Putting The Social in Social Work: Alyssa Carpenter on Bringing Community Together
Alyssa Carpenter was born and raised from the Western Arctic of the Northwest Territories. She grew up between two communities, Sachs Harbour, on Banks Island, a small remote arctic community and Inuvik, a much larger community. She considers herself a Northern social worker, with her arctic upbringing, and her time spent in Yellowknife and in the Yukon to pursue her post secondary education.
“I just create space. I create space for youth, for youth and elders, for youth and other community members, for youth and other groups of youth, just for them to share, get to know each other, do some great activities or learn from one another.”
Now a community outreach manager, Carpenter works with youth aged 8-30 at BYTE Empowering Youth, an NGO based out of Whitehorse. She’s bringing programming to the Western Arctic where she’s from so the youth have things to do that are not school and extracurriculars.
“It’s a really exciting thing to call this my work where I look forward to a lot of things all the time. Is it stressful? Yeah. But it's really fantastic, and I can't wait to dive into it again.”
She’s doing great things, but she’s not doing them alone. A new mom, Carpenter has been exploring new ground with her daughter who accompanied her on her first on the land camp and to a youth gathering. Her sister is teaching her about TikTok and she’s learning as she goes.
“If they don't get opportunities to learn coping strategies or learn how to do life skills or things like that, or [if they don’t] ... have someone who can understand their perspective a little bit, I think that can jeopardize a lot of things for a lot of Northern remote youth.”
Once focussed on the needs of older adults, Carpenter has come to realize the value of youth programming. She sees how even before becoming adults, these youth are changemakers and this programming gives them a platform to be a voice and share their experiences while fighting stereotypes. She loves seeing them come alive with big dreams for the future and to challenge the negative narratives that persist about Northern youth.
“I just love it. I get to partner with them. I get to see them.”
Social work wasn’t the career path she expected for herself, given the history of the profession in her community. She picked it in response to seeing social issues and how they impacted her community growing up: suicide, substance use, violence, alcoholism, low employment and low graduation rates, lack of housing and poverty.
“I think redefining leadership in the community, especially in the North, you have to be creative.”
She was inspired to follow this path at the urging of a family member who reminded her of why she was born to do this work. Carpenter realized how much she could do with a social work degree and how much she could help bring the community together, all while enjoying flexibility, innovation and creativity. She particularly loves on the land programming which is growing in popularity.
“For someone like me, some of the happiest moments of my life were being on the land and hunting, going geese hunting, fishing, going caribou hunting, harvesting, picking berries, working with your hands and being outside and being around people.”
Being on the land made a difference for Carpenter, and so did sports, which took her all across Canada and helped her find community. Community is important to her, given she struggles with depression and anxiety. “l have these times and periods where I'm not the best version of myself that I know I can be. But I'm not going to beat myself up over it. I'm not going to overload myself. I'm going to speak up. I'm going to ask for help if I need to,” she explained.
“What inspires me is other people, especially groups of people who are doing pretty incredible things at an early age.”
Now a mental health advocate, Carpenter encourages clients to develop boundaries, identify healthy and unhealthy coping mechanisms and be kind to themselves. She also encourages them to consult with people they trust when considering big moves, like pursuing education, since doing so often means leaving the comfort of a home community.
Leaving the nest of home community can be tough with all the pressures of school and independent living, but home isn’t without its complications. Carpenter reflected on the way grief was not processed well in her community, how it led to substance use and pent up feelings.
“One thing I'm very open about is I'm still learning. Your life doesn't end at 30, which is told to us from society standards.”
Ultimately, Carpenter has decided to be a source of non-judgemental support for those in her circle, recognizing everyone needs to find their own path. She’s had to find her own way too, as an introvert leading programming. Carpenter sets aside time to recharge after engaging with her groups so she can exercise self-compassion.
“We strive for health and wellness, and we strive for positive change.”
Self-compassion is key to her worldview, and if she could say anything to her younger self it would be, “Blaming yourself is not healthy, and I think it impacted periods of my life that I wish I could go back to and just hug myself and be like, "It's okay. Stop holding everything in. Stop it. Be kind to yourself, and just know also that what you're feeling is going to pass."
That self-compassion helped Carpenter get through the pandemic, along with her routine as a mom, social media check-ins with her community, taking breaks from media as needed, and spending time outdoors. She gave herself room to be productive and unproductive as her energy required. As a new mom returning from maternity leave, she focuses on doing what she can and taking things day by day.
“It’s going to be amazing what the generation is doing now and generations after. They're leading the way now. They're not waiting until they're our age. They're doing it now. They're not waiting for something, and I think that's what I really admire, inspires me, and it reminds me to do that daily.”
Alyssa Carpenter is inspired by the youth she serves, but she’s also inspiring youth with her message of hope. She talks about the butterflies she gets thinking of the positive changes the youth in her community are making, all the while the work she does with youth helps prepare them to take flight.
Thanks to Alison Tedford for authoring this blog.
Future Pathways Fireside Chats are a project of TakingITGlobal's Connected North Program.
Funding is generously provided by the RBC Foundation in support of RBC Future Launch, and the Government of Canada's Supports for Student Learning program.