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Coming of Age the RITE WayYouth and Community Development through Rites of Passage$

David Blumenkrantz

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780190297336

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: June 2016

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780190297336.001.0001

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Let Me Tell You A Story

Let Me Tell You A Story


(p.1) 1 Let Me Tell You A Story
Coming of Age the RITE Way

David G. Blumenkrantz

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

The introduction offers an overview of the conditions facing children, introduces the concept of rites of passage and how it has been misunderstood and misused in contemporary media and programs. It sets forth the landscape of the book and central questions that are explored and answered, such as, How do we help our children grow up well? What do rites of passage have to do with this in a diverse, multicultural society? What are rites of passage? Why are they important, and what is their purpose? If it takes a whole village to raise a child, as the ancient proverb says, what are the consequences of not having villages anymore? Can a society have a psychological sense of community without community rituals like rites of passage? And can rites of passage exist in a society without a sense of community?

Keywords:   transition, adulthood, Seymour Sarason, community, psychology, initiation, rite of passage, symbol, Malidoma Somé

The sound of a story is the dominant sound of our lives.

—Reynolds Price

To be a person is to have a story to tell.

—Isak Dinesen

Mommy. Tell me about my day.

This was Michael’s nightly invitation to begin his bedtime ritual. His mother, Louann, would weave an exquisite tale, recapturing in glorious detail the events of his day. Each night the events of Michael’s day relived themselves through a story and made his day real. The story fueled his imagination, propelling him through the doors of wakefulness and into the world of dreams. The story made his life real. Telling it made him real. Story time was special. Listening to stories of the past cemented a bond between a boy and his mother and helped a new life unfold into the future.

Let me tell you a story.

This is the way it has been since the beginning of our history. It is the oldest invitation in the human experience (Taylor 1996). “Story is what enabled us to imagine what might happen in the future, and so prepare for it—a feat no other species can lay claim to” (Cron 2012, 1). Passed on from mouth to ear, from generation to generation, it told us where we had been and helped us set a course for our future. I am who I am because of the stories that I live and tell. You are who you are in this same way. We are the collected works of the human experience, because we have been touched by other people’s stories. We are a library of life.

A Collection of Stories

In his book Change the Story, Change the Future (2015), David Korten writes, “When we get our story wrong, we get our future wrong” (1). If children are indeed our future, then the stories about how we educate and help them come of age are the (p.2) most important stories we need to get right. When we get that story wrong our future will certainly be wrong. Our present reality is the future produced by yesterday’s story of how we educated and helped our children come of age.

What are the stories we tell about raising our children? Collected through research and chronicled in the media, there is abundant evidence on whether we have gotten the “story right” about our children’s education, development, and welfare. Getting the story wrong not only now but also in the past has given us the world we have today. Examples of this are environmental degradation and decline, volatile world financial markets, civil unrest, and social injustice around the world. In America, our story includes continued escalating political and social incivility with flashpoints erupting over police and civilian relations, especially those in urban communities and with the African American population. All indications lead to the fact that we have gotten the story wrong for a very long time.

Data collected on our children’s development and well-being reflect their voices. But does the data really tell the whole story? Data can give us statistics that measure the incidence of child abuse, high school graduation rates, teenage pregnancy, substance abuse, mental illness, delinquency, incidence of violence, and suspensions and expulsions from schools, as discussed in recent commentary on the school-to-prison pipeline (Kim, Losen, and Hewit 2010, Mora and Christianakis 2012). But can data really let us “hear” the voices of our children? Are the mountains of statistics able to articulate the feelings of our children deprived of loving attention and craving a sense of belonging and connection to others, their community, and nature? Is the data guiding us in ways that strengthen our children’s sense of self and give them hope that they will find meaning and purpose in the world and lives that are fulfilling?

The voices of children of color (Madhubuti and Madhubuti 1994, Freire 1998, Potts 2003), Native Americans (Senese 1991), and others not in the majority scream loudly about widespread disparity in opportunities, supports, education, and economic conditions, which leads to a paucity of hope about achieving “success” and having a positive future (Alford 2007). An article headlined “Rising Toll of Mental Illness” in the Hartford Courant reported on a substantial rise in teenage hospitalizations due to mental and behavioral health problems. “We seem to be dealing with a ‘more highly stressed population,’ with ‘more serious suicide attempts,’ among people not receiving regular mental health care” (3), said Dr. Harold Schwartz, psychiatrist-in-chief at the Institute of Living.

In the early nineties, the Search Institute (Benson 1997) began to study a set of qualities that foster desirable outcomes in youth, leading them to become caring, responsible, and productive adults. They identified forty qualities they called “developmental assets” (Scales and Leffert 1999). Among these developmental assets were perceiving that the “community values youth,” living in a “caring neighborhood,” and attending schools that have a “caring climate.” Although the Search Institute is reluctant to aggregate and publish the data, there is a striking trend in these areas. Roughly 17 percent of youth surveyed perceive that their “community values youth.” No more than 40 percent of youth perceive that they live in a “caring neighborhood” or attend schools with a “caring climate” (Ryan 1998, Goldstein 2015), 83 percent of (p.3) youth surveyed believe that their community does not value them. Almost as high are the numbers of youth who perceive they do not live in a “caring neighborhood” and do not attend schools that have a “caring climate.”

The reluctance of the Search Institute to focus extensively on data accumulated from their survey “Developmental Assets Profile” (Search Institute 2005) on over six hundred thousand youths’ perceptions speaks to an important issue. While data may reflect the “voices of our children,” they are not their voices. Quantitative data have become such a big part of the conversation on the meaning of particular aspects of life, like how our children are doing, that our children’s actual feelings, their real yearnings and deep sense of need, are increasingly obscured in such conversation. While helpful in many cases, data-driven decision-making (DDDM) sometimes takes the whole child out of formulating programs. A Rand report (Marsh, Pane, and Hamilton 2006) points out that DDDM will not guarantee good decision-making and that a variety of different data is needed to provide a broader picture of a “whole child.” The report recommended spending more time creatively imagining innovations to meet needs rather than analyzing data. Taking action is far more challenging and frequently gets lost in the justification that more analysis is needed. In sports, this is called “paralysis by analysis.”

News of the Day

During the famed interview portrayed in the book and video The Power of Myth (1988), Bill Moyers asked the renowned mythologist Joseph Campbell what happens when there are no rites of passage. Campbell replied, “We get the news of the day. Youngsters not knowing how to act in a civilized manner, you have these raiding gangs, and so forth—that is self-rendered initiation” (82). If the news of the day comprises real-life stories of coming of age the wrong way, what can we learn? Let us take a look at actual headlines.

“Family Suing Bus Company in FAMU Hazing Death”

Robert Champion died in November 2011, after he was beaten on a bus driving the Florida A&M band to a game. A report from CNN on January 10, 2012, states:

Some band members have said Champion died after taking part in a rite of passage called “crossing Bus C. . . . students walk from the front of the bus to the back of the bus backward while the bus is full of other band members, and you get beaten until you get to the back.” But “this was not a hate crime,” Attorney for the family Chris Chestnut said. “This is a hazing crime. Florida A&M University has a 50-year history, a culture in this band, of hazing.”


“Bullying Should Not Be a Teenage Rite of Passage”

A report from the Center for American Progress (Hunt 2011) and many others claim, “Bullying in schools is viewed by many Americans as a rite of passage for all young adults, but for many gay and transgender teens it is a serious problem that increases their chance of dropping out of school, becoming homeless, using drugs, or attempting suicide.”

“Bullying Is Not a Rite of Passage”

In a special report to CNN (October 14, 2011), Julie Hertzog writes, “Tragic stories of young people committing suicide after being tormented by bullies have been widely publicized. So you’d imagine that most people would know how seriously bullying hurts people. Unfortunately, this is not always true. Schools must be united in the cause and abandon the myth that bullying is a rite of passage.”

Thus far responses to bullying do not address youth’s basic need for initiation. Youth are yearning for a pathway to adulthood that helps them understand the values and behaviors expected from their culture and community. Schools and communities need to unite around a positive approach to create proper initiation rather than focusing on abandoning the myth that bullying is a rite of passage. Rites of passage are the ancient story, the myth, that our children need to help them transition to adulthood and to feel included in their schools and community.

“Teens and Drugs: Rite of Passage or Recipe for Addiction?”

A Time magazine article from June 29, 2011, leads with the line, “Teen drug use shouldn’t be looked at as a rite of passage but as a public health problem, say experts, and one that has reached ‘epidemic’ levels.” Experimentation and adolescence go hand in hand. Exploring altered states of consciousness is one of the historical hallmarks of the human species, especially following the onset of puberty (Weil & Rosen 1993).

“Rethinking Rites of Passage: Substance Abuse on America’s Campuses”

The Commission on Substance Abuse at Colleges and Universities (Malloy 1994) reports that drinking is seen as a rite of passage on college campuses. Bullying, hazing, gangs, and drug use are also referred to as rites of passage. The commission’s (p.5) report states, “What was once regarded as a harmless ‘rite of passage’ has in the 1990s reached epidemic proportions.”

“Risking Rites of Passage: When Teens Control the Transition to Adulthood”

This online article (Knott 2010) cites a mother “wondering what Trish will do if she is pressured to go through teen ‘rites of passage’ in order to belong.” It continues:

But lacking the formal rites of passage that in traditional cultures have marked the transition from adolescence to adulthood, teens are inventing their own rites of passage. Many of these can be risky, and sometimes even life threatening. They involve sex, drugs, alcohol and driving, sometimes in dangerous combinations. In rural communities, sometimes successful hunting—“killing your first deer”—counts as initiation, which can add guns to the mix. Gangs in larger cities have rituals that may involve fighting, breaking the law, or other transgressions against society. Even in Trish’s seemingly safe small town, teens may dare each other to try “adult” behaviors to prove that they are no longer just children or immature adolescents.

(Knott 2010)

Trish and all adolescents grow up within their culture and school and community climates, which convey certain values that guide behaviors and expectations of what it means to be an adult. What rites of passage activities can be “remembered and redesigned” where youth can access their cultural resources within a climate of caring to test their mettle, to prove they are no longer children or immature adolescents but moving along a clear pathway to adulthood?

“High School as a Rite of Passage for Social and Intellectual Development”

This paper by Vivienne Collinson and Lynn Hoffman (1998) addresses the “artificial” separation of intellectual achievement and social development that leads to “American high school classes continuing to be unsuccessful and boring to students.” Their extensive research suggests that “a way to respond to their (students) needs and their disenchantment with academic classes would be to design academic rites of passage that capitalize on their desire to become adults.”

If there is one predominant theme in the story captured in the Collinson and Hoffman’s paper, it is that good students are not born but are guided to learn how to learn and demonstrate the proper attitudes and skills that support becoming a lifelong learner and good student (Blumenkrantz 2009). Initiation actively addresses the needs of students to feel like they can be included in a community of scholars and be able to learn well and achieve in anything that they set their minds to learn. (p.6) A central function of initiation is to reignite in teenagers their natural curiosity and respond to their desire to seek answers to the great mysteries of life that are beginning to unfold.

“English Riots: A Rite of Passage for the UK Economy?”

The Huffington Post Politics—United Kingdom cites the retired psychiatrist, author, and past district councillor Richard Lawson in an August 18, 2011, post. He attributes the absence of initiation as one leading cause for the disenchanted and alienated youth rioting in Britain. Lawson notes that the widespread practice of initiation, through which a child enters the process of becoming an adult, is absent. Through initiation Lawson sees youth as “rewarded with a place in the community.” Instead, in the absence of initiation, he sees British youth without a sense of connection or inclusion in a community forged by a rite of passage, “standing on the corner of a sink estate2 with no home, no hope no opportunity.”

“The absence of rites of passage leads to a serious breakdown in the process of maturing as a person,” declares the Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential (1986). In most societies, child development and the problems of teenagers have taken center stage as a public health issue of worldwide concern. Since child and adolescent development are among the major domains of social life, it follows that educators and health and social service providers are in pivotal positions to examine and reinvent youth development approaches that are guided by rites of passage practices so pervasive throughout human history.

Rites of Confusion

There are almost 150,000 Google search results for “drug and alcohol use as a rite of passage.” This pales by comparison with searches for “bullying, hazing, suicide, and rites of passage,” which result in almost one million responses. “Gang and rites of passage” produced another 1.1 million results. While the diversity of definitions and the range of stories about rites of passage dilute its real meaning and significance, a theme is emerging. In the absence of initiation into a community—be it the adult community; communities of faith, culture, nature, or school; work; sports teams; or any subset of contemporary society—health-compromising, dangerous, antisocial, “self-rendered initiations” are likely to occur. This is the news of the day. And, this is not only about youth but also about uninitiated adults. Rites of passage are (p.7) intentionally designed to transmit community and cultural values while strengthening the bonds of community.

The absence of rites of passage and the growing incidence of health-compromising “self-rendered initiation” also impact a sense of community, whichRobert Putnam (2000) documents in his book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. “For the first two-thirds of the twentieth century a powerful tide bore Americans into ever deeper engagement in the life of their community, but a few decades ago—silently, without warning—that tide reversed and we were overtaken by a treacherous rip current. Without at first noticing, we have been pulled apart from one another and from our communities over the last third of the century” (27).

Initiation of children into the adult world sets forth values and expectations for their behavior that increases social ties and civic engagement. A central purpose of initiation, as discussed in what follows, is not only to guide and assist the transformation of an individual but also to strengthen the individual’s sense of responsibility to participate in the essential tasks of a community for the highest good. Putnam points out that the term “social capital,” used to describe social ties that positively impact people’s lives, has come in and out of favor for over a hundred years.

His historical accounts of the first use of “social capital” are enlightening and relevant to this conversation. The term was first used not by a “cloistered theoretician, but by a practical reformer of the Progressive Era—L. J. Hanifan, state supervisor of rural schools in West Virginia” (19). Hanifan wrote in 1916 about the importance of community involvement in successful schools. “Social capital,” according to Hanifan, meant “tangible substances [that] count foremost in the daily lives of people: namely good will, fellowship, sympathy, and social intercourse among the individuals and families who make up a social unit” (130). Hanifan felt that the individual was quite helpless socially and unable to satisfy his or her own needs for affiliation unless and until the structure of community was in place and continually strengthened. He writes, “The community as a whole will benefit by the cooperation of all its parts, while the individual will find in his associations the advantages of the help, the sympathy, and the fellowship of his neighbors” (130).

Rites of passage might be considered our shared sacred story. Evidence of their existence has been calculated to reach back between thirty and seventy thousand years (Campbell and Moyers 1988; Cohen 1991; Vogt 2006). The story has taken on forms and meanings that would be unimaginable to van Gennep (1908) over a hundred years ago when he first coined the term and set forth its chief characteristics and three-part structure. It continues to surface more and more in our language, making news that even included this front-page headline in the New York Times: “War—Bush’s Presidential Rite of Passage” (Apple 1989).

What if we have gotten our story wrong, as Korten suggests, and are continually getting the story about our children wrong, too? It is important not only to recognize what is wrong with the story but also to understand that only when we change the story and engage our children in the story’s unfolding will we really be able to change and transform the future. Yes, it is important to understand that our present economic story has contributed to global financial instability (Korten 2015). We did not quite get the story right about our relationship with nature and our environment, either (Wildcat 2009; Henley & Peavy 2015; Carlson 1962). Also, we did not (p.8) get the full story about “small is beautiful” and people and nature should matter along with sustainable development when engaged in commerce and considering economics (Schumacher 1973). Even when you do get the story right, as in the case of Galileo Galilei, who was the first to observe and put forth that the sun and not the earth was the center of our solar system, you could be ignored and, in his case, persecuted and arrested. He and many others throughout history have pointed out in almost every other area of life that we did not get the story quite right and hence the unfolding story we live out in our daily lives is bringing us closer to peril and putting our world on the precipice of a “Great Turning” (Reason and Newman 2013). Schumacher understood this, however elsewhere, people did not pay attention to the whole story.

Education: The Most Important Story to Get Right

The title of Part II in Schumacher’s classic book Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered (1972) says it all: “The Greatest Resource—Education.” He argues that the central reason we find ourselves in our economic and environmental mess is the absence of education that transmitted values to children that enabled them to form right relationships with the natural world. They were taught about natural resources rather than natural relations and were not brought back into their essential deeply connected relationship with nature. Schumacher writes that we got our education story wrong (84).

What does Schumacher say is wrong with education? In a word, ethics. “Education produced hundreds of narrowly focused silos to contain and distinguish the different disciplines of science and technology. They reduce the primary focus to producing ‘know-how,’ without ‘knowing how’ to use the end result of science and technology for the highest good—to benefit of all human kind and nature” (Schumacher 1972, 86).

Schumacher calls for “a revolution in education, whose task would be, first and foremost, the transmission of ideas of value, of what to do with our lives. There is no doubt also the need to transmit know-how but this must take second place, for it is obviously somewhat foolhardy to put great powers into the hands of people without making sure that they have a reasonable idea of what to do with them” (Schumacher 1972, 86).

More than anything, youth need values and ethics in education that inform and guide how they live and that make their lives understandable and meaningful. The low priority we place on values and ethics in education has led to the “permanent crisis.” Children are not able to come of age knowing how to live in ways that serve the highest good. Nor do they know how to use the power of technology and science they have learned in a way that works for everyone and is respectful of our relationship with nature and our sacred Earth.

“The problems of education are merely reflections of the deepest problems of our age. . . . Education which fails to clarify our central convictions is merely training or (p.9) indulgence. For it is our central convictions that are in disorder, and, as long as the present anti-metaphysical temper persists, the disorder will grow worse. Education, far from ranking as man’s greatest resource, will then be an agent of destruction, in accordance with the principle corruptio optimi pessima” (Schumacher 1972, 107), roughly translated: The corruption of what is best is the worst tragedy.

Real education should educate us out of self into something far finer—into selflessness which links us with all humanity.

—Viscountess Nancy Astor, American-born British politician (1879–1964)

Getting the Story Rite

Stories are powerful and dangerous and can indeed change the world. “A Christmas Carol” has been “credited (or blamed) for elevating the holiday to the stratospheric level of attention it now receives; prior to the book’s publication, Christmas was treated as a relatively minor celebration on a par with Memorial Day or Veterans Day” (Kottler 2015, p. 32).

Stories move people at an emotional level. People are not moved by data dumps, PowerPoint slides, or Excel spreadsheets packed with numbers (Gottschall 2012). “Once upon a time …” moves people. “Let me tell you a story…” brings people closer together, yearning to connect a piece of the story with their own lives in ways that deepen their own sense of self by extracting some assemblance of meaning for their lives.

Peter Guber, in his book Tell to Win (2012), reminds us of the dangerous story of the Trojan horse. The ancient Greeks after years of bloody battles that did not amount to anything, failing to win by strength, figured out how to win by outsmarting the Trojans with a clever story. They left Troy and sailed away, leaving an enormous wooden horse as an offering to the Gods. Impressed with the magnificent horse, the Trojans brought it inside their walls. As the story goes, the horse was full of Greek warriors, who emerged in the night to take over the Trojan city.

“The story is actually just a delivery system for the teller’s agenda. A story is a trick for sneaking a message into the fortified citadel of the human mind” (Gottshcall 2012). When you come right down to it we have central “stories” in the form of theories that inform policies (another form of story) that result in programs, which are the (p.10) manifestation of the theoretical story in action. All of these stories—theories, policies, programs—are “delivery systems for the teller’s agenda.” They are based on the teller’s worldview. Current perceptions or worldviews in contemporary public education may not always be aligned with all students’ central values or culture. We only have to reflect on Native American boarding schools during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century to know how in America’s education policies the “story” was the “delivery system for the teller’s [government] agenda” (Senese 1991). Recent reflections (Madhubuti & Madhubuti 1994; Freire 1998; Potts 2003) depict schools as “major socializing mechanisms that help maintain existing hierarchical relationship of power and privilege” (Bowles & Gintes 1976, Shujaa 1995). There is no such thing as a neutral educational process. Education either functions as an instrument that is used to enculturate the young into the logic of the present system, or it is the means of dealing critically and creatively with reality to discover how to participate in the transformation of the world (Freire and Macedo 1987, cited in Potts 2003, 174).

Theories are stories informed by empirical evidence. We have hundreds of stories about what helps children grow up well and different stories about how they learn. Dr. Spock was one of the pioneers in story-telling for children’s development, and at one time his book The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care (1946) was the best-selling book on the planet apart from the Bible. We all crave a story. And, if it is the definitive story about how to live, lose weight, increase our strength, improve our marriage, find our inner children, or any one of the tens of thousands of self-help storybooks, then we have found “our story.” We are each seeking a story that helps us understand an aspect of life and ways to integrate all the complexities of life in ways that give us meaning and make us happy. Yes, we look to stories for our happiness. Find the right story, like “better living through chemistry,” and we will find happiness.

Children, especially at the time of puberty and adolescence—coming of age—seek a story that they can relate to and live into and that unfolds as their emerging adulthood.

The French artist Paul Gauguin depicted the central theme of the story they are seeking. They are embedded in three fundamental questions, which are the title of his famous work, D’où Venons Nous/Que Sommes Nous/Où Allons Nous?—Where Do We come From?/What Are We?/Where Are We Going? Gauguin was a seminary student and learned these questions as part of the catechism that was taught to be lodged in the minds of the young schoolboys. It would lead them toward proper spiritual reflection on the nature of life. The three fundamental questions in the catechism were: “Where does humanity come from?” “Where is it going to?” “How does humanity proceed?” (Gayford 2006, Stuckey 2001). (p.11)

Questions and Conversations Change the World

I hope this collection of stories brings to life a topic that has been important to me for over six decades and is of growing relevance to many around the world. Its purpose is to stimulate further inquiry and expand the conversation about an emerging field that I call youth and community development through rites of passage. Several related questions are relevant to this inquiry: How do we help our children grow up well? And, what do rites of passage have to do with this in a diverse, multicultural society? I respond to these questions with stories that have two interrelated themes: rites of passage and the psychological sense of community.

What are rites of passage? Why are they important and what is their purpose? What are the consequences of their absence? Is there a place for contemporary rites of passage in the lives of our children, their families, and communities? How can contemporary rites of passage help youth successfully cross the threshold from childhood to adult? What could they look like in contemporary western society?

What is a psychological sense of community? And, what is the relationship between a psychological sense of community, ritual in general, and rites of passage specifically?

Can a society have a psychological sense of community without community rituals like rites of passage? And can rites of passage exist in a society without a sense of community? I have said for decades, “It takes a whole child to raise a village.” What does this have to do with youth and community development through rites of passage?

The answers to these questions are addressed throughout the book and are intended to build a case for the answer to the central question: What would we be doing now if institutions that mattered in the lives of our children were considered to be places of initiation and rites of passage? This question is addressed in the last two chapters, which provide specific examples of strategies and guidelines for putting design principles into practices. These are the questions that I have struggled with, not only as an educator, youth worker, psychologist, and human service professional but also as a husband, a father, and a human being.

Whenever the rabbi of Sasov saw anyone’s suffering, either of spirit or of body, he shared it so earnestly that the other’s suffering became his own.

Once someone expressed his astonishment at this capacity to share in another’s troubles. (p.12)

“What do you mean ‘share’?” said the rabbi. “It is my own sorrow; how can I help but suffer it?”

Martin Buber, 1947

Imagine There Are No Funerals

Imagine for a moment that we have no collective understanding of the human experience of loss. In fact, we do not even have funerals. It is difficult to imagine. How would one try and convey to a reader the experience of losing a loved one? In the absence of a funeral, which is a rite of passage in the life cycle, what would we do when someone dies? We would have to make up something every time. Explaining it would be a problem not only for the writer but also for the reader. It is the same with initiation and rites of passage.

Another way for you, the reader, to come to terms with the material in this book is to reflect on a time in your life when you had direct experience with an ordeal and how inadequate language was to convey the experience. I am not here to judge the validity of anyone else’s experience. I am not saying, “Here’s my story. It’s the truth!” I am saying, “Here is my experience—my story.” What part of my story tugs at a thread in your story? Following this thread can illuminate for you the experience associated with the process of rites of passage and its importance to building community cohesion.

This book explores an emerging field of youth and community development through rites of passage and presents an organizing framework for an interdisciplinary approach to education, youth development, and community development. It offers opportunities for the fields of social work, education, youth development, and allied fields to integrate their particular areas of concentration within a unifying story of rites of passage. By examining the relationship between rites of passage and the psychological sense of community, I attempt to identify and define the central issues within each concept and illustrate their relationship. I do this not only through references in the literature but also through stories about life. I provide illustrations of the phenomenology, the actual experiences of the relationship between rites of passage and the psychological sense of community, to build a case for their integral relationship and importance to youth development, our future, and the future of the sacred earth and all our relations. I wanted to build the case for rites of passage as a unifying story among related disciplines and areas of practice. I realize this is a lofty, perhaps unrealistic goal. But, in order to accomplish it one has to not only understand it intellectually but also experience it at the level of one’s heart. Stories are told and heard through the heart.

If at first, the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.”

—Albert Einstein

(p.13) Lay of the Land

This is not your typical academic book devoid of the author’s personal story. While I am reluctant to cross this boundary between the personal and professional, the entire landscape of initiation is about thresholds and crossing boundaries. I recognize sharing personal stories lies outside of standard scholarship, but as written previously, stories and not data or statistics can convey the essence and true meaning of complex human phenomena. This is especially true with initiation, rites of passage, and a psychological sense of community. Initiation, crossing thresholds, is about taking risks, breaking out of old and traditional ways of thinking; and doing that leads to breakthroughs.

The book is organized to bring the reader back and forth between stories and more traditional scholarship citing related literature. Just as with the ritual form, which ebbs and flows within a container that at the onset may appear chaotic but serves to engage participants in deeper and deeper levels of meaning. The contents of the stories are used as case studies or narrative methodology to bring what has been found in the literature to life.

Chapters 1 and 2 offer background related to rites and wrongs of passage and set forth questions that will be explored throughout the book. Chapter 3 provides a narrative case study of a vision quest, which is one traditional practice during initiation and part of the larger rite of passage experience. Then we move into a brief history and theory of rites of passage and a psychological sense of community. It is designed to provide navigational aids to explore both the territory where these two constructs merge and the emergence of reciprocity.

Chapter 4 introduces the concept of reciprocity and its relevance in rites of passage, which in western society have typically focused on individual transformation. An ongoing debate in evolutionary biology recognizes the tension between the roles of the individual and the community in the survival of human beings. This chapter lays the foundation for exploring the relationship between rites of passage and the psychological sense of community. It introduces the concepts and their relationship by focusing on how an individual’s initiation strengthens the bonds between citizens, thus increasing social capital and a community’s capacity for adaptation, which serves survival. I describe and explain the central elements that constitute the interface of the individual and community experiences of rites of passage. I call this youth and community development through rites of passage.

Chapter 5, “The Meaning of Community: Symbols of Initiation—Reciprocity” explores the concept of reciprocity through examples contained in the vision quest narrative in chapter 3. It explores the notion of a psychological sense of community, expanding definitions of community to include nature, ancestors, and Spirit in an “initiatory constellation,” which is central to adolescent identity formation. A working model for understanding and using the central elements in a psychological sense of community are introduced for guiding youth and community development through rites of passage design strategies. The chapter proposes three core questions to help frame our exploration into the intersection of rites of passage and community: What are youth being initiated into, by whom, and for what purpose? The answer to these key questions can guide the design of more viable and potent village-oriented rites of passage.

(p.14) Chapter 6, “On Rites of Passage; Symbols of Initiation,” returns to an analysis of the vision quest through the lens of rites of passage. It offers a rationale for, and provides examples that strengthen, the argument that individuals can not be transformed without a context and connection with their community and/or culture. If it takes a whole village to raise a child, then it could be suggested that it takes a whole community to recognize an adult. The rite of passage phase of “incorporation” is discussed in relationship to the essential need of youth to be initiated within and by their own community and culture.

Chapter 7, “Ritual Form: Design Elements,” presents a generic five-part structure for ritual that includes similar elements evident across different cultures and contexts within the ritual process. These elements integrate specific design symbols and principles that can be adapted into contemporary strategies for rites of passage experiences. The five-part structure provides guideposts for our analysis of the vision quest in chapter 3 and exemplified in the ritual designed by Malidoma Patrice Somé in the following chapter.

Chapter 8, “Which Write, Wright, Rite Is Right? Knowing Your Rites from Your Rights,” explores the history of ritual and its relationship to myth. It introduces eight general properties of myth and discusses these properties in relationship to theories in science. The chapter describes rites of passage as a contemporary story that has the properties of myth and provides more potent and effective design strategies to link together and improve contemporary education and youth development practices.

Chapter 9, “It’s a Long Journey to a Ritual,” provides another case study as an example of the general principles and structure of myth, ritual, and rites of passage. Famed educator and ritual-maker Malidoma Patrice Somé, PhD, who grew up among the Dagara in Dano, Burkina Faso, West Africa, fashioned the ritual, based on his tribe’s funeral customs. It highlights the relationship between ritual, the individual, and the community. The general principles of myth described in chapter 7 are illustrated in the narrative as are the tripartite structure of rites of passage—separation, liminality, and incorporation.

Chapter 10 is called “Something Happened. Stories to Dream By” contains one of the largest collections of ethnographies that explore the intricacies of human relations among 340 different cultures from around the world. This chapter reviews the Human Relations Area File on “puberty and initiation rites” and identifies common elements in initiation rites that appear central to many diverse cultures. The common elements are synthesized and inform the formation of the twenty design principles for youth and community development through rites of passage.

It makes a compelling case that “something happens” around the time of puberty. And, what happens is essential for the individual, the family, and the community in specific ways that ensure adaptation for the survival of their culture and community.

Chapter 11, “Making Something Happen: Community Institutions as Places for Initiation and Rites of Passage,” incorporates material from all the previous chapters and provides specific design strategies for helping institutions that matter in the lives of children become places of initiation and rites of passage. It integrates multiple systems and disciplines into the practice field of youth and community (p.15) development through rites of passage. Strategies are framed in response to the three core questions introduced earlier: Initiation into what? By whom? And for what purpose? The chapter examines critical issues that demonstrate the essential purpose of rites of passage and how they support individual transformation and strengthen a sense of community. Issues explored include the “collision of transitions” (midlife and adolescence), the separation of children from biological parents and/or guardians, defining and engaging elders and mentors, program replication, innovation transfer, and emergent design. It reports on how the language of rites of passage is used to reframe therapy as another “ordeal” and part of an ongoing process of initiation where youth and their parents are “co-researchers” in the process of initiation. A model for large-order systems change is provided through the story of a government grant program that adopted a new paradigm of innovation transfer and illustrates emergent design in practice. The “Story” of rites of passage was used to organize and mobilize ten communities and engaged almost seven thousand people in integrated design strategies that promoted positive youth development.

Chapter 12, “End Notes—Reflections of a Public Artist: Call to Inquiry and Action,” expands on what we would be doing if institutions that mattered in the lives of children were considered places of initiation and rites of passage. It brings together almost fifty years of work in community organizing, education, social work, and youth development into a new story of youth and community development through rites of passage. Community organizing, intervention, therapy, education, and youth development are linked together through the common language of rites of passage. Powered by the synergy of myth and science, values that inform and guide expectations for behavior are transmitted to the next generation. The chapter provides public policy and design recommendations that can transform and integrate the practice of education, social work, and youth development in ways that improve the conditions for raising our children and strengthening communities.

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Additional resources for putting youth and community development through rites of passage into action along with information about the 4th edition of the Rite Of Passage Experience© ROPE® Guide for Promoting Youth & Community Maturation & Health can be accessed at www.communityritesofpassage.org.


(1) See the Rite Of Passage Experience©, ROPE®—Initiation of Scholars at www.rope.org

(2) A sink estate is government-sponsored high-density housing characterized by high levels of economic and social deprivation. Such “estates” are not always high-crime areas, although there is a strong correlation between crime rates and sink estates in large urban areas.