What Caine's Arcade Can Teach Us: The Potential of Collaboration with Young People to Advance Transition

by Evan Frisch

While I was analyzing responses to the survey I conducted last month (March 2012) on youth participation in Transition initiatives, I came across an intriguing story that illustrates both the challenge and the opportunity that young people present to us in the Transition movement.

Imagine a store in your neighborhood that sells used car parts.  Upon entering the store to look for a door handle, you find a 9-year-old boy, the shopkeeper's son, who has built an assortment of arcade games out of large cardboard boxes and spare parts.  Caine invites you to play for a dollar or two.  How do you respond?

It would be easy to compliment the boy on his cleverness, but politely decline and go about your business.  You might inform the boy about a community garden you are starting in the neighborhood and tell him to ask his father to bring him to a work party there.  You could sidestep the boy's request, and, after buying your door handle, ask his father if you could hang a poster about an upcoming Transition event in the front of his shop.

But Nirvan Mullick made a different choice when he visited the store in East Los Angeles to find a door handle for his 1996 Corolla.  Mullick instead bought a $2 "funpass" from Caine, becoming the boy's first customer.  He was so impressed that he decided to use his skills as a filmmaker to focus attention on the boy's imaginative re-use of simple materials.  Mullick and his friends made others aware of the cardboard arcade, first bringing Caine hundreds of eager customers and media attention, then creating a video (see above) that was watched roughly 5 million times in its first ten days on YouTube and Vimeo.  As of this writing, the resulting attention has brought in $176,299.22 in donations toward a college fund for Caine, and inspired the Goldhirsh Foundation to donate an equal amount to fund a new Caine's Arcade Foundation to support creativity and entrepreneurship among young children.

As you review this analysis of the survey results and consider how to engage more effectively with young people, this story may be a helpful reminder that the responsibility of creating new programs and activities does not rest solely on our shoulders as organizers of Transition initiatives.  We can also serve by bringing attention to creative projects in the community, connecting them with other resources and groups, and strengthening them as sources of local resilience.  As the story of Caine's Arcade demonstrates, young people sometimes provide a spark that can bring together a large community, if we take the time to notice it and help to supply what it needs to grow.

Fortunately, the results of the survey indicate a strong desire to connect with and support young people to achieve goals consistent with Transition.  The Transition organizers surveyed overwhelmingly believe in the value and importance of the participation of young people, including teens, in Transition.  Most initiatives recognize a need for help to engage teens more successfully.  After identifying some of the challenges that participants in the survey cited, I will turn to examples of approaches from which we can learn.

While most initiatives surveyed appeared eager for ideas and techniques to involve teens, participants in the survey also indicated a number of other needs or constraints that affected their ability to engage with young people, particularly teens.  These include the following:

  • Few teens are aware of Transition.
  • Some initiatives have primarily older members, who do not normally have much interaction with teens or other young people.  One organizer noted that young people might be reluctant to join a group whose members were generally older than their parents.
  • Some organizers cited a lack of time to conduct outreach to young people.
  • One initiative needs to find the funds to hire a part-time youth intern.
  • An organizer noted that a school that is a partner of a Transition initiative needs more people to help manage its many Transition-related activities, such as a youth gardening program.
  • A few people stated that they live in communities that have few young people.
  • An organizer in a major city observed that young people might find it difficult to participate due to a lack of transportation.

While many respondents related that teens have attended some events, particularly events focused on learning, such as film screenings, it seems clear that most organizers feel that their initiative can and should do more to advance youth involvement in Transition.  The results suggest that most initiatives could benefit from ideas and examples of how to bring teens and other young people into the Transition movement.

Here are highlights of some interesting or inspiring examples that organizers shared of their Transition initiatives engaging with young people:

  • A Transition Folk School teaches the arts and crafts of sustainable living to an intergenerational group of students. Sandpoint Transition Initiative is currently surveying teens to identify topics for future classes that they would like to attend at the school.
  • Trash Catchers CarnivalA summer event called the Trash Catchers' Carnival is being organized, also by Sandpoint Transition Initiative, based on the model offered by Transition Town Tooting in London, which brought together many segments of a diverse community to create costumes and carnival floats out of plastic and other household waste.  More information and video of the original event in London is available at Transition Culture.
  • Teens are among the vendors as well as the customers taking part in an open-air local marketplace called Bow Little Market that Chuckanut Transition worked to create.  To encourage participation by young people, market organizers have created an area specifically for youth vendors, who may sell items without paying regular market fees.
  • One urban Transition initiative in Boston, Jamaica Plain New Economy Transition, is working with a number of partner organizations that regularly engage with young people in areas such as bike repair and advocacy, social justice and anti-racism work, and nature and parks.
  • Another urban initiative, Transition Milwaukee, partners with Riverside University High School, which offers a recycling program and vegetable gardens managed by its special education students as well as diverse after school programs, including bike repair, rooftop hydroponics, and cooking classes.  At the school's bike repair shop, students, staff, and parents fix bicycles that students can use to commute to school.

While more than three quarters of those surveyed stated that their initiative did not currently have outreach efforts to encourage teen participation, some of those that do shared ideas that are instructive:

  • One Transition initiative is working to create a DIY (Do It Yourself) Youth Club.
  • Another Transition initiative organizes school exhibitions and visits, works on school gardens, and organizes park clean-up events.
  • Partnering with a local human rights festival is an approach that another Transition initiative is taking to gain teen engagement.
  • Not surprisingly, more than one organizer reported that they conduct outreach through the local high schools, but this takes different forms.  In one case, two members of a Transition initiative meet monthly with a high school principal to build connections.  In another, organizers provide announcements of Transition activities for selected high school teachers to share with their students.  For a third initiative, a partnership with a local high school brings Transition-related activities to teens through health, wellness, biology, and social studies departments.
  • One of the main organizers of a city's Transition initiative started at the age of 19.  Inviting peers to join in gardening, community building, yoga, and other activities brought other young people into Transition work.
  • Participating in a citywide Earth Day event attended by several thousand people continues to be productive for one Transition initiative, which finds that many teens and younger children attend and enjoy their activities.
  • Another urban Transition initiative organizes an annual State of Our Neighborhood forum, partnering with groups such as Teen Empowerment and Bikes not Bombs.  Previously, some teens participated, but seemed to feel that the events did not address youth concerns.  Recently, however, the Transition initiative gave young people a larger role and worked with them prior to the forum, leading to better results.

For more ideas and insights, I turned to Susan Silber, a cofounder of Transition Berkeley and veteran environmental educator and community organizer.  (Full disclosure: My daughter advised Susan on activities for young people for Transition Albany's Great Unleashing.) One of Susan's first suggestions was to bring Transition Tales to the U.S.  As Simon Robinson describes on Rob Hopkins' Transition Culture blog, Transition Tales began with a small group in Transition Town Totnes that worked with local schools to engage young people in envisioning a future beyond oil, using theater, video, games, and storytelling.  Transition Los Angeles is one Transition initiative that is adapting these activities to a U.S. context.  The Quest game originally developed by Transition Town Totnes and now available to local Transition groups or "pods" in Los Angeles appears particularly relevant as an interactive means to engage young people or bring together an intergenerational group of participants.

Susan also recommended integrating Transition thinking into existing environmental education programs.  She has experience bringing concepts such as resilience to the after-school programs she teaches in Albany, California, where I first worked with her as a member of Transition Albany.  In October, she will present her ideas related to Transition to environmental educators from across North America at the NAAEE conference, planting the seeds for future partnerships with Transition initiatives.

Other recommendations that Susan shared include:

  • Meet with existing youth groups, listen for what matters to them, and find ways that you can help them achieve their goals.  Susan suggests avoiding a preoccupation with the Transition label.  Instead, focus yourself on the community-building spirit of Transition.  This orientation can be helpful in finding opportunities to partner with teen centers, environmental youth groups, food justice groups, bike repair programs, and others.
  • Bring youth to your steering committee.  In her experience working with the Berkeley Climate Action Coalition, Susan suggested reaching out to the Green Academy at Berkeley High School, a local youth environmental leadership program.  This step led four young people to join the steering committee, bringing great ideas and energy to the group.  One young person is now helping Susan to lead a Green Your Neighborhood project that Susan co-chairs.
  • Have a youth group, such as a youth leadership team, that chooses fun projects to pursue.  Participants could work on school-based projects or projects in the community.  The Earth Team, which supports young people and teachers in their environmental actions in nearly 20 schools in the San Francisco Bay Area, demonstrates the great potential that exists.  Susan finds that young people are far more likely to participate when they can make decisions about their work.  By contrast, when adults plan an event on their own and then invite young people, it usually does not result in much youth participation.
  • Get funding to work on youth-driven projects.  Susan finds that there is currently a lot of money available for youth-driven projects.  However, she notes that Transition initiatives generally lack the track record, budgets, and other essentials needed to apply for grants directly.  Instead, she recommends partnerships with existing organizations that are better positioned to seek funding for programs that will enable young people to take actions that advance the goals of Transition.  Look for funders that support areas such as community development, environmental education, youth empowerment or youth development, or service learning.
  • Start a parents group.  Parents' understanding of the concerns and interests of their children as well as their schools can help inform your Transition initiative and alert it to topics of which it might not otherwise be aware.

Choosing to become active in a Transition initiative can sometimes feel like it requires us to take on endless responsibilities.  There is a need to know how our community will grow its food, how the local economy will work, and how people will get around, heat and cool their homes, and stay healthy in the uncertain future we face.  We can sometimes lose track of the fact that we as individuals do not need to have all the answers because, in Transition, we can turn to the collective genius of our communities.

At the same time, there is a need to build awareness and find supporters to join us in each of the actions we take today, which can feel like modest steps toward a hazy and far-off destination.  When someone asks you, as I did, if you are making an effort to engage young people in your work, that might seem like just another burden that you are being asked to bear.  

Happily, I received responses from people in dozens of Transition initiatives across the U.S. eager for more ways to reach out to young people, despite the many responsibilities they already have.  For me, one important lesson of Caine's Arcade for those of us involved in Transition is that we should pay attention to young people as contributors of valuable ideas and energy and find ways to collaborate with them to build community.  After all, a collaborative approach that begins with noticing and listening to what young people care about seems to follow from the first principle of Permaculture: observe and interact

When we look for what excites young people and then work with them to design related activities, we can relieve ourselves of the burden of putting time and effort into a program that young people may reject or ignore because it does not seem relevant to them.  Instead, we can, like Nirvan Mullick, open ourselves up to recognize the potential of everyone, no matter how small, to contribute to the building of a resilient community, and use our abilities to support such contributions.

The author would like to thank everyone who helped by participating in or distributing the survey or who shared their thoughts by phone or email.  Detailed numerical results for the survey questions are also available.

(All Photos: Transition Smithfield)

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