Many if not all of our early ancestors, in partnership with the other-than-human world, created ritual forms to support the marking the cycles of the seasons and of their lives, including supporting young people crossing into adulthood.
Over many generations, domination-based societies stripped many if not most of the world’s cultures of their sovereignty. Traditional ways of honoring the cycles of the seasons and of our lives were suppressed by outside forces seeking to seize, control, and consolidate lands, wealth, bodies, and power.
New levels of large-scale brutality emerged as methods of cultural control in Europe were exported and new racial categories and hierarchies were created and used to justify atrocities. Indigenous peoples across many lands were subjected to forced removal from their homeland, enslavement, and efforts to destroy access to elements of their culture including language and spirituality. On Turtle Island, state-mandated schools removed Indigenous youth from their families, lands, and communities, stripping them of language, culture, and traditional ritual forms of initiation into adulthood, and frequently subjecting them to horrific, violent abuse. This represented a key moment in the destruction of traditional rites of passage into adulthood, as controlling the socialization and initiation of young people became a strategic policy of nation-states wishing to increase access to land, wealth, and security for white settlers, and has since spread to other places around the globe.
The impacts of loss of land and culture drove some settlers toward Indigenous teachings, leading to co-option, misappropriation, and exploitation, as well as meaningful efforts for cultural exchange and solidarity action.
Building on the efforts of their ancestors, mentors, and elders, people experimented in communities throughout the colonized world to preserve, reclaim, revitalize, and/or regenerate ritual processes to support young people on their path to adulthood, as well as other sacred rites. In 1978, The American Indian Religious Freedom Act passed, protecting the rights of Native Americans in the United States to exercise their traditional religions by ensuring access to sites, use and possession of sacred objects, and the freedom to worship through ceremonials and traditional rites.
Over time, through word of mouth, the emergence of key publications, the rise of the internet with its ubiquity of information, and synchronistic connections, peoples engaged in rites of passage learned of one another’s work and began to collaborate. At the same time, cultural appropriation wove itself more deeply and broadly into an increasingly consumer-oriented dominant culture, leading to significant harm.
Rite of passage efforts converged in 3 separate somewhat-connected gatherings over 5 years, in Kanaka Maoli territory (Puna, Hawai’i); Ohlone territory (Oakland, California); and Chumash lands (Ojai, California). Coming together in ritual and ceremony across cultures, ages, genders, disciplines, races, classes, and other differences, especially in the context of historical and ongoing injustices, included significant conflicts, hurts, and harms, as well as the forging of long-lasting relationships; powerful life-altering experiences of healing, learning, and forgiveness; and the birth of the network that would soon come to be known as Youth Passageways.
Tumultuous early years as Youth Passageways, a significantly white-led and white-founded yet diverse network, gained experience collectively deepening understanding of what it means to root its work in prayer and ceremony, struggles for justice, and unity across difference.
Early steps included:
Seeing the need for increasing capacity and building community, collaboration, and wholeness in leadership, Youth Passageways shifted from a single director to a four-person Co-Director Leadership Circle.
The end of 2019 brought an urgent need for fiscal sponsorship from a long-time partner. We quickly learned that saying yes was a win-win for everyone, leading to many new fiscal sponsorships of important initiatives, primarily Black and Indigenous-led efforts.
The pandemics and social uprising of 2020 brought the need for urgent change into even starker relief, as generations of pain, injustice, and deep divisions came to the surface. These forces deeply impacted Youth Passageways as Black and Brown members of the network attended to the urgent needs in their communities, and struggled with the sometimes abstract nature of Youth Passageways’ work along with the ways whiteness showed up in operations. Two members of the leadership circle stepped back over about 6 months in 2020, to focus on community needs closer to the ground.
The Education & Consulting Collective emerged to support the network through one-on-one mentoring, consulting, training, and collaborative projects with partners; and to establish ongoing sources of financial support for the operations of the network and livelihoods for practitioners. Many of these initiatives were deeply impacted by 2020 as well. The FIRE Fellowship, in partnership with The Ojai Foundation, launched just as pandemic shut-downs arrived, causing a massive pivot which deeply impacted the pilot year. The first public offering from the Collective as a whole grew out of the summer of uprisings: the ECC offered a series of race-based caucus spaces for members of our network. Redistribution of wealth emerged as a central focus in both the caucus spaces and the FIRE Fellowship.
After overextending financially in 2019, 2020 paradoxically brought increasing economic stability to Youth Passageways through emergency federal support, generosity from existing and new funders who opened their wallets wide when COVID hit and in the wake of the uprisings, staffing shifts, and new revenue from fiscal sponsorship fees.
In early 2021, Youth Passageways asked white-led partner organizations and white members of the network to invest in a season of renewal, supporting those at the center to rest and regroup after all of the tumult of 2020. What emerged was a considerable reorientation to the work of network-building, with simple guiding questions and goals for the coming seasons but free from timelines. The focus shifted to responding to requests and invitations communicated by our partners. Collaborations grew as Youth Passageways serves a growing number of primarily BIPOC-led fiscal sponsees and new ECC projects.
As 2021 drew to a close, we highlighted some of the partnerships closest to the core with the launch of a “What’s Your Part in Partnership?” video series.
Leadership has shrunk down to a financially sustainable core, but is not the right team to lead Youth Passageways into the network’s future. The debt has been paid off. Youth Passageways’ prayers of being part of the removal of dams blocking the flow of resources to where they are most needed have been answered, and we are helping to redistribute wealth through serving as fiscal sponsor to at least 20 inspiring, primarily Black and/or Indigenous-led, community-based initiatives, through Solidarity Partnership appeals, and through other emergent opportunities. Our network has become less centralized. We have begun engaging support for the leadership of Youth Passageways to tend to intra and interpersonal healing and conflict repair, toward the next iteration of our spiral leadership system. We prepare for our first in-person gathering since COVID, a small coming-together of those tending Youth Passageways’ operations, to be together in rest, renewal, and reunion and pray for what’s to come.