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Reflections on my Youth Passageways Journey

by Joshua Gorman
YPW Stewardship Council, Chair

Like so many young people today, I came of age at a time when the art and practice of initiation has largely been forgotten. I grew up in a fragmented and materialistic culture, one that did not recognize the transformational process I was going through as an adolescent, and that failed to call forth my deeper gifts. There were no mentors, elders, or community members that came to meet me at the threshold of adulthood, or to welcome me into the great chain of being and the vast mysteries of life. I felt lost, alone, and abandoned as I attempted to navigate the stormy seas and overwhelming crises of our modern world.

As I began to wake up and spread my wings in the archetypal ways that humans do, I discovered the books of Herman Hesse and Jack Kerouac, and the soul-searching protagonists of their epic tales helped to awaken my own call to adventure. At a time when my peers were heading off to prestigious universities, I made the courageous decision to leave my prescribed place in society, and to embark upon a hero’s journey in search of greater purpose and meaning. I spent the following years traveling and exploring, expanding my horizons and sense of self, and questing deep into who I was and what Life was calling for in a time of societal transition that eco-philosopher Joanna Macy has called the Great Turning. With grace and good fortune, I survived the ordeals of my coming-of-age adventures, and I found the gifts at the core of my being to bring back into the heart of my culture which is embodied today in the youth-serving organization I run called Generation Waking Up.

It was only after I had completed my hero’s journey and returned to the mainstream society I had grown up in that I learned there were such things as rites of passage and initiation processes for young people. It was so clear and obvious in hindsight, and I found myself having a deep “aha moment” in realizing that initiation – the process of consciously helping a young person transition from adolescence into adulthood – was what I had been missing and what my soul had been longing for. It was out of that realization that I found myself being deeply called and committed to join the community of people, organizations, and traditions who are working to restore the practices of initiation once again, and that commitment has remained strong ever since.

I began connecting with everyone I could find who was engaged in youth rites of passage work, and in 2008, I joined forces with a contemporary rites of passage practitioner named Melissa Michaels to organize a gathering on the Big Island of Hawai’i bringing together one hundred youth development specialists, rites of passage practitioners, and community leaders from a wide range of generations, cultures, and backgrounds. The intention for our coming together was to engage in cross-cultural sharing and cross-sector learning, and to explore how we could work together to bring the vital practices of youth initiation back into our communities everywhere. It was a powerful and challenging event, filled with deep connection and cross-cultural conflict. While some of our intentions were realized, many fell short, and in the wake of coming together, we chose to let the fields lay fallow for a while, trusting that the connections between people would continue to weave and knowing that “the Call” that had brought so many of us together would sound again in due time.

A few years after that gathering, I found myself attending a teen rites of passage summit in Oakland, California spearheaded by the filmmaker Frederick Marx. Many of the same questions and intentions were being explored, and there was the same strong sense that something so much more could be possible if we joined forces to synergize our resources and amplify our collective impact. Following that gathering, a small team including Frederick Marx, Darcy Ottey, Gigi Coyle, and myself collaborated on hosting another gathering in Ojai, California. We cultivated the soil for a larger collaboration further, and out of that gathering a dedicated group went on to hold a seminal retreat where Youth Passageways (YPW) was formally born with its mission to serve as a “network of individual, organizations, and communities supporting the healthy passage of today’s young people into mature adulthood during a time of global transition.”

Today, I am honored to be a member of the Youth Passageways’ Stewardship Council, which serves as the equivalent of a Board of Directors in a traditional organization. Guided by the YPW Spiral Governance model and core values, the Stewardship Council is working closely with the YPW staff to build the foundation for a vital organization and network to grow. We engage in a wide range of issues, from fundraising and legal incorporation to establishing organizational principles and protocols. We meet virtually on a bi-monthly basis and we gather in-person once a year for a deep dive Stewardship Council retreat including key staff and advisors. As the Youth Passageways network expands, our hope is that the Stewardship Council will continue develop as a diverse and representative body of the individuals and organizations YPW is serving, and that the collective wisdom of this Council will play a critical role in helping Youth Passageways realize its mission in the world. Currently, nominations for new Stewardship Council members are being accepted. If you are interested and/or if there is someone you would like to nominate, you can do so here.

Bill Plotkin writes, “One of the most important things we can do is to rediscover, reinvent, and reclaim the practices that help young people grow up in a healthy way and enhances their chances of becoming fully human and in particular, initiated adults and initiated elders.” As the Youth Passageways network and movement grows, my highest hope is that our individual and collective efforts will ripple out widely, and that today’s young people will increasingly find themselves surrounded by a community and culture of initiation that welcomes their life-transforming gifts into a world that so desperately needs them.

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