Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Tim Fitzgerald

The End Times of YRUU -- April 22nd, 2005

Philocrites, RadicalHapa and Steve Caldwell have all posted regarding
the most recent steps taken by the Sinkford Administration of the
Unitarian Universalist Association to (as I see it) effectively
disembowel the UUA's empowering youth ministry, YRUU. I'm not sure how
often I will get into UUA politics on this blog, but this seems like
as good a time as any to weigh in. Previously I have co-written an
article in Synapse, the sometimes-published journal of YRUU, and
commented over at Philocrites. I recognize that this is a little
lengthy, but I haven't seen anyone write a subjective summary of these
events, so if you haven't been kept up to date or don't know much
about YRUU, this is kind of written with you in mind.

For those who are unfamiliar with YRUU, it's the youth movement in
which I was a local, district, and continental leader for 6 years,
ending last June. Over the past two years, YRUU has experienced a
great deal of change, driven from the inside by youth leaders, and has
become increasingly politically radical and has pushed the UUA to put
its money where its mouth is in more and more direct ways. The
reaction from the UUA's President, Rev. William Sinkford, has been to
take more and more drastic steps in violation of the UUA's covenant to
support and empower YRUU. YRUU is an organization that is accountable
to actual communities of Unitarian Universalist youth -- which elect
representatives to a continental Youth Council -- but President
Sinkford wants the UUA's resources to be distributed to congregations
at a local level, and not to serve a continentally-centered
organization like YRUU.

The process that the UUA has engaged in to reach Sinkford's vision for
youth ministry has been personally painful to observe, because I loved
YRUU and invested my whole self in it. I was co-Dean of ConCon 2003,
so the recent decision to cancel it was hard to swallow, and although
I agree with the justifications for doing so, the fact that it was
done by the Youth Office -- and not by the YRUU Steering Committee --
represented a decision with huge political consequences, and probably
played into the administration's broader plan.

It's also been ideologically painful, because I believe that youth
minister to themselves best, and I believe that most congregations
lack the motivation and training to seriously minister to (i.e.,
empower) youth. The role of adults in YRUU is something that has
blurred over time, but this is due to no failure of YRUU, but rather a
lack of dialogue in adult communities about youth empowerment. The UUA
leadership has done nothing to address the ageism that affects so many
relationships between youth and adults so negatively, in the world and
in our denomination. And I fear that they have done little to address
ageism within themselves, as well, because if they had, I feel they
would better understand that the role of adults is not to implement,
design, or run youth groups or youth ministry programs. The safe space
that YRUU was for me and for my peers depended on our advisors who
knew how to empower and mentor us without oppressing us or abandoning
us. I believe that if adults on the congregational level did not
systematially fail to support and empower youth, YRUU would function
and could serve all UU youth. So, the idea of adults dismantling YRUU
-- a structure built, maintained, and designed by the collective
vision of 20 years of youth community, and by the legacy of LRY before
it -- with the goal of better ministering to youth is, to me, not just
oppressive and shortsighted, but deeply disappointing and in violation
of the UU principles that have always seemed to me to be foundational
to the idea of youth empowerment.

Finally, this chain of events has been politically difficult for me as
a one-time player in the continental UUA political arena -- a venue in
which the ideas of youth disempowerment and adult control are
currently winning. From 2003 to 2004, I was the elected Youth Observer
to the UUA Board of Trustees, and as the token agitator on issues of
youth empowerment, I came to an understanding of a Board of Trustees
that, while very spiritually and intellectually devoted to their idea
of the UUA and a great group of leaders, nevertheless lacks the
motivation to tackle issues of constituency accountability and which
has been more than happy to disempower youth when it suits their

What I didn't gain as much of an understanding of is Rev. Sinkford
himself -- he is a very private and reserved person. But I campaigned
for him when he ran for President -- the youth community largely
endorsed him and had a major role in his victory -- and I have always
felt that he has served the Association with a reverent spirit and a
level head. Recent events, however, have changed my opinion of his
priorities and ability to help design youth ministry without causing
much more harm than good.

Rev. Sinkford has spent the past three years pushing for a major
revisioning of YRUU -- selling it first to the UUA Board of Trustees
and then later to YRUU. But from the moment I joined the BoT, it was
clear that Bill's "Common Ground III" wasn't just a suggestion or
something that he expected to raise to YRUU, it was something he was
more or less promising the BoT was going to happen. He spoke about it
in terms of how his plans were coming along, and not in terms of how
dialogue was being engaged in to figure out what plans should be set.
This made me nervous, and it took me until the end of my time on the
Board to really figure out why.

General Assembly 2004 marked the end of my 1-year term as Youth
Observer. At that GA, Rev. Sinkford met with representatives of the
YRUU Steering Committee, and the meeting resulted in a plan to
structure a conversation around how to move forward with Common Ground
III. After the meeting, several members of Steering Committee who had
been present expressed to me their concern about the way the meeting
had gone. They felt intimidated by the presence of their
denominational leader -- they felt silenced by the way that he engaged
them, apparently oblivious to the power dynamic between a group of
youth leaders and the spiritual and political (and adult) head of
their denomination. And they felt unsure about the result, and whether
it was something they really wanted to happen. YRUU has been aware of
its need to change for years and has taken steps independantly to
revision itself; it's not like Steering Committee didn't go into that
meeting interested in working with Bill. But it sounded to me that
Bill was proceeding with his plan, not with an actively empowering

The meeting at GA was intended, as far as I could tell, to get
Steering Committee on board for a Common Ground III resolution that
Bill got them to draft and submit to Youth Council last August. Youth
Council did not pass the resolution; it seems, in retrospect, that
this was the point at which Bill mostly gave up pretenses of being
accountable to this structure. Bill had made a plan, had told the
Board of Trustees it was moving along well before he had any kind of
accountable youth support, and now the youth had sent him back to the
drawing board. I just don't think he was going to have it.

Since then, at least two (?) meetings have taken place between Bill
and various groups of adults and youth, and although I haven't been
invited -- which is also something that makes me wonder, given my
involvement up to this point and the opinions I have chosen to voice
-- I don't know any youth at all who are particularly excited about
the process. There are always way too many adults, and there is a
definite effort made by Rev. Sinkford to make sure that the youth he
invites are mostly youth that are completely divorced from YRUU and
the UUA's youth communities. By and large, these are youth that have
been prevented by adults in their congregations, not by other youth,
from participating in YRUU. These youth aren't neccessarily empowered
voices and have no sense of the youth culture that the UUA has
cultivated through the much-better-suited-for-youth-ministry YRUU.

Finally, things have come to a head. After eliminating one of the
three YRUU Program Specialist positions about a year ago, ostensibly
due to budget cuts, in January Rev. Sinkford re-added the position to
the UUA's staff roster -- except now it's not a YRUU Program
Specialist, it's a Youth Ministry Specialist, and YRUU Steering
Committee -- the only qualified, accountable body of youth leaders --
has no role in recommending this person, and they are not required to
answer to Steering Committee at any level. At the time, it didn't seem
-- to me -- like a catastrophe, it felt like a compromise. Bill gets
someone to focus on the congregations -- which, you know, would
actually be sweet in a way; no one is arguing against that idea -- and
the other two YPSes get to tend to the business of YRUU.

But now the axe has dropped, and we can get a sense of where this has
all been heading. YRUU Steering Committee, citing issues with the
Youth Office, made the very questionable decision to request that the
Youth Office staff leave their meeting space during their election of
what was to become the new September YPS. This did violate right
relationship, but it's not like the UUA and Bill haven't been
violating right relationship with every act that has displayed their
willingness to disempower youth and undermine their accountable
leaderships' ability to exercise their vision for YRUU and its
effective ministry. But regardless, like a prisoner who is taunted and
then thrown into solitary when ze finally snaps at zis guards, YRUU
has basically been eviscerated by Sinkford's April 11th letter to YRUU
Steering Committee, which explains that "business as usual can no
longer proceed" and that from now on, the UUA will hire only Youth
Ministry Consultants and not YRUU Program Specialists.

So, I guess you could say that the End is Near. YRUU has one YPS left
and he will be the last. At that point, the Youth Office -- created as
a compromise between the leaders of LRY and the UUA when LRY traded
its financial independance for denominational support -- will no
longer be accountable to anyone but the UUA, and will begin to serve
exactly whom Bill Sinkford has hoped and dreamed it would:
congregations -- or, more accurately, adults who run congregations and
who lack the ability, motivation, and drive to minister to youth, who
should be ministering to themselves. No doubt the name of the Office
will change, too -- if it doesn't it will be a slap in the face to all
who remember the days when the left side of the 5th floor at 42 Mt.
Vernon Street really did belong to Youth.

I want to hold up my personal respect for all of the people whose
actions I have criticized in this post. I know that we are all
dedicated to the larger UU community and to maintaining right
relationship. But I deeply believe that the steps being taken
represent a fundamental failure to do the soul work that must be done
before engaging in any identity-based ministry, and it is deeply
painful for me to experience this being done to -- more than happening
within -- a community that I just bridged out of and that many of my
friends and personal allies are still hugely invested in. It is also
very painful to experience the large-scale silencing that I have felt
as a youth -- now young adult -- voice in this conversation. It is
very difficult in the UUA to be heard if you disagree with those in
charge, and that is very unfortunate. Not that I expect it to
accomplish much, but for whatever it's worth, I have got to use my
voice as a young adult ally to call upon Rev. Sinkford to restore the
YPS positions to Steering Committee's control, re-dedicate himself to
opposing ageism within himself and within the UUA's congregations and
governing institutions, and to call a moratorium on all unaccountable
and disempowering actions taken by adult leaders in the name of the
youth they care about.

No comments: