Recently we returned from a weeklong backpacking retreat within Capitol Reef National Park in central Utah. The experience was physically grueling yet emotionally and spiritually rewarding. Along the 25 mile round trip, I was faced with inner thoughts of doubt, concerns about logistics and group dynamics, and the sheer physical feat of having to lug a backpack the distance of 440 football field lengths. If that wasn’t enough, add in the need to prance around prickly pear, find a trail that was barely visible at times over sand banks and washes, and traverse up a 700′ crack in a sheer bluff. Why then, do I feel so restored after this experience?
The answer lies not so much in the physical characteristics of the hike, but in the ritual of the events that took place. Ritual is defined by wikipedia as the sequence of activities involving gestures, words, and objects, performed in a sequestered place, and performed according to set sequence. While in nature, the “sequestered place” refers to everywhere around us- the sky is literally the limit. Within this seemingly endless boundary, repeated acts are performed to ensure we have drinkable water, shelter from sun, food to eat and the all important place to sleep. Although I did not quite realize it at the time, every act of survival while in the backcountry can be defined as ritualistic, as it involves the repetition of known gestures while hiking and setting up camp.
For several years we have been taking youth into nature on field trips and overnight backpacking expeditions, and it feels like I am just beginning to grasp why these trips seem to resonate so well. During the hike, while setting up camp, when filtering water and preparing meals, the students are actively participating in a ritual event without being told they “need” to. When partaking in the basic acts of survival, ritual is a part of life and is honored for the place it takes in the day to day. Not only that, but the boundless natural world is constantly reflecting how ritual takes place in every moment: tadpoles gathered along cool banks as metamorphoses sets in, hawks soaring effortlessly on thermals rising from sandstone ridges, bats swinging out from crevices at dusk to seek food in the twilight.
While surrounded by nature, ritual is stripped from anthropomorphic pedagogy and baptised in the glow of sun that cannot be stifled by AC, in the currents of wind that are felt through the thin fabric of tent walls, and in the feeling of hands on smooth sandstone carved by millions of years of the flow of water. When ritual is understood on a natural level, the real challenge is to bring it back to the world of society and continue with due diligence the work of participating with reverence and intention, even when “survival” becomes the act of getting good grades and a decent paycheck.
It’s no secret technology has completely altered the world in just a few years. Look at the way children grow up. Just a generation ago, kids used to play outside for hours. They rode bikes to their friends’ houses and didn’t come home until after dark. They interacted with their buddies in nature, used their imaginations, played contact sports and ran around. To be sure, that reality hasn’t entirely disappeared, but it has certainly evolved.
A recent Kaiser Foundation study found that children use entertainment technology 7.5 hours per day. In addition, 75% of kids have TV’s in their bedrooms and 50 percent of North American homes have the TV on all day. These statistics don’t show the full picture, however. It’s not just television screens. Children tend to be going online at younger and younger ages. A report released by educational non-profits, Sesame Workshop and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, revealed that 50% of US children between the ages of 6-9 are online daily.
In recent years, considerable emphasis has been placed upon the idea that novel new forms of technology will solve educational problems. Though amazing advances have come from our increasingly interconnected society, a nation of kids glued to their screens is not the ideal solution. What’s needed is a balance between the advantages of copious amounts of information as a desirable tool, and a harmonious integration between nature and the people surrounding us.
Author and child advocacy expert, Richard Louv has spoken out about this issue, going so far as to create a growing body of research on the need for direct exposure to nature in order to better raise physically and mentally healthy adults. His book, Last Child in the Woods, attempts to curb disturbing childhood trends, such as increased obesity, depression, and attention deficit disorders. Louv is just one of many thought-leaders challenging the status quo when it comes to the new reality of the wired generation. Screenagers, a compelling new documentary by filmmaker Delaney Ruston, explores this issue. In her movie, Ruston examines how powerful digital influences, such as social media, internet addiction, video games, and social media can be pervasive in shaping the impressionable minds of teenagers.
What’s most needed in our discussions of this emerging issue is a dispassionate sense of perspective, however. Every age brings its own unique set of improvements, coupled with concerns and challenges. We are fortunate to live in times of immense technological discovery and wonder. The trick is to find the necessary balance between utilizing our great new tools for unprecedented advances while curtailing their adverse effects. The first and necessary step in this process is to create awareness. By recognizing the new state of things we can begin to make positive steps towards living in greater harmony with our screens, the people around us, and the natural world.
The Marin county-based startup wishes to change the educational paradigm by empowering youth. Founded by entrepreneur and educator, Zach Laurie, the organization provides dynamic programs that encourage resiliency through hands-on curriculum, emphasizing humanity’s deep connection with nature and others.
Eschewing our modern age’s obsession with rote learning and continuous testing, Roots to Branches favors rites of passage activities that encourage youngsters to participate in timeless, uplifting traditions, team-building exercises to encourage empathy and leadership, and outdoor exploration to immerse students in distraction-free environments fostering mindfulness.
Zach engaged my company, INK to assist his organization with a grant-writing proposal last year and I was able to personally interact with him through several meaningful exchanges.
As I got to know him, I was impressed by his inspirational vision for empowering young people. Zach’s devotion to bringing needed change to a stifling educational system felt like a breath of fresh air. Below, please find my interview with him. I think you will enjoy hearing his ideas as much as I did.
Q: When did you begin your company and what services does it offer?
A: Roots to Branches began in 2009 as an after school rites of passage program for 7th and 8th grade boys. We then increased our offerings in the spring of 2012 to include in-school community service-learning, social and emotional skill building, and drug/media awareness education for middle and high schools.
Q: What brought you to establish Roots to Branches?
A: As a person growing up when ‘Generation Y’ turned to ‘Generation X’, I witnesseda lot of different pressures placed upon youth than when I was a child. Having a brother 10 years younger helped clue me into these changes as well. Differences include: increased technology access with its pervasive social media use that causes a distorted sense of self, an overall increase in anxiety around test scores and college placement, and increase in bullying, school violence and drug use. Our programs are meant as a way for youth to “let off the steam”, in a healthy way to channel normal day to day anxieties, while also giving them the social and emotional skills to navigate their lives with more awareness on how to regulate their emotions in a more positive and collaborative way.
Q: How does Roots to Branches help young people? Why is it unique from other organizations?
A: We like to supply youth with the agency to take care of themselves and those around them. We do this with hands-on activities where everyone has a role and a voice in the process. By participating in a lesson plan with activities and then sharing our experiences, we can co-create a language of trust and empathy building that the students can translate to other areas of their lives. It is incredibly rewarding to reach a student in a positive way and see their faces light up with “I have it too!” I feel this process separates us from other organizations in its emphasis on “how” we teach rather than “what”.
Q: What is your proudest achievement in regards to Roots to Branches?
A: In quantitative terms, we have reached hundreds of families with meaningful activities that engage youth to take matters into their own hands. Our projects have included community garbage clean up campaigns, creating youth centers, building and handing out homeless youth resource kits, and in-class lessons centered around the impact of drug use and media on the perception of Self.
In qualitative terms I have seen several seriously misunderstood youth on their way to being sent to “at risk” programs, who upon being given responsibility and something meaningful to work on, entered into a more mature and stable state. Now they come back to us and say “I don’t know how you did it, but thank you!”
Q: Do you have a philosophy when it comes to mentoring young people?
A: We believe that youth need to be reached where they are “at”. Most education today tries to impose on youth as if they don’t know anything. As an adult, I may know things, but my job with youth is more to serve as a mirror, saying, “You know things too, and if we work together, just look what we can do!”
Q: What are some ideas and/or people that inspire you?
Any educator that has spent time with someone not for financial or personal gain but because of the sincere desire to help. Working with youth is “rewarding”, but this reward can come with lots of work and struggle to reach students that need reaching.
Q: What can we as a society do to encourage our young people to be more engaged?
A: Spend quality time with youth, working side-by-side. Look for collaborative projects and say, “We can do this together”. Encourage young people to identify their strengths and dreams. Dance and sing. Play games with teamwork built in. Pretty much anything done with youth with a clearly defined goal and intention will help them do the same in their lives. We just need to realize we are painting on the same canvas all the time as humans living together.
Q: What are the unique challenges you see young people facing today that are different from a generation ago and how do you think your organization prepares youngsters to face them?
A: The generational differences I mentioned earlier. At Roots to Branches, we focus on having honest conversations on how things, like media, drugs, peer pressure, conflict, and cooperation help shape or destroy the communities we live in.
When youth have awareness of why things are the way they are, and are engaged in the process, they can become empowered to change their communities for the better. At the very least, we try to build an internal sense of agency by students having awareness ‘why’ things like empathy, conflict resolution, communication etc. are important to building better communities.
Q: What advice would you give other entrepreneurs starting their own company?
A: Do what you love for its own sake, then worry about making money later. Trying to build a business for money’s sake is important for the day-to-day grind, but only by building towards our dreams will we change our society for the better.
Q: What are your short-term and long-terms goals for Roots to Branches?
A: Short: Increase our staff to spread our programs across the San Francisco Bay area.
Long: Integrate our services and lessons in teacher trainings and school projects nationwide as an effort to build social and emotional skills into everyday education.
Q: What do you do when negative things get to you? How do you cope?
A: We like to “practice what we preach”, by modeling the same behavior we ask of students: identify negative emotions by taking space to feel them, breathe into frustration, and understand where it resides in our body, and have awareness that all suffering comes and goes.
Q: What advice do you have for other educators/teachers wishing to effectively reach children?
A: I would recommend educators (and people in general) look at each relationship with youth as unique- if we begin to see that education isn’t about test scores, but more about the quality of our relationships, we can begin building an educational system that teaches the ‘whole child’ rather than ‘core subjects’.
As much as core subjects are important, the truly defining moments when I was a student were how my teachers could relate to me by sharing their passions and life lessons beyond the subject matter.
We recently facilitated a Ross Valley Community Meeting around underage youth alcohol and drug use, and the experience was truly eye-opening. Many community members were in attendance, and data was shared from a Healthy Kids Survey (here is a link to the site) that is administered to students throughout the state of California. Apparently, although Marin County consistently ranks in the top 5% in areas such as self-reported health, healthy air and physical activity, the county ranks in the bottom 25% in terms of excessive or binge drinking. Further analysis of the report shows that Marin County is one of the highest for adolescent drinking rates as well.
A flyer for the event
At the Community Meeting, presenters shared the Healthy Kids data and a student/teacher panel were present to answer questions. Many of the questions hit along the lines of why this problem was occurring: what is the reason so many youth begin to drink and use drugs at such an early age? Many answers were given: lack of communication with parents, no respect for the law, and several root factors were presented such as easy social access, insufficient enforcement of laws and inappropriate promotion of use. However, as the night went on it was obvious many people in attendance (including myself) wanted to start discussing solutions that would solve the problem. Given that the meeting was created with the intention of raising awareness, we continued to facilitate to ensure everyone was able to understand the issue as clearly as possible, knowing that a strategy of solutions was the next step.
At several moments during the meeting there was acknowledgement that a primary motive, or the reason for youth onset of drinking and using, was still hard to come by. As I researched effects of alcohol and drugs on the teen brain (here is a website for specific effects of Marijuana on the developing brain), I realized that youth awareness education is paramount to helping tweens and teens understand the issue before it is too late. Looking deeper at the data; into “where the river begins” so to speak, I began to see areas where youth begin to feel disconnected from their peers and environment, and then potentially trend towards alcohol and drugs as a way to “fill in” these gaps. These areas are outlined in the Resilience Indicators and Connectedness portion of the survey. Students were asked a series of questions to find out if they had Caring Adult Relationships, High Expectations, or Meaningful Participation in both School and Community Environments. The resulting aggregate data shows “High, Medium and Low” connection levels to each. I was not surprised to find that as students got older (and alcohol and drug use levels went up), levels for each resilience indicator went down, especially in regards to Meaningful Participation in both School and Community. Could it be that along with the string of stresses associated with being a youth, that youth were drinking and using drugs because they were…bored?
This data dive resonated with my experience as a youth: a student who maintained good grades throughout high school, was a member of football and track teams, honor society and student council yet still occasionally drank and smoked marijuana. I also had married parents who had stable incomes. My data set would have driven experts nuts- why does this kid use? The answer may have been with the environment around me: social influence of others using, a stress-and-forward driven culture of getting into college, and the altogether lack of meaningful connection to my environment. But what does lack of meaningful participation really mean?
As we continue the process of community meeting facilitation, school and youth engagement, I am willing to bet that by including youth in the process of creating meaningful service in their community; ultimately connecting what “School” and “Community” actually are; they will begin to feel more connected to their environments for a longer period of time. Will this “service learning” increase the resilience indicators associated with underage alcohol and drug use, thus lowering adolescent drinking and drug use rates? Only time; and well-executed strategies; will tell.
We recently began creating partnerships with youth centers and schools to build ongoing Rites of Passage programs for tween boys and girls. This process begat the question: what exactly IS a rite of passage?
Looking online at the fabulous Wikipedia gets me this answer: “A rite of passage is a ritual event that marks a person’s transition from one status to another. The concept of rites of passage as a general theory of socialization was first formally articulated by Arnold van Gennep in his book The Rites of Passage to denote rituals marking the transitional phase between childhood and full inclusion into a tribe or social group.” This would explain why Rites of Passage groups are typically undertaken with the “tween” population, who are essentially youth transitioning to adulthood.
When we at R2B are doing Rites of Passage youth groups, we try and use rituals as a way to bring youth together under a common group activity. Ritual activities can vary from the sacred to the profane, yet when done correctly allow youth to work together as a group while also identifying important aspects of their individual self such as fear, purpose, courage, etc. Are these group rituals in themselves a rite of passage? Not exactly. We like to think of the ritual activities as a way to prepare youth to handle the real rites of passage that life will naturally bring to them.
Further investigation into the meaning of the term “rite of passage” was found when I began translating the term into Spanish. Based on the wordreference.com translation, there were three possible uses: rito de iniciación, rito de pasaje, and rito de paso. Looking at the first, it is a “rite of initiation”, or a process taking us into something new that we learn or are introduced to. The second use, or “rito de pasaje” literally means a “rite of passage” and signifies passing from one phase to another (as in transition from youth to adult). The most intriguing I found was the third use, or “rito de paso”. Literally translated this means “rite of a step, walkway, or place of crossing”. Taking this further it reminds me of the small steps we take in life, that when added together, make for the larger changes that inevitably will affect us and make us who we really are.
The term “rite of passage” may seem easy to define on paper or to translate into a different language. The real test comes from actually working with individuals to help them express their true selves in the context of group dynamic, ongoing family drama, social pressures and daily habits. As we walk through life and interact with others, aren’t we all going through some form of rite of passage?
Stumbled across a natural-material collage heart and stone cairn on a recent hike. As youth experience nature in a rites of passage program, it’s important they discover meaning for themselves in the landscape.
Recently, we were tasked with the re-opening of a Youth Center in an existing town community center. The premise was to create a place for youth to come and hang-out after school, do homework in a collaborative environment, and utilize services available to them. When we talked with local youth about what activities they envisioned in a Youth Center, we were given a list of items: pool table, ping pong, computers with internet access, video games, etc. Seeking to establish credentials with the youth by providing items on their list as quickly as possible, we procured two items immediately available: a donated pool table and an X-box 360.
Since opening a month ago, we have noticed a steady shift in the youth that started coming to the Center. The first wave of youth were excited at the possibilities of accessing homework portals, yet due to unforeseen bureaucratic red tape, items such as internet enabled computers to access Edmodo and Google Docs are still in the works. The results have been a focus shift in users – youth unable to access online information for homework either go elsewhere or have been drawn to the X-box. As facilitators overseeing how the Center is being utilized, we noticed that many of the students who originally started using the space for homework began dwindling away, and more youth who were excited at the prospect of joint gaming began showing up to do homework as quickly as possible and then “plug in”.
The dilemma this shift has caused is now in acute focus. As creators of what we call “dynamic learning environments”, R2B believes youth need to learn in many contexts with many tools. This includes the belief that in order to empower the inherent learning abilities in a student, sometimes we need to “unplug” the learning environment from technological portals so a student can see the world through their own eyes. An example of this came when we noticed students who showed up at the Center to do homework were increasingly distracted at the noise and energy of the video gaming, even when it happened in an adjoining room. We also noticed that when gaming took place, the students begin speaking to the game and not to each other. We recently watched the documentary Play Again about youth overuse of technology, and it showed a fascinating statistic stating youth engage in approximately 3 minutes of meaningful dialogue with parents on a given day, yet have over 500 minutes of “screen time” per day.
The discrepancy between leveraging what youth want and what we believe youth need is a large one. In order to engage a youthful audience and gain their trust, we need to speak their language and acknowledge their interests, without sacrificing the values that we believe to be vital for a sustainable future. Our approach at the Youth Center began by engaging youth in what their interests are, yet based on our experience with the video games, we need to begin creating models of how youth can “unplug” in order to “reconnect” to themselves. This begins next week, when the X-box will no longer be available, and youth will need to find alternative ways of “hanging out”.