CYC-Online 112 JUNE 2008
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Initial reflections on the 'talk smart institute' and relating

Mark Krueger

“Relationship based practice is oppressive.” This comment by Kiaras Garabaghi was one of many comments that still ring in my head from a two and half day conversation in the mountains of Northern New Mexico where 14 of us talked about our experiences in the field (some with 30, 40, and almost 50 years experience). Kiaras made this statement at what we jokingly call the “talk smart” institute, a three day retreat, which was held in the Taos Mountain Retreat Center. We had come to talk about topics and questions such as where is the field going, can we help support the development of new leadership, and just what is relational practice?

The original idea was simply to set aside time for a small group of people with several years of experience to have a conversation with no intended outcome other than the process of raising questions and exploring what we had learned. We were confident that if we got together and talked each of us would leave with several epiphanies to fuel our work in the future. Personally, in my 40 year career I don’t think I have ever been more moved than I was to be part of this conversation with the knowledge that several of us have been working together for a good portion of those years to help develop our field in North America. And here we were relating, debating and thinking about ideas like is relationship-based practice oppressive?

Present were Thom Garfat, Karen VanderVen, Quinn Wilder, Jack and Marilyn Phelan, Frank and Vicki Eckles, Andy Munoz, Carol Stuart, Hans and Kathy Skott-Myhre, Kiaras and me. Picture us sitting in a circle on couches with the Sangre de Cristo Mountains looming out the large windows surrounding us, coffee brewing and peacocks crowing. Present in spirit and conversation: Jerry Beker, Gerry Fewster, Henry Maier, Fritz Redl, Al Trieschman, and many others who have done so much to develop child and youth care over the years, names, along with those in attendance, familiar to many of the readers in child and youth care and CYC-Net.

“Yes,” I thought as I looked across the room at Karen Vander Ven, who has written so beautifully about how we relate in activity, careers, postmodernism, curricula, and dozens of other topics, and someone I feel so fortunate to call a friend and colleague for so many years. Why? Because as Kiaras was pointing out, at least the way I heard it, is that the word “relationship” can be used to create something that is controlling, primarily self serving, and detracting while we should really be focused on relating in the moment to young people, and it is our ability to define how we relate in daily experiences perhaps more than anything else that defines who we are as a field. Relational child and youth care practice in other words is not relationship based it is relational and all that goes into defining what that is.

In my last column I wrote about how in preparing for this institute I thought about relational as defined with verbs and prepositions “action and being words: Do, be, in, with, run, move, etc. 'Process', as Thom said at the retreat and in his writings. I had not thought so much about how relationships can and are used to oppress. Or how, in our efforts to define something as good as relationship, we had perhaps shifted attention away from what is really the essence of our work: being relational in a variety of experiences and activities that are child and youth care.

In my relationships I have always found words like marriage, partners, couples, and friends somewhat limiting and at times stifling because these words really say little about what exists between two or more people while evoking a whole range of stereotypes that get in the way of knowing the people involved and what they are doing or have been trying to do. I have also often been annoyed at times (turned off) by people who say I am a good child and youth care worker because I have good relationships with the kids. I often wonder is that the youths” impression or yours, and why do you think that needs to be so? Similarly phrases like strength-based and asset- based practice make me leery because they leave out the notion of youth work and youth as a struggle that is informed as much by mistakes, needs, and weaknesses as positive attributes and results.

What I want to know more about in my definition of relational is how do we relate to kids during, with and in lunch, basketball or a conversation and how does that connect with what we have learned about ideas like developmental care, communication, group dynamics and the lived experience that we have talked about so much over the years? I have a “good relationship” with the kids really tells me little, and even causes me to question are you really the best person to have a relationship with the youth? Shouldn’t your role be to connect, discover, and empower with youth as often as possible in a way that will let them relate to others in the future in a way that will be fulfilling, I might ask?

Or, shouldn’t our role, as Thom reminded us, be to create these moments for their memory bags so that when they think about connecting to others in the future they will have this experience of connecting and relating with others in, as Karen Vander Ven shows us, “activity?”

And shouldn’t our role be as Jack Phelan showed us throughout the two days in the stories of those “real” good and badly handled daily events that can serve as powerful learning experiences if you have good supervision and mentoring and teaching of the kind he, Carol, Thom, Hans, Kathy, Vicki, Marilyn, Frank, Andy, Quinn, and all the others have tried to provide over the years?

Shouldn’t we be doing relational child and youth care across all the domains, and in all that competencies that Carol, Frank, Martha Mattingly, Peter Rosenblatt and hundreds of other have so beautifully articulated in the North American Certification Project while simultaneously challenging ourselves to consider that we have ignored or not paid attention to the repressive forces of the larger social/political/class systems as Hans and Kathy challenged us to do? Shouldn’t our role be to be relational in a world of “hope”, as Andy kept reminding us, as well as in a world that sometimes “sucked?” to quote Kiaras again? Yes, to all of this, I thought.

In a sign of how far the field has evolved, throughout the two days we were as self-critical as affirming. We were able criticize ourselves with the knowledge and awareness that like good child and youth care workers the beauty of the work is that we learn from mistakes and successes. Subsequently, humor was plentiful, nothing like a good laugh, if you want to be relational.

Other themes of note for me that ran through the discussions were the tensions between good, bad, and real practice. How do we prepare our students and ourselves for what we face in the lived experience, and if programs are really invested in bad practice is this where we want to prepare people to practice? On the other hand, what is realistic for them to encounter in their experiences in the very real struggles that exist and what are realistic mistakes and failures as they gain experience and maturity?

We also spent some time on the importance of interdisciplinary work, and letting in as many influences as possible to enrich our knowledge base and experience as well as the continued importance of hope as we acknowledge the struggles we face. For example, we acknowledged that the conditions and the progress in several domains in the US for developing the profession have deteriorated considerably while the knowledge base and identification of standards has grown considerable. Canada on the other hand seems to have grown in practice, education, and perhaps incentives for workers although there is some concern that given the conservative government, widening of distribution of wealth, loss of jobs, and economic downturn in several provinces, they might be facing some of the challenges the US has been facing in child and youth care as the social economic conditions have worsened.

Anyway, so there I sat with all these experienced, wise, funny, humble, and good people talking about and looking at our work from developmental, Post Marxist, capitalist, entrepreneurial, revolutionary, literary and a number of other perspectives including bad practice, “what sucks,” and what is or isn’t child and youth care. It was a time of affirming and critical reflection that I will never forget, a time that extended to three wonderful dinners and breakfasts, and a time that will surely spur more conversation on and the literature in the field as written and talked about by the participants in their own words and meanings.

On one of three glorious evenings we partied at the compound (straw bale house and adobe Hogan studio) Suzanne and I had built with friends, and the conversation was enriched by Suzanne’s artwork and creativity, the insight of our long time friend Kevin and Carol’s husband Ian, and a visit from one of my son's friends, Joy, from San Francisco who was passing through on her own “spirit quest.”

Then, a few days later, as I drove back out of the mountains, and across the great plains and through the sand hills and Indian reservations of Nebraska and South Dakota to the lakes of Wisconsin and my other home, listening to Neil Young’s All in a Dream sung by KD Laing, Eddie Vedder’s Society from the Into the Wild soundtrack, and a guitar solo of a Bach concerto, I searched for but could not find the words to describe how grateful I was to have spent my career being with such accepting, open minded and open hearted people as I had just been with. A special THANK YOU to all of you who came and enriched my life!

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