Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Tim Fitzgerald and Heather Vail - Fall 2004

Is it Time for Another Common Ground?
Why Young Relgious Unitarian Universalism Must Change or Die

by Tim Fitzgerald and Heather Vail
Fall 2004

Note: This is an extended version of a shorter article appearing in the print version of Synapse!

Recently, many youth and adults have recognized a need for a re-evaluation of Young Religious Unitarian Universalism (YRUU), raising concerns about YRUU's accessibility and ability to meet the needs of UU youth locally, in districts/regions, and continentally. In 2003, leaders within YRUU organized a Long Range Planning meeting, and a group of youth and adults from across the continent came to Boston to consider the future of YRUU. Unfortunately, the conference received little institutional support. Because money promised by the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) for reform never materialized, YRUU found itself cutting back on staff and structure rather than strengthening it. Since then, adult leaders in the UUA, including UUA President Bill Sinkford, have pushed YRUU to address some of its issues, calling for a new Common Ground conference. The first two Common Grounds occurred in the early 80's and served to disband and reorganize the UUA's previous youth program, the more independent, more risky Liberal Religious Youth (LRY), and create YRUU. The proposition on the table now is for a Common Ground III.

Originally, we intended the focus of this article to be solely on Common Ground III and the repercussions of Youth Council's recent decision (YC '04) to not pass the resolution that would lay its groundwork. After a lot of discussion, though, we've decided to focus here on the larger institutional issues behind the need for reform. We do this in the interest of starting a dialogue within YRUU about its problems and about how we, as youth, can take responsibility for them. We see this as vital not only for the long-term success of YRUU, but also so that we can enter future dialogue with the adults of the UUA on a solid footing to articulate our needs, including those of the youth to whom we currently need to be more accountable. YRUU's leadership must recognize, and take responsibility for, its institutional failings before the UUA Board of Trustees decides that it has no choice but to impose something as drastic and potentially disempowering as a Common Ground.

We see the role of adults in this process as one of advising and facilitation, not unlike the relationship that we expect all adults in our communities to maintain with youth. What we believe is that YRUU, on all three levels, needs some drastic re-visioning work, but that it is the responsibility of youth, and not adults, to call for and design this process. We feel that this internal re-evaluation needs to happen before any alliance with the UUA's adult leadership can yield progress that both addresses YRUU's institutional concerns and upholds youth empowerment. All UU adults can help this process by working to restore a sense of youth empowerment to the intergenerational UU community. Necessarily, a sizable component of this process will involve a dedicated and conscious focus on the part of the adult leadership of the UUA to actively promote and demonstrate a commitment to anti-ageism.

What, then, are the problems with YRUU? Here are some issues that we see, and that others have raised during conversations we have had about Common Ground:

There is a lack of transparency in, and accessibility to, continental YRUU structures, decision-making, and culture, affecting youth at the local and district levels. The only link between the continental and district levels of YRUU are each districts' Youth Council Representatives (YCRs), who hold the responsibility to bring continental culture, resources, and politics down to district level communities. Over time, YCRs have become increasingly complacent about the historical lack of success those holding the position have had in completing that duty. The link between district-level YRUU and local youth groups is similarly weak. Top-down communication between district leaders and local youth groups is often blocked by wary adults in congregations unclear on their proper roles as intermediaries. District programming tends to revolve around conference communities that exist for their own sake, rather than as assemblies of representatives of local youth groups. Therefore, members of these conferences communities are increasingly less likely to be active in their local youth groups. As a result of these circumstances, local youth groups are often oblivious to the existence of district-level YRUU activities and thus can not receive support from their districts, or continental YRUU via their districts. This broken chain prevents YRUU processes from being accountable to most of the association's youth.

There is a lack of transparency in, and accessibility to, continental, district, and local YRUU structures, decision-making, and culture, affecting low-income youth, Youth of Color, disabled youth, and transgender/genderqueer youth. As part of continental YRUU's struggle around anti-racism and anti-oppression work, the topic has been raised of how inaccessible expensive continental conferences, such as General Assembly, Continental Conference (Con Con), and the YRUU Social Justice Conference, are to working and low-income youth. Additionally, racism, transphobia, and ableism affect Youth of Color, genderqueer and handicapped youth throughout all levels of YRUU—problems that YRUU inherits from the outside world in which it exists and in which all of its participants live. These are crucial issues, and although they are being actively addressed in the small and exclusive continental YRUU community, our commitment to these struggles must be re-affirmed and maintained in the larger population of Unitarian Universalist (UU) youth. Developing efforts to spread anti-oppression ideas to districts and local youth groups are a step in the right direction.

At the same time, on the continental level, emphasis on anti-racism experience as a pre-requisite for leadership has reduced the leadership pool to a select group of youth who have already been assisted in constructing a strong anti-racism analysis. Although local-level programming is being implemented to inform youth at all levels of YRUU about the work continental YRUU has done, it hasn't occurred fast enough to prevent a giant cultural gap from forming between the levels of YRUU. Staff and leader selection processes that require an already-functional analysis of anti-racism issues seem appropriate given our understanding of how much damage oppressive leadership can cause to our communities and to individuals within them. At the same time, by closing leadership opportunities to white folks who haven't yet been helped to develop an A-R analysis, we are closing the circle around a very small group of established leaders. All white people have steps to take on their journeys as anti-racist allies, and we need to resist the urge to draw lines in the sand, which is often a reaction to our own internal struggles—and no fault of white folks who are potentially somewhat more ignorant of the roles they need to play. All leaders should participate in anti-racism-focused programming that matches their level of experience with the concepts at hand. Youth with an interest in serving their communities in leadership roles are the lifeblood of the movement and they must be welcomed and pointed in the right direction.

Youth Council (YC), YRUU's governing body of Youth Council Representatives (YCRs) and a small-number of at-large youth, has demonstrated over the past few years a distressing inability to get crucial internal business done. A quick glance at the YC Resolution archive reveals a stunning contrast: recent assemblies have passed only a small number of resolutions pertaining to YRUU business that were not directly related to social justice work. In 1999, seventeen out of the eighteen resolutions passed were directly related to YRUU's programming, community, or institutional-structures. In fact, the number of resolutions that even reached the floor during the Youth Councils of 2002, 2003, and 2004 combined exceeds the total passed in 1999 by only one. Changes that could share responsibility for this trend are: Youth Council's switch from Robert's Rules of order to a problematic formal consensus process; the decision by YRUU's Steering Committee to (in violation of YRUU's Policies and Procedures) eliminate the ex-officio moderator, usually an older youth with a sense of institutional memory; and efforts begun by Steering Committee 2001-2002 to actively and passively discourage the submission of resolutions in the interest of saving time for anti-racism training. Regardless of the cause, this is an issue that must be addressed; Steering Committee, YRUU's most powerful group of leaders, is drawn directly from Youth Council, and is subject to the same problems.

The passing-down of this culture among YCRs has contributed to a slow shift of Youth Council duties onto the shoulders of the Youth Office, already overburdened due to the loss of one of the three YRUU Program Specialist (YPS) positions. YCRs usually serve for two years, an even shorter period than the average four-or-five year turnover of the entire YRUU community. As a result of inevitable continuity issues, the culture that produced such successful and productive youth assemblies in years past has been nearly lost, and the only individuals still in positions of leadership who were part of this culture serve not on Youth Council, but in the Youth Office. Additionally, YCRs have always been less effective than those who designed YRUU in the early 1980s had intended, and over time the Youth Council has passed a number of resolutions passing YCR responsibilities onto the Youth Office staff. As a result of these circumstances, continental YRUU's leadership has become unfortunately dependant on the Youth Office for both guidance and the raw support labor required to sustain YRUU's programming and functionality. The consequences of this shift include not only the inevitable neglect of many of these duties, but a shift in the balance of power, onto the shoulders of YPSes who ideally serve in strictly ex-officio roles on continental Steering Committee and Youth Council. When YRUU was created, the Youth Office was intended to support and facilitate, not lead and design, initiatives and programming. It's also worth noting that Common Grounds I and II stripped LRY of its full financial independence and placed control of YRUU's budget in the hands of the UUA Board of Trustees via the Youth Office. This places unfair restrictions on the types of resolutions that YCRs can effectively submit and pass.

Adult/youth relations are in shambles: a fading commitment to anti-ageism as an active pursuit, and to youth empowerment as an ideal, has, over a long stretch of time, resulted in a large trust gap between the youth and adult UU communities. Many adults have confused empowerment for abandonment, leaving continental YRUU with a drought of active and invested adults. Consequently, YRUU has turned inwards, attempting to operate without the benefits of a healthy intergenerational community, struggling to maintain an appropriate level of empowerment without enough adult allies. And as youth have taken responsibility for YRUU onto themselves, enduring success and struggle, adults have become anxious. In this anxiety, adults at all levels of the UU community have found justification for engaging in disempowering relations with youth, including: the aforementioned keeping of information about YRUU events and leadership from youth in local youth groups, denying youth a 24-hour space at General Assembly, disbanding annual regional YRUU conferences and/or placing adults in positions of inappropriately high power, the banning of certain language in a number of district communities, the tokenization of youth on the UUA Board of Trustees, and the push for Common Ground III after the failure to support the Long Range Planning Meeting. It will be difficult for youth and adults to repair this relationship without a great deal of intentional work on behalf of the adult community to restore an expectation of right relationship with youth. Youth must also be willing to tackle this issue as a matter of empowerment and struggle, recognizing that a youth community in conflict with the adult UUA community is not sustainable, and that an intergenerational and anti-ageist community is the best ultimate goal.

YRUU leadership is slowly decaying due to our community's lack of a collective memory and its seeming inability to effectively pass leadership skills and vision on to younger youth. YRUU and young adult joint work, though potentially very positive for both communities, is currently serving to exacerbate this situation by allowing bridged-out YRUUers to continue to participate in YRUU politics. In the YRUU 15-year review, current UUA Board trustee Wayne Arnason reflected on his experiences as a youth leader during the collapse of LRY: "In my opinion, the biggest problem for LRY…was that it lost its institutional memory for how to sustain a strong service program to districts and churches." YRUU needs to create a sustainable process for achieving a smooth flow of ideas, empowerment, and leadership skills between older and younger youth, or it will probably continue to decay slowly, requiring total cultural overhaul every 20 or so years. The main reason why this 20-year cycle is problematic is that it results in a long period of time where the institution fails to serve most UU youth, with no alternative to meet their needs. It is extremely important that older leaders, before they are too old to participate in YRUU governance, pass down YRUU culture by mentoring younger youth. We older leaders must then trust the next generation to carry on and advance the institution without young adult assistance.

There are no doubt many other issues that need to be addressed in YRUU. Having an open and accountable dialogue about these problems is the best way to move forward in solving them. Steering Committee and Youth Council need to take immediate action to lead this conversation with vision and a sense of purpose, fueled by our principles and institutional goals of accountability, community, and democracy.

Common Ground's legacy is one of adult-enforced restructuring, prompted by the inability of LRY's leadership to address its own internal problems. If YRUU is going to respond to the adult leadership's push for a new Common Ground, it should do so with an understanding of the history attached to the name. Arnason's account of Common Grounds I and II (Appendix D of the 15-Year Review) offers an excellent summary of that history.

Given this context, it's time we acknowledge the possibility that a Common Ground III may result in a drastic restructuring of YRUU, if not its dissolution. We must also recognize, however, that we have the power to learn from LRY's mistakes. We should insist on having the chance to work out our issues in a way that keeps the ball in our court—and then we need to follow through with passion and commitment. We may need to re-examine our approach to anti-oppression work—not because it isn't crucial (we believe that it is) but because we must maintain our institutions and our community if our effort is to be sustained. We will need our adult allies to accomplish our goals and to help other adults to be youth allies. As always, however, the future of YRUU is in our hands. YRUUers—step up! We need a revolution!


Riley37 said...

"Top-down communication between district leaders and local youth groups is often blocked by wary adults in congregations unclear on their proper roles as intermediaries."

I read that as implying "Any concerns those adults might have are automatically invalid, and they should submit to their proper place as receivers of top-down communication."
YRUU has been treating congregations that way, here and there, for a while. Now it's payback time. Unfortunately, revenge is not always justice; but in my opinion, district and continental YRUU have rarely treated congregations as equal partners, and without doing so, they're bound to lose support.

Heather said...

District and continental YRUU existed as resources for youth who were not being served by congregations. Youth empowerment - as it was practiced in YRUU when YRUU was functioning in healthy and safe ways (probably around 3 or 4 years ago, now) - simply does not exist in most local congregations.

Which is not to say that I don't believe that it can. I happen to be incredibly fortunate enough to be part of a strong youth program in my current church, consisting of a functioning youth group with its own leadership, a functioning youth/adult committee which advocated on behalf of youth concerns (changed the bylaws, for example, and recruited and interviewed youth advisors), and youth on many committees, including the parish council.

My experience is depressingly unique. Many congregations are simply too small to offer youth programs - many don't even have the resources to offer OWL or COA courses. Other congregations simply have youth groups, which range in levels of youth empowerment depending - largely - on the institutional support from staff and volunteers of the church, and thee attitude of adults serving as advisors. Youth groups are fine, but they are not generally models of youth empowerment UNLESS the youth involved in them (or those who had helped to design them) have experienced youth empowerment - often through regional or continental events.

Let me repeat that again. Local congregations DO NOT currently serve many UU youth because they do not actively practice youth empowerment. Most churches do not actively encourage youth to be on committees, few if any churches welcome youth on their Boards, often youth are not allowed to vote or be full members of the congregation.

But what differentiated district and continental organizing is that the radical idea of youth empowerment was practiced. Youth were not only taken seriously, they were taught that they can and should take the responsibility for their own organizations. This trickled down to many local congregations - like mine - through things like Leadership Development Conferences, Spirituality Development Conferences, and Anti-Racism conferences. All things once offered by YRUU. In fact, even the effect of local youth group members attending district events had the impact of strengthening local youth organizations and building leadership. Hand in hand with my local congregations stellar youth program was a dedication by the DRE, by the minister, and by the congregatoin to youth empowerment. And hand in hand with that stellar local program was a delegation of youth regularly attending district events.

District events weren't for everyone, but they were what some needed. They were a resource for the leadership. They were energizing. They were inspiring. They actively practiced youth empowerment.

When DREs and ministers make decisions on a local level to prohibit their youth from attending district events - which they so often did - all of the power was in their hands. That's an incredibly dis-empowering move. And it doesn't even need to be that direct. In my experience in district organizing and outreach, I saw adults "forgetting to share" mailings and information about regional events with youth groups, refusing to let youth representing district structures speak at their church (and yes, youth existed on the district governing bodies for the SOL PURPOSE of reaching out to local youth and making the district more generally accountable), or,. simply, by failing to help youth recruit dedicated youth allies and advisors.

YRUU isn't treating congregations anyway. YRUU was simply offering the radical idea that youth require actually ministry and trust. What is threatening about that for you?

And, excuse me? I'm trying to remain calm here, but payback?

When has the ball ever been in the court of youth? Time after time after time, the story is the same. Youth, with the support of dedicated adult allies, try to create structures to minister to their communities to make up for the failure of local congregations. And time and again, that power is stripped from them by adults within the UUA, in local congregations, and pretty much everywhere else. Y'all have all the resources. Youth have never been anything but the underdog, and YRUU has never asked for anything but to be taken seriously.

-Heather Vail.

Heather said...

Oh, and this:
"Any concerns those adults might have are automatically invalid, and they should submit to their proper place as receivers of top-down communication."

Youth empowerment is not about silencing adults. It's not. That attitude represents a serious gap in communication between youth and adult communities. Youth empowerment necessitates adults taking an active supporting/mentoring role for youth. That's important, and I think it's absence in the last few years is a big reason why problems with districts have been getting worse.

In an ideal youth empowerment relationship, adults should be able to make those concerns and everyone involved should dialogue about them. The problem is, adults frequently side-step the process of dialogue and instead block youth events and take away resources.

If you were at a local congregation and you had problems with sending youth to district events, did it ever occur to you to speak with the district outreach person, and your youth group, about these concerns? Or did you instead decide that even starting the conversation was too dangerous, and resort to something like actively discouraging youth from attending regional events. Please correct me if my assumption that it's more like the later is off-base.

That being said "their proper role as intermediaries" is a sentence I wish we could take back, or at least elaborate on a bit. It is a little touchy. We did write the piece 3 and a half years ago, though, and we were pretty angry at the time.

Pogo Park said...
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Pogo Park said...
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Pogo Park said...

I read that as implying "Any concerns those adults might have are automatically invalid, and they should submit to their proper place as receivers of top-down communication."

It's in reference to communication from youth leadership structures to youth groups. Like, information about cons.

It is one thing for adults to have concerns and to bring them to their youth and to the youth leadership structures. In my experience, those were never unwelcome. It is another thing entirely to respond to those concerns by hiding information about youth activities from the youth they were supposed to be serving without any process for including those youth in the dialogue. To me, that is highly inappropriate. It's also highly endemic to local congregational RE programming, and it's a small piece of the local problems serving youth that the UUA never showed any interest in helping address. This conversation has never before happened on any kind of scale, and that to me is a failure of those who consider themselves adult allies to UU youth.

Eric Swanson said...

Jumping off from Heather's comment "Let me repeat that again. Local congregations DO NOT currently serve many UU youth because they do not actively practice youth empowerment. Most churches do not actively encourage youth to be on committees, few if any churches welcome youth on their Boards, often youth are not allowed to vote or be full members of the congregation."

I'd put a slightly different spin on this statement. Here and there, some of our congregations have been very successful in serving some of the needs of youth. But I cannot think of anyone whose local UU church experience as a youth has been one of systematic empowerment with congregational support for pursuing goals chosen by youth.

In some local churches I have seen empowerment by abdication, which can work as long as you happen to have a group of youth whose sense of mutual respect is high enough. And I've seen various programs that succeed in education, community building, or simple fun. But when it comes to systematically equitable distribution of power I have seen only fleeting, occasional successes. This tells me that, as a denomination, we do not have a good recipe for empowering local programs. Maybe it's possible, but we don't know how to do it yet.

This brings me to the central thread of this comment: For some youth, adolescence is all about power. This goes at least double for UU youth, who are raised to question authority, to challenge the status quo.

As UUs, we disproportionately encourage the 5-year-old to ask why things are as they are. We disproportionately encourage the 8-year-old to challenge her evangelical school friends' beliefs. We disproportionately encourage the 11-year-old to stand up for his rights at school. But when a 14-year-old wants a voice in church policy or a 17-year-old calls out her elders on hypocritical church policy, most UUs are considerably more hostile.

Developmentally, early adolescence is the time when a child's parent-centered identity morphs into a youth's peer-centered identity. A preadolescent generally treats the family as "self" and other institutions as "other". But an adolescent treats the peer group as "safe" and the family as "other". When parents or trusted mentors are moved abruptly into the less trusted category, they are apt to respond with mistrust of their own. In my experience this transition is at the root of much of the distrust between youth and adults in local congregations.

Mind you, the experience isn't universal -- please don't quote me as having asserted that it is -- but enough youth grow up into this "trust gap" environment that their relationship with their parents or church elders necessarily involves a power struggle. The 14-year-old is crying at the top of her lungs "I am me!" -- and too many are told "no you're not."

When it works, YRUU is a place where that same 14-year-old cries "I am me!" and is met with a resounding "HELL YES YOU ARE!!" For a large subset of our youth, this can make the difference between misery and contentment, between disaffectation and belonging.

Hmm. I just reviewed the following and found that I'm making a conceptual leap between questions of power and questions of identity. That's a comfortable leap for me but if you have any doubts ask anyone whose spent a year or more pursuing anti-oppression work. For now I'll take that connection as a postulate.

Anyway, my point is that parents and church elders are (on average as a class) uniquely unqualified to provide that "hell yes you are" feedback to their own youth. Even if we had unlimited resources to support the growth of wicked-cool new programs in local churches, this dynamic would be a big barrier to overcome. By stepping outside the local "I've known you since you were this big" bubble, district and continental YRUU programs have a huge advantage in this area.