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Kiln-worthy: Lessons and Reflections from a week in Los Angeles

Kiln firing

At my core, before I am anything else I am an artist, and the experiences I’ve encountered and lessons I’ve learned along my path more often than not fall back to art as a context that makes sense to me. Now returned from a week spent getting to know Los Angeles and putting faces, voices, and hearts to the work there has me thinking a lot about ceramics.

On first glance, working with clay always seems rather simple or at least intuitive from the outside. However, to actually take what is basically mud and through a dedicated practice mix, knead, shape, inspect, and fire it into a finished ceramic is often a true battle between invoking the fiery and creative abandon of the Dionysian and relying on the rigid and unyielding rules of the Apollonian, a constant and ever evolving dialog between vision and reality.

This analogy, in my opinion, has never felt more apt to where Youth Passageways has come to be over the past two years. Still deeply [and hopefully always] immersed in working through the very large questions that gave it rise:

  • What does it really look like to bring a feeling, a desire for connection, collaboration, and shared work into a structured and lasting context?
  • What does it really look like to take often localized efforts, based primarily in deeply personal heart to heart contexts, to connect them physically and equally when possible, providing a digital platform to foster and grow those connections in the interim?
  • What does it really look like to recognize, draw upon, and include the wisdom and voices of both first nations and marginalized peoples which is so needed now, and to do so with respect and permission, while determining how to aid them in ways that are actually practical and fitting of their needs?

The last time our community met en masse was in Ojai in 2013, when what this community network would become was still very much like that wet muddy clay, being carefully and methodically formed while still holding the energy and momentum that an idea like this brings with it. And after a great many versions of these questions and their histories were brought to the circle, we left both hopeful and cautious about the hows. Since then I have seen this organization grow tremendously, and yet simultaneously incrementally. At every turn that I have been a part of this community, or as I’m reminded this week family, has gone out of its way to ask the hard questions.  We have held true to the idea that a thing done the right way will take exactly as long as it has to, conflicts and storming included. With the launch of our new website, the offering of the Cross Cultural Protocols, and a great many other things just at the wings nearly ready to come onto the stage, YPW is at a turning point, a point in which we are inspecting the hardened clay and determining if we’re ready for the heat and pressure of the kiln.

All this to say that it’s impossible not to acknowledge that an enormous amount can be seen to be resting on what our next physical gathering will look like, what it will address, accomplish, and put into motion over time. So when Darcy told me that LA was looking more and more like where that gathering would be, it would be an understatement to say I had my doubts.

For those that know me and in consideration that there are great many who I’ve yet to meet, I’ll say historically and rather infamously there’s never been much love lost between LA and I. From the fact that it ‘borrows’ water, to the insane and supercharged methods of city travel, to the encroachment and embracing of a form of life that is highly geared towards superficial vanity, an uncompromising pursuit of profit, and many other things. However if experience has taught me anything it’s that life has a way of making you come face to face with your misconceptions and misgivings founded or otherwise. And the part of the above judgements that I have made fail to ask the most important questions: What must it be like to come of age in that kind of a place? Who are the heroes and heroines working to support that process? And, what can we gain by learning about and supporting them as a place specific endeavor and in relationship to the greater community of those dedicated to bringing this work more fully into the world?

From the moment Kruti Parekh of the Youth Justice Coalition, who so graciously offered to host us, welcomed us into her home, it was as if we’d always lived there. The hospitality was palpable, from the ‘shop talk’ we all know we’re ever prey to, to watching her wonderful son engage with the world, I was immediately given an immense and much needed dose of perspective. More importantly I can’t speak to how important it was to be in physical proximity to youth while we were at the business of thinking about next year, and coming back always to our dedication that youth be integrated into our efforts.

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A stop from a tour of Chuco’s Justice Center, taking a look at a memorial for the many youth killed by police violence in the area.

Over the next 5 days so many practitioners and community members made time and space for us to continue to get to know them, their work, and to begin painting the picture of what the community in LA really looks like, what it’s needs are, and what it has to offer. During our main meeting with several of the leaders in the youth work community I think Chris Henrikson of Street Poets said it best:

“There is a deeper transformational story surfacing in LA now inspired by many of the earth’s indigenous traditions, those that originated here and those that have found welcoming soil here beneath its violence-plagued streets.  It’s about community rooted in nature, our ancestors, the rebirth of ritual, old wisdom made new. This gathering will be an opportunity to explore and uncover some of those roots and to see how they are supporting social change on the surface of our city – all with the understanding that the antidote for what ails us as a society can be found where the poison is most present.

I don’t know what I was expecting to find, not really, but what I did find was a group of people who are doing exactly that, channeling old wisdom into modern contexts in some truly beautiful and awe inspiring ways. Ways that I truly believe will invoke aspects of those larger questions above and bring new perspectives into the mix.

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The alter from Street Poet’s Seeking Peace Circle, in which youth are invited to engage in finding their voices together through writing, sacred space, and community.

From the very urban Chuco’s Justice Center, the home of the Youth Justice Coalition who blend education, activism, and healing into an integrative practice, to Wolf Connection and their plans for growing a beautiful and large scale community outside the city to Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural & Bookstore a local community bookstore and event space who support youth and indigenous works of all kinds championed by the Los Angeles poet laureate Luis Rodriguez to Youth Mentoring Connection’s work right in the heart of the mainstream community within Paramount and Universal Studios, as well as a great many more. There are already a great many relationships formed, yet still with the ripe possibility of widespread cross pollination it’s easy to see how the idea of Youth Passageways on the larger level is and wants to emerge on smaller, more localized scales. This is something that Darcy and others brought to the circle in a way I hadn’t really thought of before, one that has really informed my idea of where we are. The idea that YPW is a pretty unique organization for many reasons, but one of the most pronounced being that it is really and truly engaged in having a conversation that is simultaneously global AND local, wilderness AND urban, ancient AND modern. That the heart of what we are, is the creation of a container that can hold the fiery and explosive visions of our many different partners and supporters while still able to craft and apply the infrastructure and needed foundation of what is possible in reality. And that to me, is more exciting than words can articulate.

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Kruti and Kahlil getting to know Maya, one of the many wonderful animals with Tao who runs Wolf Connection.

In summation, it’s safe to say I arrived with a lot of baggage. I think it’s a fairly human thing to do. Yet through my time there I was given the gift of having my assumptions turned upside down, not just about LA but about where I feel YPW is, as an organization, a network, and a family. I find myself now increasingly inspired by what LA will offer our network, and dually what we as a whole, will offer it.

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To properly teach and model healthy closure during the final session of Youth Mentoring Connections program at Paramount Studios, each mentor and mentee excange rocks with values and qualities they see in the other and have written on them, some of which have been together for as many as 4 consecutive years.

Where I’m left, is while acknowledging that though there are [and will always be] imperfections in our clay, that we have done everything in our power to knead and shape this work with meticulous care and concern. And I believe more fully than I ever have that we are kiln-worthy, ready for the fire, pressure, and yes, even the expectations that our next gathering will invoke, that LA is a perfect place to do so, and that where we go from there is a place we’ve been working towards one way or another since this began.

In gratitude for all of those who have and continue to support this wide eyed and emboldened endeavor, and for the 7 generations both ways for which we strive,

Dane

About the Author: Dane Zahorsky

Dane has been exploring the spirit of art, identity, and community for over a decade. He has worked as an artist, lecturer, organizer, developer, and teacher in midwest communities and those as far away as the Big Island of Hawaii, Beijing, Guatemala, and Roma. His focus has been on the research and design of systems for physically and emotionally sustainable living with an emphasis on rites of passage and sacred space as integrated with Eastern and Western thought. Creative agency under rides everything he does, you can view it here.

In 2006 he founded the arts and community project Motuv [Movement of the Unified Voice] with dear colleagues in Beijing and San Francisco, rooted in re-enlivening face to face community interaction free of alcohol or screens while fostering intercultural skill sharing and dialog called Sustainability Sundays. Coming out of the many relationships built through these gatherings he went on to co-found Lantern Journal, a web based interdisciplinary arts, literary, and philosophy journal towards blending practical and academic space.

As his focus has evolved towards the transformative, he's worked in direct care, as well as created and implemented comprehensive programing and curricula from the ground up for institutions and organizations such as Pacific Quest Wilderness Therapy, Warrior Films, and, The Kansas City Academy. Most recently he's found a home in Youth Passageways, an international organization working to broaden the scope and support of youth initiation and interdependent community across generations.

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