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Passing hope around: Youth messaging strategies for becoming drug-free


Warren Whyte works as a Youth Counsellor at Peak House in East Vancouver, BC, Canada. Warren can be contacted at Collective narrative practice facilitates geographically separated groups of people to share their experience and wisdom in standing up to common problems. This article documents a particular collective narrative practice between a group of youth in prison at Burnaby Youth Custody Services and a group of youth in treatment for substance misuse at Peak House in Vancouver, Canada. The purpose of outlining this exchange of solution knowledges is to highlight certain practical and theoretical aspects of collective practices that were effective for the youth, in order to continue the narrative discussion for future practitioners. By assuming the youth had healing knowledges, by providing them with a relevant audience, and by offering them the opportunity to make a meaningful contribution to others; this writer was able to facilitate young people in sharing their own solutions with each other in mutual encouragement against a common social issue. Exchanging collective narrative documents with other youth seemed to cultivate a sense of self-determination towards therapeutic work, a feeling of solidarity and belonging with similar strugglers, and a sense of hope and enthusiasm that change is indeed possible. Keywords: collective narrative practice, collective narrative documents, youth, substance misuse, hope, Peak House




Collective narrative practice

It was only after I had surrendered my keys, phone, and pocket knife to the prison guard, and had followed another guard through several steel doors that I turned to my colleague and lamely mentioned that wed forgotten to bring a bowl for our candy. Roisin Donnelly and I work at Peak House1, a residential drug and alcohol treatment centre for youth in Vancouver, Canada. But on this day we were visiting Burnaby, a smaller, neighbouring city to Vancouvers east, in order to take up an invitation to meet with young people in detention at Burnaby Youth Custody Services. We were told to bring candy so the young people in detention would have an incentive to ask questions of the representatives at each table. The guard made clear the instruction: Dont give them any candy if they wont ask a question! We were shown through the final locked steel door and led into the gymnasium. The large, barren room was ringed with empty tables, except for one display which was already set up in the far corner. As the guard walked us towards the table immediately next to it, I recognised my friends from the neighbouring, privately-run, fee-forservice youth treatment centre. I greeted them warmly in front of a five-foot high display, which included music, a small flat-screen TV, and a spotlight to shine down on a glittering array of pens, brochures, key chains, and DVDs. Having brought nothing to display but our program schedules, I wondered aloud about getting that bowl wed forgotten. The young men and women for whom the day had been arranged were eventually led through in groups of 25 at a time. Somewhat disinterestedly, they made the rounds of the 30 resource tables. It soon became evident that most of these young people seemed to have heard enough about programs, counselling and their best interests to know how to tell adults what they needed to hear in order to elicit the desired outcome, candy or otherwise. Even the most elaborate of displays next to us did not seem to impress. Reflecting on the scene before me, I was reminded of David Denboroughs (2008) successful work with a man in prison named Paul. I asked myself a pivotal question: What would Paul do?

The answer to What would Paul do? was found in recollecting that Paul was more willing to share his experience with fellow strugglers than with a counsellor. I recalled the letter that Paul wrote: A letter to others in prisons who are starting to talk about experiences of childhood sexual abuse (Denborough, 2008, p.1415), and it brought to mind the idea of using a similar approach here. The situation seemed to call for a collective document: one which weaves together the skills and knowledges of a number of people who are dealing with certain hardships or difficulties (Denborough, 2008, p. 32). By getting out of the way as a counsellor, collective narrative documentation can allow conversations and contributions to take place between groups of people who never meet in person. With this in mind, I made the following proposition to the youth who approached our table: We dont know if you guys know anything about getting clean off drugs, but weve got a bunch of folks who are struggling and could use your support. Nearly every single person laughed knowingly, grabbed a pen to write the residents back at Peak House a message of encouragement, and said with a wry smile that, yeah, they might know a little something about that. Denborough (2008, p. 198-199) writes of ten themes of collective narrative practice, three of which seemed to generate warmth through a cold prison gymnasium this day. We assumed the youth in prison had healing knowledges, we provided a relevant audience, and we offered the opportunity to make a meaningful contribution to others. In doing so, we were able to co-create a surprisingly exciting stir with these youth that had us cutting up our program schedules to make more paper for messages, leaving the candy as a mere afterthought.

Healing knowledges: We dont know if you guys know anything about getting clean off drugs ...

Instead of the counsellor acting as the expert by telling, the youths own expertise and insider knowledge was sought through asking, which situated them in the position of expert. This approach not only seemed to



facilitate conversation, but also appeared to create a spark of interest where previously, in the positioning of counsellor-as-expert, there seemed to be none. Denborough (2008) writes, Rather than bringing our own initiatives to work within these communities, our role instead can be to create contexts in which peoples own initiatives and healing knowledges are noticed and more richly described (p.198). By acting as a conduit for two separated, yet similar populations, this approach allows workers to step into a different role of enabling various groups to contribute to each other. The appearance that the youth in prison did not want to talk to visitors opened up room for the possibility of talking through visitors. In this case, as guests of, and outsiders to, the prison system, community resource workers were placed in the all too familiar role of outsider-helper, a role which can be side-stepped somewhat by the facilitation of a collective narrative practice. Unearthing the young peoples expertise from its burial behind bars is a way to uncover and resurrect previously subjugated knowledges. Offering the chance to perform these knowledges can not only uplift an individuals resistance to dominant ideas, but can also serve to undermine unuseful normative cultural discourse, especially in the context of a prison setting where hierarchical observation and normalising judgement act as the simple instruments of discipline that keep these insider knowledges subjugated (Foucault, 1984, p. 188). White and Epston (1990) assert, it can be argued that the identification of and provision of the space for the performance of these knowledges is a central focus of the therapeutic endeavor (p. 31). In the prison gym that day, creating space for stifled voices to be heard seemed to help docile bodies become enlivened spirits (p. 31).

with substance use at some point in their lives, and this stood out as the most notable encourager for writing a message of support. Many mentioned friends and relations they had known who had been to treatment centres, and one young woman included in her message the haunting statement, Dont use drugs, you will go to jail or how about die. I was at Peak House and left. Rather than being questioned about their own relationships to substance misuse, the young people in jail were asked to take a position of standing with other youth against the larger social problem of substance misuse. This, too, seemed to facilitate participation. The youth in custody appeared to be more willing to share their stories with us when positioned as fellow strugglers against a problem, than when they were asked directly if they, themselves had any interest in going to treatment. Again, this echoes Denboroughs (2008) experience: It was only when I realised that he [Paul] was actually representing a social issue that so much more became possible there is a collective purpose involved. The conversation is not then focusing on their individual experience and it is not directed to me. Instead, the conversation is focusing on what contribution they can make to others and it just happens to be directed through me (or other practitioners). (2008, p. 16) In the case at Burnaby Youth Custody Services, conceiving the youth in custody as experts in relation to a social problem and connecting them to others in struggle made it possible to have what seemed to be a more meaningful interaction than when outsiders were inquiring into their individual lives.
A meaningful contribution: ... and could use your support.

A relevant audience: ... but weve got a bunch of folks who are struggling ...

Providing a relevant audience seemed to increase motivation for the young people to participate and share their experience with others. The youth in detention appeared to genuinely connect with the idea of writing to youth in treatment. Many said they had been to treatment themselves and knew what it was like, which seemed to further motivate them to send their positive messages. About a relevant audience, Denborough (2008) writes, This often involves other individuals / groups who are experiencing similar or related hardship others who are affected by similar social issues (p. 199). Nearly all those who contributed said they had struggled

The young people writing the notes from prison that day seemed to jump at the chance to help others who they thought were going through similar struggles. It appeared to be meaningful to them to be able to pass on their encouragement and wisdom in their own words. The giving it back practice (Reynolds, 2011, p. 37) of helping others is one of the main foundations upon which 12step programs are based: By meeting, talking, and helping other addicts, we are able to stay clean (NA Basic Text, 1982, p. 10). Denborough (2008) writes, Through these processes, those who may initially be burdened by a sense of failure and hopelessness come to experience making contributions to the lives



of others. Along the way, individuals, groups and communities can experience rich acknowledgement and a sense of renewed possibility. (p. 69) In making such meaningful contributions, previously isolated individuals are linked through a common struggle into communities of concern by the practice of circulating clients local knowledges through the establishment of leagues, letter-writing campaigns, and co-researching practices (Madigan & Epston, 1995, p. 258). The youth in detention circulating their solution knowledges to others experiencing similar problems were meaningfully contributing to a process that linked them to other young people struggling against a larger social issue. It is recognised that each of the three themeshealing knowledges, a relevant audience, and a meaningful contributioncould be expanded upon into separate further discussions outside the realm of this article. Also of interest, and beyond the scope of this article, is an exploration of how collective narrative practice can mitigate aspects of power that situate the counsellor in the role that Foucault ascribes to the (misguided) intellectual-as-agent: somewhat ahead and to the side in order to express the stifled truth of the collectivity; rather, it [should be] to struggle against the forms of power that transform him (sic) into its object and instrument in the sphere of knowledge, truth, consciousness, and discourse (Foucault & Deleuze, 1972). This project allowed youth in prison to speak about problems in their own words, and collective narrative practice could have the potential to sidestep what Deleuze credits Foucault for addressing as something absolutely fundamental: the indignity of speaking for others (1972). This, too, could be the topic of a future conversation.

The messages of hope ranged from the straightforward: Dont do drugs; Drugs only make things worse, they do not solve problems in life; jail still sucks to be away from your family; Without drugs it can only get better, to the ominous: Dont use drugs, you will go to jail or how about die. I was at Peak House and left, and Its not a fun place to be. Ive missed 2 birthdays so far. It kills your family. Its not worth using. If you keep using, youll end up here. Others wrote words of advice: Think about positive things, do sports, work out, do things that would make you a better person; The best way to stay off drugs is to think of friends and family, and You should keep focused on your path to staying clean. It will change your life. Some shared their own experiences: Ive been in the game and now Im locked up for using...I assure you please stay clean. Its the best feeling. I feel like a totally new person and I believe in you. Its not too late, and Ive been clean from crack for 2 years. You can do it!. Further examples of the inspirational words of encouragement include: If you guys do not stay in this program you will end up where I am in jail. Stay and finish your time, it will go by fast; Drugs screw lives. Help yourself, ask for a helping hand, and Im trying to get into Peak House, and its really hard because of the wait. Please build more places.

Document from Peak House

Collective narrative documents

Once the commotion and chatter from reading the messages died down, the youth were asked about what it meant to them that these folks bothered to do this. To a person, they all were touched and impressed by the content of the messages and the effort and willingness involved in sending them. It was decided on the spot that a response was required. It was quickly agreed upon to write letters back to the young people in jail around the following four themes: 1) What it meant to receive the messages; 2) The work each young person is doing; 3) How the messages are helping with that work; and 4) Returning hope to the youth in jail. The young peoples letters around these themes were combined into a single collective narrative document entitled, Passing Hope Around: Messaging Strategies for Change between Peak House and BYCS (Burnaby Youth Custody Services)2. The document included an introductory paragraph which stated, The following letters are meant as an expression of gratitude and appreciation for sharing with us. They have made a difference in our lives and we believe it can continue

Document from the young people in jail

The messages from the young people in jail were brought back to Peak House and dumped out of a brown paper bag in front of the residents into a messy pile on the kitchen table. The youth in treatment pored over the scraps of paper like they were sacred gifts, grabbing one and reading it aloud or passing it on, then grabbing another one, sometimes in laughter, sometimes in chilling silence.



to make a difference if we keep passing hope around. The document was then hand-delivered back to the counsellors at the youth detention center, who said they would share the letters of hope with the same youth in prison who had originally made the effort to share their hope with Peak House, thus facilitating mutual encouragement between the two groups.

...the subject plays a central role in contributing to the specification of her own self. In so doing, she becomes conscious of her participation in the constitution of her own life. This can lead to a profound sense of personal responsibility, as well as, a sense of possessing the capacity to intervene in the shaping of ones life and relationships. (p. 191) By sharing the ways in which they are standing up to their problems, the Peak House youth also provided a wealth of information around what can be achieved in the process of finding freedom from substances. One youth, Tammy, wrote in her letter to the youth in jail, Im changing the way I act with my family and how I talk to them. Im trying to deal with difficult emotions so I can change my life from how it was out on the streets to living at home. I want this change to keep me out of jail by helping me not be violent with people or my family or fight with cops. It seemed like it was with pride that KC shared, Im starting to care and build a relationship with my mom that disintegrated through my addiction, and Kirstie said, Right now Im working on not being apathetic or unplugging because I know that if I stop caring about life Ill end up loaded again. Other ways the youth were re-authoring their lives were working on trying to not let every little thing that happens be an excuse to use (Tracey), and I totally think the best way I got over my bad habits was just talking about my feelings, and recognising feelings about feelings is a big one (Jennifer). Hearing from and then writing back to insider witnesses seemed to help with each youths clarity, strength, and willingness in naming and taking a stand against problems.

What it meant

Around the first theme, the Peak House residents all agreed it is different hearing the words Dont do drugs from a youth in prison than it is hearing it from a professional counsellor. They said they appreciated the insider knowledges coming from those in jail, as they can be a trusted source to keep it real. Tracey wrote, I really appreciate you sharing your insight because I know you guys are the people I can trust to not bullshit on the subject. Its really cool that even if what some of you wrote wasnt deep or profound, it was real, while Karla stated bluntly, I take advice from people who live itlike you. Tasha was also impacted by receiving information from a source other than a counsellor, It was insane to hear what you can get into and what jail is like. Its good I got a scare. Kirstie echoed this with, It was cool that you have insight into how much drugs and alcohol can f..k up your life. Hearing from you guys has given me a great warning to change my life. To some youth the messages had a more practical meaning, Those messages inspired me to hang in there because just today I was gonna leave here. I had my bags packed (Kyle). Meghan wrote, It was cool that you guys took time to do this ... because maybe with this encouragement I can stay. The effect of receiving encouragement and advice from fellow strugglers seemed to have a much more profound impact than it would have coming from a professional. The youth were also extremely willing to share their work with their new hopeful future friend[s] (Tracey).

How the messages helped

The work

In the naming and sharing of their work, it is hoped that the young person can develop a sense of personal agency over their particular struggle by writing it out in their own words and presenting it for another, creating a wider audience for their new story. Including others in ones therapeutic work is a way to enrich the reauthoring process and increase personal responsibility for change. About the use of therapeutic documentation, White and Epston (1990) write,

The collective document was not merely a thank you response; it also served to let the young people in detention know how the youth at Peak House were using the messages from jail to help them in their work. For some youth it was simply a matter of taking a suggestion. Tasha wrote, Im going to take your advice by totally avoiding my old groups, and Meghan said, Ill take your advice by cleaning up; as you said, its not worth it. For Tammy it was the notes themselves that served as a useful tool, Im going to take your advice by reading all the letters over in my head againand again if I feel like using, while Jennifer seemed to find her emotional response to the letters both rewarding and useful, Im way more grateful now that I read your guys messages ... Ill try my best to live a good, safe life.


It is necessary to express how the messages have impacted the therapeutic work to hold change at the forefront in the relationship between the two groups. Denborough (2008) writes that through the sharing of messages from outsider witnesses, people were able to hear about the contributions their stories had made to the lives of other peoples who are also experiencing difficult times (p. 68). This concept would seem to be at the heart of collective narrative practice.

that had been sent to them first, and it is their sincere wish to keep passing hope around so that young people everywhere, in any institution or situation, may stand together against their problems, and know that they do not stand alone in their struggles.


Returning the hope

The youth were adamant that they pass the hope they received back to those from whom they had received it. This reciprocity meant to the youth in treatment that they, too, had wisdom to offer, and further solidified an equal relationship rooted in the desire for change. Karla hoped you all follow your dreams and do what you wanna do. Im glad you guys were interested in doing this shit, cuz I sure am, too. Jason and Tasha encouraged folks to go to treatment, if necessary, and their expertise in their positive experience is as real as the warnings coming from jail. This is probably the best thing Ive done for me in my life. You can do it too! (Tasha). Now it appeared that a dialogue between the two groups that would likely never meet had begun, and each of the Peak House letters was collected and combined into a single collective document to be sent back to the youth in custody. Before the document was sent, however, the group gathered in a circle to read their own personal letters to each other in a ceremonial re-telling as a way to share their individual work and experience with their fellow in-house crewmates. Denborough (2008) expresses the significance of this as follows: Through the oral recitation of collective documents, a shared sense of unity is generated. It is a particular type of communitas, for it involves not only an acknowledgement of shared suffering, but also an acknowledgement of shared skills, knowledges, values and histories of endurance and sustenance. (p. 41) This acknowledgement of shared skills and struggles seemed to bring the group in treatment together to foster a feeling of solidarity (Reynolds, 2011) between the individuals as they sought to return hope to the original hope senders. In the returning of hope, they uncovered more hope. They built on the aspirations

As mentioned above, the document from Peak House was delivered to the youth in detention through a counsellor there. I was told that a therapeutic conversation about the document we sent would happen, but that I would not be able to participate in such a group. I was disappointed, as I remain genuinely curious about what it meant to the young people in custody to have had such a positive impact on other young peoples lives. Did it spark any change for them? What difference did it make to connect around helping others? When else have they had their advice and expertise received with such enthusiasm? Would they help out again? I have since heard from my colleague, Roisin Donnelly, that on her last visit to Burnaby Youth Custody Services several young people remembered exchanging messages fondly, and wished the Peak House folks their best. The youth at Peak House spoke of their experience positively, and said they would love to send messages of hope to other young people in similar struggles. While seemingly unimpressed by the term collective narrative practice, they appeared to understand completely that they have special wisdom to offer, that this wisdom is sometimes more meaningful coming from them, and that helping tends to help the helper. It is our hope that other groups of people might use collective narrative documentation practices to lend solidarity to a social issue by using their own words and wisdom to build communities of mutually beneficial resistance against problems. In writing this article, it is my intention to pass on something that seemed to make a difference in the lives of young people. I want to honour the work done by the youth at Burnaby Youth Custody Services and at Peak House by thickening their stories and keeping them alive to further inspire hope in future strugglers against substance misuse. By informing Paul in Australia how his work has touched the lives of others in Canada, this



paper embarks on a parallel process and becomes a narrative document, itself. The Peak House youth seemed to epitomise the spirit of collective narrative practice in the introduction to their collection of letters: They have made a difference in our lives, and we believe it can continue to make a difference if we keep passing hope around.

Foucault, M. (1977). Intellectuals and power: A conversation between Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze. In D. Bouchard, (Ed.), Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, Cornell University Press, pp. 205-217. Foucault, M. (1984). Docile bodies, (from Discipline and Punish), in Foucault Reader, Rabinow, P. (Ed.), New York, NY: Pantheon Books, pp. 179-187. Madigan, S. & Epston, D. (1995). From spy-chiatric gaze to communities of concern: From professional monologue to dialogue. In S. Friedman (Ed.), The Reflecting Team in Action: Collaborative Practice in Family Therapy, New York, NY: Guilford Press, pp. 257-276. Narcotics Anonymous, (1982). The Basic Text, Chatsworth, CA: Narcotics Anonymous World Services, Inc. Reynolds, V. (2002). Weaving threads of belonging: Cultural witnessing groups, Journal of Child and Youth Care, 15 (3), pp. 89-105. Reynolds, V. (2011). Resisting burnout with justice-doing, The International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work, 4, pp. 27-45. Sanders, C. (1997). Re-authoring problem identities: Small victories with young persons captured by substance misuse, In C. Smith & D. Nylund (Eds.), Narrative Therapies with Children and Adolescents, (pp. 400-422). New York, NY: Guilford Press. Sanders, C. (2007). A poetics of resistance: Compassionate practice in substance misuse therapy, in C. Brown, & T. Augusta-Scott (Eds.), Narrative Therapy: Making Meaning, Making Lives, (pp. 59-77), London, UK: Sage Publications. Tamasese, K., & Waldegrave, C. (1993). Some central ideas in the Just Therapy approach, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy, 14, pp. 1-8. White, M. & Epston, D., (1990). Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends, New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

I would like to thank all the Peak House youth and staff, past and present; and especially Allison Rice, who floated out a new, radical therapeutic language in front of me with all the enticement of fresh baked bread; Dennis Dion, who fed me when I was hungry for the work; and Vikki Reynolds, who continues to influence, inspire, and keep faith that therapy can be a means to social change.

1. For more information about the work of Peak House, see http://, Sanders (1997, 2007), Reynolds, (2002, 2011), and Dennstedt & Grieves (2004). A copy of the document can be obtained here



Denborough, D. (2008). Collective Narrative Practice: Responding to individuals, groups and communities who have experienced trauma, Adelaide, Australia: Dulwich Centre Publications. Dennstedt, C., & Grieves, L. (2004). Unravelling substance misuse stories: Re-authoring and witnessing practices, In S. Madigan, (Ed.), Therapeutic Conversations 5: Therapy from the Outside In (pp. 55-72). Vancouver, Canada: Yaletown Family Therapy.

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