Each year for the past 11 years, The New Mentality has hosted our annual summer leadership training retreat known as Disable the Label (DTL) for youth organizers in the mental health system. The event brings together over 100 participants, including youth leaders, community organizers, and adult allies from across the province, who gather to learn and enhance their youth engagement skills, share their local projects, and build meaningful connections. At Disable the Label, together we grow our capacity to be mental health advocates and use our voices to make a positive change in the children’s mental health system in Ontario.
Disable the Label 2018 was the next step in The New Mentality’s evolution. As always, we focused on youth leadership, youth engagement in mental health, and our efforts and aspirations toward system change. With the growth of the network, so too did the scope of our intentions widen to become more intentional towards anti-oppressive practices and spaces.
The first day was about arriving. Finding the balance between getting out of our comfort zones and allowing space for our electrified nerves to settle as we began to meet new friends and settle into the DTL experience. As a way to nourish meaningful connections, youth and adult allies were placed into “Crews,” which were small sub-groups of 8-10 people who we spent the next four days together learning, growing, and supporting each other through the different sessions and activities. Our Crews allowed us to meet and interact with others doing change-making work around child and youth mental health and our peers practicing youth engagement across the province. It can be nerve-wracking to step away from the familiarity of our New Mentality home groups, but each person was willing to try.
In our Crews, we created flags that encouraged us to explore who we are as individuals – looking as deeply and sharing as much as we felt comfortable with – and looking at the identity of our newly formed Crew. Each Crew approached the flag in a unique way. Some had each crew member design a fabric patch to show some of who they were individually and then created a separate, collective patch that represented their Crews; others created one flag patch to which everyone contributed, while others worked on their individual patches and found ways to piece it together to showcase the collective group. Although some of our Crews approached the activity in different ways, at the end of the activity each Crew had beautiful and creative flags that represented who they were as individuals and as a collective.
One of the cornerstones of DTL is that we create our space together, in a workshop known as Braver Space. Braver Space is a session that explores how we can be in a more honest relationship with ourselves, with each other, and with the land. As a group, we create vulnerable expressions of our individual needs and offerings in order to thrive over the upcoming week and tend to the collective needs of the group. Some of the needs listed included compassion, humour, and non-judgement, while offerings ranged from jokes to hugs to compassionate listening and support.
The afternoon brought us into an anti-oppression workshop. Since we were all approaching the subject from different levels of understanding, this workshop was intended to be an introduction to what oppression is and how we see it manifested in our daily lives. We explored the different ways we group ourselves – our commonalities and our differences – as a way to sink into the idea of marginalization and oppression. Digging deeper, we looked at societal messaging, systemic oppression and discrimination, and how those influences play out in our day-to-day lives. As we walked along the barriers faced by different marginalized groups, we turned our gazes towards our own New Mentality groups to ask ourselves what barriers might exist for others to join and what solutions might be laying next to them, yet to be uncovered.
In the evening we focused on caring for ourselves and having fun! We took the time to look after our own individual needs in order to re-energize for the next two days of DTL. We sought out lightheartedness and relaxation. From frisbee to magic tricks, poetry to music jam sessions, yoga to basketball, to journaling and even bracelet making, there were a variety of activities to choose from, each led by DTL participants.
On the morning of day three, we followed the energy from the previous day. Rather than doing our planned World Cafe, we opened with ceremony, acknowledging our individual journeys through oppressive spaces, the emotions stirred, and then intertwining ourselves to move together, united. Space was held for introducing ourselves to the entire circle – to see others and to be seen ourselves – in order to find comfort in the connections with those around us.
The afternoon brought us into several concurrent sessions, including a safeTALK training, an Adult Ally session, and a youth engagement session hosted by the Office of the Ontario Child Advocate.
Adult Ally Session: In the last few years, this has become an annual session, providing space for adult allies to have one-on-one time with each other. It offers the opportunity for them to discuss current challenges as well as share in successes and how they were achieved.
SafeTALK: With the growth of our work around child and youth mental health and the practice of youth engagement, it is important to ensure that youth have the capacity to hold these conversations while remaining safe themselves.
About SafeTALK: safeTALK is a half-day alertness training that prepares anyone 15 or older, regardless of prior experience or training, to become a suicide-alert helper. Most people with thoughts of suicide don’t truly want to die but are struggling with the pain in their lives. Through their words and actions, they invite help to stay alive. safeTALK-trained helpers can recognize these invitations and take action by connecting them with life-saving intervention resources, such as caregivers trained in ASIST.
OCA Session: The Ontario Child Advocate brought a team of Youth Amplifiers and staff to deliver a workshop on youth engagement. The workshop looked at how the OCA incorporates youth engagement into its work and supports youth-led projects, with a focus on the Feathers of Hope project.
As we moved into our final activity, a series of art stations, we returned to art as a way to hold and express conversations around our roles in youth engagement. We broke into smaller groups and had conversations about leadership, and explored what each of our own authentic leadership looks like. Through painting, poetry, drama, and sewing/mixed media, these discussions were guided by things we had learned along our journeys at home, as well as pulling in new learning from the past few days. We explored the different roles we carry at different times, as well as what we need to feel empowered within these roles.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Disable the Label without the Talent Not Required show. Organized and emceed by DTL participants, Nick and Murphy, it was a night to share poetry, music, dance, etc. Regardless of how silly or random, each person stepping forward – daring to be so vulnerable – was truly held and supported by all.
On our last day together, youth and adult allies had the chance to set the agenda through an Open Space session. Fed by our own unique experiences, this knowledge exchange encouraged us to call our own sessions based on something we wanted to offer as a teaching or to further explore any topics that burned inside us. Building on this momentum, after our Open Space session we returned to our home groups in order to share what each of us had learned over the week. This was a time for looking forward – where was each group heading? – and using our learning to inform on our direction. This was a time for action planning – how can we arrive at our goal? – to pull from our collective knowledge to guide us.
The end of day four signalled the end of the week, and we brought our time together to a close in circle. Each Bandana Crew presented their flag – snippets of individual stories that were woven together. Beneath open skies, we honoured those who have been with The New Mentality over the years – the ones returning and welcomed in the newness. We breathed in the wisdom of our elders, of generations before us, and opened our hearts to the connections between us, silent beneath the surface. Messages of family, formed outside of genetic codes, whispered that we are not alone on our journeys and hinted towards all we can accomplish when we are united – the magic that we are.
Written in Collaboration with Caitlin Robb and TNM Staff