Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Eric Swanson

I was trying to keep this brief, but I'll settle for shorter-than-a-novel length.

I'm a long-time adult advisor on many levels, and as a youth I was a delegate to Common Ground 2. My resume overlaps with those from previous posters Matt, Tim, Betty Jeanne, Sara, and others. 'Nuff said on that front.

First I want to talk about history, and what it felt like to be part of the birth of YRUU. When I arrived at Common Ground 2 in Maine, I was a 15-year-old who had never known LRY. My colleagues there were a mix of folks from districts where LRY had stayed functional and reasonably sane (like my current home district, PCD), districts where LRY had collapsed or been shut down and something new had been started already (like my district at the time, PNWD), and districts where LRY was failed or failing and nothing was starting yet. This led to hugely diverse discussions -- there was a lot of really thoughtful talk about which parts of LRY constituted baby and which constituted bathwater. As someone who didn't know much UU history, I got a massive lesson in a big hurry at CG2.

But the "common ground" we all really shared there was that we had all arrived knowing our job was to start something new. We had the representation to do the job credibly, we had the authority to act in a binding way, and we had the shared/overlapping/distinct goals of all the delegates present, from long-time LRY veterans to folks like me who had experienced a glimpse of something new.

This sense of what ground we actually hold in common seems to me to be missing from the current process. While the summit and its related process have solicited input from many quarters over the past couple years, the actual authority to act has been held in the UUA's back pocket.

For that matter, the entire process of the Consultation on Ministry to and with Youth has been proceeding on (what appeared to me to be) predetermined lines. Some of the earliest documents during formation of the Consultation process referred to exactly the goals that are now claimed as the result of the process -- notably that a congregation-based approach will be the emphasis.

Rather than "common ground," this feels to me like "designated ground" -- I feel that the Consultation staked out a patch of ground based on its initial biases, which has biased who came to the ground to talk, which of course biased the final result.

This brings me to my next point: In the years since CG2 I have worked constantly as, with, and near UU youth in various settings. And one thing I know for sure about adolescents (especially early adolescents) is that they need to place themselves in a context of something larger than a typical church youth group -- larger even than a phenomenally huge local church youth group. As 11- to 14-year-olds pull their identity strings loose from their parents, they have their first opportunity to form an identity as part of something big, something that transcends the scale of their family-centered life experience. I have seen YRUUers become lifelong UUs in a matter of hours or days when they realize that they can exercise their power on the world stage in a way that is significant by getting together with others of like mind.

My experiences in this area have led me to the firm belief that focusing on local youth programming at the expense of district and continental youth programming is simply a wrong choice -- that the sense of a larger community is a core need of youth in this age range. I fear the cost to the UU movement of this misguided decision.

This leads me to my final point: We have been here before. During the 1990s when Continental YRUU shortened its age range, Youth Council (and other bodies) cited the idea that YRUU's long age range was stifling development of other programming for early adolescents and young adults, and that cutting off the age range would stimulate growth of new programs. In fact, no such thing happened. Young adult programs had only a slight increase in younger membership, and early adolescent programs have remained entirely absent at the continental level and terribly limited in districts. The theory that a program vacuum creates programs has in my view been entirely debunked by this history.

What creates programs, of course, is people working on creating programs. Whether it is by soliciting a massive volunteer effort or funding paid staff positions, forming something new takes lots of work. And it doesn't happen overnight. Of all the problems with the UUA's decision, this is perhaps the most troubling -- we are being told "not here, not this way," but there's no "over there, try that thing" yet. I'm struck by the parallel with what we get when young adult "bridging" doesn't work -- I call it "cliffing," which paints a word picture I'm sure will be familiar to some.

And so I complete the circle: CG2 was an event for youth creating youth programs. As nearly as I can tell, the UUA administration has no plan to give youth the power to do any such thing as part of the current UUA. If I could convince myself that we were seeing an act of creation here, I'd sigh deeply and get on board. But all I can see right now is destruction.

Eric Swanson, SF Bay Area

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