The Rite Way | Youth on Fire Review
In 1996, I was in knee-deep studying anthropology and sociology at the University of Washington. My summers were spent leading Coming of Age trips for Rite of Passage Journeys, and I was becoming more and more passionate about youth initiatory processes. Back in the classroom, I would orient every project and every course possible to rites of passage. I devoured any literature I could find.
It was during this time that I discovered the books Betwixt and Between (1) and Crossroads (2). These two edited collections of articles offered a range of perspectives on rites of passage, and set the stage for how I would understand both the theory and practice of what was quickly becoming my calling. Crossroads had just been released; the ideas felt new and fresh, exciting and powerful. These books became my bibles, dog-eared and re-read repeatedly.
The back-to-back publishing this year of Coming of Age the Rite Way by Dr. David Blumenkrantz, and Youth on Fire by Dr. Melissa Michaels feels much the same way to me. Reading these two books, I felt a sense of huge collective movement forward for the emerging field of rites of passage. This is not to discount contributions made by others in the last 20 years. Indeed, very important literature, scholarship, research, and theory has steadily emerged since Crossroads that has grown understandings, bridged to new audiences, woven new connections, and tread new ground. But there’s something precious and fresh about this moment expressed in these two important texts.
I call on any and all wishing to understand what is needed in our communities and what is needed for youth to read these two books, perhaps even back to back as I did. They are individually strong books, both powerful blends of intellectual rigor, painstaking research, and rich personal narrative. They both balance mind, heart, and spirit together, and highlight the very best of what the “rite of passage” community’s shared values have to offer to the world during these times. They both are grounded in intimate, personal narrative, each telling the author’s story pioneering new ground and offering road maps back for the next generation to follow.
Yet they meet these aims in ways unique to their personal gifts. Their personal voices and approaches ring through sometimes dense material, giving readers a deep sense of authenticity—which in and of itself is such a core element of the work we do.
Coming of Age the Rite Way: Youth and Community Development through Rites of Passage
David Blumenkrantz’ book is a far-reaching, seminal publication articulating the what, why, and how of rites of passage in our times. This is a solid, foundational piece of scholarship, a book that had to be written and whose time has most definitely come. The community-centered approach described in Coming of Age the Rite Way is relevant to us all.
This was Blumenkrantz’ book uniquely to offer. He describes in detail his approach and philosophy, which he has named youth and community development through rites of passage, and in so doing lucidly and methodically creates the case for rites of passage as an essential framework for our world today.
Personally, I have grown infinitely tired of retelling the case for why rites of passage are needed. I have been telling this story for 20 years—that’s what many of those early college papers I wrote were about! One thing I appreciate about Blumenkrantz’ book is that he does such a clear, direct, thorough, and beautiful job articulating the case for rites of passage that I don’t think any more books need to be written on the topic. He has synthesized the material with painstaking research, making it accessible and source-able for all of us.
What I will say is that this is a book for folks who have experience under their belts in youth development and/or rites of passage. It is not an introductory text for a lay reader. I am often recommending books to folks in their twenties looking to learn more about soul work and initiation, either for themselves or the young people they work with. This would not be the first I would suggest. It is dense, complex, and meaty—perfect for those of us hungry to take our work to the next level. I can’t say it strongly enough: this book should become a key reference guide for any of us seeking to increase the impact our current work, attempting to create new initiatory efforts for young people, or substantiate the impact of our offerings.
One of Blumenkrantz’ important offerings is his critique of existing programmatic models of youth development (including rite of passage offerings), and the methods for assessing impact that accompany them. He methodically and patiently builds his case, providing a solid foundation for a radical shift in how young people are raised today. He grounds his solution in the story of how he and his team designed a process that supported rites of passage to emerge out of community, strengthening the community on all sorts of levels through the process. Throughout the book, it’s easy to pick up on Blumenkrantz’ frustration with some of the directions that folks have gone in with rites of passage, and with youth development in general. Yet there are many in the world of rites of passage that have shifted their strategies over the years, in part because of Blumenkrantz’ influence. His book minimizes this shift, which I have found to be much more significant than he gives it credit for.
Noticeably missing in this book’s quotes, bibliography, sources, and endorsements were the voices of youth and women. This is a great place for one of us next-generation folks to pick up and build on David’s work.
Be warned that the book does slow in the middle, but don’t give up! The last several chapters are gold. If you read nothing else in this book, read page 170-172, which contains a very clear definition of rites of passage, in contrast to initiation; his framework of the guiding questions: Initiation into What? By Whom? For What Purpose? And make sure to read the entire, meaty, and infinitely helpful chapter 11: Making Something Happen: Community Institutions as Places of Initiation and Rites of Passage, which shares Blumenkrantz’ vision of re-framing institutions that matter in the lives of young people (like schools) as places of initiation.
Youth on Fire: Igniting a Generation of Embodied Global Leaders
Melissa Michaels’ new book Youth on Fire, set for full release in December is relevant—and in fact necessary–for any of us engaged in initiatory work in any way with young people. The body-centered approach Michaels has pioneered translates decades of somatic theory and research into rites of passage as they are consciously practiced today. In fact, her work is the first contemporary dance-based rites of passage process serving youth around the world.
I was first exposed to Michaels’ approach as a participant in the Global Passageways gathering she co-hosted in 2008. Having come from a wilderness-based rite of passage background, I had little context for movement-based processes as pathways of initiation. This book distills decades of study and practice to their core essence, making Michaels’ hard-won wisdom and insight widely available. The language is delicious: soft, lush, engaging. This book is very readable, while at the same time could function effectively as a textbook-type introduction to body-centered rites of passage.
Another key feature of this book is that it is a truly cutting-edge. Her narrative rests on a foundation of contemporary, global youth culture with all its many shades and manifestations: images, poetry, quotes, and stories of the young people touched through her “Surfing the Creative” process are found throughout the text. What she describes is a process that has clearly emerged out of her personal biography, training, and the raw material of the people, places, and moments that have shown up, grounded in a body-centered approach. Her love of young people rings through on every page. Meanwhile, the specificity of her narrative is sure to inspire some new experimentation in your own life and work.
At the same time, this book clearly draws on the wisdom, experience, and insights of many, over generations. Michaels impeccably references the sources of the ideas, activities, and concepts she draws upon. She highlights those upon whose shoulders she stands, and in so doing models effective recognition of those that have come before.
Do not put this book down until the end! The last two chapters offer new frameworks that anyone engaged in tending the hearts, minds, bodies, spirits, and souls of young people will want to read, highlighting all the while that Melissa is tireless in her work, continuing to tread new ground even now. Passing the baton to the next generation and dynamics of diversity are a few of the fiery topics she addresses. As soon as I finished this book, and I began to hungrily await its sequel!
Melissa’s book, Youth On Fire, is due to have it’s full release in early December. Stay tuned.
In my work, I waver from focusing on my unique contributions to rite of passage efforts, to maintaining a birds-eye view of our work as it collectively emerges and evolves. These two books were luscious meals for both of these parts. Just weeks after finishing them, both are already beginning to influence the way I work with young people, and those that work with young people. At the same time, they offer a pulse of where we’re at, and where we’re going, as a movement. I look forward to the many conversations, critiques, creative ideas, and new works these books will spur.
(1) Louise Carus Mahdi, Steven Foster, & Meredith Little, eds., Betwixt & Between: Patterns of Masculine and Feminine Initiation (La Salle: Open Court Publishing, 1987).
(2) Louise Carus Mahdi, Nancy Geyer Christopher, & Michale Meade, eds., Crossroads: The Quest for Contemporary Rites of Passage (La Salle: Open Court Publishing, 1996).