It’s been a couple of days since I’ve been home from Prince Rupert and it’s going to take a long time to fully process the youth suicide prevention summit I facilitated on Thursday. The overwhelming result of that gathering was a profound invitation from youth to connect again with their families, communities and traditional laws.
The biggest hurdle to overcome in working with suicide as a topic is the fear and overwhelming nature of the problem. In many ways it seems ridiculous to choose an appreciative framework to deal with the topic, but that’s what we did. The result of having that approach I think, was that it invited the youth to help us become unstuck in this work, and they replied to the invitation in spades. Around 150 of them showed up to let us know how to get through this.
The biggest lesson from the youth is that the smallest things can make the biggest difference. They shared with us lists of needs and wishes, but most profoundly, they offered a way forward, for it is not enough to simply create new programs. Rather, a new approach is needed, an approach that the youth summed up elegantly with the word “WE.”
I want to share some things I wrote in a report I provided on Friday to a gathering of leaders and policy makers, and see what you readers think. I titled the report “WE” to capture the essence of what the youth were saying, and in doing so I learned that the youth were providing wisdom far beyond their years. My colleague Patricia Vickers and I spent hours reflecting on Thursday night and ended up with this framework for understanding what we saw. It was confirmed on Friday when we put it to people for response and action.
I started the report with a quote from a Nisga’a youth, Peter McKay who spoke about his own struggle against suicide and abuse. In his concluding remarks he said “Iï¿½m your brother, Iï¿½m your son, Iï¿½m your uncle, Iï¿½m your father.” From there I carried on:
Tackling an issue like youth suicide is difficult for two reasons. First there is immense fear about the issue. We are afraid that if we do anything wrong, life will be held in the balance. Second the issue seems completely overwhelming. We cannot conceive of anything we can do to ï¿½fixï¿½ the problem. We have no idea where to start, and we have no idea if what we decide to do will have any effect. The problem is huge, systemic and seemingly insurmountable, at least by one person acting alone.
This degree of fear and overwhelming complexity freezes us. Itï¿½s hard to take decisive action. Itï¿½s hard to think we have found a leverage point. To move past this frozen point, we must find a way to come unstuck. The youth offered us that way yesterday. They invited us to become bigger. They invited us to do things differently, to truly engage and work with them to achieve community transformation.
We can take steps forward that are meaningful if we replicate the way in which the youth were invited to work in the Inter Nation forum and replicate the working relationships we have developed with them. This implies a new kind of relationship with youth, and it means moving ahead on the things we know youth need in a different way. The degree to which we are able to work differently will be the difference between action that makes a change and action that doesn’t.
The youth were very clear with us. They said that the answer to these questions about suicide and community healing is WE. Using the word ï¿½WEï¿½ has major implications, because it suggests a place we need to arrive at together, a place where youth come to take responsibility for the changes in their communities.
To get there, there are two stages that youth leadership passes through and itï¿½s important to understand those stages. As policy makers and leaders we can play a role in supporting those stages.
These two stages support first of all, the emergence of the youth voice. This is where youth feel that they can stand and speak truth, tell the story of their lives and of the futures they want for themselves. This is the ï¿½Iï¿½ stage.
The second stage occurs when youth are heard. This is the ï¿½I ï¿½ YOUï¿½ stage, and it happens when youth get a hearing from those they are talking to. Often we leave our relationships with youth at this level, thinking that if youth have been heard then everything is alright.
But the Inter Nation forum showed us that youth wanted to go beyond the ï¿½I ï¿½ YOUï¿½ stage to a stage where ï¿½WEï¿½ was the norm. ï¿½WEï¿½ is about youth taking their place in the community and contributing to the future direction and the present situation. They want mutual respect, and mutual engagement in these areas, calling strongly for activities that integrate the whole community, or that involve parents or that involve other members of the community like police and schools. This sentiment can perhaps best be captured by a quote from one youth who said ï¿½When we are given respect we give respect.ï¿½ The role of leaders and communities in developing ï¿½WEï¿½ is to become like a bowl, open to receiving and holding the leadership and voice of youth so that their contributions can be supported and made meaningful.
What I and many others noticed at the end of the day was an absence or a decline of fear in the room. Itï¿½s not so easy to understand why this happened, but I think itï¿½s useful to think about it because if we are to replicate this kind of experience, we should understand how it was that the youth managed to work in a way that took the fear away.
First, we invited youth to look at what is good. In the policy roundtable dinner on Tuesday night, there was a sense of being overwhelmed at the extent of alienation and loss that our communities and people have experienced and that seems so overwhelming when we think about youth suicide. By choosing five affirmative topics, the working groups invited youth to help us go beyond this alienation and loss and look at their opposites: connection and what we have. This immediately opens up new possibilities. It allows us to live with the fear and at the same time open ourselves to the possibility that we might also be engaging in something that changes everything.
Second, Peter Mackay, the youth quoted at the beginning of this report, invited us to notice that there is no ï¿½You and Meï¿½ only ï¿½We.ï¿½ Peterï¿½s story is everybodyï¿½s story and knowing that we were all going through this, youth, parents, Elders and leaders meant that we could all see a role for ourselves in moving forward. This is very important because it acknowledges that healing one part of the community heals all of it, and it also acknowledges that the pain and sources of pain are multi-generational and can only be addressed with multi-generational responses.
Third, we saw the exemplary openness of leaders and policy makers who were willing to sit with youth and promise to find ways to support them. This was a blessing for youth because it meant they could look at ideas in a way that invites everyone to work together. The focus on community and cultural activities was a clear signal that these youth were looking for answers within themselves and within their communities. As one group of youth wrote ï¿½Self sufficient communities so that you are reliant on yourself rather than handouts or money.ï¿½ There was an acknowledgement and a desire and an explicit invitation from youth to their cultural teachers, Elders, leaders and parents to ï¿½work with us.ï¿½ They invited community connection as a response to the invitation for support and openness. Almost every group of youth wrote about connection to culture and involving their parents in more activities. They want mutuality.
Finally, following on that, it is important to note that the youth seem not to be asking for answers from outside of themselves or their communities. They are looking within, as one Elder said of Peter Mackayï¿½s speech, and finding the answers there. They are asking for help where they need it, but not looking to others to solve these problems. I get a strong sense that they want to do this together with people who have leadership and other resources and who can help bring their visions of a peaceful and healthy future to reality.
When I shared these reflection with the leaders and policy makers the day after the event, there was an immediate recognition among some Elders and hereditary chiefs that what the youth were talking about was nothing less than traditional law, the Ayuukw. The core of the Ayuukw is respect and connection. One Elder in attendance said that the youth were speaking to an absence that they had seen in their lives, a space where once they had been connected to the life of their Nations through the Ayuukw, but now were lost. Their call for connection and mutuality was nothing less than a call for the full re-establishment of the relations specified in the Ayuukw.
Things move from here. I don’t know where the issue will end up, or what might evolve and happen, but the overall sense is that something came unstuck in Rupert last week.
When I engaged in this project, I put a call out to my readers to help me design this summit and several people jumped in to help. I’d like to thank especially Wendy Farmer-O’Neil, Jack Ricchiuto, Peggy Holman, Robin Stratton-Berkessel, Dina Mehta, Annette Clancy and Johnnie Moore for their conversations and support on Skype and email. Their ideas, so generously offered from three continents, had major impacts in the design of the forum and what we were subsequently able to do with the work.