On Oct. 17, a few hundred people will gather at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis for an all-day conference focused on improving the mental health of young Minnesotans.
If things go as planned, the event, sponsored by the Catalyst Initiative at The Minneapolis Foundation and dubbed the Youth Cultural Healing Summit, will bear no resemblance to a typical mental health conference. The audience, for one, will likely be multigenerational, multicultural and multifaceted, and the daylong summit will be anchored with edgy, topical performances by youth-run arts ensembles and feature breakout sessions on a range of topics, including zine-making as a form of radical self-care, the use of Native languages as empowerment and the power of healing circles in African immigrant and refugee communities.
Suzanne Koepplinger, Catalyst Initiative’s executive director, explained that the summit’s focus is on “highlighting self-care practices that young people have identified as culturally appropriate and powerful.”
The event, Koepplinger said, will be youth-driven, with young people talking about mental health concerns and presenting solutions that work for them. She is especially inspired by young people of color who are stepping forward to present alternatives for healing that complement their cultural identity, thanks to increased awareness of mental health.
“One of the things we’ve been noticing with our partners in the community is that young people are really starting to own their own solutions using culturally meaningful practices and a lot of performance art,” Koepplinger said.
She explained that one of the Catalyst Initiative’s funding goals is to “lift up self-care as primary care and embed culturally meaningful healing practices in community through investments in community.” Through conversations with Catalyst grant recipients and viewing the work of young artists and activists tackling thorny issues around mental health, Koepplinger said she believes she is witnessing an exciting shift in the state’s arts and cultural communities.
“We are in the midst of a very exciting time,” she said. “We want to lift that up.”
Last fall, Catalyst sponsored a similar conference in Duluth, but attendance figures were low. Koepplinger decided that her foundation would sponsor another gathering for a larger audience in the Twin Cities.
“We decided to do a big event that would showcase the power of young people healing their own wounds,” she said. “We wanted to highlight youth who are addressing their own depression, anxiety, PTSD, their own historic trauma in ways that are really enriched by their own cultural heritage.”
Next month’s summit will feature the work of two centerpiece organizations, Ikidowin Acting Ensemble and Irreducible Grace Foundation. The two Twin Cites-based groups will present performance-art pieces that tackle issues of youth mental health and provide techniques and solutions for healing.
“Both groups do different kinds of performance, include different age groups of young people, and take a different approach to their art,” Koepplinger said, “but this is exactly the point. We want funders and policy makers and educators and parents and young people to start thinking about the power that we all have to heal and be well.”
The independent spirit of the two groups illustrate the very idea that Koepplinger hopes participants will take away from the event. “To find your own power to heal you don’t need to do what everybody else is doing,” she said. “There are different ways that healing shows up in communities.”
While mainstream approaches to mental health care work for many people, there is a growing segment of the state’s population that is seeking other ways to approach this type of healing, Koepplinger said. Her organization is trying to respond to that shift, in a big way.
“A lot of the work that Catalyst is doing is trying to say, ‘People are telling us what they need. We’re just not listening,” she said. “This event is our way of listening and trying to open the conversation a little bit wider.”
The young people in Ikidowin Acting Ensemble use their art to tackle serious topics.
Sir Curtis Kirby III, the ensemble’s director, said that the group, which is made up of young Native actors age 11-18, have an innate understanding of the important topics they address in their work. Trauma, and the historical events at its roots, are part of the air that young Native people breathe, he said, and members of his acting troupe are committed to helping end this cycle in their community.
“The youth in our group confront issues, anything from sexual abuse to the water issue and crisis and the sacred medicine of tobacco,” Kirby said. An outgrowth of the Indigenous People’s Task Force, the ensemble works together to create performance pieces that they present to audiences of young mostly Native people in schools and community centers.
Because much of their work focuses on touchy topics like healthy relationships, sexual health and consent, the actors are all participate in a comprehensive sexual health and peer-education class. “Our youth go through a sexual abuse and assault training and we let them know that even though we are doing healing work we don’t expect them to be therapists or counselors,” Kirby said. “This is a way to bring up different issues and understand how they can direct other youth to get help and give them valuable information on how to heal.”
The ensemble is an example of true community theater. Ikidowin actors come from the Phillips neighborhood of south Minneapolis, Kirby said, and their Native roots are central to the themes of their work.
“Performers are all from the neighborhood, but when they introduce themselves they’ll also say what nation they’re from. It’s really important to identify your nation when you are urban indigenous folks.”
The actors develop their plays as a group, with the support of community elders. The piece that they will be presenting at next month’s summit is the result of a series of gatherings that pinpointed key issues and helped to develop themes for the actors to build on in their work.
“We’re an ensemble in the truest sense of the word,” Kirby explained. The nine-scene play is, he said, “actually an intergenerational piece. We constructed it by having many different talking circles in our communities, from youth talking circles to parent talking circles to elder talking circles. After we had the individual circles, we fused them into one.”
The performance tackles the trauma that state-run boarding schools inflicted on young Native Americans. Many experienced sexual abuse while enrolled in those schools, and those wounds stayed with them for a lifetime, spreading trauma over subsequent generations. The Ikidowin piece branches from that dark history to present day to a more hopeful future, Kirby said.
“This play is not just about sexual abuse in boarding schools because a lot of things fall in line with that. It’s not just a piece that’s going to say, ‘Look at what happened in boarding schools,’ It’s also going to show some of the consequences from that and how do we heal from that.”
Kirby believes that the themes presented by the young actors will resonate for all audience members, no matter what their age or ethnic background.
“A lot of people of color and even non-people of color have dealt with a lot of trauma in their lives,” he said. “So when you see the piece it will be very much relatable to everyone in the room.” At the end of the play, actors will take question and comments from the audience, he added: “We like to open it up to others. Part of the power of our work is how it can help others, and this open conversation time is a place to get that started.”
Kirby said that his organization often struggles to convince funders that their work has true healing power.
“Foundations will say, ‘We don’t know how theater is going to help people begin to heal. We just don’t see it.’” He said. He’s heard that criticism many times. But he’s also heard praise. Just the other day, for instance, Kirby said he got an email from an audience member. “It said, ‘Please keep doing the plays for teens to watch. If you or your youth in the play hesitate or wonder if what they are doing is the right thing know that all you guys are doing the right thing. Because of your play at least one female student has sought out help from a therapist about abuse issues. This is called success.’”
It may sound like a small achievement, but to Kirby and his actors, it’s a major success.
“If just one or two young ladies saw our performance and seek out help from a therapist, we’ve done our job,” he said. “We’re the in-between to push the conversation forward and at least bring it to thought.”
‘They all said they wanted a voice’
The Irreducible Grace Foundation started with a bunch of St. Paul public school kids who were at risk of dropping out of high school. The organization’s founder, Darlene Fry, worked in the district’s AVID College Readiness Program, and when she learned that some 300 young people a year didn’t make it to high school graduation, she set out to figure out what the district could do to help turn their lives around.
Fry researched this group of at-risk kids and soon learned that the young people all had one thing in common, explained Natalia Davis, Irreducible Grace artistic director. “They were all youth of color as who had experienced out-of-home placement,” Davis said. When Fry took this information to her supervisors, asking, “What can we do about this?” she was told that there was nothing she could do, other than tell the students that they were at risk of not graduating.
Fry, whose own daughter had been adopted from foster care, wanted to do more, Davis said: “So she started to have listening sessions with youth, asking, ‘What can we do? How can we help? What do you need?’ She was thinking they were going to say, ‘Careers.’ Or “A home,’ or ‘housing’ or ‘food.’” But the response came as a surprise. “They all said they wanted a voice.”
Fry talked to Jan Mandell, then a theater teacher at St. Paul Central High School. Mandell began to meet with some of the students, and together they created a play that they titled “Fostering Voice.” The group took the work on tour, presenting it at schools around the state.
Fry was so inspired by this work that she left her district job and created the foundation, which she named for her spunky, joyful daughter, a girl who radiated resilience and hope despite a traumatic early childhood.
Today, the Irreducible Grace Foundation continues to use theater as a way for young people impacted by the foster-care system to find their voice in the world. The organization, Davis explained, focuses on “fostering youth voice, using the arts to aid the transition into adulthood.”
Mandell became the organization’s director after retiring from her job at Central. She said that working on these performances is difficult — and transformative — for the young actors. Involvement in the plays has changed the trajectory of many of their lives.
“Our tagline is, ‘Creating safe spaces and healing opportunities for youth of color,’” Mandell said. “People won’t always remember what you tell them, but they will remember how you made them feel. This work creates an emotional eruption inside of people. Because of that, a lot of our young people have come and gone. It’s not for the faint of heart, this healing work, but it is healing, and it’s just what so many of them need.”
Members of the Irreducible Grace ensemble will be presenting an original piece at the summit.
“The performance will be our stories,” Davis said. “Incorporated into those stories will be healing tools. For one of the pieces that we will be doing, the prompt was, ‘My trauma: Where I feel it and how I heal it.’”
The piece, as is often the case with Irreducible Grace performances, will be interactive.
“We will share our healing tools with the audience and then the audience will participate with us because these stories are something that everybody will be able to resonate with,” Davis said. “We will do the tools and the audience will do it with us in order to calm everybody’s bodies back down.”
Catalyst is taking a “throw the doors open wide” approach to the Youth Mental Health Summit, Koepplinger said. The foundation, with the help of its event partner, Minneapolis-based nonprofit Marnita’s Table, designed the event to feel welcoming to all. This means that organizers understand that the guest list could shift from hour to hour, with attendees coming and going, depending on work or school schedules.
“We like to emphasize that youth and elders of all ages are welcome,” Trinity said. “If you want to be here, you’re welcome to be here.”
Because they want plenty of students and teachers to be able to attend, they purposely scheduled the summit for MEA weekend.
“We want to do it at a time when we thought young people and educators could come,” Koepplinger said. “We also want to attract funders and policy makers and community members. Our invitations had a wide distribution. We’re inviting everybody. This is for young people and the adults who care about them.”
A key element of the summit will be lunch, a bounteous spread paid for by Catalyst and provided free of charge to all participants. Elexis Trinity, Marnita’s Table director of research and projects, explained that the experience of sitting down together over a healthy meal is, in itself, healing. The meal is called a feast, Trinity said, and when done right, it can be a transformative experience for everyone involved.
At large-scale events, “There are a lot of little elements involved in moving people through a space and letting them know that this space was designed with them in mind,” Trinity said. “This includes the feast.”
Part of making everyone feel welcome is providing food that everyone can eat, she added: “We always do vegan-to-carnivore feasts because we want everyone to come into a feast and realize that they are welcome to come in and quiet the machinery of their brain and allow everyone to come up to a space of abundance. It allows everyone to have that pause and the breath and that moment to connect over things that may be really traumatic.”
Not having a clear sense of how many people will attend is actually part of the excitement of the event, Koepplinger said. It’s a loaves-and-fishes moment, and she’s hoping for an opportunity to work a miracle or two.
“We have a capacity for 400 people, but who knows?” Koepplinger said. “We would love to be able to have 400 people. We would love to be able to have the problem of saying, ‘We don’t think we can accommodate anybody else.’ We want to generate that much excitement.”