by Beth Broderick, with contributing authors April Lola and Sabrina Keene
It is late Friday afternoon during the first week of November. In past years you would find me flat out exhausted, but inspired, from MYAN’s multi-day, youth-led statewide conference. Like many things this year, the conference looks a little different – and the exhaustion is still present.
We are all tired. We are stretching well past our reach to parent, mentor, coach, and support Maine youth. There is a global pandemic surging in our state. There is national distrust and uncertainty with the current state of democracy. There have always been housing shortages and food wastelands in our communities. Our neighbors are navigating intergenerational trauma exasperated by ongoing and systemic harms. We do not have to look far to see there is more work to do. Or pause long to recognize we cannot go alone. So, what do we do next?
The Maine Youth Action Network values youth-adult partnerships. We believe that when we respect the expertise within our communities, particularly expertise held by young people, the possibilities are limitless. Whatever our greatest fear right now – youth mental health, systemic racism & corresponding traumas, commercial tobacco or substance use initiation – we need look no further than the young people who are directly impacted by these concerns. They are the key stakeholders we seek. They are the now to our work.
We value youth-adult partnerships, and we are using that value to guide us right now. In good partnerships our work starts with us. The MYAN team is having many conversations about “filling our tanks” as we navigate these moments together. However we reset – and our diverse team is trying some creative approaches! – the second step is all about our youth partners. We are reaching out individually and in group settings to check-in with young folks, to learn from their experiences, and to amplify their perspectives. Resiliency happens in community. Our third step involves co-creating those communities with youth partners which, as you can imagine, looks different everywhere and sometimes every day. Like any good mixtape, these steps happen on repeat as we persist in showing up for ourselves and with youth partners. Play that back! Here are four “next steps” we are taking in partnership with Maine youth:
1. Fill up our tanks: Reconnect with ourselves and our communities to sustain wellness and promote resiliency.
- What can we learn from endurance athletes and other educators as we pace through the pandemic?¹ ²
2. Ask, listen, amplify: To be fully present with young people practice asking great questions, really listening to understand, and then amplifying perspectives of youth partners.
- Look back to what these youth were sharing from around the globe as school resumed this fall!³
3. Co-create spaces to support community learning: Dream and design together, practice transparency of purpose, and support young people to develop resilient communities while pursuing their expanding interests.
- In schools and beyond, move towards the collective to build true, sustainable resiliency with youth.4
4. Repeat: Persist in showing up for yourself and with young people. Keep building!
We could use this space to frame out each step, articulating the “why” and offering guidance on the “how” aligned with research best practices. There is compelling research and the MYAN facilitators do a nice job of breaking it down. Join us at any of these virtual training offerings to engage more deeply in this learning.
By now I know that Fridays in the pandemic are good days for stories, especially the inspiring kind. (And often not much else!) I hoped these four steps would resonate with others. I was craving inspiration – a model of how to keep moving forward when zoom fatigue overwhelms. And I wanted to hear how my intrepid colleagues continue to realize youth-adult partnerships in new and creative ways. My friends did not disappoint. Below are the transcribed notes from conversations with April Lola & Sabrina Keene, both of whom are taking “next steps” in partnership with young people right now:
Finding Balance & Inviting Youth Power in Passamaquoddy:
An interview with April Lola, Wabanaki Public Health
November is Native American Heritage Month, and if you are reading this in the current State of Maine then you are on Wabanaki land. The heritage month and supporting events recognize the tribes as the original stewards of this beautiful place – and their continued stewardship, which benefits us all. From her home within the Passamaquoddy Reservation, April is connecting with Indigenous youth across all five tribal communities to support them in finding balance and using their power.
Before we talk about your work, tell us how you are “filling up your own tank” right now?
April: Adjusting consistently, every day. At home there are tech issues [for family members] which we have to accept and then try to find a solution. The same is true at work. So I’m working to have full acceptance of each moment, and I am also carving out time once a month to focus on just me. I do yoga, walking, taking hikes so I’m filling up my cup that way too.
There is so much happening around us right now. How are you understanding your work in this moment? What questions are you asking Indigenous youth?
A: We work so closely and [for me] homelife and work life are so together. My colleagues and I are talking about TikTok and Native American Heritage days we are planning, about how we are always reclaiming space – and trying to find a balance as Indigenous communities in a colonized world. So, in work with young people we are guiding them to use social media platforms, to use their voices and speak out about topics. I think we are also trying to mindful of language. We prompt them – genuinely asking without directing – and are very open-ended with the questions like “how do you feel about the injustices [happening/continuing right now]? We are keeping it open without guiding too deeply so young people can fully find their own voices.
A lot of older youth were really stepping into their power this fall as we discussed representation issues with school mascots and Halloween costumes, but there is a new group of 8th graders not responding as much until we released our most recent project and, after seeing their older peers’ perspectives online, they have really opened up. WPH always has multiple projects engaging & supporting our youth. Over the past few months we delivered books to families in all five tribal communities as part of the Literacy & Love project. Geo Neptune also leads a Virtual Art Lab where youth paint, bead, make baskets, do hide tanning, and more. It’s an opportunity to introduce other indigenous artists to the youth – for inspiration, to help them network and showcase their own work!
Young people want to be in person and yet a lot of the safe avenues for connection exist in virtual realms still. How are you co-creating community & resiliency with young people?
A: Our big message is “we are here for you, we got you, bring your ideas to the table” and for a lot of us it’s about reaching out individually to create opportunities to talk without predetermining the topics of discussion.
We’re still holding space on Zoom for group time but really doing a lot of individual “hey, how are you doing, do you have a meme to share with me today?” type of outreach and letting those offers prompt conversations. Young people are talking about personal, intimate challenges they are going through. It’s a really transformative experience [to be fostering those relationships with each youth] and we are balancing it with community engagement opportunities. Follow WPH on social media to see the themed days and engagement actions we are hosting in recognition of Native American Heritage Month. Also, we recently delivered care packages to the youth in our communities. Of course, they had prevention messages within them but also things young people requested like bath bombs and snacks for our upcoming virtual movie night together. We’re also using our youth council movie nights to bring in youth to not only watch funny and entertaining movies, but also movies that touch on injustices indigenous people face, to bring light to these situations and to hold space for deeper discussions and to inspire them to take action. Our message is “take care of you” and if you have a request, we’re going to try to meet it… We have a lot of things going on!
A: Being present. Thinking about creative ways to connect – to nurture connection with myself, my team, and Indigenous youth. We are actively recruiting younger voices to use their platforms, to connect with the growing youth communities. One of the projects we have been working on is called “Tips from Teens” and it captures advice from our indigenous youth to teachers, adults, and their peers on how young people are feeling and what they are thinking about specific situations. Maybe there will be an opportunity also for adults to share with each other or with young people in a similar way. I think that could be really transformative. If we nurture connections then we know the needs of young people, the community, and ourselves. We also know the capacity [of all three groups]. It’s hard right now. There is a lot that we planned that cannot happen due to covid, but we’re starting a book club with our youth councils with books from our Literacy & Love project. I think I just focus on being present, accepting, and always moving forward.
Fostering Creative Communities in Western Maine:
An Interview with Sabrina Keene, Healthy Communities Coalition of Greater Franklin County
Youth mental wellness concerns accompanied by the devastating impact of the national opioid crisis in rural communities is not a new story. For communities in Western Maine, COVID has only complicated matters.
Situated in Farmington but in partnership with young people across Franklin, Oxford, and Androscoggin Counties, Sabrina is focusing on fostering creative opportunities for youth community & resiliency.
Before we talk about your work, tell us how you are “filling up your own tank” right now?
Sabrina: I don’t know… I feel like there are only so many movies I can watch or times I can go for a walk. I’m really looking for the ‘new’ right now and so I think I’m looking forward to the snow because that will be a change. I haven’t been back to see my family in Connecticut since January which is really hard and every time it feels like we start to turn a corner the [COVID] numbers go up again. Last week I did get to help distribute food boxes as part of a community initiative though and I love being out, seeing people’s faces, having those conversations. That refills my tank, too.
Tell us about the book club – where did the idea come from and what have you been hearing from local youth about mental wellness or substance use?
S: Students are sick of waiting. They see adults ‘giving up’ and not having community support. Are we going to just wait? We had these books leftover from a health classroom initiative my organization had been running. I knew we had a few and it felt fitting… [The main character Charlie] wishes for a lot of things and has fairytale moment with a fish while ice fishing. That’s Maine! Plus she has a lot of real things going on at home when her sister’s substance use disorder flips their world upside down. I think a lot of us right now can relate to finding escapes outside our homes, so even though the calls will be on zoom it’s something different and new faces. We also have some craft materials so young people who join us will receive those at their homes and hopefully we’ll be able to be creative together when having conversations about what we read.
A local crisis center has stayed fairly steady in terms of the number of young people accessing their resources, and local emergency room departments are anecdotally reporting increases in young people experiencing mental health crises as well. Students I have been able to connect with feel stressed from remote learning and trying to keep up with grades. Since schools have closed I haven’t heard directly from the students about substance use though.
How will you co-create this virtual space with young people? What does community resiliency look like here?
S: The big dream is that this is our starting point, but it doesn’t have to end here. When you read as a kid, you want to be exploring where your mind goes and what you take from [the reading] and I think we can do that together. The topic of substance (mis)use is relatable, especially for young people and families in this area.
Maybe there will be opportunities to include parents possibly too. We definitely hope to create some artistic takes from the reading. I am not trying to set a message, because young people can see right through that, but just see where we go.
S: Our organization received a million-dollar grant to support opioid prevention and harm reduction. The long-term plan is to work on getting more harm reduction efforts in Franklin County such as a needle exchange. For now, our organization is offering free Narcan trainings and providing participants with a Narcan kit. All of those are geared towards and for adults though. How do young people want to get involved? What do they see as the needs and next steps in reducing stigma within our communities? I hope the book club might be one place to start having those conversation.
(Young) people are counting on us and we have work to do. We also have plenty to celebrate and take comfort in as Maine’s next generation of leaders grow into their own work. In partnership with young people, we can write the next chapter together.
Resurgemus nos in unum. [We rise together.]