The Rite Way Blog

Why Youth & Community Development through Rites of Passage Now?

Posted on March 4, 2013 by David Blumenkrantz

William Lavine, DMD, MsD & Hyacinth Douglas-Bailey, JD
With David Blumenkrantz, PhD, EdM
© 2013 The Center for the Advancement of Youth, Family & Community Services. Inc.

Bill-Hyacinth_Photo_Feb2013-225x300 William Lavine, DMD, and Hyacinth Douglas-Bailey, JD., members of the leadership team, Rite of Passage Experience© - ROPE®.

There are two significant and related challenges defining human progress. One is the need to adapt to a constantly transforming world. The other is the need to communicate and incorporate those adaptations into functioning and diverse communities. Indeed, the integration of adaptive strategies into viable social institutions has charted the course of human history.

Today, cultural changes, coupled with scientific and technological advances, are occurring with such rapidity that we find ourselves in a continually emerging “new world” – one that requires constant awareness and adaptation. Having to continually develop strategies to reconcile the conflict between what we know and what is constantly changing presents us with a set of ongoing challenges. The 21st century is clearly emerging as a crucial time. Recognizing the major transformations associated with the unanticipated consequences of technology and climate change is essential for adaptation, strengthening community, and ultimately, our survival.

One of the oldest and most successful survival strategies is our capacity to imagine and tell stories. We have a unique ability to remember the past, recognize the present and anticipate the future. With memory and a process for integration, we have evolved numerous formats for telling our history, narrating the present and imagining our future. We are a story-making species that collectively refers to our storytelling as the arts. Whether it is literature, poetry, music, performance, ritual, or visual images, our arts express who we are and give meaning to our lives.

We are a story telling species! Ellen Dissanayake in her book, What Is Art For?, suggests that art is our unique adaptation strategy whose purpose is to build and strengthen community, which is essential for survival. Elders guiding youth into adulthood is one of our most important and enduring stories. Over a hundred years ago this story was named rites of passage. Rites of passage is the story – the art – of how we transmit essential information to our children. All cultures have given form to this unique process for transmitting survival strategies that strengthen a community’s ability to nurture, grow and support life-affirming individuals.

The time-tested principles of this defining village survival story – rites of passage - has been shared in a framework for youth and community development through rites of passage known as ROPE®, the Rite of Passage Experience©, Since its first introduction into communities in the early 1980s, over 100,000 youth and their families have participated in remembering and adapting this school-community collaborative story. Evidence of ROPE®’s achievements are well documented. They underscore evolutionary biology’s belief that a species will not maintain any behavior for very long if that behavior does not serve its survival. For thousands of years across many cultures, rites of passage have been instrumental in building a community’s capacity to guide youth through the challenging passage to adulthood while strengthening the bonds of community.

How are the Children? Connected or Disconnected?

As with many major technological advances that benefit society there are always unanticipated consequences that only time reveals. The amazing advances in computer technology, producing mountains of data along with the emergence of numerous social media portals, have created a perceived “connected” society. But are we really connected? In reality, a growing body of evidence reveals that more and more people are experiencing a sense of personal isolation, anxiety, and strong feelings of not having enough time. We are time deprived.

Stephen Marche’s article, Is Facebook Making Us Lonely1, points out that Americans are more solitary than ever. He claims that the primary secular institutions have diverted our attention away from our common interests and needs, and our humanity, to more individual consumer oriented pursuits. This has undermined the central unit of human survival, the community. In addition, the massive amounts of data collected reveal that we are becoming a more fragmented society, divided by income, educational level, age, geography, religion, and political philosophy. In many ways, this “information age”2, has created a state where we “are drowning in data, but starved for knowledge.3

In pursuit of our national identity of rugged individualism we have forgotten our basic need for community. What if we have lost all aspects of a vibrant and diverse society that should contribute to a strong and adaptable community where the common good is paramount? Where might we look for clues to help us find our way past these powerful distractions and reclaim our common humanity and destiny? Three recent books – two about the science of the mind and one from the perspective of evolutionary biology – present ideas that, when taken together, provide a guide through this maze of confusion.

George Lakoff, in his book, The Political Mind, discusses a cultural mindset where the complex nature of the world is viewed as “issue silos.” “Issues” are isolation from one another, which masks the relationships that always exist between all aspects of our complex society and nature. Daniel Kahneman, the author of Thinking Fast and Slow, discusses how the bias of our “fast” thinking dominates our decision-making process, leading frequently to inappropriate judgments and behaviors.

A third book, The Social Conquest of Earth, by Edward O. Wilson, suggests that the evolutionary history of “the origins of modern humanity” holds the clues to our survival. The selection and incorporation of what he calls “eusocial” characteristics are central to survival. This is where group membership is composed of multiple generations that are prone to altruistic acts, where employing a “defensive nest” – a site for common feeding, communications and protection – contributes to long-term survival. These adaptations where “group selection drove the evolution of culture” contributed to the successful, long-term survival of both social insects and our own species. In this light the famed evolutionary biologist, Dr. Wilson, views community and not the individual as the central most important organizing unit of our species.

What does this mean for the emerging contemporary story of rites of passage? Rites of passage have always been, first and foremost, designed to serve the community in a reciprocal relationship with individuals. Is there a contemporary “story” that combines all of these behavioral and evolutionary principals and provides a framework for strengthening the basic unit of survival, the community?

We propose that the answer lies in the process of community development through rites of passage, which is embodied in the Rite of Passage Experience© - ROPE®. This process has 20 unique elements that are used as design principles, and which are refined and adapted with and in communities. The elements emerged from Dr. David Blumenkrantz’s 45 years of experience, study and practice, and have always been organized for building community and/or group capacity in ways that serve their survival. There may be nothing more important that can help us adapt to the increasing changes in our world than to remember, retell, and help communities re-enact our 40,000 year-old story of rites of passage. It may be the most important transition story for our time.

1 The Atlantic (May 2012).
2 A term introduced by John Naisbitt in his 1982 book, Megatrends.
3 Naisbitt, J (1982) Megatrends.


William Lavine, DMD, MsD, has combined a 36-year career in academia and research with the private practice of Periodontology and Oral Ecology.  He is the author of numerous research papers on the relationship of infectious diseases to the human body – an ecological perspective. A former member of the Connecticut Humanities Council, he is also a former faculty member of the University of Connecticut School of Dental Medicine and Tufts University School of Dental Medicine.

Hyacinth Douglas-Bailey, JD, has a background in education and law and has devoted her life to service and strengthening communities. She has served as the Vice President of Child Development for the Greater Hartford YMCA where, among her many responsibilities, she headed up their Developmental Assets initiative . She is presently a consultant on youth and community development issues.

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David Blumenkrantz, Ph.D., Ed.M., Founder & Executive Director, the Center for Youth & Community

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