Breaking barriers

By developing connections between young and old, a simple idea can yield a powerful result

BELLOWS FALLS — One of many blessings in my life is that I have been able to visit lots of incredible places through my important work. Of all of these, the place for which I have the fondest memories is Dillingham, Alaska, the hub of the communities in the Bristol Bay region, on the western side of the Aleutian Peninsula in the southwestern part of the state.

In 1995, the Bristol Bay Area Health Corporation, the oldest Native-owned health corporation in America, engaged in a program to develop youth-adult partnerships. My firm was hired to train community teams of adults and teens from five area villages: King Salmon/Naknik, Nondolton, Levelock, Togiak, and Dillingham. These teams would later train other community teams from 10 more Bush villages.

The most fascinating aspect of this workshop was that it was entirely translated into Yup'ik, the native language of the tribe of people of the same name.

Three elders from various villages spoke no English. The organizers did not know this fact until everyone arrived early in the morning of the first day. A quick phone call to a remote office of BBAHC secured a translator, who flew in just hours later.

By the time we got started, everyone could understand what was being said, and all could participate fully. Using two languages to communicate to all members of the workshop community had a fascinating effect on all of us.

I have many fond memories of this workshop. The village of Dillingham is among the most beautiful places I have had the pleasure of visiting. The schools - both the public schools and the regional branch of the University system - had facilities that were second to none.

The people fascinated me. While many were indigenous to the area, others had come to work on the Alaska Pipeline or other projects and simply never left.

By the end of my week there, I felt the same pull that had kept them there.

* * *

But the single greatest memory came early in the first day of the workshop. During a break, an elder and the translator approached me. Previous to the break, I had been providing an overview of the core concepts we were going to focus on in our three days together. Of course, youth-adult partnership was at the heart of this overview.

After approaching me, the elder spoke. He looked concerned. The translator confirmed my feelings.

“I am a village elder,” the translator passed on to me. “I am not used to working with our youth as you have talked about. I am not used to listening to them like you have talked about.

“Our culture has taught us that youth are supposed to respect and listen to their elders. What you have talked about is very different than what we are used to doing.”

Prior to the trip I had studied the culture and learned a great deal from a good friend who works with the University of Alaska's Cooperative Extension system. I had learned a lot about cultural norms and traditions and felt comfortable bringing my experiences and ideas to the people of the area.

But this concern had me suddenly off balance.

Calling on the best experiential facilitator skill I could think of, I simply asked the elder, “How does this make you feel?”

Even before the translator could pass the elder's words on to me, I knew the answer.

His smile said it all.

The translator confirmed my interpretation of the body language. “It feels great,” he said.

* * *

As the workshop unfolded over its three days, this feeling gained strength.

The elders had been concerned that the young people in their villages had little interest in the centuries-old traditions related to fishing, whaling, subsistence, arts, and other aspects of their culture.

But they learned that respecting the interests and experiences of all people in their village was the best way to engage everyone in a process that honored the past, the present, and the future.

Mission accomplished.

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