Rites of Passage

Ian Elwood
July 26, 2005

Recently, as California raised the age requirement for getting a full driver's license from 16 to 18, I realized that in today's secular society this is our only rite of passage into adulthood. But although a driver's license allows for freedom of mobility, it does nothing to foster freedom of thought, help youth connect to community, or help them to seek a higher purpose.

During adolescence, youth are assaulted with a whirlwind of emotions and thoughts. Many adults identify this torrent of emotional upheaval as "just hormones," something that should be ignored until it goes away. But hormones aside, many youth experience this turmoil as a need for growth and change. Much as the body experiences growing pains, so too does the spirit, and rites of passage serve as an alternative to the traditional, "just hormones" way of growing up. So in order to create a society of empowered, ethical individuals we should offer more meaningful rites of passage for youth.

A rite of passage is a ceremony or ritual that marks an event in a person's life, helping them transition from one stage to another. In most cultures, this ritual takes place around the time of puberty, is conducted by elders and involves a challenge or an element of risk. Once this challenge is overcome, a young person gains the cultural wisdom for transitioning into adulthood. The elders provide a ceremony that encourages youth to explore, question and reflect on their lives.

While rites of passage are common in most cultures -- the Dagara of Africa, the Aborigines of Australia, the Inuit of the Canadian Arctic and countless others -- our secular groups lack a thoughtful ceremony that initiates youth into the adult world.

Luckily, two Bay Area organizations -- Youth Speaks and Rites of Passage -- fill that gap for American youth. Both organizations guide youth during their transition by helping them to define their individual voices and aspirations.

Rites of Passage, a Santa Rosa-based non-profit, provides youth with the opportunity to participate in a vision quest. This ceremony is consciously converted from the Native American tradition, helping today's youth to deeply examine their hopes and fears. Youth are taken from their parents to a remote location where they fast, sing and dance. They then go into the wilderness alone in order to seek knowledge through deep introspection and, hopefully, revelation.

Over the first few days a facilitator leads intense discussions about what the participants would like to change about themselves, and what knowledge they seek from the vision quest. Over the next days, the youth go into the wilderness alone, with no belongings or food, and try to think, meditate, and perform self-made ceremonies. The purpose is to connect to a higher power or purpose, whatever that might be for different people -- Great Spirit, true self, God, collective-unconscious -- in order to gain a deeper understanding.

The experience is often intensely powerful, and although the revelations are different for every person, a common thread is that they provide clarity of direction in life, and challenge participants to transform themselves. After returning, they share their experiences with the group in order to incorporate them into their lives and iscuss the meaning of these experiences relative to the greater culture.

Jordan Howell reflected on this rite of passage, which he underwent at age 18: "The beauty of the vision quest is that it is a defined ritual that is meant to put your life into perspective. The ritual helped me focus and learn intently from my experience and, also very important, was the community which helped affirm my experience." Jordan added that he often wonders why more youth aren't going on vision quests.

The high cost of the vision quest might be one possible obstacle, although many have had meaningful, life-changing experiences. Jordan explains, "I always tell people, would you rather spend $1000 on a week vacation of relaxing, or a week that will entirely change your life." The vision quest is expensive, but past participants affirm that experiences make it worthwhile. Many youth often comment that a great change has taken place, and that they feel like truly independent adults.

Another organization that offers a rite of passage is Youth Speaks, a San Francisco-based non-profit that facilitates creative expression through free after-school poetry workshops and poetry slams. Youth Speaks was not created specifically to facilitate rites of passage, but through the ritual of poetry writing and performance, youth find their voices, become outspoken members of society and find their place in the world around them.

Lauren Wingate started going to Youth Speaks workshops when she was 16. She is now the coordinator of Youth Speaks' SPOKES program and describes their mission as, "youth empowerment, having peoples' voices validated, and expressing yourself."

Reflecting on how Youth Speaks helped her while transitioning from adolescence into adulthood, Lauren said, "Youth Speaks is about connecting you with your voice, creating a space where you are on the same level as the elders and what you say is valid." To Lauren, being on the same level as adults gave her the opportunity to speak openly and be respected. Having this type of freedom empowered her to ask questions and explore her role as an adult.

Lauren describes her experience of the egalitarianism at Youth Speaks as, "The adults don't think they know everything. The attitude is that all of us are artists and we are developing our craft. There is a lot of intergenerational communication. They are here to learn from us too."

Lauren adds that the organization "has something for everyone who is honest. What we say is that the standard is yourself, and everything you say is valid -- as long as you speak from the heart." In addition to being supported, Lauren was also challenged to be assertive and express herself. Reflecting on the effect of performing poetry had, Lauren said, "Definitely a large impact." She used the ritual of poetry writing and reciting to become a person able to face the world on her own terms and to negotiate the tumultuous passage of becoming an adult. "I was in tenth grade, 16 years old. It helped me in developing beliefs, about myself and about society. It helped me be comfortable speaking one-on-one and in public, enabled me to be passionate and speak with conviction. I learned a lot about myself," Lauren explains.

Both Rites of Passage and Youth Speaks have the same role as other rites of passage across the globe. They recognize that in order for youth to be initiated into adulthood, they need to be challenged. Young people must be able to interact with adults as equals, allowing them to ask questions and seek cultural knowledge that was previously unavailable. They need a safe place -- separate from parents -- where they can reflect on their own existence, gain useful knowledge and make an honest assessment of who they are, and what type of person they want to become.


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