Laura Parker Roerden
Youth Development in a Hurricane
omething about the way we’ve done youth development for the past few decades no longer feels right to me. The times have changed; and with it, so have we all.
Ocean Matters, a service-learning program for teens, conducted an expedition in Grand Cayman, British West Indies once when the back end of a hurricane blew through. We were there to perform a scuba-diving service project, documenting coral bleaching for the Caymanian Department of the Environment. Five staff members and twenty teenage youth were spread across two large beachfront villas. The locals were nonplussed. “Hunker down,” they advised about the hurricane and then smiled good-naturedly at the panic on our faces. We pulled long metal shutters across the ocean-facing windows, secured outside items like chairs and hammocks, and waited. The evening passed uneventfully, if not strangely, as we could only hear the hurricane’s eerie whistle now that our view to the outside was blocked. We had no idea what was happening as we watched movies and retreated to bed. The next morning, we awoke to blue skies. Flotsam and jetsam littered the beach, but there was no visible damage to the property. We planned our afternoon research dive that day carefully, just the same, as the surf was expected to be worse than normal.
Our shore dive entry and exit required us to navigate a cut in the reef crest, right at the point where the surf usually breaks. If you timed it right, you’d hit the narrow cut in the coral just as the surf was retreating. Then, with one swift kick of your fins you’d shoot into deeper water in some bizarre inversion of being born. If you timed it wrong, a wave would pummel you against the bony coral. We wore wetsuits, despite the warm waters, just in case.
That day our research dive went well. We were deep enough on the reef to be below the remaining wave action on the surface. As our first dive pair reached the pre-designated minimum of air for returning, the adults motioned to the group with hand signals that it was time to head back to shore. Each dive pair was carrying a meter square quadrat or a measuring tape transect, tools we needed in our research, as we navigated our way back to shore, using only landmarks. The reef had become like a familiar neighborhood to us in the weeks we were diving. But as we approached the cut in the reef, it became clear that the surf was going to be a bigger factor than it had been on our way out. The wind had again unexpectedly kicked up. The reef cut was now pummeled with several confusing lines of intersecting waves. Chaos had come calling.
Our lead dive instructor Peter had stopped to wait for everyone to catch up. Then in the silent world that is scuba diving, an amazing synchronization within the group took hold. Peter kicked his way through the cut successfully and waited on the other side. As each student took a turn through the cut, he or she handed any equipment off to someone on the other side. The timing for the plunge through the narrow passage was coordinated by hand signals. Each student waited until his or her dive partner was through, and then motioned they were safe with an “OK” hand signal. Like needles carefully sewn through cloth, we together found our way back to shore through this careful pattern of movement.
There was great celebration once we were all safely on the sand. Our group had silently self-organized and adapted to a difficult situation successfully. Each person was held by the group as both a resource for one another and someone to be supported. We could not control the capricious and sometimes dangerous sea, but we could find our strength and self-agency as we stitch-by-stitch wove a tapestry of belonging and wholeness between us.
The State of Youth:
I think about that hurricane and that group of Ocean Matter teenagers often, as dire reports about the state of youth’s mental health in the aftermath of the pandemic, global climate breakdown, the fight for racial justice, and threats to democracy collide like a perfect storm.
A recent survey published in the Lancet of 10,000 youth worldwide, showed more than half of the 16 to 25-year-olds felt humanity “doomed” and nearly 40 percent are reluctant to have children of their own because of fears for their future. Research on mental health and the impact of the pandemic estimated that over 2.5 million youth in the U.S. now have severe depression, with 1 in 7 BIPOC youth at highest risk. The various breakdowns across our society have taken its toll.
Most environmental education programs for youth have as their aim to teach about nature, but also to create the next generation of knowledgeable stewards. The story we tell often has a similar trajectory. It goes something like this:
- Nature is amazing (insert scientific principles, awe-inspiring encounters.)
- Here are the threats to it (list an overwhelming number of ways we’re ruining said nature.)
- But we can fix it (here is the roadmap out.)
- And it relies on you.
But there’s a problem with that line of thinking, and it’s gotten worse as the societal problems have mounted. How can our generation inspire youth when we’re the ones who created the problems in the first place? Are we bypassing taking responsibility for our messes, by somehow insinuating that youth might be able to do better? And how much bad news can we pile on to youth without something important breaking?
As Ocean Matters youth leader Liam from Florida, age 15, heartbreakingly summarized to our group recently, “Our parents and ancestors messed up this planet, and now it’s us who will have to fix everything.”
Furthermore, bringing a burden to an already oppressed group is just more of the same. Paulo Freire, in his Pedagogy of the Oppressed, reminds us of the costs of expecting a certain value transformation in our educational efforts. He refers to this as the “banking model” where youth are the “depositees” and teachers the “depositors.” This model relies on seeing others in a deficit model (needing to learn X, Y, or Z), which leads to more oppression. He writes, “No pedagogy which is truly liberating can remain distant from the oppressed by treating them as unfortunates and by presenting for their emulation models from among the oppressors. The oppressed must be their own example in the struggle for their redemption.” Many of us in the field now feel we should be probing how to best retool our goals and methods as our programs swing back into action. What do youth truly need right now? What new goals and objectives might we need to outline for our programming?
Action as Antidote?
Prior to the pandemic, many found inspiration in the energy and results of youth rising to address social problems, such as Greta Thunberg leading the Fridays for Future fight for climate action, clean water activist Autumn Peltier, and girls’ education activist Malala Yousafaszi.
As Joni Mitchell once said, “Action is the antidote to despair.” Recent research shows that still to be true. Youth, who felt the most overwhelmed and paralyzed by racism and injustice during the pandemic, experienced higher levels of well-being compared to their counterparts, if they had access to civic engagement on the issues concerning them.
There is clearly something to be said for rolling up one’s sleeve and addressing a problem rather than hand-wringing about it. But as we widen our tent to include others, we must begin with youth and their sincere desires for action or inaction, their needs to take care of themselves, and their need to provide space for reflection. We must also address the burdens they carry.
The benefit of youth engagement in social movements is not just for youth. Throughout modern history, youth have risen to transform their communities through purposeful action. The Children’s Crusade of the Civil Rights Movement, through its relentless energy and moral clarity, helped push through the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Chicano Rights Movement in 1968, which at the time was the largest student protest in U.S. history, led to meaningful change in policies that affected the rights of too long marginalized Latinx populations.
Furthermore, youth engagement and leadership in social issues is also good for democracy. Recent research shows involvement in social movements is correlated to higher rates of youth voting. As we worry about the state of democracy in our country, there is ever increasing reason to care that today’s youth, who are tomorrow’s voters, learn about civic engagement and social responsibility by experiencing it directly.
Clearly positive action addressing problems has its place in our work with youth. But is it enough? Given the turbulence of the times, I suggest it is not. As we reboot Ocean Matters to engage youth with more service learning work this summer, we are turning our attention to how to build scaffolding for youth with trauma-informed practices that develop skills and tools for resilience. We are intentionally creating a community to mend holes and gaps with woven matrixes of interdependence. We are committing to healing.
Finding Purpose and Resilience Together:
Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl once wrote (loosely quoting Nietzsche), “He who has a why can endure almost any how.” Now seems to be a particularly important time for allowing space for reflection for youth to plumb their own guiding principles and purposes. To do this well requires intentional skill-building, such as activities that promote the healthy expression of feelings, win-win conflict resolution, and listening for resonance.
Just as youth so many years ago in Grand Cayman were able to anticipate one another’s needs and provide support underwater during particularly rough surf, a connected community is one that considers each member’s perspectives and needs as integral, because each member is uniquely seen, valued, and known.
It’s our common-unity that provides the safety for the risk taking and the movement outside of our comfort zone that is integral to our growth. Community building is also important to nurturing a sense of social responsibility. Research on activists shows the common thread to their activism was not the information they learned about a problem, but rather the degree of connectedness they felt within their communities and “a need for a sense of meaning and a sense of place within the larger whole.”
As we tell our stories about the ecosystems we are working in, can we shift our attention from what is dying to what is living? From the individual to the community level? Trauma expert Dr. Gretchen Schmelzer reminds us that in times when things seem to be going wrong, rather than use our critical judging eye, we can alternatively pay attention to what is going well.
“Look for what is growing,” she writes. We can do this by noticing what’s flourishing in nature, but also what’s growing in ourselves and in our communities. Who are our supporters? Who are our mentors? What brings us inspiration? Helping youth see assets, rather than deficits, in their lives can become a foundation upon which purposeful action can grow.
Other tools for resilience building include teaching meditation, yoga, deep breathing, and other relaxation skills. As environmental educators, we have a built-in resource to offer youth: nature as resource and teacher. Over the years of being with teenagers scuba diving in the ocean, I have seen nature heal young people struggling with eating disorders, or teenagers trying to leave a gang, or youth grappling with the death of a loved one. I’ve seen nature become a living presence in young people’s lives—one that can guide and support in surprising and novel ways. Nature’s presence in our life can change and grow with us.
“I think nature has a much stronger voice in my life today,” said Josh, one Ocean Matters alumnus. “Depending on the day of the week or the situation, it’s the voice of restraint, the voice of practicality, the voice of kindness. Sometimes it keeps me from doing what I might want to do. Other times, it makes me feel good about what I am doing.”
While we often talk about saving our wild spaces in the work we do with youth, perhaps, it’s time to frame it the other way around: we can focus more on how our wild spaces save us.
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Laura Parker Roerden Writer/Photographer
Laura Parker Roerden is founder and executive director of Ocean Matters, a service learning organization for teens. She has nearly 30 years of experience educating for social responsibility. She was Managing Editor of the magazine New Designs for Youth Development and publisher at Educators for Social Responsibility. Her numerous programs developed include ones for PBS, Frontline, the NBA, Ben & Jerry’s, Pokemon USA, The National School-Age Care Alliance, AT&T, and others. Her programs have won Parent Choice Awards and a Grammy nomination.