The Highland Academy Community Voices class is tangled in a web, and it’s one of their own making.
The class, made up of 25 middle schoolers and 15 high schoolers, is less focused on academics and more focused on what it takes to function as an adult in the world, explained Highland Principal Michael Shapiro. “We really emphasize the whole student here,” he said of the 6th – 12th grade charter school. “We pay a lot of attention to students’ social-emotional wellbeing and their search for meaning in life outside of academics.”
Community Voices is taught part of the time by a Highland Academy teacher; the rest of the time, representatives from a community organization take over. This year, that organization is CITC.
“A Natural Fit”
When CITC Recovery Services Coordinator Criss Mitchell reached out to offer suicide prevention and life skills training to Highland Academy students, Dr. Shapiro said, “It was a natural fit. It directly aligns with our standards for healthy living and personal ethics.”
Back in the classroom, the students take turns naming the things that have made them the people they are today: hobbies, life events, relationships, struggles they’ve overcome. As they speak, they throw a ball of yarn across the circle, each student unwinding the ball bit by bit. Soon, they have created an intricate web that connects everyone in the circle.
“The things you all talked about make us who we are,” said Criss Mitchell, one of two CITC class facilitators. “They influence our decisions, and we influence each other. So, if Jess is having a hard day, and I pull her string—” He reaches out, tugs his fellow facilitator’s string, and the entire group is pulled closer together.
“One kid went, ‘Whoa!’” RS Coordinator Jess Greene recalled of that Community Voices activity. “Having moments like that, that’s been our main focus. Asking, Who are you? What does it mean to be successful? Where can you go when you want help? Those are the questions we’re finding answers to.”
Reasons to Live
CITC’s Prevention and Youth Development Program is only a couple years old, but its staff has already partnered with a wide variety of organizations, schools, and community groups to bring QPR (“Questions. Persuade. Refer.”) suicide prevention training, life skills classes, and wellness activities to Alaska’s youth.
Recently, they united with UAA’s Native Student Services center to organize a Reasons to Live walk. The 5K includes two days of pre-walk activities to raise awareness around suicide prevention, including a performance by Ms. Camai, the Anchorage Northern Dance Group, “Six Word Stories,” and a pre-walk discussion. The walk and its events will be held Wednesday, March 29, and Thursday, March 30.
The Prevention team also conducted a Creative Expression workshop at the March 18 Youth Leadership Summit, an Identity Alaska event aimed at creating a community of support for LGBTQ+ youth and their allies. Other workshops offered included sex education and “Know Your Rights” sessions.
In Jess’s workshop, young people participated in an activity that focused on outlining important events, places, and experiences in their lives. They also used supplies to create their own artwork.
“When you ask someone to be real with you, you need to be real with them.”
– Jess Greene
“One girl created an oil pastel of herself meditating,” Jess recounted. “She incorporated the chakras and color so beautifully, and then shared that meditating has helped her deal with adversity in her life. It was really powerful!”
“So often, youth struggle to cope with adversity through negative ways like suicide, self harm, substance abuse,” she added. “Art, music, and performance arts can act as an outlet to explore and cope with the challenges we face in life. They lift us up and empower us, whereas negative coping skills tear us down.
“Art is also a way to advocate for ourselves and our community, especially since we’re talking about the LGBTQ+ community. Drag started out as a way to empower those who were outside of the gender norms and provided a positive outlet for oppressed individuals while also challenging society’s rigid gender roles. This is a perfect example of performance art used as a tool for advocacy.”
Keeping it Real
Back in the Highland Academy Community Voices class, Jess checks in with a student before things get started.
“Both Jess and Criss have been very open about sharing their own personal stories,” commented Dr. Shapiro. “I think that enabled them to connect with the kids pretty quickly.”
“When you ask someone to be real with you, you need to be real with them,” Jess said. “Sharing your own story is a way of normalizing trauma. You show someone, ‘I struggled; it’s okay if you do too. It really does get better.’”
A sympathetic, I’ve-been-there-too ear is just one of the things CITC Prevention and Youth Development can offer Alaska Native and LGBTQ+ youth — both through partnerships, and through the Youth Wellness Group, a weekly get-together that emphasizes healthy living through fun activities like paint nights, hiking, swimming, and basketball.
Interested in having CITC’s Prevention and Youth Development Program provide training to your group? Want to learn more about CITC’s youth services? Visit our program pages, or contact Kortnee Carmack at (907) 793-3237 or Jessica Greene and Criss Mitchell at (907) 793-3224.