The Power of Gift in a Cultural Revolution
The question flashes on the screen:
With this soft approach to youth crime aren’t we teaching our kids that it’s okay to misbehave, because there are little consequences?
Within minutes we see this question climbing the chart projected behind the panel, gaining more and more votes until it reaches the top in this high tech, instant feedback plenary session. Over 1100 top educators, social workers, ministers, legal professionals and youth workers are voting from their mobile devices for the issues they most want covered. I have a front row seat to a cultural revolution.
Singapore, the country that became famous for caning as corporal punishment when a minor diplomatic crisis occurred due to an American teenager’s sentence of six strokes of the cane for vandalism in 1994, is undergoing a major shift in the way they work with youth. The rapidity with which that question shot to the top tells us that it is a seminal issue. The uniformity of the responses from all of us, Singaporean youth work professionals as well as guests from the United States and China tells us that this small powerhouse of a country is moving in a different direction. Their Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon spoke of the imperative to treat every youth offender as an individual and create a course of action designed to help them rather than simply punish them. Youth advocate Frank Kros, MSW, JD came from Baltimore to share how brain development science supports this different approach. Jennifer Skeem, Ph.D. from Berkeley discussed the research that indicates corporal punishment may be counterproductive when dealing with troubled youth, making them more prone to defiance and aggressiveness in the future.
There are more effective methods to promote prosocial behavior among juveniles at high risk for violence. Professor T Wing Lo, head of the Department of Applied Social Sciences, City University of Hong Kong shares a story of a young man who burned down the door of a neighbor’s house and was sentenced to apprentice under a carpenter to rebuild the door as well as to deal with the core issues that would cause him to be so angry. Restorative Justice half way around the globe.
None of this is new information. Many old cultures understood that young people need to be “seen” and nurtured, not vilified and punished. So, this is where I come in, having learned from my mentors to draw from indigenous practices and find ways to apply selected old wisdom to modern cultures. Perhaps also to add a little ‘color’ to the academic knowledge that is being presented in the form of our real life experience with youth in the inner city of Los Angeles. I presented three workshops: two on Youth Mentoring’s Gift Centered Approach to mentoring youth and one on the Powerful Combination of Initiation Rites and Mentoring. I would then conduct two full day trainings for practitioners and mentors in the days following the conference.
This all ensued after a high level delegation of officials visited the United States looking for new information on working with ‘at risk youth’. We had already entertained delegations from China, Jamaica, Macau and Peru where our model has been replicated. The delegation had only planned on staying for a few hours. However, after engaging with my staff, mentors and mentees ended up staying well into the evening. Minister of Social and Family Development, Nancy Ng approached me and invited me to come to Singapore and train the country in our Gift Centered Approach to mentoring. How could I turn down such an invitation?
Our hosts from CARE Singapore. John Tan, Frank Kros of NAREN, Tony LoRe of Youth Mentoring and Adelyn Poh
Throughout my time in Singapore I advocated for what we call our “gift centered approach”. The idea that instead of seeing troubled youth as problems to be fixed; instead of simply offering accountability models based on eight words: “if you do this, then you get that”, we suggest that we actively engage youth in a search for their innate gifts and help them claim their own unique purpose for coming into this world. The response was overwhelmingly positive.
The workshop that seemed to garner the most enthusiastic response was the one on Initiation Rites and Mentoring. I presented what I had learned after reading an article by the late Dadisi Sanyika about gang rites and indigenous initiation rites sharing the same fundamental elements. This was consistent with my experience. I had seen something in the youth of South Central LA that we work with that told me that inner city youth were receptive to ritual and old practices. In fact, they seem to hunger for it.
I was also learning about initiation from mythologist/storyteller and mentoring expert, Michael Meade and then partnered with Orland Bishop to glean his deep knowledge and experience of indigenous initiation rites to develop a four-day experience that we have hosted every year in the Big Bear Mountains of Southern California for the past ten years…with some pretty remarkable results.
Here is video of our mentor Andrew Garfield, some other mentors and youth describing the experience :
The Magic of Initiation Rites for Modern Youth
I showed this video and spoke for about 75 minutes about our process, highlighting the need for youth to be initiated into their culture in positive and nurturing ways. Adults need to mentor youth into a vision for productive adulthood. Otherwise, we see youth attempt to initiate each other without the guidance of tradition or mentoring wisdom. The emergence and continued presence of street gangs is a prime example. Indeed, as already mentioned, elements of initiation into street gangs are identical to those found in Rites of Passage practiced throughout history by indigenous peoples.
Youth Mentoring’s programs reclaim the positive and constructive aspects of initiation rites. The result is that youth feel a strong sense of community and develop the desire to make positive contributions.
The workshop featured inspirational stories, videos and testimonials from young people who say that Youth Mentoring has transformed and even saved their lives.
Our approach is to use story, experience, ritual, song, drumming, dancing and whatever else can be summoned to help them dig deep, exposing wounds that are at the core of their anguish and anger so that they can transcend the traumatic experiences that can ruin their lives. Even more importantly we discover that their gifts sit right next to those wounds. Only by their willingness to descend into the depths of the struggle (guided by caring and capable mentors) can they fully claim their gifts and see how high their dreams can be.
Finally, we explored how Initiation Rites fit into a mentoring model for “at risk” youth to create astonishing results. It’s not enough to take young people up to the mountains and create a powerful experience. Follow up is critical. By mentoring them through the Initiation Rites we raise the stakes. Helping them get a sense of their power, gifts and the possibilities that life may hold for them could be a ‘set up’ if we leave them on their own to figure out how to hold onto what they gained once back in the turmoil of daily life in the city.
So the final element we presented in Singapore was our mentoring model – how we create “instant community” for the youth to find comfort, encouragement and even protection once off the mountain. Each young person selects a mentor to work with and groups of mentors and mentees meet in community to reinforce each others’ gifts and continue to care for the wounds.
I was not prepared for the level of enthusiasm that met my presentation. We ran out of time for Q&A and I was delighted to stay for quite awhile hearing their stories and answering questions. Prior to that, just as we closed the Q&A a woman in the front row bolted to her feet, expressed how much she enjoyed the workshop, then turned to the group and announced that she represented a large foundation and could possibly fund an exchange program for Singaporeans to go to the U.S. to work with “Tony’s group”. She asked for a show of hands to see who would be interested. I lost count at 72.
My room host, Ansari was quite informed about youth and gang culture. We had some nice conversations in between workshops.