News and Articles

In Conversation with Kluane Adamek and Florence

October 1, 2014


  • Florence
  • Kluane Adamek, Jane Glassco Northern Fellowship, Walter and Duncan Gordon Foundation

Moderated by Matthew Bishop, The Economist


BISHOP: We’re going to kick off the afternoon with two emerging leaders, who are really doing some amazing work, as I’ve been learning about over lunch and who will share some of that with us as we go on.

I wanted to start off by asking them the same question with which I started the previous discussion, which is really to go back to Kim [Samuel]’s image of the well and being at the bottom of the well. So I’m asking each of them what image for them most sums up their feelings of greatest isolation, and when in their lives have they felt most isolated.

I’m going to start with you, Florence.

FLORENCE: Hello. I’m really happy to be here.

I’m Florence and the image of someone sitting at the bottom of the well of resonates a lot with me because I lived in a household that was very dysfunctional. My parents were really abusive and so was like anyone else who decided to pass through the house and give a bit of abuse on the way. So, you know, I wasn’t a very happy child at all and that kind of made life pretty difficult. And so I left when I was quite young. I was homeless and got picked up by the charity I now work for called Kids Company.

So, the main thing that I think about when I think about social isolation is the kind of knock-on effect of those kinds of experiences and how even though after you’re kind of out of that experience it, it still has kind of really bad detrimental effects on your level of like socialization — you know, the amount of friends that you kind of have.

At school I was quite, you know, I was really loud and like a clown all the time. But actually I didn’t really didn’t feel connected to anybody because no one really understood what was going on with me. I was up and down.

Sometimes I’d be really like sad and, you know, people would be like, “You’re so miserable. You know, what’s wrong with you?” And people really notice when sometimes you’re really loud and you’re really extroverted, and then other times you just literally can’t even bother to lift your feet off the floor. So that’s been a big struggle kind of, you know, since then. I still struggle sometimes with feeling connected to people and, you know, knowing how to like behave in certain social situations, and even when I started my first job, office politics — “what is that?” and “why did it happen?” I was not in a place, considering my background, where that was something that I could deal with. And I had no one to be like, “Oh, it’s just, adults are just crazy. They’re just kids again, you know, in older bodies. It’s fine. It’s not personal.” There was no one to say that.

I mean it was dress down at my workplace so I wore sandals and jeans and I got in loads of trouble for wearing flip-flops to work, and blah-blah-blah.

And I was just like, “Oh, just… that that’s not okay? Whatever. Fine. How was I supposed to know that?” And the whole nail polish thing, are you allowed to wear nail polish? And you know what happens. Just stupid little things like that just make you feel like you’re just an alien in a foreign land. And especially because on paper I’m supposed to be this really like intellectual student — I went to Oxford and I’ve got work experience and, you know, because I’m intelligent. Intellectually I’m emotionally intelligent and I can do math, and I can do anything, and I can walk to the moon.

People expect a lot and that is where my social isolation comes from because people don’t look at me and they don’t read about me and think that I’d be someone who would struggle with feeling connected to people and kind of, you know.

I don’t [CHUCKLES] look like somebody you should warrant that kind of response. But actually I do find social things really difficult.

I constantly test my friends all the time because I always think they don’t care because, you know, that’s what I’ve grown up knowing. And it’s really difficult for me to have kind of relationships like that.

And because I work at Kids Company I see lots of kids who are like me, like and it is really hard for them, especially in this day and age of kind of social media. I mean that was kind of about when I was younger.

I’m only 25. I say this like I’m 100 but anyway [CHUCKLES] it was just… about coming out. But, the kids, they just get so upset like at, you know, they have a 1,500 Facebook friends but actually don’t have any real relationships. And I feel like these fake relationships just kind of make that much worse and make you feel even more kind of isolated. So that’s my spiel —

BISHOP: Well, we’ll come back and talk about that a bit more. Kluane, you lived or grew up in this 80-person community in the Yukon, which in some ways would strike most people as about as isolated as you could get. I mean did it feel-, is that where you associate your emotions of isolation with or do they come from somewhere else?

ADAMEK: I think it’s interesting because we were having this great chat at lunchtime and, and I do come from a, a quite a small community in, in the north.

Has anyone — I know I’ve got a Yukoner here, which is really awesome to see Owen, I know he’s going to be speaking later. But the Yukon is, is quite a small place, in fact. The territory itself has about 34,000 people, a number of small rural communities, Burwash Landing, Kluane First Nation, which is population 80, like eight-zero It’s very small and of course everyone there is my cousin, which growing up is really great but when you turn 13 and you want to have a crush on someone it doesn’t really happen.


And so [CHUCKLES], but so Burwash Landing, when we think about isolation it’s certainly we think about, “Oh, well, people who live in small communities, or rural communities, or in the north must be isolated.”

In many cases I think in our indigenous communities across Canada that a lot of the time that’s not necessarily the case. In fact, people feel so connected to their community that’s why they don’t want to move to an urban center. And —

BISHOP: So what for you does epitomize isolation, social isolation in the sense of the well?

ADAMEK: I think Florence talked a little bit about the pieces, feeling connected, right, and having things be about the relationships that we have with people.

I think that probably the most important part is how we relate, how we’re connected to people, the relationships that we build with one another. I think above all are, are how we do feel good. You know, we feel cared for. We feel that people can listen to us. We feel like we’re able to share and trust. I think those are the, the major pieces about feeling… not feeling isolated.

And so I think it’s interesting to hear Florence’s pieces and certainly, you know, feeling like I related some, in some ways to that. But I think even more so and, you know, Ovide [Mercredi] spoke a little bit about that, just the cultural piece of being so, so very important to have the ability to connect, and to learn, and to share, and to grow culturally is so important. Especially speaking from a Northern perspective but also Northern indigenous perspective that that is so important to me very personally about feeling connected.

And when we think about, you know, that isolation piece, absolutely because people are rural there are occasions where you might feel a little more isolated.

But it’s not a geographical piece. It’s in fact that emotional, spiritual component I think that quite often we leave out of the conversation and it being about creating more of the mental capacity, those pieces that we put at the forefront. And so I think and I feel that we really need to get back to some of those interpersonal connections. These conversations that we had this morning at our table where it’s great to see young people, myself included, [via] Facebook, Twitter, all those pieces are important and they create an opportunity for us, but at the same time there has been this disconnect. Thinking about having to knock on someone’s door, right, to go see how they’re doing as opposed to — which I do in my community all the time, which I think is probably why people feel more connected. Because my community just got 3G last week, which is a really big deal in the Yukon, by the way.

On the flip side that does create an opportunity for us to be able to have access to our language app for young people to be able to, to, to share their thoughts and their ideas —

BISHOP: Do both of you feel that social media is a positive in terms of addressing isolation or do you feel it’s more of a negative transition?

ADAMEK: I think that we can use it in the ways that are going to be [positive]. If we can use it in a way that is going to be best for us I think that it’s awesome. So I think that at Burwash Landing my cousins are, you know, posting in Instagram and my First Nation has a, has an Instagram and a Twitter account, which is great, right. But if that’s the only way that our young people are connecting — .

BISHOP: And it’s great because…

ADAMEK: It’s great because they’re sharing, they’re learning, they want to share pictures, they want to share how they’re feeling. “It’s so cold it snowed and snowed in the Yukon yesterday,” and they want to share pictures with the rest of community.

So you don’t need the National Geographic to come down and photograph everybody and preserve the history. It’s being done spontaneously and…

ADAMEK: Right. Exactly. But in the same lens it’s so important for them to be able to go and hang out with each other and not just post their pictures all the time. So I feel like there’s this interesting piece where we really need to use social media but in, in a way that’s ensuring that it supports the personal relationships that we already have and should have with each other.

BISHOP: And Florence, I mean you mentioned the pressure of social media. Do you view it as a positive or a negative or… what?

FLORENCE: There’s two sides to every story. And like I do agree completely that sharing things makes socializing kind of easier if that’s what your intention is. But I think for young people these days it’s just too early. It’s just way too early for all of that kind of thing – you know, Facebook and two year olds using iPads.

We have no idea — well, you know, we have some idea it’s not good…


….what the effects of that is long-term. And, you know, we’ve got all these kids running around like, you know, you watch them interact. I’ve seen kids interact and their interaction is, “I’m looking at my phone and you’re looking [CHUCKLES] at your phone. We may post on the same thing and be like, ‘Oh, look what I saw on my mini feed. Like, did you see that? Yes, I also saw that,’” and that is kind of the only interaction. The phone’s always there, the technology is kind of always there.

And I just… I don’t know. I feel like when the kids when they get older, or when I actually sit back and think, “Actually, no. I haven’t seen anyone for a while. I just think I have because it’s on my phone and my iPad.” And I kind of caught myself coming home from work and I always, I always switch the TV. Always, always, always just because I want to hear someone’s voice in the background. It just gives me this kind of illusion, this subconscious feeling, “Oh, I’m with people. I’m connected.”

And it kind of, it is a crushing realization that, “Actually no, that there, there’s no human here, Florence. You’re on your own. Hello?”

I feel like kids will one day kind of realize that. If they don’t realize that then they’ll be sad and they’ll feel like a part of them is missing and they won’t understand why. I mean there’re a lot of people who are depressed or upset and they don’t get why it is that they feel that way, why they feel so bad.

I’m a neuroscientist and I did psychology at university. You need human interaction. You need physical touch. You need, you need all those things to develop your brain. Your brain doesn’t wire properly if you don’t have those things. And I think that kids, they’re like really being deprived of that because of this kind of, this social media. And it’s, it’s dangerous as well, you know, people posting, kids feel isolated because their friends are like, “Oh, look, I saw this,” that, you know, one picture gets out, it’s kind of the end of your like social life that you’ve created anyway. It’s just, you know, I think there needs to be more kinds of precautions…

BISHOP: Yeah, I must say I’m sure the older people here must feel a tremendous sense of relief as I do that there was no one recording my teenage moments on a phone or anything like that.

But anyway that’s another story, one for the bar later maybe.

So tell us a bit about Kids Company where you work now and what the mission is there because you were both someone it helped originally and you now work for it. Just quickly what’s the mission and how does it work?

FLORENCE: So Kids Company is a charity in London that supports — well, we’re in Bristol now and going to be in Liverpool. It supports disadvantaged kids, young people, and vulnerable adults. So in a nutshell our model is, “You guys have dysfunctional parents or don’t have any parents so we’re gonna be your parents.” So if kids have a parents’ evening at school then their key worker who’s the person, the adult assigned to them will go to their parents’ evening. If they need to go to court the key worker will go to court with them. If they need food we’ll get them meals, if they need housing, just kind of anything you think, you know, your parents would do or you’ve seen your friends’ parents do for them we do for our kids.

We’re available like 24 hours a day. And as I was talking about before, the, you know, abuse and neglect, especially neglect, means that part of some of our kids’ brains are missing. We’ve scanned them and everything, they’re just completely missing, they’re just not there, or they don’t work properly.

So the things that we do and the reason why we put so much effort into it and work 24 hours is that it takes a long, long time and a lot of love, a lot of care, a lot of attention, but those pathways can be formed like kind of later on in life. It’s just more expensive for the brain in terms of energy. And you do need continued, continuous love, care, and support. Like I mean it takes years but, you know, it’s it’s possible.

BISHOP: Kluane, now you have recently convened a group of emerging leaders from across the north. Tell us what was the reason you did that and how did that relate to isolation and connectedness?

ADAMEK: It was mentioned in, in the Yukon, so in northern territory in Canada, we have many rural communities. And a lot of our students, for example, myself included, when, when high school begins in grade eight many of our schools only have elementary school until grade eight, so at which point you have to actually move to Whitehorse to finish high school. And so this happens in I think about eight to nine communities move in, have to move into Whitehorse. And so they created a, a dormitory in Whitehorse for these students, and so recognizing that there’s so many challenges that, that come with that. The other challenge is that the dorm, the dormitory won’t take students until they’re in grade ten. So there’s this kind of two-year gap where, you know, families have to either move entirely, which really, you know, has a lot of negative impacts on the community as a whole, and then come up with alternative solutions to whether it’s boarding or staying with family. So it, it really can be quite, quite challenging.

At this dormitory is for grades, for students grade ten to twelve. A lot of those students have never lived outside of their community, or I met students who had never been to Whitehorse before and that, you know, that’s not, that’s something that’s very common. And so we recognized, as a few of us who are students who have undergone that transition, that there really was no support culturally as well in Whitehorse. Everything shifts from where kids are growing up in, you know, dance groups, going to language classes to going to high school where there’s absolutely none of that. There have certainly been changes now since I’ve been in high school but when I was there that was the reality and it was really, really hard. So we made this program called the Student Mentorship Program, SMP, and there’s a video link that maybe I’ll share with the organizers and they can share with you. But really it was based very simply on this big brother/big sister model where we partnered students who had undergone this transition with students who were just coming in and we had a ton of different activities focusing on academic, social, helping these young students learn to just, you know, go up to somebody else and start a conversation in a class, practice that kind of stuff because, it was really hard, right, when you’re transitioning in grade ten especially.

There were challenges of not being able to make sports teams because a lot of these kids had missed the early stages of coaching. So there was a lot of pieces. And then certainly the cultural one being one of the most important where we really try to make sure we had, we have nine different languages in the Yukon and so quite diverse, nine different nations of people where we had to make sure that we were offering, you know, programming that would enable all those students to feel connected.

So that was the neat part in terms of overcoming that, that isolation piece where we created an environment to the best of our ability that would allow these students to, to be successful, right, to just finish high school as being something that we could them get towards. And then to really look forwards.

BISHOP: Do you feel those things you talk about, I mean seem like small but significant details like sports training and so forth, I mean how much did that contribute to failure in terms making it through high school and so forth? Are those the sort of things that really actually have a disproportionate impact in your view?

ADAMEK: Well, I think that generally we look at all students that after grade ten if the student drops out the likelihood of them going back to school is just probably not going to happen, right, unless they choose an alternative whether it’s a GED or go to college later on.

And so I think that absolutely those pieces were critical. It’s the interpersonal skills and connections such as we talk about social media. Sometimes these students just needed to know that there was somebody else just like them or that they had the opportunity to connect to talk about: “Oh, I’m from Old Crow. You know, we do it like this,” and, “Teslin, oh, really, we do it like this.” Those opportunities to even talk about how people skin moose really is a real conversation that some of these students are having…

BISHOP: And you’re going to do a demonstration for us later.

FLORENCE: Yes. Show, show them the picture. She has a picture.

ADAMEK: Oh, the picture.

BISHOP: But lastly on theconvening of all the different emerging leaders, I mean what came after that?

ADAMEK: It was actually in August. So a lot of the other regions across Canada, in terms of First Nations youth have like councils: regional youth councils. And so in the Yukon we just, we haven’t, for some reason or another we just haven’t really got ourselves together to do that. So we have this gathering called Our Voices and it basically was a Yukon First Nations emerging youth and leaders gathering that brought together young people from all over the Yukon, all the different 14 First Nations.

We had I think 150 at the end of the day registered, which for, for our community that quite a lot of people. So we had young people and the ages were really broad. We had 14 to 30 so we really had to be creative in the programming and the activities that we did. But it was just so incredible to have so many young people be there. And then we had some older leaders as well, between 30 and 40, so really not that old, to help guide and create some mentorship where we focused on talking about their history, talking about our cultures, talking about our languages, to having drumming, and singing. And it was just really an opportunity to gather to talk about who we are, what we see in the future, and to be able to have our leaders, our former leaders join us as well, which was really, really great.

So really just creating a different conversation as opposed to, you know, looking at decision makers in our community. We wanted to include young people. This is actually an opportunity for us as young people to include the decision makers. So that was incredible. And the connections that were made there have kind of just built this amazing momentum in the Yukon where we’re going to be a gathering again in a few weeks to talk about the follow up. And the next gathering that’s gonna be planned for August of 2015. So it’s already started and then young people, they’re calling it Tradish Tuesday where they’re doing like traditional whether it’s eating, or whether it’s singing, or drumming, or dancing, or whether it’s going out and setting fishnets where they’re doing Tradish Tuesday. And there’s a hashtag so it’s pretty cool.

BISHOP: Florence, you talk about, you made the comment about how you’ve scanned the brains of some of the kids. I mean you are doing neuroscience now and you’re working on a PhD at the same time as you’re working at Kids Company.

FLORENCE: I haven’t started yet.

BISHOP: Yeah, well, you’re about to. But tell us about, what have you learned about these kids that you’re working with through this neuroscience approach? Are there things that are showing up that relate to this topic of isolation in particular?

FLORENCE: Yes, because my PhD topic is kind of on that. So a lot of what we’ve learned in psychology and neuroscience is that social support is extremely important when it comes to any kind of trauma. If you have social support it’s less likely that you’ll face mental health issues, or physical health issues. You’re more likely…

BISHOP: Give us an example.

FLORENCE: …. if you’ve been sexually abused as a child if you have people that you can go to, so like your key worker at Kids Company, or an auntie, or an uncle, someone who you trust who is loving and kind of cares for you it’s less likely that you’ll become kind of depressed in the future and self harm. So those two disorders are very kind of correlated with sexual abuse specifically. So social support acts as a kind of buffer to prevent against developing those mental health issues and other health issues as well.

So social isolation is like Kim was saying: it’s not always a result. It’s sometimes a cause.

And as well as that it’s, it plays into this vicious cycle that because you’ve been abused you find it difficult to relate to other people, you find it difficult to interact with people especially if you’ve been neglected.

And then, you know, you’re socially isolated, which makes all of that kind of worse and then you’re, you’re more likely to have a mental health issue. And then if it’s depression or anxiety we all know that that gets worse the more isolated that you are. And it’s just, it’s really bad to kind of, you know, knock-on effect of an early trauma of that could have kind of been lessened if the person wasn’t so socially isolated. So the thing that we’ve learned is that these things aren’t just sort of “pop psychology.” It’s actually wiring in the brain, the parts of the brain that usually light up in social situations don’t light up in these kids brains so they actually don’t the same pleasure and reward sometimes that we would get from social interaction. So as much as people try here and there to [be supportive, saying] “Oh, I’ve tried to be really nice to this person,” they actually need to learn how to appreciate that, and they need to learn how important that is. So, you know

BISHOP: And you’re now working on this video gaming idea to actually try and teach people…


BISHOP: …through game playing.

FLORENCE: Yes, exactly. So my specific project is, is kind of looking at how you can take a kid who’s been neglected or abused, when you take them out of their bad situation that doesn’t fix everything. They, again like I said, find it difficult to interact with people.

And, you know, a lot of people think that they’re ungrateful. “You’re in a better situation now. You should be grateful for all the things that you have and just kind of get on with it.” But, but actually they don’t have the correct wiring that means that they can do that. So my PhD kind of is looking at just one little part of that, which is hostility.

Because a lot of kids who have been abused are quite hostile like, you know, rightly so because everybody’s been mean to you then it’s more likely that the new person’s going to be mean to you. So if they step on your foot it’s on purpose, or if somebody bumps into you it’s on purpose, or if somebody’s laughing just 500 miles away [CHUCKLES] it’s because of you.

You know, I’m laughing about this because I’ve been through it myself, like, “Why is that person who doesn’t know me and has never met me before laughing specifically at me even though they’re not even looking at me?” It’s just a kind of a thing you tell yourself so it makes you quite a hostile person, which again leads to more social isolation because nobody wants to be friends with someone who’s really paranoid and hostile all the time.

So my PhD is looking at changing that and retraining the kids’ brains. I actually want to scan them and show that the parts of their brains that should kind of light up and be like, “No, that’s fine. You know, that person’s not laughing at me,” or, “You know, this person is just clumsy. That’s why they bumped into me,” that kind of front part of your brain. The best way to describe it is the difference between bratty teenagers and adults. That’s the part of your brain that gives you that transition that these, these kids don’t have that so they’re just kind of like always like, “Oh, everyone’s against me.”

So I want show that before they’ve done my intervention that that part of their brain doesn’t really work very well, and then afterwards it works a bit better. Just evidence on a neuroscientific level.

BISHOP: Great. Well look, we’re almost out of time. You were giving me beforehand this purple ribbon for the campaign against violence. Can you just talk briefly about what that means to you and why you’re involved with that?

ADAMEK: Sure. Yeah. I was just recently in PEI and they were giving them out, which I think is, is happening, you know, across the country in terms of creating awareness to the amount of missing and murdered indigenous women in Canada.

So there is this movement, the purple ribbon campaign against violence. And so I had some spares, and I apologize I don’t have one for everyone but I’m sure maybe we can make our own purple ribbons and maybe make a donation. But you can, you can go onto the website, There’s a lot of information there. There’s been several calls for a public national inquiry and I think that’s important but there’re other things that every one of us can do with creating with awareness, deepening understanding of this crisis situation, I think, that exists in Canada.

And so this purple ribbon campaign is an incredible movement and I, I encourage I think each and every one of you to start to look at that October 4th there’ll be vigils across, across Canada here. But certainly as you go back to wherever you’ve come from maybe just, you know, take some time on that day to, to look into this and to really deepen your understanding. Because a lot of those women are young people, right, and that’s so devastating for our community.

BISHOP: Is there’s one thing you’d like to leave or request to this group what they should be thinking about or how they could help you in your work?

ADAMEK: I think it’s that when we talk about that whole kind of seeing each other andreally understanding each other, this is a great opportunity to really start having more of those conversations. You know, speaking specifically here in Canada …. Ovide [Mercredi] certainly identified a lot of really key pieces of that this morning. But really I think it’s an opportunity for us to start looking at what true reconciliation means, how each one of us can be a part of that. It’s an opportunity really to start talking about and having some of those uncomfortable conversations so that we can work on key pieces, you know, what makes people feel isolated and how do we create more supportive mechanisms.

But the really important thing and, I think, that’s so important to note is that it’s not a matter of us coming up with solutions ourselves. I think we all have great ideas and suggestions but in a lot of cases it’s really supporting all of the other things that are currently taking place, whether it’s supporting the emerging leaders gathering in the north, whether it’s supporting all of our athletes. And I know we’re going to hear from some of our athletes tonight, whether it’s, it’s looking at community solutions that have been innovative, or whether it’s supporting young people who are doing, you know, really, really great work academically but who need to be supported. I think it’s about all of those things.


ADAMEK: And then together we will have some common solutions as well.

BISHOP: Great. And in a sentence, I know our time is very short, what’s the one thing this room could do to help the area you’re focused on?

FLORENCE: Just more kind of understanding for people and the way they behave and just to kind of realize that is not a kind of, “Oh, this person has a sob story and they need some therapy and they can’t just get over it.” Their brains are actually physically different and they actually can’t do certain things or behave in a certain way. So it kind of, I think compassion is a big thing.

And a lot of our young people feel very disconnected like I said when I felt at work like an alien walking in a foreign land amongst people who should be more open towards them and more embracing. Which is not to say that if somebody steals your purse kind of say, “Oh, take it,” and give them a hug. That’s not what I’m saying. At Kids Company we’re very firm in terms of, “You’ve done something wrong. You cannot do that, but then we, we still love you anyway.” That is the narrative that we have.

And, you know, Kids Company…. or Google it if anybody who wants to kind of volunteer or like donate some time, or money, resources. That’s what we’re all about: making these kids feel like even though they’ve had a tough time when they’ve been growing up that, to show them that that is a tough time and that’s not normal, and people can love you, people can care about you, and you can be part of mainstream society in a positive way. That kind of message completely just turns people’s lives around.

BISHOP: And on that very, on that very upbeat note thank you very much both of you. Thank you.