2011 Symposium on Early Childhood Mental Health

Translating the science of early experiences into culturally informed policy and practice

Keynote Speakers included:


  • Robert Anda, MD, MS, Centers for Disease Control and  Prevention
  • Atum Azzahir, Powderhorn/Phillips Cultural Wellness Center
  • Diane Benjamin, MPH, FrameWorks Institute
  • Ed Ehlinger, MD, MS, Commissioner of Health, Minnesota
  • Megan Gunnar, PhD, University of Minnesota, Institute of Child Development

  • Wendy Hellerstedt, MPH, PhD, University of Minnesota, Epidemiology & Community Health
  • Jim Koppel, MSW, Children’s Defense Fund
  • Tony LookingElk, Otto Bremer Foundation
  • Art Rolnick, PhD,  Human Capital Research Collaborative, University of Minnesota
  • Don Warne, MD, MPH, Sanford Health System


About the symposium:

Early childhood experiences – and the environments in which they occur – strongly affect the healthy development of every child. Dramatic advances in our understanding of early brain development, the critical importance of social environments that stimulate and nurture, and the consequences when such environments are absent or inconsistent have taught us that the developmental trajectory towards positive mental health begins early and affects health across the lifecourse. We know what can and MUST be done to ensure that ALL infants and young children receive what they need from their caregiving environments to develop into happy, healthy individuals, both physically and emotionally, and to optimize their opportunities for happiness and physical and emotional health.

Policies that provide public support for programs and interventions that promote positive mental health as well prevent, diagnose and treat mental health disturbances in young children are essential to establishing the social conditions that enable families and communities to create nurturing, supportive contexts where children’s mental health can flourish.

This symposium brought together researchers, policymakers and practitioners to address the critical question of how we can best translate the science of early brain development into messages (across disciplines, communities and cultures) that effectively communicate the evidence in support of such policies and practices. Additionally, this symposium emphasized and explored culturally relevant strategies for identifying and addressing the social emotional needs of young children across cultures and economic circumstances.

This event was intended for academic, public health, policy and community practice professionals, advanced graduate students and those with an interest in early childhood mental health promotion.

Video recordings of keynote presenters:

Day 1 Welcome

Day 2 Introduction

About the speakers:

Robert F. Anda is co-principal investigator of the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, ongoing collaborative research between Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control.  During his 25 years at the Centers for Disease Control he has conducted research in a variety of areas including disease surveillance, behavioral health, mental health and disease, cardiovascular disease, and childhood determinants of health.  He has written more than 100 peer-reviewed and government publications, as well as several book chapters.   He is currently a Senior Scientific Consultant to the CDC, with Carter Consulting.  As co-principal investigator for the ACE Study he played the principal role in the design of the study, subsequent analysis of the ACE Study data, and preparation of its numerous scientific publications.  He is frequently invited to speak about the ACE Study, and has presented its findings at Congressional briefings.

Atum Azzahir is the President and Executive Director of the Cultural Wellness Center in Minneapolis, MN. Azzahir helps citizens create a safer and healthier environment in her community through an “invisible college” that trains Citizen Health Action Teams (CHAT groups) to solve their problems. The Teams broaden the definition of health to include personal and economic development, adequate housing, safe homes and streets, education, employment and job satisfaction, and spiritual well-being. The program created a new multicultural Wellness Center that will offer classes in nutrition and exercise, as well as healthcare services.

Diane Benjamin is a senior associate with the FrameWorks Institute in Washington, DC. As a member of the Field Building team, she manages the Institute’s FrameCheck process and creates communications tools for advocates and front-line communicators. Prior to joining the Institute, she served as director of outreach for the Maternal and Child Health Training Program at the University of Minnesota, where she was responsible for continuing education and outreach, conferences and institutes, technical assistance to MCH professionals in the community, and identifying and coordinating community field experiences for MCH graduate students. Benjamin also served as the director of Minnesota KIDS COUNT at the Children’s Defense Fund of Minnesota for nearly a decade. Her areas of expertise include message framing on issues related to public health and child and family well-being, including the presentation of data. She holds a Master of Public Health degree in community health education from the University of Minnesota.

Megan Gunnar is a professor at the University of Minnesota in the Institute of Child Development and Associate Director of the interdisciplinary Center for Neurobehavioral Development .  She is the principal investigator for The International Adoption Project as well as co-principal investigator of The Early Experience, Stress Neurobiology, and Prevention Science Network.  Dr. Gunnar is one of the leading international scientists focused on understanding how social experiences in early life shape brain and behavioral development. Her main interest area is stress and coping in infants and young children. Her work documents the importance of sensitive and responsive care by adults in the modulation and buffering of stress physiology in the developing child. She has studied children living in orphanages in Romania and Russia and with her students traces the development of post-institutionalized children in the months immediately following adoption.  Dr. Gunnar is a member of the Society for Research in Child Development, the International Society for Infant Studies, and the International Society of Developmental Psychobiology.

Jim Koppel is the Executive Director of the Children’s Defense Fund-Minnesota, where he is responsible for managing grassroots organizing and coalition building in Minnesota and serves as CDF-MN’s lead advocate on behalf of children to the state’s elected officials and policy makers. Koppel has  strong history working in health policy, having served as the Vice President of Policy for the Minnesota Hospital and HealthCare Partnership where he was responsible for overall legislative policy development, lobbying and amending health care initiatives, and forming non-profit coalitions. He previously held positions at the Minnesota Health Care Access Commission and the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. Koppel received his Master of Social Work from Howard University and B.S. in sociology from Mount Union College.
Tony LookingElk is a program officer with the Otto Bremer foundation.

Art Rolnick  serves as a co-director for the Human Capital Research Collaborative at the University of Minnesota. He previously served at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis as a senior vice president and director of research and as an associate economist with the Federal Open Market Committee—the monetary policymaking body for the Federal Reserve System. He is a board member of several Minneapolis nonprofit firms, including the Minnesota Early Learning Foundation and Ready 4 K, an advocacy organization for early childhood development. A recipient of numerous awards for his work in early childhood development, he was named Minnesotan of the Year by Minnesota Monthly magazine in 2005. Rolnick holds degrees in mathematics and economics from Wayne State University and has a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Minnesota.

Donald Warne, MD, MPH is the senior policy advisor for the Great Plains Tribal Chiarmen’s Health Board. He is also director of the Office of Native Health for Sanford Health System. He is a former member of the Advisory Council on Indian Health Care in the State of Arizona and former chair of the Traditional Cultural Advocacy Committee at the Pnoenix Indian Medical Center. He was awarded the 1997 Walter Brazie, MD Award as Arizona’s Outstanding Family Practive Resident; the Dr. Fang Ching Sun Memorial Award for Commitment to Underserved Communities; and the Pnoenix Area Impact  Award. He is an enrolled member of the Oglala Lakota Tribe from PIne Ridge, SD.

This event is sponsored by the Center for Leadership Education in Maternal and Child Public Health at the University of Minnesota through support from the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), US Department of Health and Human Services.  Co-sponsors include the Minnesota Community Foundation’s Project for Babies, the Center for Excellence in Children’s Mental Health and the Human Capital Research Collaborative, both at the University of Minnesota.