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134 APRIL 2010
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MOMENTS WITH YOUTH

Seen through the eyes of a child: The El Salto discussions

Mark Krueger

Often in this column I have referred to writers, filmmakers, thinkers, and artists who worked with a sense of detachment, mixed genres, and/or fragmented their work in an effort to portray what they saw or heard in a way that rang true. They tried to show what is as they saw it and let it stand for itself. This, I argued was good advice for those of us who researched, talked, and wrote about Child and Youth Care, especially if we were concerned with capturing the essence of our experiences in a way that would open our work to the interpretations and questioning of others. As scholars and practitioners, our challenge, I argued, is to show rather than tell what we experience. If we could do this, others would be more likely to interact with and use our work in their own efforts to improve their practice and advance knowledge. Let the work stand for itself, in other words, so others can experience once again their moments with youth.

Perhaps it is not surprising that many of the thinkers, artists, and writers I referred to also tried to look at their work through the eyes of their child. Filmmaker Wim Wenders for example spoke about how images were more truthful when seen through the eyes of a child, and poet Mark Strand wrote about how looking at an Edward Hopper painting reminded him of how he saw Canada as a boy from the back seat of his parents car. The images Strand saw were moving and still, he felt compelled to stay and leave. There is something very appealing I find about this notion of seeing with the eyes of our child and knowing that this is what some of the most sophisticated artists and thinkers of our time tried to do. It was as if after they had mastered their craft, they were trying to free their minds of clutter and open themselves to the world once again with the innocence and clarity of their child.

A few weeks ago I was fortunate to spend several days with my good friend and colleague Gerry Fewster, author of Being in Child Care: A Journey into Self, and many other excellent works about being present, open and available with children and youth. Last year I also had the opportunity to read his latest manuscript on relationships between adults and children which is slated to come out in a few weeks. Perhaps no one in our field has done more to show us how to use our self awareness and techniques such as breathing to open ourselves to the experiences of others. As I sat across from him talking, joking, and exploring where our field has come and is going, I could not help but smile at how this man with so much wisdom still basically sees our work with the childlike innocence that comes from knowing something when one sees it and saying so. If you talk to Gerry for any length of time you can not help but be flooded with images from your childhood. This is his gift to us.

It seems to me that perhaps in our maturity as a field we might be advancing toward this point. As we attempt to free ourselves from the jargon and formal scholarship that comes with the development of a field into a profession, in our stories and writing we are trying to get back to that sense of clarity and innocence that comes with being able to see something for what it is through the eyes of our child, and subsequently revealing the simplicity on the other side of complexity. I’m not sure, but it is nice to think so. Certainly many of the stories presented on www.cyc-net.org have this quality. It is easy to tell which writers are trying to speak to us in this way because these are the ones that evoke something from our experience and youth in a new light.

In a few weeks, I am heading to a second retreat in New Mexico with a group of Child and Youth Care colleagues from Canada and the US. At the first retreat in 2008, which was reported on two years ago in this column, we discussed relational Child and Youth Care, and leadership in the field. Our goal was to hold two days of open ended discussion in conversational style in a pleasant atmosphere about these topics and see where it took us. The results, which more than met our expectations, included a number of papers and ongoing conversations which we held online.

At the time we jokingly called the discussions the talk smart institute. Participants included people with many years experience doing, teaching, writing and thinking about Child and Youth Care. We simply wanted to set aside some time to talk with each other about topics we saw as crucial to advancing the field and our work. Most of us had attended many Child and Youth Care conferences where we felt the best part was the opportunity to connect with each other after and in-between workshops, and often left wishing we had more time to spend together. So we created this time, were rewarded accordingly, and decided to do it again. This is new description for the event this year, which will be held April 30 – May 2 in El Salto New Mexico.

The El Salto Discussions are designed to serve as a spring board for new discoveries in Child and Youth Care practice. Held at a retreat center on the side of El Salto Mountain in Northern New Mexico, experienced members of the field explore important questions related to the future of care work.

Products include papers, ongoing conversations, projects, collaborations, and actions to support further professional development on behalf of children, youth and families. Energy for the discussions is defined by the Spanish word “salto,” which conveys the idea of “jumping” or “leaping” into the future with our ideas, concepts, and visions.

Participants include practitioners, professors, instructors, supervisors, and others with considerable experience in Child and Youth Care. Everyone comes at their own expense, an investment that most of us find well worth making.

This year we will be reviewing our previous discussions of relational and developmental care, and exploring topics such as open access to Child and Youth Care education and writing, certification of workers, and accreditation of education programs. I am going to try to prepare myself by getting back in touch with my child (I camped as a boy a few miles away in the mountains) so that I can offer something pure, original, and familiar to the discussions. In the future I will present some of what I learned here so others can join in if they wish.

A few days ago while I was preparing to write this column I spent some time talking to a 3 year-old Vietnamese girl who had come to live with her parents in the US. She was receiving radiation treatment after having major surgery for brain cancer. She was the first Vietnamese child in the US to have brain cancer, her father had told me. The tumor was the size of his fist. Given what she had been through, I was amazed at how cheerful and energetic she was. We were sitting by the window and looking out at the rain. She was very talkative but difficult to understand. The surgery and her bilingual upbringing had made it difficult for her to find the words she needed to describe what she felt and saw. But this didn’t keep her from trying. Her talk was almost non stop and even though I did not understand most of what she was saying, she seemed perfectly clear about it. At one point she said “snow” and pointed to the window.
"Rain,” I said back.
“Snow,” she said again.
I knew it was too warm to snow, but looked again and saw some of the rain drops shine in the sunlight that had broken through the clouds.
“See, snow,” she said.
"Yes,” I said smiling.
Then, never having doubted that she had been right all along, she said, “Bye sweetie,” and ran off toward her dad.

Today, before I submitted this column, I read to her from a Pooh book. As I turned the pages we pointed at pictures of animals, trees, and rivers and named them. I admired again the certainty with which she labelled the objects the way she saw them. My spirits lifted, I knew I had just witnessed resilience in its most beautiful and primal form.

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