Kiana youth work toward positive change
It can be hard to stay positive when you feel like the weight of the world is on your shoulders. Kiana High School junior Ivory Gerhardt Cyrus, 17, has worked through that in her own life and sees other young people in her community going through the same struggle.
She put it bluntly when asked what the No. 1 problem is facing youth in Kiana today: "Growing up too fast," she said, without a smile.
For her, that means not having the time and energy and freedom to play, have fun, and enjoy their lives while they're young because of the choices their parents, peers, or community members are making.
"I don't want kids to grow up too fast because they have to take care of their parents, watch them if they're drunk, try to keep them out of fights, drive them around because they can't drive," she explained.
Also, without positive role models and encouragement to learn from mistakes, the same cycles repeat themselves and communities can get stuck, she said.
She wanted to do something about it, so she and other youth delegates went to the annual Lead On! conference in Anchorage, sponsored by the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault (ANDVSA), and came back inspired.
"I started the OPT in Kiana group and started doing teen nights because I didn't have enough money to do a youth center, a place where teens can go when their parents are drinking or when they want to get away from that," she said.
OPT in Kiana, which stands for One Positive Thing, is a youth group that encourages members and others to do at least one good deed every day to make the village a happier place.
"Everyone has something to offer and their gifts should be appreciated," said Jeanne Gerhardt Cyrus, Ivory's mother and the group's supervisor. "I'm just excited about the level of engagement of the kids."
Ivory's younger sister, Isabella, 16, is also a leader in the group and her mother, Jeanne, is the group's adult coordinator.
"The kids amaze us. They really come up with good ideas and take on issues head on. If you just give them a little bit of training, believe in them, and create that structure, they just run with it," said Claudia Plesa, a project coordinator for ANDVSA who traveled to Kiana for the youth group's conference held over the weekend.
The network primarily provides services for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, but it also tries to prevent violence before it happens, which is where Lead On! and youth involvement come into play.
"If we're just moving along without thinking about what's causing that violence, it's just going to perpetuate and continue in our communities," she said.
While the Kiana group was in Anchorage, they worked with Plesa to design a project specific to their community, which is how OPT in Kiana came about. Then, the youth group came up with the goal to host a conference in the village this year, a conference they plan to make an annual event.
"They really wanted to focus on creating more inclusion in the community," Plesa said.
OPT in Kiana also wanted to bring in another group from a different part of the state working toward the same goals, so they invited the Sitka Youth Leadership Committee, based in Southeast Alaska, to attend the conference and lead a workshop.
Sitka's Mt. Edgecumbe High School students Jasmine Jemewouk, 18, and Elizabeth Watson, 18, flew up to the Arctic with their advisor and spent several hours working with the local students on public speaking, listening skills, creating safe spaces, and talking about healthy relationships.
"When I was younger, I would look up to people and think they must have it all together and now I'm in that position. It's nice that kids can look up to other students. I never expected to be in this position," said Jemewouk, a senior.
Having students learn from their peers is part of the strategy, said Plesa. If it's not a youth-driven project, it's not as likely to succeed.
"Domestic violence, bullying, alcoholism, drug addiction, and suicide, all of these things have a relationship with one another," said Julia Smith, the prevention director at Sitkans Against Family Violence, the local crisis shelter. "So, really the work that we're doing is about building community and building support systems and building this net that provides people with the resources they need to be successful in life and a lot of that is education and building a supportive, healthy peer environment and culture."
The kids who attended the two-day conference at the school seemed to be having a great time with each other, making posters, attending sessions, and bouncing ideas off of one another.
"This village doesn't have many get-togethers with people from the other villages and other places in Alaska and it's nice to know they care enough to come up here and help us make a change in our community for the better," said Bethany Riley, 15, who was running one of the booths set up in the gym.
Chelsea Adams and two other students were crouched on the ground, hard at work making a poster envisioning what their community would look like if there were no violence.
Third-graders Trevor Eveland, 8, and Danielle Douglas, 9, were busy running from booth to booth taking advantage of all the activities.
"I wanted to have fun and write about my family and I wanted to take pictures," said Trevor. "If my community thinks about love, I could take care of my mom and my family all day."
Danielle added that if there were no more bullying and violence, "It would change everything so there would be no jail anymore and everyone would be nice and respectful to everyone."
There were a few well-known faces roaming around the crowd, as well.
Members of Kotzebue's Northern Lights Dancers taught drumming and dance workshops.
Athabascan rapper Samuel Johns, whose stage name is AK Rebel, gave a performance and motivational talk to the participants.
Kotzebue's Elizabeth Niiqsik Ferguson, or Miss World Eskimo-Indian Olympics and Miss Arctic Circle 2015, walked around providing an extra set of hands when needed.
"I'm so impressed with the students who took the initiative to host this conference," she said. "It is beautiful outside and there are dog mushers coming in. They could be anywhere. They don't have to be here but they are here, spending time with their peers and they're learning together. It just says something about them and where their heart is."
There were several community volunteers who worked behind the scenes to bring the event together, too.
Tina Russell and her sisters spent hours cooking stacks of hotcakes for breakfast, putting together lunches and snacks and preparing a hearty dinner, complete with caribou.
"We did it to help the kids and the community," she said. "It gives a lot to the kids. They get to learn more and meet new people from places they've never heard of."
Community health aide Thomas Jackson, who worked at the poster booth and introduced the speakers on opening night, agreed.
"When they asked me to do the introductions yesterday I could not say no, because it had to do with our young people. I do not want to say no when it comes to our young people. They're the next people in line," he said.
He stressed that working towards ending violence, bullying, substance abuse, and negativity helps the health of the community as a whole and adults play a role in making a change.
"Adults are role models. It's a very important to teach your children respect, but first of all, I think they need to learn to respect themselves. That's one of the most important things to do. Once you teach them respect, it all comes from there and it comes from the home," he said.
The importance of self-respect and respect for others is at the heart of conversations across the state with regard to the issues of suicide, domestic violence, and sexual assault. Alaska is a state with some of the highest rates each in the country and the Northwest Arctic has some of the highest numbers statewide.
Between 2008 and 2012, the rate of suicide in the Northwest Arctic was double the statewide average of 22 per 100,000. For teens, the number was seven times the statewide average of 24 per 100,000, according to the Alaska Bureau of Vital Statistics.
According to a 2015 Alaska victimization survey from ANDVSA, out of every 100 adult women, 40 will experience intimate partner violence in her lifetime, 33 will experience sexual violence, and 50 will experience either or both. The survey also showed that in the past year, at least 21,401 women had experienced either intimate partner violence, sexual violence or both.
The numbers are sobering.
However, groups like OPT in Kiana have the chance to tip the scales in the other direction, which is precisely what they're trying to do.
"If someone is happy, if someone feels self-fulfilled, if they have support in their lives and are not coping with trauma, if they have these things that protect them against being a victim or a perpetrator, you have the confidence to speak up if something isn't right and you also explore your own self and what you want, we see those instances diminish," said Plesa. "So, we really try to push those protective factors."
The challenges may be daunting, but they can be overcome.
"I also had to grow up fast. In school, there weren't many people who understood me. They all thought I was different. Now that I'm older I own that difference and I want to help other teens," said group leader Ivory, with a smile this time.
After all, she said, sometimes all it takes is just trying to do one positive thing every day.
Shady Grove Oliver can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.