Rites of passage work is a community movement

Israh Goodall

4th October 2022

Rites of passage work is about cultural and ecological thriving. It is not a programme; it is a community movement.

As part of Starter Culture’s Cups of Tea process we interviewed more than 20 leaders in rites of passage work around the world to discover what is needed to support rites of passage with young people to flourish in these times.

“Rites of passage is a conscious, deliberate community-based process with ritual and ceremony. The ‘rite’ of the rite of passage is to help individuals know who they are in themselves and in relation to the community and wider world” (Darcy Ottey

It has only been a few hundred years since we have not had ritual or ceremony to mark this important life transition from child to adult. All over the world it remains integral to in-tact indigenous culture – in service of the health and balance of the whole community. Traditionally a rite of passage would have been deeply instilled within the young person’s local community - whereas today and more specifically in westernised countries where a rite of passage is offered, it takes the form of programmes and mentoring. 

Where a Rite of passage is not available, it is often the case that young people are not experiencing the level of support/challenge that leads to a deeper sense of self and commitment to their place in the world, and may indeed find other often harmful ways to initiate themselves to cope with this tumultuous time. The escalating mental health crisis amongst young people worldwide is undeniable and heart breaking in equal measure: relationship difficulties; addiction (to screens and substances); preoccupation with money and most tragically, suicide rates are all on the rise among our younger generation.  

This seems relatively unsurprising when we consider the extent of how we generally live or school; success often measured by material wealth, lack of nature connection, isolation from community and a resulting sense of not belonging; rising numbers of gangs and knife crime; dominant cultures of complacency in the face of our climate and other crises. Arguably, the lack of helping young people to integrate their experiences growing up and stepping into adulthood in a more holistic, interconnected and held way is likely contributing to these increasing mental health statistics.

“Youth mental health is increasingly concerning and is the worst it has ever been. Research shows that when youth are struggling, they go to the internet or their friends. Therefore, we have to create spaces for them to feel met and safe.  At the same time our elders are isolated, lonely with also an increasing suicide rate. These issues are interconnected. We need to work together” (Arne Rubinstein)

Rites of passage must be integrated into the systems that exist and not be an extra - there is not ‘a way’ to do this but instead this work must be responsive and born from the need and culture it exists in. Generally current programme-based rites of passage experiences tend to focus on the ‘crossing the threshold’ phase, and there is a lack of emphasis, often due to resources, on the preparation and reintegration phases. Any work with young people to be truly effective and fit for these times of increasing and deepening crisis, needs to be embedded within long-standing communities with support that can help them integrate their learning and manage the inevitable changes.

The research has shown that whilst there are thousands of incredible and transformative examples of the impact of rites of passage for young people in its current form it remains isolated. In order to integrate a young person’s insight, growth and vision that they often come away with from rite of passage experiences into their everyday life we need to revision how we work with rites of passage. And instead turn more toward a collaborative approach with the communities the youth live within. This also goes somewhat towards avoiding the ‘one size fits all’ methodology that has historically meant cultural appropriation has been rife in organisations. We must ask what makes/holds a rite of passage here? What stories, themes, images, practices are appropriate, relevant and inspiring to a young person and how do we find that out? How can we weave the ancient and the modern to offer young people and their community a relevant but deeply reverent rite of passage?

And most importantly; “what’s really needed to ensure all voices are at the table?  What really is possible when we turn up in ceremony together on behalf of this larger prayer. What can be transformed through that “. (Darcy Ottey

All of this leads to the importance of inviting a more collaborative, emergent and cross-pollinating response that can meet and honour the diverse intricacies of our communities. We are therefore in the process of securing funding to run a pilot project across various levels of scale (local, national and trans-local) to explore how to create community based rites of passage initiatives that bring together a diverse group of people such as; youth and elders of the community, families, youth organisations, schools and other community institutions to name a few, interested in this long-term approach that supports young people to find their place and purpose in their community. Together we will sit in a collective 'cups of tea' council to harvest and cross-pollinate our collective wisdom around how to work as a community to support young people today.

From here questions that require time and trust can emerge such as how to engage with youth from different backgrounds, and ensure their stories and values are heard and embedded in what comes forth? What conditions would support the community to want to engage and cross-pollinate? How can a community support youth in preparing and integrating their rites of passage experience so the learning becomes more embodied? 

It is essential this process is emergent in order to ensure we are not seeking a ‘one-size-fits-all’ 'solution'. Certainly though, the processes taken, and learning gained could be used and replicated in other communities to support them in finding their own relevant and accessible rites of passage support for their youth.

The issue is that currently the emphasis is on individual productivity rather than collective responsibility. “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” But collective rites of passage is harder; more vulnerable, more valuable, harder to prove (Adam, We are Open Circle).

The learning from these interviews points towards how we can help rites of passage flourish beyond the programme form. Not to be rid of this, but more importantly to enrich and make relevant and strengthen the journey youth take. In these times we are all called to look again at the systems we have created and be brave to revision how we do things. It is the time to jump and try no matter how challenging it may be. We have already engaged with some of those who will form part of these 'cups of tea' councils and would love to hear from any of you who may be able to offer skills, experience and vision to supporting this.

You can read a summary of these interviews - and the community-based thread that emerged through them in this collaborative document that invites your questions and comments.

For further information about the interviews email israhgoodall@gmail.com

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