Posts Tagged ‘Reflections’
I wonder who among those of you who will read this post – who among you are old enough to remember when Martin Luther King Jr Day became a national holiday?
I remember. I was a kid. Not a little kid – probably early teens. Old enough to understand that this was important; young enough to be so naive as to be stunned when I learned that making Martin Kuther King’s birthday a federal holiday wasn’t an automatic, easy win.
I had a button in support of the holiday. A big, round red and white political button. I was wearing it one day when I ran into our neighbor, Mrs. Buckler.
Mrs. Buckler was old. She was frail. And she had some dementia. I had watched my mom protect her when the local fraternity publicly and loudly teased and humiliated her during Rush Week.
So I was stunned when she saw my button and started an impassioned political conversation. And even more stunned that she was furious about the idea that our country would create a holiday in honor of Dr Martin Luther King Jr.
For my 13th birthday, I asked for “A Testament of Hope,” Dr. King’s collected writings. Despite the fact that he and Harriet Tubman were my long-standing childhood heroes, I was oblivious to the fact that there was anybody who didn’t idolize MLK as I did.
I was shocked that anyone in this country would oppose a national day to remember and honor him.
Because, you see – I was a white girl. Had I grown up a black girl, I would not have been shocked that racism still existed. I might have idolized Rev. King – but I would have had no illusions that he or the Civil Rights Movement ended racial inequality and injustice in the United States of America.
This is what White Privilege is.
I could grow up passionately devoted to justice and equality, and not understand until my early teens that racism was alive and well.
Our young people of color don’t have the luxury of being so naive as to believe that our City is safe; or that it’s as safe for them as it is for me. They talk of the dangers of “driving while black.” They share stories of being stopped by the police, of being roughed up by the police every day. I’ve watched police drive by a paddling venue and stop where they can watch our groups as we load kayaks; something that has never happened when I’ve paddled those same venues with white paddlers over the last 15 years. We’ve had a peaceful group, sitting in a public gazebo debriefing a paddling program, approached by a police officer who’s first sentence was an aggressive “What’s REALLY going on here?” He accused the group of threatening and violent behavior.
As a clinician, it’s tempting to take the view that I work with individuals; with individual hurts, individual betrayals, individual traumas — all safely apolitical and uncontroversial.
Trauma-informed care tells us otherwise.
“To study psychological trauma means bearing witness to horrible events. When the traumatic events are of human design, those who bear witness are caught in the conflict between the victim and the perpetrator. It is morally impossible to remain neutral in this conflict. The bystander is forced to take sides. It is very tempting to take the side of the perpetrator. All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing. He appeals to the universal desire to see, hear, and speak no evil. The victim, on the other hand, asks the bystander to share the burden or pain. The victim demands action, engagement, and remembering.”
~ Herman, J. L. (1992). “Trauma and recovery”
In a city where we know the names of Rekia Boyd, Sandra Bland, LaQuan McDonald – I’m left with the question:
What is our ethical responsibility as clinicians who work with young people who have experienced trauma because of oppression? Because of systemic racism, sexism, heterosexism, cisexism?
I believe we cannot be silent.
While I would be less surprised today by Mrs. Buckler’s vehement opposition to making the Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday a Federal Holiday, I still have the privilege to choose to be utterly blind to the oppression and systemic racism that is a part of our young people’s lives day in and day out. As a well-trained clinician, I believe I have an ethical responsibility to take an active and visible stance against it. If I don’t, I betray the trust our young people put in me.
Do you remember your first camping trip? Roasting marshmallows around the campfire; watching shooting stars at night; being terrified of the creature outside your tent at night that must certainly have been a bear, and a REALLY big one – only to realize it was a raccoon. … or a chipmunk. Swimming in mountain lakes, skipping stones on any body of water you could find, climbing rocks and trees, eating food that may or may not have been good, but always tasted beyond amazing when you were eating it outdoors after a day in the sun or the rain…
Sometimes we get to create those touchstone experiences for the young people we work with. They are invariably some of my favorite CAT programs. Our most recent trip was to South Carolina for the East Coast Paddlesports and Outdoor Festival, with a young man who participated in the 2013 Gitchi Gumee Project – and this trip, too, was amazing.
I don’t know whether my favorite thing about this trip was the 80 degree weather in early April, the hospitality of the organizers and coaches of the event, the variety of sports and craft that Jose got to try out, or the fact that, once again, I had the tremendous privilege and joy of introducing a young person to something brand new to him. And then getting to show him even more of that sport – new skills, new crafts, new venues, a broader cross-section of the community…
I think, when it comes down to it, that what makes my favorite programs my favorites is this. It’s about that same visceral, not quite speakable sense that comes with the smell of rain and the sound of it on my tent. The years-long search for the perfect golden brown marshmallow, and a way to melt the chocolate for the S’more it will fill.
* * * * *
Jose was nervous about paddling when he joined us at the Great Lakes Sea Kayak Symposium for the Gtichi Gumee Project. Some of our volunteers were worried, the first day, when he had a difficult time staying calm with a wet exit. (A wet exit is a required skill when you paddle a sea kayak if you wear what’s called a spray skirt. The skirt keeps water from coming into the cockpit – it’s not so important, it turns out, to stay dry; but a skirt is helpful for the stability of the boat. A boat filled with water handles sort of like a dishpan filled with water. If you’ve ever tried to carry a full container of water, you know that once it starts sloshing, it just starts sloshing more. It can be tricky to keep your balance in a boat that’s doing that.)
I worked with Jose for a good 30 to 45 minutes, helping him to find a way to stay calm as he dumped his boat over, pulled the skirt off his boat, and came back to the surface holding onto his boat and his paddle. Two days later, he was surfing on Lake Superior. The grin on his face touched the hearts of a whole lot of paddlers. It was one of those rain-on-the-tent marshmallow moments that none of us quite had the words to describe.
Jose can surprise you. He’s very quiet, almost painfully shy. It can be hard to tell if he understands a piece of technique you’re teaching him, whether or not he’s having a good time… Then you watch him in a class on technique and realize he’s really quite talented, and is taking in everything the coach is saying. He’ll tell you that he hopes he gets to come back to the event, and you realize, in the tone of his voice and the way he looks directly at you once he’s finished his sentence, that the event hasn’t just been fun for him; it has made an impact on his life. You ask him what the best part of the trip was, and he says it was the rescue class. You ask him why, and he says it was because the instructor trusted him to demonstrate how to stabilize a boat as the instructor climbed in and out, demonstrating a variety of entry strategies. You hear him say that it “touched his heart” that the coach trusted him to do that. Now, you realize why he wants to come back. You begin to realize the nature of the impact this has had on his life.
* * * * *
Jose is very quiet. Sometimes, when others are quiet, we want to talk. When there is silence, we want to fill it. — If we can listen into silence; if we can listen long enough to let someone else talk; if we can listen our young people into speech…
… if we can listen, we realize that our young people have something to say. And that we will find our hearts split open
warmed and filled – touched, perhaps
at what they have to say.
I got to accompany Jose on his first airplane trip and his first time seeing the ocean. I got to teach him how to tip at dinner at the Baltimore Airport on our way home. I got to paddle with a dolphin with him. I got to watch him learn archery, struggle with short track mountain biking, learn to sail a kayak, practice a variety of rescues when he still doesn’t much like a wet exit, learn to move a boat with some precision, try out a surf ski and paddle a SUP board without falling down once. I got to watch coaches take the time and care to coach him well; and to watch him experience trust. My job was to accompany him. To watch and to listen.
I got to listen him into speech. And then I realized – we’d had a rain-on-your-tent marshmallow trip.
After a VERY busy summer here at CAT, I had a chance to take a short solo camping trip last week in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. It was a GREAT trip – utterly beautiful.
For me, getting into the wilderness centers me and grounds me. It gently, almost imperceptibly pushes aside all the things that don’t matter, and reminds me of who I am. It allows me to be fully present in the moment.
That respite, that pause, that chance for worry to fall away – it helps me get back to calm after a busy, hectic, exciting, fabulous summer. And so I am reminded, also, how important that respite, that pause, that chance for worry to fall away – how important that is for our young people.
Don’t get me wrong – there was plenty of excitement, too! A solo kayak camping trip is not something to be taken lightly. The weather changes just as dramatically whether you’re solo or with a group. When it comes down to it, the Lake is in charge.
You have to know and understand the risks. You have to know your own skills and limits. You have to respect the weather and the conditions. You have to be ready to change your plans, whether you want to or not. You may well be nervous, even scared, during parts of your trip.
I had several tricky judgement calls to make. For instance – one should not paddle with water spouts! On Day 2 I paddled around a point to find a water spout front and center. I got ready to turn around and hightail it back to land – but I paused because I was mesmerized by the beauty and the awe of the water and the spout. As I watched, the water spout and the rest of its cloud moved east quickly, there was clear sky behind it to the west, and I was traveling north. I kept paddling in calm waters and the water spout eventually disappeared.
Or how about this one? You should not paddle in conditions beyond your limit. Listen to the forecast and heed it. The night before I planned to paddle out, the forecast was calling for 4-7 foot waves the next day. I like to play in those conditions with friends on a sandy beach with an unloaded boat. I do NOT paddle in those conditions solo around cliffs with a loaded boat! The conditions didn’t materialize in my sheltered bay the next day but I was concerned about north winds and the north-facing point I needed to round in order to get home. I watched, and could see that the bay had waves less than a foot high – well within my limits as a solo paddler. I could see larger waves on the horizon, but it looked like my point was still in the lee of the rest of the island. And I could see that there was a safe place for me to go where I could see around the point. I paddled out, reminding myself that if conditions warranted I MUST go back and re-set camp to paddle out two days after my planned departure, when the winds were forecast to settle down again. I got to my observation spot of the point to find a few gentle 3 foot waves – at the edge of what I’m willing to do solo, and diminishing the farther around the point I could see. I paddled out that day.
So I ended up paddling solo with water spouts one day and in a 4-7 foot forecast the next. Without the background info, I would call bad judgment if I heard about someone doing that.
But it was fabulous, it was safe, and the combination of respite and honed observation or risk had remarkably rejuvenating effects. The combination of respite, pause, a chance for worry to fall away on the one hand; and excitement, risk, careful consideration of sensory stimulation sorted through a filter of what we know about our chosen activity – this combination can get our brain working well. It can get our brain making creative connections, without the overstimulation and inability to stop that comes with chronic trauma or with other constant, unending stimulation. I won’t go into the brain chemistry and morphology involved – it’s fascinating and deeply relevant for the work we do with Chicago youth, but I won’t do it justice. My brain certainly started working better. As did my heart and my soul.
I had lots of ideas about CAT programming, about a staff retreat out here, about all sorts of stuff. What I am left with is this:
We talk a lot about the importance of respite for our young people. Providing for respite is recognized as one of the necessary components of trauma-based interventions. I think that sometimes we forget what that really means, and why it’s so important. We get caught up in making sure we’re matching the right theory with the right population; that we’ve got an effective debrief; that we’re building life skills that can be measured in order to prove we’re doing quality work with important outcomes; that we can articulate why and how we do what we do. The list of important considerations goes on and on.
What I am left with after this trip is the visceral reminder of the importance of respite.
I am home now, the cook set and other gear is washed and put away, and I have returned to find fall waiting for me. It’s a season when we do a lot of reflection and planning. We want our young people to learn to assess the risk in their lives and develop skills for managing it. We want them to be able to think critically in the midst of nervousness or fear. We want them to make good decisions. We want a lot of things for our young people!
This fall I will remember that as we carefully plan interventions that allow our young people to assess risk, to think before they act, to communicate clearly, to solve problems effectively, to develop a personal confidence they hadn’t had before – I will remember that this active part of our programming must always be balanced with respite, pause, and a chance for the worries to fall away. At its best, our programming should gently, almost imperceptibly push aside all the things that don’t matter, and allow our young people to be fully present in the moment. It should remind them of who they are.
Wishing you all a great fall, full of challenge and respite!
–Andrea Knepper, LCSW
We’ve had a busy summer. We have more, but it’s drawing to a close. As we get just a bit less busy, I find myself contemplating the summer. The range of emotions I’ve felt working with our youth has been as wide as the Grand Canyon. The program that brought me to tears the most frequently was the gang prevention program we work with in Little Village.
Yes – I admit it – the guys brought me to tears, and more than once.
I cried when I got the email from our contact there saying he needed to cancel a program because they were holding a funeral for one of the youth that day. The young man was shot and killed.
I cried when one of the guys showed up with bruises all over his face because he’d been “beat out.” He’d made a decision to leave the gang – which meant that he had to show up for a scheduled appointment to be beat up by the people who’d been his closest friends for years. I cried because I was so proud of him. I cried because no kid – no person – should have to be beat up by their closest friends in order to live a life that isn’t bound by violence. I cried because I can’t imagine having the strength to change the course of my life like that, in opposition to my peers, when I was 16 years old. I cried because when it came down to it, I didn’t know what to make of it, or, really, just how to feel. I cried that we live in such a world. I cried that our youth live in such a world. I cried for the hope of changing the world for these guys.
I cried when we went camping with this group, too – when they started talking about beauty at the end of the trip. I was stunned when someone said that our evening paddle on the trip was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen. I cried because I often forget the beauty at Devil’s Lake – I’ve been incredibly lucky to go to many places I consider more beautiful. So it brought me up short to realize the lack of beauty in these guys’ lives. And it made me cry because of the impact that beauty can have on a person. These are tough guys – their peer who was killed earlier in the summer was much like them. They’re all familiar with violence. But there was such softness in their faces when, just for a moment, they talked about beauty.
I almost cry, if it weren’t for the absurdity, when I think about how scared these guys are of the activities we do – especially the climbing and kayaking. But that they’re not scared to pack a gun. That they have a hard time trusting the safety of a belay system or a life jacket; but they don’t understand that much of the activity in their daily lives is more dangerous. You can imagine we talked a lot about safety and risk management with them.
I laughed so hard I cried – and nearly peed my pants! – when we did a Harbor cleanup with them. At the very end, one of the land-based crews spotted money floating all over the water, and sitting on the bottom as well! So – probably not my best moment – but with their suggestion, prompting, laughter and disbelief – I dove for the money. Yes, I dove for singles with the serial numbers cut out. I came up with fistfuls of money, to their disbelief not that I would dive for money, but that I would get into that water. And, despite their disbelief, to directions about where next to dive! The intensity of their directions was hilarious! We called the police, made a report, and turned over the money – because it was the right thing to do, and bills with serial numbers cut out are a little sketchy, to say the least! (I was impressed with how they handled themselves around the cops, too.) The spontaneity, shared laughter, engagement and absurdity that we all shared was one of the greatest moments of my summer. A summer that started with us not knowing if these guys would ever open up to us in the least; or if we’d be able to forge the slightest connection with them.
Thank you for making so much possible!
Thanks you for changing lives.
My thanks, too, to our many partners, especially The Northwest Passage, Lincoln Park and Lakeview Athletic Clubs, Bike Chicago, and Alliance for the Great Lakes
Andrea Knepper, LCSW
Founder and Director