Breaking the Silence in Alaska’s Villages

The September entry of Verizon Wireless into the Alaska market included two Smart Store grand openings, occasions that often bring participation from local domestic violence shelters the company supports through its HopeLine program. That same month saw the national conversation around domestic violence grow louder than ever before. The natural desire to celebrate our opening in the company’s 50th state with high-fives, cake and balloons was balanced by the need to acknowledge communities that are hurting and in pain.  

Despite its physical beauty, Alaska hides certain ugliness just beneath the surface with high rates of domestic violence, sexual assault, alcohol, drug abuse and suicide. Cynthia Erickson runs a small store and also leads a 4-H youth group in Tanana, Alaska, near Fairbanks. Most associate 4-H with animal displays at the fair, but in remote Alaskan villages, 4-H has become a kind of urgent care clinic for teens suffering from trauma at home.

After losing several friends and local teens to suicide, Erickson decided silence was not the answer and she began encouraging her 4-H youth to stand up and speak out about the molestation, substance abuse and violent behavior from adults all around them in her small community with limited law enforcement resources. 

Overcoming anger, doubt and stage fright with a sense of purpose and belief, Erickson’s teens are speaking out for the second year in a row at one of the state’s largest annual conventions, the Alaska Federation of Natives. 4-H teens from Tanana spoke in front of 700 people, sharing their anger and stories of intense personal pain; but instead of succumbing to despair, they ended with a solemn pledge:

To live, honor and protect myself from any harm; to love my life, my family, my friends and my village, and to stand together against suicide, substance abuse, violence and sexual assault.

At the convention, the courageous teens from 4-H in Tanana earned enthusiastic applause and later, financial support for the organization from Verizon Wireless and others. The teens have taken their message of hope and survival to other remote villages. Erickson’s suicide prevention work led to awards, including an appointment on the Governor’s Statewide Suicide Prevention Council and being named the Alaska First Lady’s Volunteer of the Year. In Tanana and elsewhere, it’s clear that voices have power. 

Scott Charlston is a public relations manager for Verizon Wireless. Follow him on Twitter at: @VZWScott.