Story last updated at 2:33 p.m. Thursday, November 7, 2002

Homer listens to its youth, wants to hear more
MaryClare Foecke
point of view

When you get nearly 90 concerned, creative, collaborative Homer folks together in one room, the seeds of change begin to take root.

That's what happened Oct. 29 at the first of the community-wide dialogues to discuss the critical issue of increased violence among school-age youth. "Together Let's Create a Safe and Healthy Community -- a Community at Work to Support its Youth & Schools" may be a mouthful, but that's exactly what people showed up to do. With the community photo mural in the city council chambers as a backdrop for the packed house, the message was clear: violence does not occur in a vacuum.

In the wake of some of the recent incidents here and across the nation, there is a growing sense in our community that we are facing a critical time. Fortunate enough to have been given a couple of wake-up calls that claimed no lives, the community gathered in recognition that complex issues call for many kinds of solutions, and that many people can come together to work productively and across the barriers that too often exist between age groups, agencies, political affiliations and ideologies.

We all care about our kids. That's the bottom line. We all want Homer to be a safe, healthy and nurturing place that provides our youth with the tools they need to live productive, happy and successful lives.

Tragedies are not isolated events lacking context. Natural as it may have seemed to lay blame in convenient places, the mandate of the people is that it is far healthier to take responsibility and seek solutions. Blaming perpetuates the cycle of victimization and fear, and tends to breed apathy.

Productive dialogue empowers and effects social change. When people from diverse backgrounds develop trust through face-to-face dialogue, new ideas and approaches emerge, giving way to common ground and better, more creative solutions.

The various comments from the forum created audio snapshots depicting villagers yearning to connect, dreaming into reality a place where our kids are safe. People offered up scores of concise and well-articulated ideas: listen to the children; model respect and conflict resolution; support struggling parents; look out for each other's kids; eliminate words like "stupid" and "hate"; create more extracurricular opportunities; value diversity; teach tolerance; acknowledge the issues. The list goes on.

More than a laundry list, specific actions were introduced. Our schools are not exempt from the culture that surrounds them and cannot be expected to provide for all the needs of our youth. There's work to be done. Each of us can participate.

There is a lot more that we in the community, as parents, professionals, agencies and individuals, can and want to do to support our principals, our schools and our kids. Columbine, Paducah and Bethel provide the chilling examples that have driven us to learn more about the root causes and underlying issues that can lead to such acts of violence.

All too often, the perpetrators of such crimes have previously been targets of bullying or other forms of victimization and harassment. It is no longer enough to say that "kids will be kids." The stakes are too high.

So people showed up early, and stayed late. They sat in concentric circles to facilitate dialogue. The panelists kept their comments as brief as the other participants. Representatives from the Alaska State Troopers, Juvenile Probation, Youth Court, Family Solutions, Vessels of Hope, Homer City Council, Kenai Peninsula School District, and Kachemak Bay Family Planning Clinic led the way with opening remarks, then quickly ceded the floor to the students, principals, parents, business owners, agency representatives, city officials, church members, counselors, medical professionals and other community members who had braved the treacherous roads and made time on a weekday night to come talk about our kids. They spoke with passion, concern and clarity.

But it was the poignant voices of the youth that gave most meaning to the night.

They boldly said such things as: racism is an issue here; bullying is a problem; the pressure to "dumb down" is intense; we all want to fit in somewhere, to be accepted; there's nothing to do; our parents don't care; school-sponsored programs are fine, but they need to be relevant to our lives; we want to talk about things, and talking honestly prevents rumors and helps us feel better; we need to talk about what's going on in the world; even if we learned how to resolve conflicts when we were younger, it doesn't seem to be expected of us anymore; grouping people and giving them labels is a big problem; we could do more with older people, and even go into the elementary schools to talk to the younger kids; we like to be a part of things.

Sprinkled throughout the room, their voices rang out loudest and clearest. When they were finished, you could have heard a pin drop.

When we recognize the rights of our youth to have access to accurate information, honest processing and supportive venues for their activities, when we give them the respect to be seen as assets and partners in problem-solving -- and not simply as a set of risk factors to be managed and controlled, then they in turn can act responsibly to lead healthy lives and secure their own futures.

So, through partnership with the youth present, the listing of concerns gave way to a barrage of possible solutions. Hope pierced through the confusion and fear that had been rippling through the hallways and streets. Anger was remarkably absent. People were listening to one another.

A half-dozen hands shot up each time the previous speaker's two minutes were up. People left wanting more -- more of a chance to be heard, more opportunities to brainstorm.

And more there is. Smaller study circles are being formed to examine the concerns. Each group will meet for a few sessions to explore the issues, share differing perspectives, and find common ground for action. Then once again, the community will come together as a whole, and will break more new ground.

Communities across the nation are finding out how productive this process of deliberative dialogue can be. So if you couldn't make it to that meeting, but would like to join the process now, it's not too late.

All ages are welcome. We especially need to keep hearing from our youth. The more people involved, the wider the impact, the better for us all. A safe and healthy community is everyone's responsibility.

Conversation is the cornerstone of civilization, and acting courageously through dialogue to move hopes into reality seems like just the kind of work Homerites do best. Now is our chance. Our kids need us. And we need them.

MaryClare Foecke is health educator at Kachemak Bay Family Planning Clinic, Otter Beach Educational Center's board president, and is widely known as "papergirl" for her 10-year tenure delivering the daily newspaper to Homer residents. For more information, to receive updates, or to join a study circle, call her at 235-3436 or email her at kbfpc@alaska.net.

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