TRC-Informed CYC

October 15, 2015

by — Posted in Peer Edited Submissions

I recently saw a photograph my friend took of his young son standing on the steps of the residential school his mother (the boy’s grandmother) had attended before the building was demolished. In the picture, the little boy is proudly raising his fist in the air, wearing a beautifully woven cedar hat. The building looks weak and decrepit. I can assure you I’ve never been more moved by an image.

Everyone who sees that photograph will experience something different. For me, my heart welled with love, gratitude, even joy. I saw in it the strength of culture, pride, and persistent love. I saw that the people are winning. Then I felt rage that they’ve had to fight at all, and took comfort in the shabby condition of the bricks. I took some hope from that, felt cautious about my hope, and then looked at the boy one more time and felt a big yes.

In a recent CYC-online article, Heather Modlin[1] observes that Child and Youth Care (CYC) is taken up in different ways throughout our field. For some, “challenging the status quo” is a priority, while for others the priority is providing “direct assistance.” I would add (and assume Modlin would agree) that much of the time these are not at all competing commitments. In fact, I will argue that they never are.

In the article, Modlin also cautions we be careful not to push the young people we work with to adopt our agendas. I couldn’t agree more: that would be residential school all over again. In this post-Truth and Reconciliation Commission Canada, it is our responsibility now to be more self-reflective than ever about how we engage in practice and what informs our decisions. This is not about intellectualizing. This is about justice.

What I’m saying is that I agree (and I re-iterate because it is so important) that children and all people have the right to self-determination. I also agree that what most children want is to be included and have fun. But the important question to ask ourselves is what do we do with that information?

To me these ideas are inherently political because as it stands, it is a fact that not all children have equal opportunities to those things. This is not to say that we should turn young people into activists. It is to say, however, that we have a responsibility – as those who’ve decided that prioritizing the well-being of children, youth, and families is a central commitment of our lives – to address unjust conditions that limit the access some children have to quality of life.

In order to clarify my point and to respond to the question ‘what do we do?’, I’d like to share a couple of excerpts from an important new book called Determinants of Indigenous Peoples’ Health in Canada: Beyond the Social.[2]  To avoid abstractions I will focus on a particular chapter by Chandler and Dunlop in which the issue of youth suicide prevention is discussed. The authors assert that painting suicide as an ‘Indigenous’ issue is not only inaccurate but it leads us astray. In British Columbia, for example, with over 200 distinct First Nation bands,

… more or less half of the Indigenous communities in the province have no (i.e., zero, have never had any) youth suicides – a status that is repeated across 15 years of study … . By sharp contrast, other less fortunate bands within the province suffer youth suicide rates an agonizing 1000-plus times the national average. (p. 87)

By erasing this diversity and creating averages to represent rates of youth suicide in Indigenous communities in general, we not only completely misrepresent reality, we also miss the opportunity to learn about what is happening in the communities at each end of this spectrum. Fortunately, Chandler and Dunlop have resisted this generalizing tendency and the answer to the question of what contributes to such disparity is “no longer a matter for mere speculation.”

The clear answer provided by our program of research is that communities that have low to absent youth suicide rates are different from their opposite numbers in that they are marked by multiple community-level efforts to achieve a high level of ownership of their own cultural past, and an elevated level of success in controlling their own civic futures. In particular, this means that Indigenous communities with low to absent rates of youth suicide tend to be characterized by such things as self-government, active involvement in attempts to restore title to traditional lands, to preserve Indigenous languages and culture, and to restore the historic place of women in tribal governance. (p. 87)

Despite this strong evidence, we still primarily address suicidality “one individual sufferer at a time” (p. 78). And despite the fact that we have no strong evidence to suggest suicide is predictable, we continue to aim prevention efforts at helping people “somehow divine who is and who is not at serious risk” (p. 84).[3] This illustrates how focussing on direct assistance without acknowledging the context and politics of what is at play may not serve young people in the ways we intend.

And all of this taken together makes clear to me that not understanding the political nature of child and youth well-being is our most likely route to inadvertently pigeon-holing young people into our own (in this case) individually-oriented agendas.

What the photograph described earlier and the particular issue of youth suicide tell me is that the way children are raised is a political endeavour. And what the TRC report reminds us is that we must be vigilant. We must go above and beyond simply wanting children to do well; we must take in the evidence and respond accordingly (and deeply consider what does and doesn’t count as evidence, committing as Chandler and Dunlop do not to accept any old ‘evidence’).

It is evident when we see the calls to action the TRC directs at the federal government (regarding child welfare, education, language and culture, health, and justice) and consider the many settings in which CYC practitioners find themselves, that these calls to action are relevant for our practice with children and families. And the principles of reconciliation identified in the TRC report speak to the heart of CYC: relationship building; closing the gap in social, health, and economic outcomes for all children; nurturing intergenerational connections among youth and Elders; joint leadership; and more. The evidence gathered through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission came at a great cost to those who shared their stories publically. We have a responsibility to listen to what we’ve learned from them as we consider our roles in the lives of children and families.

We must do more to respond to complex political realities than presume the only point of intervention is the child him- or herself. This is not to say I am not committed to child-centered practice. I am. But centering the child requires that we cultivate a deep understanding of what each particular child is in the centre of, not seeing the child in isolation or in generalized terms.

I would love to share that photo with you. But while my friend who took it does want it to be used as a tool for dialogue, he does not want his precious son to be the object of the gaze of strangers. I respect their right to self-determination.

 

[1][1] Modlin, H. (2015). The agenda of Child and Youth Care: Political or individual? CYC-Online, issue 200, pp. 152-154. Retrieved 13 October, 2015 from http://www.cyc-net.org/cyc-online/oct2015.pdf

[2] Greenwood, M., de Leeuw, S., Lindsay, N. M., & Reading, C. (2015). Determinants of Indigenous peoples’ health in Canada: Beyond the Social. Toronto, ON: Canadian Scholars’ Press.

[3] You can read more about the way ideology unwittingly informs practices like these – which we might perceive to be apolitical – in this piece by Jennifer White.


This article was peer-edited by Hans Skott-Myhre. 

Photo and weaving by Claudia Medina.

About Janet Newbury

Janet Newbury teaches and does research in the School of Child and Youth Care at the University of Victoria. Much of her previous work experience is with children and youth in the family context, but her current practice involves working intergenerationally and interculturally in community context - she is involved in a number of formal and informal community-based initiatives. Her post-doctoral research was around community-based approaches to economic and social development and focused largely in her home community of Powell River, BC. She is hugely motivated by the shared leadership she experiences there.
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3 thoughts on “TRC-Informed CYC

  1. This is tricky ground, and I appreciate your efforts to tease out the messy contradictions inherent in our roles as practitioners, in what I agree are undeniably “political” contexts. What immediately comes to mind for me personally here are the added complications that confront us when we oversee spaces where many young people, often of contrasting individual political, cultural, and racial backgrounds, interact with one another in these same kinds of conversations. What is our role then, when the relationship takes us outside of the already perilous binary of ‘we the worker’ and ‘they the person served’, and instead reflects back at us a microcosm of our chaotic ‘adult’ worlds? How do we act when we don’t have control over the if, how, and whens of where the conversation happens?

    I can remember a tense moment in my practice years ago, as a youth worker for an “alternative” high school, working with teens typically described as “vulnerable”, “at-risk”, “street-entrenched”, etc. It involved an argument between two boys, one an off-reserve Indigenous youth, and the other of white European descent, both around 16-17 years old. The white boy had been sort of ‘proselytizing’ in a car ride back from a group field trip, waxing philosophical (and loudly) about his beliefs as a Christian around ideas of forgiveness and proper moral behaviour. The other boy, intensely annoyed at this chatter, abruptly interrupted the first to angrily shout at him, “You know what, dude? F— your white god!”. The sudden silence was palpable, obviously, and my coworker and I shared our mutual relief later on that this comment didn’t result in an immediately violent and/or ugly scene. Instead, we both fell back on some light refereeing techniques, offering statements about respecting each others’ beliefs, and the importance of being mindful of taking up a lot of ‘space’ in group conversations, etc. This seemed to work, and the boys sort of casually agreed not to take it any further. Crisis averted.

    There’s a part of me nowadays that wishes we could have instead met that moment head on, and used some of the emotional and intellectual energy it generated in the group to create an opportunity for some truly deep and transformative dialoguing/sharing of perspectives. Likely our cautious, non-confrontational approach belied some of the professional anxieties and required ethical considerations you spoke to above. I was glad to have that particular coworker in the car with me that day, though, because we shared pretty much the same reaction to the boy’s outburst, which hinged on three fundamental understandings of the situation:

    1) We both understood the Indigenous boy’s statement as a completely valid, honest, and politically legitimate expression of frustration at the other boy’s ease and comfort in his privilege as a white Christian male in a dominant Western society. I would say also that we both admired his conviction, and the subtle/not-so-subtle eloquence of his choice of those four words as a kind of poetic catch-all for a perspective many probably share.

    2) We both understood that this statement was spoken from not only a place of anger and annoyance, but from a mature and intelligent understanding of historical and political realities: both the boy’s own personal and familial realities as well as those of Canadian society in general. This understanding had to do with our familiarity with the exceptional intelligence and awareness of this particular youth.

    3) We both understood our duties, ethically speaking, to not “take sides” in such a confrontation, or to privilege the perspectives and feelings of one of our charges over another.

    I think this last item, for me, exemplifies the uncertainty I feel when I contemplate your call to enact a TRC-informed CYC practice (an uncertainty only around the ‘how’, mind you, and not the ‘why’). I think there’s an internal fragmentation for me there, which is why I choose to say I “understood” this need for neutrality, rather than say I “believed” in it. I do of course value the importance of maintaining professional boundaries with the youth I work with, problems of explicit/implicit definitions of such boundaries aside. And in this case, I didn’t begrudge the white youth for not having the self awareness or nuanced conceptualization of his location in a colonized Western nation to contextualize his friend’s anger. Nor would I have felt comfortable providing him with such a context, given that he, like the other boy, had likely experienced his own share of poverty, neglect, trauma, etc.

    This isn’t to say that I lacked faith in his ability to engage with concepts like decolonialization, intersectionality, or privilege, however. Kids in his kind of circumstances are often shockingly bright despite their poor showings in the classroom, as most of us know from experience. Also, their self-identities as persons at the margins of society, where they often don’t yet know how to make use of the privilege of a white body (or view themselves as existing outside this privilege, as ‘white trash’, ‘ghetto’, etc.), often engenders a unique ability to empathize and engage with a multiplicity of experiences by others who also live in these margins. Frankly, I’d have put this kid’s ability to parse his white, male privilege against that of most affluent, willfully ignorant adults who ought to see things much more clearly. I believe the attack on his “God”, period, meant more to him as an insult or offense than that to his specifically “white” God, and I don’t think he was ignorant in any major way to the existence of racial inequality in his country.

    But maybe that’s the rub. Would it have been ethical, in such a situation, to confront this youth with the potentially overwhelming suggestion that his lived experiences of suffering, despair, etc., might be situated in hierarchical subordination to that of his Indigenous or otherwise racialized friends, simply because of the potential for him to benefit from a system he doesn’t yet understand? Would my own belief that he could “probably handle it” justify the possible dangers of such a ‘nudging’, such as the effect on his own psycho-social equilibrium, or the damage to our relationship, to his relationship with his friend(s), or even to future possibilities of understanding and growth that might be compromised by my choosing to jump the gun on his conceptual learning? How much was my professional knowledge worth in this context, or my own unique privilege?

    Of course it’s no less troubling to ask myself what it meant for the other boy to have two adults, both white, sidestep his frustrations in deference to our desire for the boys to “just get along”. What message was sent in our having weighted his raw expression of personal truth as equal to that of a white peer’s ‘right’ to religious expression? Did he feel silenced there, or might he have seen our intervention as reflective of the greater social discourse, of government apologies and token gestures of empathy and respect smoke-screening a regimen of continued colonial aggression and ignored, systemic racism?

    Obviously I have no answers here, so for now I’ll just thank you for the useful generative prodding towards a more challenging view of our political roles in CYC. Part of me feels that maybe one of those roles involves moving these conversations along into the spaces we share with youth, whereas another part of me cringes in uncertainty about whether we even have the tools to facilitate such conversations in an adequately responsible and conscientious way. But then again, part of me knows these conversations are happening either way, regardless of whatever choices we make.

    1. Thanks for this nuanced and complex response. I really appreciate the way that you offer struggle as praxis. Grounding your response in a concrete example is extremely helpful to me in thinking through these entangled and challenging questions of practice. We can certainly use more of this kind of clear sighted analysis–thanks again!

  2. I appreciate very much, Janet, your weaving together some of the key elements in contemporary child and youth care and child welfare, using the important findings of Chandler and Dunlop’s research on Indigenous health and suicide as a focal point. I also appreciate your phrase “TRC-informed CYC”, as our field needs to play an increasingly informed and active role in building momentum towards true national reconciliation. The next wave on the sea of CYC practice, as is also being demonstrated in South Africa now in the ISIBINDI model, is to bring CYC knowledge, skills and attitudes to communities in order to support children, youth and families to flourish “where they are planted.” I applaud your ongoing efforts to both help to create community initiatives and to articulate the underlying principles, values and implications of this work. And your description of the photo of the young man standing defiantly on the steps of the decaying residential school building provides a very powerful image for a post-TRC Canadian reality.

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