Editor’s note: The following story contains mature subject matter.
FAIRBANKS — It was an emotional morning Tuesday for delegates at the First Alaskans Institute’s Elders and Youth conference.
Cynthia Erickson took the stage with seven members of the Tanana 4-H club she coordinates. Each member carried a white poster board emblazoned with messages: Losing hope; family violence; suicide; molestation; rape.
“We’re here and we’re going to talk about this,” Erickson told an audience of 700 people. “Year after year we talk about suicide, domestic violence and sexual assault. We go home and what happens?”
4-H is a national youth organization overseen by the United States Department of Agriculture and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. The organization’s goal is to develop leadership and life skills in youth. In Tanana, the organization has taken on an additional role by serving as an outlet for youth to talk about their lives.
Erickson told the crowd that the youths standing before them holding white poster boards had prepared short speeches on a topic of their choosing, which they would be reading out loud. They spoke about dysfunctional home environments, bullying and alcohol abuse. Each wanted a change. When a 16-year-old girl began to speak about being molested, the crowd at the Carlson Center fell silent.
“I have been molested countless times by old men, young men and boys my age,” she told the room. “I’ve been almost raped once and that’s enough to make me stand up here in front of you all here today to stop all of this. I am still young and I’m already sick of it. It’s not ‘stranger danger’, it’s happening in his house, her house, even in your own bed.”
She said she didn’t feel safe and that she couldn’t respect anyone, not even an elder, who either let these things happen or did them to her.
“I don’t mean to disrespect you elders out there, but there’s elders out there in our communities doing this,” she said. “You don’t turn 60 or 65 and automatically get respect. You have to earn it. Do something for someone that makes them love and respect you.”
The crowd applauded; some stood up. Four more youth spoke. When they all left the stage, some of their elders and peers were waiting with hugs and words of encouragement. The girl who talked about being sexually abused burst into tears, appearing relieved that she’d been able to share her story with others.
After the presentation, Erickson said people in her community were angry that she was talking about suicide and other issues. She said they told her to shut up or risk making things worse.
“You can believe what you’re going to believe, but I’m not going to do it anymore,” Erickson responded to them. “I’m not gonna do it.”