a couple of projects like this that were too graphically based that were really interesting, innovative projects.

And I think what you’re doing is spot on. It really is what needs to happen. But I think part of the dilemma as you figure this out, it’s going to be what I sort of refer to as carrying capacity. What’s the population size that you need to have a sustainable core population. We’re kind of the work takes place.

You know, if you lose 30% of your core families, every two years and or staff, I mean, part of the capacity building process just becomes sort of like running on a treadmill. These are solvable problems. You just need to have a funder that’s patient enough to let you do this. But once you figure that out and then figure out a sustainability model, then you’re sort of prepared for the next steps, but I think it’s doable.

And I think it’s what we have to do, because if we don’t do it, the direction we’re going is so expensive and not just in economic costs, but just human costs. It’s just terrible to see the impact of fragmentation on families. And again, the demographics in our society is changing, you know? And so we have more and more single parents taking care of children, which is fine.

If you’ve got community support, parenting is hard, even if you’ve got a bunch of people in the house trying to help you. But if you’ve got nobody, you know, and you’re on your own with kids three different developmental ages and different developmental needs. And you need to work full time just to keep you in a crappy apartment. Mother, Teresa would fail at that. I mean, it just, yeah, we have some. Unrealistic expectations of what our young parents should be able to do. Hmm.

Matt: Yeah, absolutely. And it makes me wonder too, just kind of keeping with this localized kind of example, of some of the challenges that you’re raising. I agree with.

And then I think about, should we be focused on how do we better provide direct programs and services? To meet parents needs. Does that run into challenges in the sort of transitory nature of community that you’re describing? Or should we be more focused on what are the community conditions that we can create?

That as population evolves, we’ve created a culture within a community. We’ve created resources and assets within a community and tent to make sure that we’re going to take care of the people that live in our community and really invest in that. So now it starts looking like community parks and access to affordable housing.

And so it’s less sort of those direct services and more about creating a social fabric. That’s more conducive to family well-being.

Bruce: If there’s not an infrastructure, all the programs that you create on the planet are not going to be sufficient. There has to be fundamental, positive, healthy infrastructure, but that in and of itself is not going to do it.

So you really need both. You need high-quality programs with stability and staff that are supported, trained, mentored. And that’s another area we haven’t even talked about this, but we don’t adequately select support supervise the people that are doing this hard work on the front lines and they buy, they get burned out and they turn over and then they get frazzled and they make less than optimal decisions.

And so if you have a healthy infrastructure, right. You got a nice community spaces. You’ve got some tiny homes for the homeless. You’ve got jobs that people can actually have. You’ve got some sort of economic stability. You’ve got infrastructure capabilities, places where people want to be places where people can come together.

If you put people together in nice places this natural tendency for connection starts to take over and build social fabric. But then there are going to be people that are struggling either from their past or things in the present. That’s where you need the infrastructure, both in education, social services where the people that are doing that work are themselves rewarded, respected so that the parallel process can take place sufficiently.

And honestly, we don’t do that. I mean, most of our public systems, the teachers, the caseworkers, the mental health providers are over-scheduled underpaid, exhausted disrespected. You know, it’s no surprise then that there’s such high turnover rates.

Matt: You know what you’re saying there too, just makes me think, you know, as we’re having these conversations around our work in general, but even this podcast specifically, they’re very unique, personal stories that we’re engaging with, but in those stories, are these universal truths that cut across communities.

The country that really cut across people’s experiences. It’s the same challenges that parents are facing. And they often do come down to not parenting choices or individual decision-making and they come down to impact and burden that people are carrying from generation to generation and from community to community and system to system.

And it’s the same fundamental challenges. So to kind of bring it back to the, like the, what happened to you, question in your book when we’re thinking about systems change, whether it be at the local level or a broader level. Then the storytelling nature of helping people to understand that even when we hear somebody’s story, it’s not their story alone.

That their story does contain these universal truths of inequities and marginalization that people are experiencing.

Bruce: You know, when you talk to people that are storytellers for living, they’ll tell you that there’s like six stories. There are these themes. It is permeating themes about the longing to belong and what it feels like to be excluded and what power can do to human relationships.

And then the toxic impact of that. Human beings are incredibly complex and human living groups are very complex, but in that complexity are, as you say, there are these recurring needs and recurring solutions. Some of the solutions. Are unhealthy, like the recurring use of alcohol at the managing anxiety and being overwhelmed and it’s universal.

And so I do think that in the end part of what we have to do is think about how do we create a healthier transgenerational process. Right. And I think again, to the point that we made right at the start that until we are able to change the lens and recognize that these are transgenerational problems that need transgenerational problem solving process.

If we’re living right now as a society with the transgenerational residue of slavery and all kinds of other things that are part of what’s going on right now, it’s going to take us multiple generations to solve those problems. So, for example, to the issue of slavery, one of the reasons we have not been solving some of the transgenerational problems related to slavery, we’re the problem-solving people in our society we’re not being given accurate insight to what happened. And this is why I think it’s so important that we teach people accurate history so they can become better problem solvers. These are transgenerational problems. They have every right to know how they got here. And they’re not going to come up with the right solutions if they don’t know exactly the accurate pathway to the present and not just with that issue, it’s just, it’s the same with everything, you know, how do we end up with a reservation system?

Matt: Yeah, we still have work to do. Okay. Last question. I asked you the first time, what advice you would have for me or for us as we continue down this path, then you said curiosity, flexibility, these sorts of things, which we have certainly embraced. And I’m interested to know what advice you have today.

Bruce: Uh, very much the same, you know, just remember the power of the moment, you know, that sometimes the most important and powerful thing you can do is to sit with somebody in their pain.

And when they tell you their story, like you do child welfare work, you’re going to see a lot of sad stories, but if you can sit with people in their pain for a little bit, that’s good for them, and it’s good for you. We all just have to become better listeners and. As long as we recognize that in these moments that we spend with people that there’s power and that there’s the capacity to help them feel regulated and feel seen those moments can be really important for both of you.

Matt: Yeah. I had this realization that the other day that listening is the act of being changed by another person’s story. And I think that happens when you just sit in the with somebody. And that has changed me countless times. And I know it changes people who are sharing their story as well, because I’ve heard it, I’ve seen it. So, yeah, I appreciate. Thank you again.

Bruce: My pleasure. I think what you’re doing is really important and I’m happy to help any way I can.

Matt: So before we wrap today’s show, I just wanted to leave you with a couple of my takeaways from this conversation. I’m more encouraged than ever. That what we need to do to drive child welfare transformation starts from the ground up. It means working together with communities, but there are a couple of key issues that I think Bruce raised in this conversation

First yes, we need to improve the social conditions. We need to improve the fabric of our communities. This is how we address the root cause generational issues that persist over time. And we also need the right programs and services that address people’s more immediate, more acute needs. So it’s about a healthy community with the right infrastructure. It’s those two things combined that will help families thrive, but that’s not the reality of most of our communities today. 

The second insight, something that I’ve actually been thinking a lot about is the point that he made about the need for patients. This enduring sustained focus and commitment among people like me, among funders, policymakers, community leaders, you know, the change that we want to see happen that we want to aspire to.It’s going to take time and it’s going to take commitment, sustained commitment from all of us. So my hope is that this conversation leaves you feeling more committed and more inspired to do the work. So with that, I just want to say thank you again to Bruce and I look forward to seeing you on the next episode.

Isaiah: And that is how we kick off season two of the Seen out loud podcast. I’m Isaiah, Schoser one of the many creative minds on the team. And I got to tell you guys, I’m looking forward to this season, I’m looking at the guestlist for season two, and I’m super excited for you guys to hear all the stories and conversations this season has to offer.

Plus, there are some great ways for you guys to connect with us outside of the podcast. Not only can you visit our website, for bonus clips, shareable content, and to learn more about our guests. But now you can call us! That’s right. 512-815-3956 is our show number, call and tell us how the voices you hear on the show are impacting your work or ask Matt a burning question that you may have.

Don’t be shy. Give us a call. There are some great minds behind this show that make hitting that play button so easy. And I got to take some time to thank them. Our Executive Producer is Michael Osborne, mixing and mastering and sound designed by Morgan Honaker. Our composer is Christian Haigis and our other team members on our creative team are April Dillon and Candice Kearse. Thank you guys so much for listening to this week’s episode. And I’ll see you guys in the next one.



Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D.

Over the last thirty years, Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D. has been an active teacher, clinician and researcher in children’s mental health and neurosciences, holding a variety of academic positions. His work on the impact of abuse, neglect, and trauma on the developing brain has impacted clinical practice, programs, and policy across the world. Dr. Perry’s most recent book, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing (2021), co-authored with Oprah Winfrey, is a #1 New York Times Bestseller.