What we were prepared for
In late 2017, we were approached by Fraser Health, Aboriginal Health to develop a program for young people from First Nations in the Fraser-Salish communities near Chilliwack. The initial design, as you can see from the poster, was to be for a program for 13-24 year-olds. We had therefore planned to adapt some of the work we had done with adolescents, young adults and adults with Walking Forward with Good Medicine and PIPS (Prevention Is Power Sharing) into this 8-week, 16-session, 32-hour program.
What actually happened
When we arrived the first day (January 22, 2018), it was clear that this was not going to be how things rolled out. Instead we were greeted by a very energetic and thoughtful and squirmy group of 8 to 13-year-olds… which grew very quickly in the first couple weeks to nearly a dozen youth very consistently attending the after school 4:00 to 6:00 p.m. program at Cheam First Nation.
We started by showing the excellent animated video about the Rat Park research of Dr. Bruce Alexander (https://youtu.be/ao8L-0nSYzg). This elicited a lot of discussion… and a fair bit of confusion and dissonance—with the kids wondering if we were going to be talking about them not using drugs, about how to help the people they cared about to stop using drugs, or were we talking about not using drugs or stopping using drugs at all!?!? Maybe we were talking ab out how to make lives less like barren cages, and more like idyllic, thriving rat parks?!?! We threw all these questions back to them to discuss, and also asked them how they might like to discuss these questions over the 8 weeks. The resounding answer from the room was that they enjoyed doing skits together… acting out parts assigned to them.
With two Impact employee youth co-facilitators, and two practicum students (which, at first, seemed like it might be overkill—also with two of our Masters-level counsellors—but ended up being a great design that allowed us to provide a lot of modelling and attention to each youth), we developed a huge array of improvisational scenarios, based mostly on concepts from Motivational Interviewing and Trauma-Informed Practice.
As we embarked on engaging the youth, in a developmentally-appropriate manner, with the concepts behind Motivational Interviewing and Trauma-Informed Practice and then with performing skits, it became clear that it might be really helpful to be able to also interview them about how they felt the different scenarios had played out. For example, was “giving advice” (which the youth initially thought would be the most-helpful approach… the approach that a qualified counsellor might take) really working out that well? But we ran up against limited attention spans with these plans. The youth needed many breaks to work out their energy, so doing skits and thentalking about how they went wasn’t working well. So…
We started bringing multi-track audio recording equipment so we could discretely record the voices of each skit participant (which was particularly important when, as often was the case… and is typical in conversation… the voices talked over each other). This allowed us to then use the new (actually, it was in beta—very cutting-edge) Adobe Character Animation software to produce mouth movements from the recordings, which then allowed us to produce animated videos of all the conversations… using various characters (a fox, a cephalopod, Claymation and on and on). Seeing their own voices coming from the characters on the screen at the next session really caught and kept attention, and allowed us to then interview (also recording these interviews with multi-track audio) the youth about how the scenarios went and make those, too, into videos. By the end of the 8-weeks the youth were interviewing each other about how their “counselling” skits played out. We also engaged in groups counselling sessions, where our counsellor, Ruth Haney, would play a client coming to the youth with a vexing problem, and the youth would take turns trying to help her, using the various approaches we had discussed.
On April 18, we were glad to be invited to a ceremony for the many youth who participated so vibrantly in the program—where we could show a small smattering of the 36 (!) videos they had produced to their community and hold them up for the honour they so richly deserved.
Necessity is the Mother of Invention
The program and its unexpected turns have given truth to the old saying that “Necessity is the mother of invention,” as our need to sustain the attention of this group of young people gave birth to what we think might be a really innovative and FUN approach to CREATING knowledge through experience, rather than simply CONVEYING knowledge through education (which research and practice has shown us is neither very effective, nor very enjoyable). It also produced a record of the work that these youth did of which they and their families and communities could be very proud.