The first line of the chorus from the song “Teenagers” by the band My Chemical Romance is, “Teenagers scare the living sh*t out of me.”
For most of my adult life, this could have been my mantra. Quite frankly, I found teenage coolness intimidating and always dreaded or avoided interacting with them. I’m also of an age where I can barely remember the details of my own adolescence.
Today, I actually really want to be around young people. That’s been a big change for me. I’ve learned I can connect with a teenager. I never thought that would be possible until I discovered Nunavut.
I first visited the region in 2006 in search of something good. Ever since Nunavut became a part of Canada just under a decade ago, there were reports only of its socioeconomic failures. Generally, when I only see bad, I know there is something good just around the corner. It didn’t take me long to find it.
Upon arrival, I met Lori Idlout. She introduced me to a stunning culture—one of gentleness, kindness and generosity. What I saw did not wholly reflect what the media portrayed.
Lori is the executive director of the Embrace Life Council (ELC), an organization dedicated to working with Nunavut youth. Young people in this region have a distinctly elevated suicidal and high school dropout rate. The ELC’s mandate is to empower these youth to act and think positively and to celebrate their life, culture, language, and history.
Despite my lack of experience with youth, I felt compelled to help establish the Innusivut Project after learning about all of this. The project focuses on coordinating multimedia and leadership workshops for Inuit youth throughout the region.
It was especially challenging for me to take this initiative because there were many barriers that had to be broken down before I felt I could connect with Nunavut teenagers. I had to earn their trust not only as an adult but also as a stranger in their community.
At the inaugural workshop last year, one girl who had been particularly shy earlier that week was sitting next to me on the komatiq (sled) as we headed out to the camp. She had barely looked me in the eye during the past two days. Personally, I was going through a pretty rough patch and was deep in thought, my head tucked inside the hood of my parka. Suddenly, this girl turned to me, touched me lightly on my arm, asked if I was OK and smiled.
In that precise moment, I felt I had finally connected with a teenager for the first time in my adult life. To this day, I’m sure she has no idea the effect her smile had on me.
There is a process to connecting with people of different generations, and I have learned to respect that process. It takes time and patience. I have realized, and this is probably obvious to most parents, that through all the coolness and indifference typical of adolescence, there is a heart that is as open as a small child’s. If this is true, then adolescence is a significant time in a person’s life to influence how they feel and think about some of the cruel harshness in the world before they get stuck with a certain mindset.
I believe art is part of an Inuk kid’s DNA. The level of artistic ability in the students during the classes was nothing short of astonishing, and when we show them what they’re capable of, it has a very positive effect on their well-being and mental health. Getting them involved in documenting their community encourages active participation, but it also turns the focus from death to life. Through this kind of communication process and participation, we hope that the youth will not get sucked into the funk that creates a cycle of failure which, in the worst of cases, leads to substance abuse and all too often, suicide.
At the end of one workshop, students were asked to invite their friends and family to a public showing of their work. I was asked to say a few words. I told everyone I had started the week teaching basic photography and ended the week trying to replicate some of the photographs taken by the students.
I also wanted to say that nowadays, the only thing that scares the living sh*t out of me about teenagers is their immense creative potential and raw intelligence. But I didn’t think that would translate well into Inuktitut.