29 February 2008

Victoria Mitchell - "History never looks like history when you're living through it."

For the first time, I truly and fully believe that one person CAN make a difference.
Because it's happening to/with/in me.

I've always been so intrigued by grassroots action. At one point, everyone at the top was a part of the roots. It is clear that in YRUU, the roots, the trunk, the branches, and the fruit were all in various stages of decay. I feel as though perhaps we have forgotten our soil and allowed our water source to be contaminated. And this Resolution for Youth and Young Adult Empowerment is reminding us of the values we are grounded in. We need to thicken the soil so that our tree does not fall but is instead experiences rebirth. The season of YRUU has passed and we must be invigorated for new, positive change that empowers the roots, the trunk, the branches, and the fruit to all take part.
Perhaps the name of our tree won't change, but some things definitely must be. And if that involves a bit of pruning, I am willing to accept the removal of the dead parts that are not serving this living, breathing structure. However, the memories and the lessons should not be buried in the hollows of a landfill, unable to decompose and serve this planet.
I was one of the first to receive the YRUU Steering Committee's letter on February 11th and to visit the YRUU UUlogy website by the chance of me checking my email at the right time.

I've been keeping up with the Consultation on Ministry To and With Youth process over the past few years, starting as a dim interest and since escalating tremendously. I took the survey on how I was being served in my new congregation - Eliot Unitarian Chapel in St. Louis Missouri. I was previously involved in middle school at Neshoba Unitarian Universalist Church in Memphis, Tennessee and attended a Unitarian Universalist congregation for the first time at the Unitarian Church of Vancouver in British Columbia, my home town. I've been involved in my congregation's youth group by discussing, organising, creating worships, doing social justice work, being a primary planner for UnCONventional in March 07, and participating in the annual youth service.
When I was elected as the Youth Council Representative on my District Youth Steering Committee last March, I didn't quite know what I was getting myself into, except for the encouragement I received from my predecessor to the position and friend, Emily Brunts. In April I drove myself five hours to Chicago and back for the three-hour District Gathering at Annual District Assembly. I was one of only three youth to attend and we were all on the District Youth Steering Committee.
I attended Youth Council and my horizons were positively pushed further in both directions. I began anti-racism and anti-oppression analysis and have been continuing to do so by doing personal journaling, talking to folks, taking an African American Literature class at my school, being an active member of my school's Social Justice Committee, and through the recent Groundwork training my district hosted for youth and young adults in January. I became acutely aware of the Consultation process and was introduced to the Summit goals. I participated in Youth Council's discussion of the YRUU Question and was a part of the small committee who pieced together information and wrote the "Youth Council Reponse to the YRUU Question." I pretty much thrust myself into continental YRUU.
I've learned that I am quite rare- I am a youth involved on a congregational, district, and continental level and I moved in that order.
When I first received the news about the UUA cutting funds to YRUU and C*UUYAN, I was upset and super confused. Okay, so the storm was coming and if you were to draw out a time line of events leading up to this and examine the resources on the Consultation website, you could definitely see it. I guess for me, because I only recently became active continentally, I didn't expect it because I had no sense of time and progression. It just felt so fast. And the miscommunication about how the Board of Trustees must first approve this budget cut definitely did not allow for these announcements to proceed in a logical manner.
I have struggled with how the existing structure is threatened to disappear before any plan has been unveiled. The Youth Ministry Working Group should not be expected "to solidify a plan of action" when they've only just begun their work. The goals proclaimed by the Summit report are incredible and if achieved will make our institution a beautiful pathway for successive generations of Young Religious Unitarian Universalists to walk on hopefully through adulthood. But these goals will not be achieved to their fullest potential if rushed. I also believe that if we are going to strengthen youth ministry, we must also strengthen young adult ministry. All youth will become young adults, whether they identify as a Unitarian Universalist young adult or not. Perhaps having an incredible experience in youth ministry and programs is enough to keep up one's motivation through the period of young adulthood, which is not a strong presence or adequately supported in many places within our faith. I don't know. I haven't reached that point in my life yet. But if this institution plans on empowering youth, it should also plan on empowering young adults.
The best definition of youth and young adult empowerment that Kimberlee Tomczak and I could find and mold to fit Unitarian Universalists is:

Youth and Young Adult empowerment is an attitudinal, structural and cultural process whereby young people gain the ability, authority and agency to make decisions and implement change in their own lives and the lives of other people to create intergenerational equity.
After the announcements and continual flow thereafter, I refrained from publicly posting my opinion on the matter. I was processing still. I was trying to figure out the whole situation and was reading the opinions of other folks in order to gain a sense of the history. I was experiencing a whole range of emotions.. especially because I had only just tapped into something that was serving me. It took me a while to find it, but when I eventually did, I loved it. I love it. However, it is selfish for me to say that Continental YRUU should not be changed just because it was serving me. I saw first-hand, through writing the Youth Council Response to the YRUU Question, that Continental YRUU does not serve so, so, so many youth. It can do better. We can do better. And I knew I could do better than sitting on my emotions and not doing anything about them.
So I gave myself a day to process. On Wednesday, I called my congregation's minister, Rev. Daniel O'Connell. This year my congregation has changed in how we do youth ministry. As often as possible, Rev. Daniel spends the first twenty minutes of our youth group time with us. Because of this, I have gotten to know him much more than I ever would have and felt comfortable talking to him about everything going on. We discussed the issues and I presented that I really, really, really just wanted to do something about this! He suggested political action. And the idea to write a resolution was born. If it weren't for his support, advice, and empowering practices, none of this would have happened.
I ran with it. I called Kimberlee Tomczak, the Youth and Young Adult Coordinator for my district.
We've been friends ever since I often frantically contacted her as I was attempting to organise a youth conference at my congregation. Remembering those weeks reaffirms for me that in order for youth to succeed on a district level, there must be someone on district staff with youth in their job portfolio. Without her, I probably would have managed to implode the week before Con. I've been on DYSC since then so we've kept in regular communication and became even closer when we both attended Youth Council this summer. It has become so apparent throughout the DYSC year that if both of us hadn't attended Youth Council, then a lot of the new ideas that have been introduced would have never taken off. Throughout Youth Council, Kimberlee and I would take ideas we gathered from Youth Council and discuss how we could implement them in our district. If it had been just me, to my fellow DYSC members, it would seem like some illusionary thing condensed into a report that one member of the group went off to for a week. I might have had some valuable communication with folks from other districts experiencing similar predicaments or attempting similar initiatives, but it's so difficult for one person in a high turnover position to articulate these ideas and make them applicable enough to fly in a district. That is, it is difficult without someone whose job it is to empower youth to make these changes along for the ride. Youth Council was productively valuable for me because I had someone to bounce ideas off of who would support me when I introduced it to my leadership body. The connection between our district youth leadership and the continental level was successful. But I have learned that this is also quite rare. It almost didn't happen for us...Kimberlee called me literally the day before and told me she had been accepted to go because someone else was unable to attend.
I called Kimberlee the next day and we entered into a huge discussion about.. everything. I told her about me writing a resolution in order to assert the values that all levels and people of the Unitarian Universalist Association should be rooted in and what, no matter what happens, should emerge from this Consultation process. Youth empowerment. This quickly expanded to youth and young adult empowerment for the way, way above stated reasons. I told her about the plan: Have this resolution passed at district annual assemblies in the next few months and then somehow get it to General Assembly. A process entirely unknown to me. I've never been to GA. I've never written a resolution. I've never been to anything at District Assembly except for the District Gathering for the Consultation process last April. I was unsure but sure that I wanted to do something. I'm still gaining my footing. But we had to start somewhere, right? So we started trekking through our thoughts. What would this resolution say? How should we go about doing this? Is this even attainable? I took the ideas we discussed and articulated them by writing a preliminary draft on Friday. I examined resolutions on the UUA website to get a handle on the formula and format of a resolution. And I pretty much winged it. Surprisingly, it turned out pretty okay for a first-timer.
Process-wise, we started with accountability. This is something we feel has been lacking in many actions up until the YRUU Steering Committee's letter. So we figured, well...we're sure as hell going to be accountable. So the plan for that weekend was you call your peers and I'll call mine. I contacted youth who were at Youth Council and asked if we could have a telephone conversation. I tried about twenty five people and had conversations with about ten of those people before Kimberlee and I discussed again that Sunday night. I presented our ideas to these people, told them about the idea of a resolution for youth and young adult empowerment, and the pretty vague plan at that point. I received nothing but support and positive feedback for the idea. All of this communication was kept confidential while Kimberlee and I determined if writing a resolution was even the right step to take. When we spoke again, we had both unanimously determined that it was.
Next, we dissected our ideas further and worked through the first draft of the resolution. We made changes. Then we sent it to a limited number of people to get initial feedback. There was clearly some work to be done. We needed to have the whole document logically flow as one sentence and there were some breaks in that flow and some unnecessary points. We also needed to make our THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED something specific and measurable. We made some progress on determining this but more or less took the weekend to rest for a bit from all of this. On this past Monday (..wow, that feels like ages ago), we really tried to hammer out what support of youth empowerment looks like.
Our goal was and is not to determine the concrete structure of youth ministry for the future. That's not our job, it's the Youth Ministry Working Group's job. Our goal was and is to determine what youth and young adult empowering practices are and assert those in a public document. By this time, the news about the miscommunication had been out for a while. But in only a week, I was already at peace with the fact that contiental YRUU would be over as of June 30th. I still am. Resurrecting the past will not do us any good and will only perpetuate cracks within youth, young adult, and adult relationships. We must move forward. But we must move forward with youth and young adult empowerment embedded within every Summit goal and every action of the Working Group.
During our Monday conversation, we both agreed to split up the resolution and work to make those parts correspond to our more refined ideas and our first round of feedback. Kimberlee worked on the preamble, or the WHEREAS's and I worked on the THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED THAT. I pretty much rewrote the entire thing because before, our therefore be it resolved was not specific. It was powerfully worded, but not an attainable, measurable goal. So I went through all of the notes from Kimberlee's and my discussions. Yesterday afternoon we had a lovely five hour conversation and came up with the working draft of the resolution. Huzzah! We then quickly sent it to approximately the same original feedback group and amazingly, were only suggested to make two changes. And they were both wordsmith-y errors.
So the last of those feedback conversations were this afternoon. Kimberlee and I set to work writing a letter to Youth and Young Adult Stakeholders and Leaders, primarily of the continental level. And tonight we emailed it out. Our letter and the Youth and Young Adult Empowerment Resolution.
We asked for this resolution to remain confidential, but we're assuming it will leak sometime over the weekend. We 'wooshed' each time one of us sent it out to some listserv or person.
All I have to say is...holy shit.
I'm experiencing elation, excitement, and uncertainty.
I want to check my email so bad but I promised myself I'd start and finish an essay due tomorrow as motivation (my school work has unfortunately but inevitably taken a back seat these past two weeks).
I want to see what people think. I want comments. I want opinions.
It's fair to say that the lack of criticism in the past 24 hours of feedback has made me a bit confident that somehow we have managed to do it.
However, the point of sending this to stakeholders is to make sure that this resolution is correct and that we have correctly represented those we intend to represent in this resolution - youth --and young adults. Only time and my inbox will tell me.
What I am currently experiencing the most though is the realization that one person can make a difference. I'm primarily agnostic - spiritually and when I examine an abstract concept. I've always struggled with being the change you want to see in the world. How much of a difference does that actually make? Our youth service one Sunday ago was on that topic and I read a homily that I wrote (and actually re-wrote the entire thing at 1am the night before). I primarily focused on injustice with the example of heterosexism, but I also discussed how one must do more than just change oneself. I wrote, "I must be the change, dig channels for the change to carry, and then hopefully, see the change blossoming in this world." I can't just be thankful that my minister, my advisors, and my district staff youth coordinator have empowered me. If I want youth empowerment, I have to fight for this for youth in my district who are not empowered in their congregations. I have to fight for this for youth in congregations and in districts that I have little or no contact with at all. For youth who I've never even met. And I have to fight for a recognition of this from adult leaders on all levels of our association. I will very soon be asking for support from youth and young adults across this continent. We must initiate this change. Youth and young adult empowerment cannot be a top-down initiative. It needs to be youth and young adults in congregations, on the district level, and on the continental level asking for this. In Wayne Arnason and Rebecca Scott's book "We Would Be One," Maria Flemming states, "...when we talk about youth autonomy now; we mean basically the right for youth to determine their own programs. This means that we think no one knows better what young people are interested in than young people themselves" (XII). I hope that when Kimberlee and I send this document out to youth and young adults anywhere and everywhere, that this is what young people are interested in.
If this is what we want, we have to do it ourselves. And we need the support of adults.

I am one. And it is my sincerest hope that my efforts make a difference.

Peace and love,

-Victoria Mitchell

"History never looks like history when you are living through it." ~John W. Gardner

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Victoria --thank you so much for all this work you've done, and for being so transparent (loaded word, I know!) about it. When I was feeling hopeless, that phone call was the best, most exciting thing ever!
--Hazel G.