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Call & Response: On the Future of Rites of Passage & Youth Passageways

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I have been a student of ROP theory and practice for 20 years.  In the course of interactions with ROP leaders (far less so in the course of my studies) I’ve learned that there are some disagreements, perhaps even fault lines that exist in ROP theory and practice.  Many of these fault lines showed up quickly and dramatically in the run-up to the Youth ROP Summit I hosted in Oakland in April 2012. Below you’ll see more details on how I personally experienced some of these fault lines.  But rather than prove to you that they exist I ask that you accept them on good faith and allow me to turn to them directly as my starting place. If these reflect stories that I am carrying that no longer apply to the real world then I ask your forbearance.  Since I assume I’m talking to a small and informed group of ROP practitioners I’m going to trust you’ll have a sense of what I’m talking about.

The primary fault lines of contemporary ROP practice and theory I see are these: communities vs. programs; gender specific vs. all genders; culture (or religion) specific vs. any and all cultures and religions welcome; nature-based vs. indoor or urban; age determinate vs. age indeterminate; heteronormative vs. homonormative.   

In the course of conversations with some ROP leaders these categories and divides have been presented to me as such.  Personally, I don’t see them as oppositional, even less as dichotomies. They may form the substance of theoretical conflicts but I don’t believe they need represent irresolvable institutional divides.  I’ve always taken an all-inclusive “both-and” approach, meaning that all of these – let’s call them ideological differences – evaporate immediately once you accept them all. The position I take? In some circumstances and in some situations any of these approaches can produce positive outcomes.  

Fortunately, one issue that is NOT a fault line anymore seems to be the one reconciling the largely right brain world of ROP field activities with the largely left brain world of organizational administration.   In effect, bringing together rational, statistically based data and science with the mysteries and miracles of ROP. Increasingly ROP practitioners are using whole brain systems, linking left and right hemispheric thinking.  In a sense that is our task: to take the right brain world of ROP work – the intuitive, spiritual, and sacred forces that “magically” coalesce to create human transformation – and translate them into the left brain world of scientific explanations, statistical data, and rational logic to explain them.  Most people in the ROP world understand that generating rational explanations and data are fundamental to substantiate the value of their work, not to mention essential to secure funding! If we can’t prove that initiating young people raises their grades, keeps them off meds, reduces delinquency and self-harming behaviors like reckless drinking, drugging, and driving, then what use is it?

But some ROP fault lines still persist, and are possibly becoming more pronounced.  Let’s look at a couple. Many will say that if any cultural practice exists that excludes transgendered or queer people then that practice hurts everyone and perpetuates a societal shadow.  I really understand and appreciate that point of view. But not to the point where it necessarily trumps another individual’s cultural and religious practices.  Consider a heteronormative ROP practitioner, let’s say a Christian fundamentalist, who argues that to practice homonormative inclusion is to violate a fundament of his or her culture or religion.  Though I don’t personally subscribe to that viewpoint I believe it deserves to be respected. (To be clear, we’re not talking about state or federal laws here. Fortunately, there are an increasing number of them that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender status.  We’re talking here about cultural and religious practices of ROP which the federal government has recently demonstrated it does not have a vested interest in.)

Let’s take another example.  Many indigenous ROP practices are maintained on a basis of exclusivity for people of their own culture or ethnicity.  To initiate outsiders is to risk betrayal of ancient ways, to risk cultural appropriation. I respect that. Outsiders should be invited in if they’re to be included.  Most progressive folks practicing ROP would say this is a no-brainer. But to return to the example above why should an indigenous group’s practice of exclusion be any more acceptable than a non-indigenous group’s?  What if that indigenous group says no to queer youth? What if a non-indigenous group does? And what about the many contemporary initiatory practices that already exist that include elements of historical indigenous practices?  What to do about those? ROP practitioners usually say they were blessed by native elders to share these practices. But different native elders might dispute that and say they were stolen and appropriated. Who’s to decide?

I would argue that cultures are living things, and as such will always grow and change.  And they will grow and change all the faster in a world like ours that is increasingly interconnected and increasingly aware of its multiculturalism.  So when it comes to either exclusionary or hybrid practices I say leave them be.  As long as ROP leaders consciously, lovingly, and diligently recognize their lineage(s) and teachers, as long as they are doing good work in a good way, serving the greater good and not just serving themselves, then I say leave them be.  Jazz and hip-hop (and so much more) began exclusively in African-American culture. Are we to pass laws and say that non-African-Americans can not and should not learn from this culture, share and delight in this culture, and yes, “appropriate it” and make it their own?  Cultural sovereignty has to be respected until there are times when it doesn’t make sense to because it doesn’t serve the greater good.

Let’s take a third example.  (And yes, I’m purposefully addressing the issues most highly charged, most likely to ruffle feathers because I think they’re important.)  Many ROP proponents would argue that without a deep experience of nature no ROP will have fundamental value – establishing a clear and deep connection with Mother Earth.  I deeply appreciate that perspective and I certainly advocate for wilderness and nature-based ROPs. But I’ve also witnessed profound transformations of individuals in urban and indoor locations that have little or no connection to the natural world.  Those processes, in my view, allow initiates to experience the “nature within” – their own human nature. Whether initiates are conscious of it or not, that nature – the oceans and forests within – is deeply tied to the natural world outside. So again I say “both-and.”

The point of all this “both-and” thinking, this inclusionary priority made paramount, is that if we don’t embrace all the different expressions of ROP practice we risk becoming our own worst enemies.  We risk saying “You…  But not you.”  We risk excluding some people and some groups from our community.  Personally, I don’t think absolutist approaches like “my way or the highway,” or “draw a line in the sand” are effective.  I don’t like them. When utilized we risk creating “the other.” We do this through ideological means no less stringent than Christian or Muslim fundamentalism.  “I work with communities.  I’ll join your organization but not if programs are included in it.” “I won’t be part of any organization that doesn’t automatically exclude men or organizations that promote SSA.¹”  “Boys need initiation more than girls.”  “Mixed gender initiation can’t work.” “You have a great ROP program but until you offer serious mentorship as part of after-care for initiates I won’t take part.”  “If individual X is part of your group then I’m not coming.” I’ve heard them all before. Literally. Every single one from ROP leaders. And every time I hear something like that I see a wall go up and I see an “us and them” mental dynamic take shape.  “I’m right; they’re wrong.”

There’s an old maxim for marriage that says “You can be right or you can be happy.”  I see the choices here as similar. When it comes to some issues we can be “right” and cross every T and dot every I.  We can be politically correct. But both intentions and impacts have to be measured. It’s certainly important to try and make every effort to get things “right.”  But it’s also important to measure impact: are we aiming to be maximally “pure” or maximally inclusive and maximally effective? What exactly are we aiming for?

I believe multiculturalism can be an ideology no less absolutist (and therefore exclusionary) than communism, Christian or Muslim orthodoxy, or consumerist market capitalism.  I’ve seen it have impacts in diverse circumstances where it drives people away. It makes them wrong. “You said such and such therefore you clearly don’t respect the rights and claims of so and so.”  “By not doing X you have demonstrated that you are Y [fill in the blank: racist, sexist, homophobic, ageist, ableist, classist…]” If we’re to really grow this community into a worldwide body of significance we need to be able to accept every individual or group at their unique station of growth.  Spiral dynamics has taught us that and expects nothing less.

What I’m arguing for here is an existential response to each ROP practice and policy with the highest priority placed on effectiveness.  If a given ROP is effective and creates deep transformation for participants then I say “welcome!” I also believe that it is a waste of time to codify policies across different cultural ROP practices.  I view it as a Sisyphean task that can and will consume huge resources and never achieve its aim of 100% “buy-in” from every potential ROP practitioner or group. No matter how good the languaging, no matter how inclusive the intentions, it’s impossible not to offend some person’s sense of identity at some time, however unintentionally.  No matter what you say and do somebody is going to be wounded. So what do you do then?  Refer them back to the written codes? No. You have to be with them personally and try to solve the conflict through deep listening and heart to heart contact.  Trying to codify what can not be codified is a waste of time. But what’s worse is that efforts to do so might actually inhibit creating real social change.

There’s a book called THEORY OF CHANGE that aims to identify what social change-makers’ core (and usually hidden) assumptions are.  Carol Weiss popularized the term “Theory of Change” as a way to describe the set of assumptions that explain both the mini-steps that lead to the long-term goal and the connections between program activities and outcomes that occur at each step of the way.  What makes for maximal effectiveness for whatever party seeks it? Some people are naturally more process oriented. Others, like myself, are more outcome oriented. Clearly both are important. What I hope to draw people’s attention to is the need to understand what our primary assumptions are that drive our theories of change and to check out whether those assumptions are in fact leading to the changes we want.

Nothing is more fundamental to my base values than social justice.  I was raised by parents who instilled that in me. Much of my life’s work, my art, reflects stands taken for racial and economic justice, and for all human rights… to set all social, economic, and political norms at a level playing field in order to finally establish true equal opportunity for all beings.   In my view economic inequality has gotten far worse in my 60 year lifetime. Gender and sexual orientation acceptance has gotten much better. Racial inequality is about the same, maybe slightly worse. Religious tolerance is far worse. Cultural acceptance is much better. Nationalism and jingoism may be vastly reduced in Europe and Africa but it’s far worse in Russia, the U.S., and China… And on and on it goes…

But here’s the point: to be an effective and far-reaching organization I believe our representative organization Youth Passageways cannot be both a youth ROP organization and a social justice organization.  Most organizations have enough trouble functioning effectively with a single, well-defined mission. Those with dual missions are doomed to failure. I always say you need to be able to explain to someone in ten words or less who you are and what you do.  Those ten words better be lucid. If you can’t make it that simple for yourself then no one else is going to get it either – not funders, not partners, not supporters, not members.

Social justice and youth ROP are two very admirable, very lofty and ambitious goals.  Achieving one is unreasonable enough. Achieving two is insane. When I was called to co-found YP the simple vision that I had was “every teen on the planet gets initiated and mentored.”  Crazy unreasonable? You bet! But simple and easily comprehended.

Do I believe social justice is a natural, maybe inevitable byproduct of ROP?  Yes. But it can’t be the aim.  I once asked Bill Kauth – one of the three founders of the ManKind Project – an adult men’s ROP organization that in 30 years has grown from a weekend workshop in Milwaukee, WI to an international organization in 25 countries, ten languages, with over 70,000 men initiated – why MKP never took any political or social justice stands, especially given its founders deep interest in social justice.  He said, “The strength of the organization lies partly in the fact that we haven’t taken public stands on issues. We are a men’s initiation and growth institution, empowering men to their own unique missions of service.  How they manifest their service in the world is up to them.”   

Should YP practice non-discriminatory policies?  Yes. Can it model the behavior it seeks from other organizational members?  You bet. But I’m concerned it may try to hold other organization-members to its own standards of social justice.  If that happens, whether in overt or subtle ways, I’m afraid it will remain small and ineffective. If it tries to propagate those social justice standards as fervently as it tries to propagate youth ROP it will not achieve either.  If it languages its work in terminology that speaks in a West Coast lingo of “new paradigms,” “collective initiation” and even too many uses of “sustainability” and “permaculture” we will drive people away. We will be “right” but not “happy.”  We need to learn to embrace all the different variants of ROP practice whether they fit our standards of justice or not.

It’s also tactically smart for YP to focus on youth ROP.  Right now there’s lots of support monies and resources available for organizations that promote youth well-being.  The powers that be will support youth maturation. The powers that be, by and large, do not support social justice.  If they did we wouldn’t need it so badly! But seeking support for youth maturation has to be measured and wise. The old Marxist maxim that a capitalist will sell you the rope to hang himself with is true only to an extent.  You can’t tell him that’s why you’re buying the rope! Do I privately hope that initiated youth will create a tsunami of change to replace the powers that be?  To tear down this whole goddamn rotten political/economic system? You bet! But that’s each young person’s private choice to make.  And I don’t see holding that private hope as a lie or deception since I truly honor each young person’s desire to act as they feel called.

I’ve long marveled at so-called futurists.  Those that can extrapolate from present trends into the future and bear witness, however imaginary, to what might come.  I never considered myself one of them. Many native peoples had social roles for folks like these and called them oracles.  I am not an oracle. But recently I found myself receiving insights, however small, into what might come. I’m told it’s patriarchal to prognosticate in an authoritative way since it can be received as “God has spoken!”  So I offer these subsequent reflections humbly, simply as thoughts that have occurred to me. I offer them in the collaborative spirit of sharing, intuitively, not as declarations from the mountain top.

Certainly the ROP practices of the near future will continue to grow in size and impact and become more “multi:” Multi-cultural, multi-gendered, multi-national, multi-religious.  ISIS is one of the greatest arguments for ROP on the planet right now. What are all those men (and yes, a few women) being drawn to from around the world if not the opportunity to live a life of mission and purpose (contrary to what capitalism teaches), to be of service to something greater than themselves (contrary to what consumerism teaches), to function as a team, as a community working together for a “noble” purpose (contrary to what individualism offers), to be empowered and have impact (contrary to what Western countries offer them due to racial and ethnic discrimination).   In short, ISIS offers initiation. Who else is offering that to Muslim youth in the West?

I spoke with an Imam in Detroit circa 2002 about what Muslim teen initiation looks like and I was shocked to hear him say there is no such thing.  He did speak to the strong community values and service missions and mentoring practices that mosques offer. But clearly that’s not enough for many Muslim – or many other – youth.

ISIS is just one manifestation of the global dysfunction of communities and the lack of healthy initiation. The U.S. industrial prison complex is certainly another.  The picture for the future is not rosy. No later than the end of this century, certainly by the 22nd century, I foresee neo-feudal Dark Ages dominated by groups like ISIS making perpetual war for scarce resources.  Some 80% of the world’s population will die due to environmental and economic catastrophes the scale of which is difficult to imagine.  That’s the bad news. But the remaining 20% will turn increasingly to ROP practices. That’s the good news. Those practices may for a time be less “multi” than those in our lifetimes but they will deepen their individual cultural footprints.  Indigenous people, who hopefully will be able to safeguard continuity of their practices, will certainly strengthen them.  Survival of the village may well depend on it. A “Warrior class” may be necessary to defend and protect the community, whether from neighboring villages, warlords, drug lords, feudal lords, corporate armies, or whatever remains of governments – the big gangs – whether called “police” or “army” or “law.”  Unlike our historical epoch, those Warriors may not be gender determined. But they will require initiation. (Not to mention post-war rituals of reintegration.)

My guess is many communities will re-establish two stages of adolescent initiation – a universal one for all those entering puberty, 11-13 years old, and ones perhaps elective or “chosen” at the end of adolescence (16-21) for warriors and all the other key role players in community life, or maybe for all.  Bill Plotkin of course has written extensively about this.

I believe the ROP social inventions that exist and are still spreading today – processes, workshops, and organizations like MKP, Boys to Men, Rite of Passage Journeys, School of Lost Borders, and so many more, will have largely disappeared.  They’ll be long forgotten. Instead what I imagine you’ll find are communities which have adopted the practices from those and other organizations and woven them into the fabric of their everyday community life. Eventually, as information resources become more and more limited, they’ll explain it by saying, “This is how we’ve always done it.” I see that as a good thing.

I turned 60 in October.  In the last year the social role of eldership has increasingly been thrust upon me.  I never wanted it or asked for a seat at this particular table but there it is… life demands from us what it seems to want.  So I’ve been thrust into positions of honor and basically asked to be wise. I do my best to speak my truth and sit down.

The issue of eldership raises a concern I’ve held for some time about ROP leaders who may or may not be members of the Youth Passageways network: Who are the elders in your community?  Who is mentoring you?  For many years I’ve heard from leaders in this ROP work that they have no mentors or courts of support.  In addition, those same leaders are often doing little or nothing to safeguard their own health and well-being.  What the hell? All too often these are charismatic, inspirational leaders of ROP practices and communities. How much are they themselves willing to be led?  Where do they turn when they are in crisis? What about when their community is in crisis? What are they doing to prevent burnout? Who are they willing to listen to when they need to be told they’re full of shit?  Where is the humility in their servant-leadership and the service to self?

Eldership is spoken of often in the YP network but how often is it practiced?   Are elders really sought out?  Is there real respect for elders who may have different points of view than youngers?   It takes real humility to hear something you don’t want to hear, that triggers you or that you think is full of shit.  That may in fact be how much of what I’ve written here has landed for you. That’s fine. But that’s the real test of hearing elders, of hearing anyone.  Not when they bless you and acknowledge you and hold your hand in support. Those things are absolutely necessary – huge aspects of an elder’s role. Don’t get me wrong.  But naming hard truths can often be just as valuable. Do you have the real humility to listen? And not defend, argue, or dismiss? The cultural ethos of today is that it’s impolite, or worse, a micro-aggression, somehow wrong to call someone on their shit.  I find this deeply problematic. One of the great revelations of my life came from doing “men’s work” which taught me that this is one of the powerful ways men in fact love each other. They care enough about the other to tell them honestly what they think. If someone really wants you to grow into your greatest self they’ll do that.  If they don’t care and don’t really love you they’ll stay silent or worse, they’ll disconnect.

And yes, I get it that different genders and different cultures and different ages have different styles of communication.  The purpose of learning cross-cultural ways is partly so we can learn to hear difficult things from each other without reacting in offense.  

I was well into my 40s before I really became capable of listening to hard truths that I didn’t want to hear.  It’s not easy. It takes real skill and practice. Sitting in the discomfort is a skill I learned only by allowing myself to be hammered again and again by wise mentors.  I needed it! I’m a stubborn SOB with a thick head! Hours and hours of meditation practice and dharma study helped a lot too…

This work is not about singing Kumbayah and dancing the hora together… or not only about that, about celebration.  Though I believe violence is not inevitable, I do believe that conflict is inevitable.  Dialectics: thesis/antithesis… synthesis; new thesis/antithesis… synthesis… the force of change. The question is how are we going to deal with conflict when it arises?  Are we going to shut it down? Are we going to disconnect, drop out? Or can we learn to accept it, to sit in the heat that’s generated, and listen carefully for what the situation may be trying to tell us?  “Welcome Fear! You bring excitement and challenge!” “Welcome Anger! You bring fierce clarity and deep passion!” These are the lessons Zen has taught me. Can we hear messages like anger and fear in ourselves and still stay in good relations with each other?  I hope so. As long as humans are around conflict won’t likely go away. It’s important to learn how not to shrink from it. What is possible is to change our relationship to it. One of the purposes of ROP (though again, not for YP) is to create fierce warriors for justice, not wimps.  Gandhi and MLK and Mandela were lots of things but they were not wimps shrinking from conflict.

Time for me to sit down.


  1. Men who say they have ‘Same Sex Attraction’ but are trying not to be gay.

Thanks for a little peek into the challenges of an intelligent, passionate group of people attempting to create an organization that supports initiatory experiences for young people.  And attempting to do it in a way that is fundamentally different from the “old system” organizations. How to support a true network … where each node has its own integrity, values, organizational system (democratic, socialist, hierarchical …) that is not determined by any one “corporate head”?  How to truly support diversity, the creative conversations … staying connected due to a common passion, and not getting stuck in “judgement” of each other? Huge task that many have failed. We keep trying. What is the function of YP? To set values, membership qualifications …?

I don’t see this in the statement of mission and ethics for YP.  To live it internally is much more difficult though, as we inevitably bump up against each other’s personal values, judgements, passions, etc.  For me that’s a good thing, yet one where “decisions” about this are made in each individual node of the network, not the node that is all about supporting the whole.  

We need each other … and why I’ve been excited about YP is that it offers a range of amazing, dedicated, intelligent people with a wide range of offerings, yet sharing a common language; and a young person can put together an amazing cluster of experiences that truly support their passage into adulthood in the world today.  Some as a part of the severance phase, others for the all important threshold experience, and wonderful places that offer experiences to support the incorporation phase of a rite of passage. We need each other. And young people resonate with different ways … to the rich diversity of offerings is a big plus. Wouldn’t want us all to be the same!  Only wish we could offer what has integrity to who we are, without judgement of others.

For example:  For me I feel passionate about nature being a component in any modern rite of passage … though not necessarily a part of every initiatory experiences that supports a full rop.  For me as a guide I am constantly asking myself what are the qualities, skills, and experiences that prepare young people to deal with the givens of the modern world (and of course for me this is in the context of the States and some of europe, since that’s where I work).  and for me a very important quality that needs empowerment is in healing the split of human and nature … imperative for the health of our species (in my opinion) … and so I include that in the initiatory experiences I offer. I also feel that a cross cultural component is essential to live in the global world today.  I could go on. I may not be able to do all of it, yet I look for those organizations and experiences that will supplement what I might be able to offer, and encourage young people to explore the options, putting a full packet together.

Yet what do we do if someone wants to join the network who we feel doesn’t fit, or is “not good”, or does things that are “too dangerous” or don’t follow our basic values, etc.?  Is there someone who decides what’s valid and what isn’t? What is the role of YP?

The German speaking Wilderness Guides Council decided that to be a member one has to have had a certain amount of approved training, and only then can join the conversation.  The US wilderness guides council is inclusive of anyone, feeling that exposure to the conversation by anyone interested, is a good thing. In both places this has caused tension.  There are definite guidelines to anyone considered to become a guide to the School, including School training, good recommendations by other school guides, etc. I feel strongly that the WGC should be inclusive.  And respect that the German speaking council has made its own choices. At the same time there are definite guidelines to anyone considered to become a guide to the School, including School training, good recommendations by other school guides, etc.  Different from an organization that is supporting the network, rather it is the decision making of one of the nodes in the network. What is the function of YP?

When Steven and I were first building Rites of Passage, Inc. in Marin, my stepmother (and mentor) Virginia Hine came to live with us half the year for several years.  She was not only a cultural anthropologist (which gave us an important context for our work) but also with her colleague, the one who coined the term Network as a new social phenomenon.  I continue to find it a helpful reminder. A quick search brought me what’s below … thought you’d find it interesting as well, since I hear some of its thoughts in your words.


More about Frederick and Warrior Films on his Website

Find out about Frederick’s recent book Til Death do us Part book Review

More about Meredith and the School of Lost Borders

About the Author: Frederick Marx & Meredith Little

Frederick Marx is an internationally acclaimed, Oscar and Emmy nominated director/writer with 40 years in the film business. He was named a Chicago Tribune Artist of the Year, a Guggenheim Fellow, and a recipient of a Robert F. Kennedy Special Achievement Award. Having worked for a time as an English and creative writing teacher, Marx began his movie career as a film critic, and has worked both as a film distributor and exhibitor. He has also traveled extensively. He’s lived in Germany, China, and Hungary. He’s traveled repeatedly through Western and Eastern Europe, North Africa and Himalayan India. With a B.A. in Political Science and an MFA in filmmaking, Marx has coupled his formal education with a natural gift for languages, speaking German and some Mandarin-Chinese.

Having dedicated his life to the making and promotion of independent films, Marx, a true maverick in the increasingly commercialized world of “independent cinema,” continues to provide a voice of artistic and social integrity. He repeatedly returns to work with disadvantaged and misunderstood communities: people of color, abused children, the working poor, welfare recipients, prisoners, the elderly, and “at risk” youth. He brings a passion for appreciating multiculturalism and an urgent empathy for the sufferings of the disadvantaged to every subject he tackles. As his mission statement indicates (“Bearing witness, creating change”), his is a voice strong and clear, and profoundly human.


Meredith Little

Meredith and her husband Steven Foster co-founded Rites of Passage Inc. in 1976 and The School of Lost Borders in 1981, pioneering new methods and dynamics of modern pan-cultural passage rites in the wilderness, and creating innovative practices of “field eco-therapy.” The essence of their work is captured in articles, chapters, an award-winning documentary film, Lost Borders: Coming of Age in the Wilderness, and books that include: The Book of the Vision Quest, The Roaring of the Sacred River, The Four Shields: The Initiatory Seasons of Human Nature. Since Steven’s death in 2003 Meredith continues both nationally and internationally to guide and train others. She has also co-founded along with Scott Eberle a new branch of Lost Borders entitled The Practice of Living and Dying, to help break the taboos and silence that pervade the subject of death and to help restore dying to its natural place in the cycles of life. Meredith is currently the director of The Practice of Living and Dying, Lost Borders International, and owner of Lost Borders Press.

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