Encourage youth to leave your city (part 1)

A city that is confident in itself encourages youth to go out and experience the world beyond the city they know — not try to keep them at home. A city that is confident in itself trusts that gains received by sending young explorers out into the world exceeds perceived benefits of holding explorers back. A city that is confident in itself trusts that what youth gain in their adventure benefits the city, and other cities. A city that trusts itself gifts its youth to the world.

I found myself at a city council meeting earlier this month listening to a discussion about Edmonton’s brand and reputation (see CBC coverage here) and how Edmonton is living into being Edmonton. Edmonton’s brand is Edmonton itself — who we are — with four themes that describe us: inventive, open, courageous, cooperative.

A key feature of the brand and reputation strategy is attracting 18-34 year-olds to Edmonton. As I listened I heard two threads: attract new young people to Edmonton and keep those that are here. As I thought of my 19-year-old who is thrilled to be leaving Edmonton and explicitly embark on life’s journey, I found the latter thread — to keep young people from leaving — alarming.

I found the latter thread — to keep young people from leaving — alarming. 

My daughter started university here in Edmonton last year and simultaneously made arrangements to transfer to the University of Toronto. She leaves Edmonton next month — and she might not come back. Here’s what we need to remember: it isn’t about leaving, it’s about responding to a call for adventure.

When youth leave our cities, they are not leaving as much as they are moving toward something that will fuel them for the rest of their lives. Those of us “left behind” may feel threatened because others’ self-empowerment threatens our sense of who we are. At the scale of citizen or city, we disguise others’ self empowerment as a threat because it causes us to grow and change, requiring us to be courageous and face our own self-empowerment. The part of us that doesn’t want to rock the boat, that is closed to our own development, is threatened. The part of us that wants to grow and evolve is shut down and blocked. Wanting to “keep” our youth here holds both them and us back.

The drive to respond to the call to adventure, and even resist it, is part of a large pattern of the human journey. My 19-year-old is embarking on an archetypal journey to reach out further into the world and expand herself. It is the thread of the hero-path, as Joseph Campbell calls it, the “standard path of the mythological adventure of the hero” that involves a simple formula that punctuates rites of passage: separation–initiation–return.Leaving, or separating from life as we know it, is something we must do to both grow ourselves and, if we follow through on our/their return, our communities.

Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey

For Campbell, it starts with a call to adventure, where the mythological hero sets out voluntarily or is made to cross a threshold of adventure (separation). On the other side of the threshold, in the heart of the adventure, the hero finds tests and magical helpers, and at the height of the adventure experiences an ordeal. Triumph over the ordeal is an expansion of consciousness that involves illumination, transfiguration and freedom (initiation). The final work of the hero’s journey is the return, which is either easy or arduous travel, and the crossing of the return threshold to her people. The journey is not yet complete, for she must reconcile the two worlds she knows: the one that has transformed her and everyday home. She must share what she has learned — the boon, or the elixir — with her community (return).2

Here’s the simple pattern:3

  • Separation: the hero ventures forth from her everyday world into a new world of wonder
  • Initiation: the hero encounters fabulous forces that challenge her — tests — and magical helpers, and she overcomes a supreme ordeal
  • Return: the hero returns from her adventure with stories and lessons for her people, a boon

The hero will go on her journey and we have a choice to be obstacles or helpers. We have another choice on her return, to ignore or shun who she has become, for she will not return as the same person, or to welcome her and her insights. We can choose to thwart or foster their – and our – growth, or we can choose to send and receive our heroes. These choices have implications for our growth as citizens and as a city. We choose to grow or not.

The hero will go on her journey and we have a choice to be obstacles or helpers… These choices have implications for our growth as citizens and as a city. 

For Campbell, the return is about becoming more of ourselves, which means integrating the lessons learned on the adventure. It’s not only about the growth of the hero; she is expected to bring back what the community needs to know. We have to know enough to both send her and receive her on her return. For Edmonton to be radically inventive, open, courageous and cooperative, we will send our youth out into the world knowing the ‘return’ might be a familiar physical return, or something completely different. A city that trusts itself is a wonderful nest from which to leap into the world.

How do you and your city send and receive young people on life’s adventures?  

(In my next post I’ll explore the community-hero relationship.)


NOTES —

  1. Campbell, Joseph, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, New World Library: Novato, California (2008, 3rd ed) p. 23
  2. Ibid p. 211
  3. Ibid p. 23

 

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