Seeing | Believing – Reflections on Process & Experience
More than a month has passed now since the Youth Passageways gathering. I’ve found it very difficult to put my experience into words. When folks have asked me about it since, I typically respond, “the gathering changed things for me, and now I need to figure out what that means.”
As someone whose whole life revolves around rites of passage, the process of initiation is known terrain, in some ways even comfortable terrain. And yet, the whole point of initiation is stepping fully into the unknown. It’s a mysterious dance, to feel myself as someone who experiences a sense of recognition, of knowing, most fully in that state of the unknown.
At each Youth Passageways gathering thus far, I have been transformed personally and professionally, and this has instilled in me deep loyalty for the dream that is Youth Passageways. This gathering was no exception. My role as Co-Coordinator put me right in the thick of the planning and organizing for the gathering. During the months leading up to the event, it became clear that I would be part of the MC team as well, a responsibility that both excited me and made me deeply anxious. Having been part of each Youth Passageways gathering thus far, I knew what a hot seat I would find myself in, and didn’t know if I was really up to the task. This community is a fiery one. I’ve seen folks get pretty burned, and being in this seat felt like a big initiation personally: and a very public one, at that.
Here are some of the themes that I now carry with me out of Los Angeles, that will inform my inquiry and practice moving forward:
Ceremony & Ancestors:
“Listening to the Voices of the Ancestors” was one of three outcomes for the gathering, and “Ceremonial Gathering” was one of our design principles. As a Western-educated, white-skinned woman with a strong spiritual foundation, I feel like I’ve spent my life dancing between belief and non-belief. Invoking the ancestors is something that I’ve learned is important, but really believing that when we called in the ancestors, the ancestors came in, is something that I find challenging. I can believe and not-believe at the same time. In this gathering space, I fully surrendered to the ceremony, understanding very clearly that there were things happening that I couldn’t see, and couldn’t understand.
For example, there were many forces at work in the room during the Saturday night public event: who got to speak/perform, for how long, who was asked not to speak, who was accidentally forgotten during the program: all of these things unfolded behind the scenes, in layers of each person’s experience. I found out later that there were people present whom hadn’t been in the same room with each other for years, because of old conflicts.
Another example came through the process by which Youth Passageways as a network asked permission of Marcus Lopez on behalf of the Chumash people to meet on their lands. How this process would happen remained a deep mystery in the months leading up to the gathering, and I felt the weight of so desperately wanting a clear plan because this aspect felt so important. Experiencing the natural and seamless way things unfolded, Marcus’ generosity with his time, guidance, and cultural teachings, made clear to me that there were so many forces at work that were beyond my comprehension.
Not all of what transpired at the gathering could be understood by our rational, linear minds, nor could have been planned or designed by them. This was the most intensive space I have been in such a leadership role. It was deeply humbling to serve our shared vision as best as I could, from my well-educated, well-trained yet still so limited understanding of what was happening. I learned a great deal from my co-MC’s, co-organizers, and mentors. Which leads me to…
I was blessed at the gathering to work with truly gifted elders and mentors. One in particular feels important to name, Gigi Coyle. I’ve been privileged to work closely with Gigi, and learn from her, since the preparations for the Ojai gathering in 2013. Gigi served as active witness and behind-the-scenes support for the MC team, and as an anchor and ally for me. With her in this back-up role, I experienced something unique and powerful: a form of direct transmission of teachings over the course of the gathering. With her at my back (and sometimes my side), I could process in the moment what I saw, better discern what was needed, hear her whisper small suggestions in my ear to help me catch things and think about how to phrase my offerings for the collective. I have never learned so much in such a short period of time as I did through this process of being actively mentored, receiving teachings JUST WHEN I NEEDED THEM! This taught me what experiential learning and mentorship is all about in its deepest, most powerful manifestation.
There are many others I could name here that I felt gifted to learn from at this Gathering: Luis Rodriguez in his role as co-MC was of course an amazing, humble, and gracious team member as well as powerful teacher for me. And many others who shared their wisdom in large ways, small ways, and in quiet moments.
The Dance of Masculine & Feminine:
This gathering was a lot about gender for me, which is not a new theme in my own life, nor in our inquiries at Youth Passageways. At this gathering, Youth Passageways came up against our edge in terms of gender inclusivity. We saw and heard named as feedback the ways that we are still trapped in a gender binary and struggling to become LGBTQ+ inclusive, and create the safest space we can. At the same time, for me personally, as one who identifies and expresses herself strongly as female, big questions came up around how I relate to myself as a woman, and how I see and interrupt sexism and misogyny when I see it show up in the world around me, in ways that are inclusive of all gender identities. The breakout session called “The Ecological Role of the Queer” helped me to develop a deeper understanding of the importance of creating spaces for those who cross the boundaries of gender. I learned more about how those who have lived and breathed and flowed with the energies of masculine and feminine have to offering when they have space to share how these dynamics show up in nature and in their own bodies as well as the ways they show up in our society within our current structures of gender socialization. I learned how the more I work to create safe spaces for these folks, the more I can have access to their teachings and experiences that can inform my own healing and development as a woman, not trapped by my own gendered experiences and unconscious patterns. Throughout this gathering I saw clearly my edge in navigating these complexities with grace, respect, patience, and commitment to creating as safe of spaces as possible for those who identify as women, those who identify as men, and those who identify as somebody altogether different than this structure.
The Role of Youth:
One of the dreams early on in planning this gathering was having a strong youth presence. Yet there were questions about this. As a gathering for practitioners, it felt important to create a space for adults to have their own experience, and a place for personal renewal. The goal of the gathering was not to provide an initiatory experience for young people: that was the work of our partners, not Youth Passageways! And yet, it is important to include youth voices when we’re speaking about youth work. It keeps us honest, grounded as practitioners in what is actually needed. Young people are the link to our future, and the ones that have the neurological flexibility, adaptability, curiosity, and passion to create solutions needed to heal our communities – so how can we not include them? In this regard, this gathering was a seminal moment, a turning point for our network , where we made it very clear, not just through words but through action, that young people are truly at the center of our spiral as a network. The way the Saturday evening public event was planned and implemented made emphasized this strongly: the way Youth Passageways, for the very first time, shared our story with the wider world was in an evening designed by two young women of color with the help of a number of their caring mentors, where youth voices were heard and highlighted throughout. I hope someone writes down in great detail what happened that evening, because I believe that if we told and re-told the story of Saturday evening as a sacred story, we would uncover layers and layers of information about who Youth Passageways actually is as a family, network of practitioners, and social movement. But in any event, youth were at the heart of it!
This was also a gratifying part of the gathering for me personally. I’ve observed that in many white-run, youth-serving organizations (which is primarily where I work), there is an absence of young people in leadership positions. As one who has served in leadership positions in such organizations for the last 10+ years, this means that I work in an almost exclusively adult world, while my work continues to center around the needs of youth. Meanwhile, I’ve got so much more to give to young people than I did 10 years ago – and it’s so easy for me to lose touch with what is actually important to young people themselves! This gathering provided an opportunity for me to work side by side with some of the most amazing and inspiring young people, learning from them about their day to day realities as well as there dreams of what’s possible, and build real relationships. The moment I could be there for a young woman the last morning of the gathering, as she tearfully ended a painful telephone call, with her boyfriend, was truly the most meaningful part of the gathering for me.
Inviting while also holding boundaries:
Youth Passageways invited consultant J. Miakoda Taylor to serve as a witness of the gathering. During her reflections at the end, she offered a gesture, one open hand outstretched with palm up while one hand at the heart faced palm out, as a gesture of invitation and inclusion while also holding boundaries. I’ve taken this gesture to heart, and have been pondering it deeply. One of the things I’ve learned about the Youth Passageways network is that the work we’re doing super challenging, navigating through cultural wounds to come together on behalf of the young people in all of our communities. I’m increasingly realizing how important it is for Youth Passageways to do the work we need to do to articulate clearly who we are and how we do our work, and allow folks to choose to self-select out if it doesn’t work for them while always inviting input and feedback, making processes transparent, and daylighting and addressing power dynamics within the organization. As one who most often sees possibilities and opportunities for connection, this is a hard edge for me to come up against. Which leads me to…
The link between rites of passage and social justice:
Throughout the gathering, a question hung in the air: what does all this cultural healing work have to do with rites of passage? This is a question that has been living in Youth Passageways since its beginning. I see many in the network doing hard work to figure out ways to articulate this link, and sometimes I find it frustrating to need to go over this terrain because the answers seem so obvious to me. This gathering highlighted for me how important it is that I work harder at communicating this link effectively. Here’s the language I’m currently playing around with:
- The needs of our communities are different, and therefore our approaches must be different.
- Yet some of the needs in our communities are the same, and therefore we must learn from one another in order to be most effective.
- The impacts of structural inequality and injustice inflict further trauma at the individual, family system, and community level, which undermines the health, safety, and welfare of us all. This requires us all to work together to undo these systems of harm.
- Working together and learning from one another happens most efficiently and effectively when we are operating within systems of trust and respect for all beings, and with trust and respect for our shared systems and processes.
- Developing this trust and respect within the unhealthy system of Western culture and corporate capitalism requires time, patience, and commitment, and it means making space to explore ongoing and often subtle or unconscious patterns of power, privilege, and oppression, and how these patterns show up and undermine our shared work together.
How this is manifesting in our network already leads to…
One of Youth Passageways’ Core Values is Healthy Family. “Family” came forth as the word to describe us from M. Kalani Souza at the 2013 Ojai gathering, invoking the foundational Hawaiian value of Ohana in our network. This gathering was so much like a family reunion, in all of the senses of that word. One of the sentiments expressed by myself, and others at this Gathering that had been at other YPW gatherings before, is a sense of movement. Yes, there’s disappointment for many (including myself) that we are not further along in our growth process, or our healing process. But this gathering clearly incorporated singificant learnings from each of the gatherings beforehand. As people keep showing up and staying in the process together, our trust in one another grows with our shared stories and common experiences. This gathering renewed my commitment to show up in whatever ways I’m called, and can, for this family.
Commitment to Place
One of the biggest learnings I had from the Gathering didn’t take place at the gathering at all, but rather over the course of the following week. Dane and I were lucky enough to be in Los Angeles for over two weeks before the gathering and for a week after, and this was my fifth trip to LA in a year. Particularly through the generosity of Kruti Parekh hosting us in her home, but also the generosity of so many in LA, I really got to experience life in this crazy city that so many call home, and came to love it. In the week following the gathering, I had the opportunity to attend a YouthBuild march & rally through downtown LA that Kruti co-organized, and a youth conference called RiseUp! organized by YPW Stewardship Council member Fidel Rodriguez. Attending these two events for youth of color so shortly on the heels of the gathering helped me understand more deeply the issues effecting young people in Los Angeles. As I left LA, headed back to my home in rural north central Washington, I carry a deep love for that crazy big city and the people I met there, and questions about how that love can lead to action and continued connection. It’s imbued in me an even stronger commitment to how I show up and am of service in the place where I live and the communities that I am a part of, while simultaneously remaining connected to this Youth Passageways network that stretches across such great distances.
I want to end with my deepest gratitude to all those that have helped Youth Passageways get this far, through dollars, time, sweat, tears, connections, wisdom, and all the other currencies that help our work to flow. What is happening through this network is special. Not easy, but special nonetheless.
in gratitude & service,