Jana Kirkman, YRUU -- Northwest UU Congregation in Atlanta, GA -- Mid-South District. 1983-1986
What was the youth group to which you belonged (also city, and congregation if you care to identify it), region, and what were the years?
YRUU -- Northwest UU Congregation in Atlanta, GA -- Mid-South District. 1983-1986, although from 1985 on, I participated more in district and continental YRUU than at my own church. I attended ConCon in 1984, '85, and '86, then switched to Opus and UUYAN.
I was a YRUU advisor at River Road UU Congregation in Bethesda, MD -- JPD -- from 2003 to 2012, and I plan to be once again after my boys graduate from high school.
Was your family UU (or Unitarian or Universalist) and what was their generational history as far as involvement in UU? Had family members been involved in former UU or Unitarian or Universalist youth groups and do you know what their experience might have been? If you were from outside UU, what was your religious/spiritual/social upbringing?
My parents became UU shortly after they married and moved to California in 1961 (they were both raised as liberal Methodists in the south). I am the older sibling, but my sister also attended YRUU and ConCon.
How did you learn of the youth group, or what attracted you to it? What kept you there? Why and when did you leave? Did it provide an environment that was missing elsewhere in your life? Were you looking for spiritual experience, social consciousness activities, intellectual stimulation, personal friendships? How were these things fulfilled or not? What growth/change did you feel?
I always assumed that I would be part of the youth group. I loved going to church, and enjoyed every level of R.E. We had amazing, dedicated advisors throughout my time in YRUU, but they were making up for what I perceived then as congregational disinterest in youth needs. We got shifted around, had too little space, couldn't personalize it at all. Now I realize that it was really a severe space crunch; a few years after I left the area, they dedicated a room in a new building solely to youth group.
Although I loved our advisors, and was extremely dedicated to ConCon, regional cons, and GA when I could get to it, I didn't mesh terribly well with some of my own congregation's other youth. It's possible that the program we were doing didn't suit me, although the ones I remember, I liked (mainly Building Your Own Theology). In any case, when I turned 16, I joined the congregation as a voting member, joined the choir, and spent most of my Sundays in the service instead of in YRUU. I continued socializing with the people I liked, but avoided the others, who mostly didn't go to cons anyway. I got a lot more spiritual experience, social consciousness activities, and intellectual stimulation from the church itself, and from cons.
After I graduated, and in my sister's heyday, the youth group thrived in its awesome new space, and I understand that it was a very different feel. It just wasn't a good fit for me, in my time -- too many "cool kids" who smoked, drank, and mocked people.
In my time as a youth advisor for River Road, I did it initially because of how important YRUU was to me, and how those advisors from my youth gave themselves to us so fully. My husband and I were both advisors for four years, taking our small children with us to youth retreats (after checking with the teens to make sure we wouldn't cramp their style). After he moved to teaching lower grades, I kept on because I had long since realized that I got so much back from interacting with our awesome youth. We're fortunate to have a congregation that really values and honors the contributions and needs of youth, and I'm still an advocate on various committees to keep youth as a high priority.
What were your experiences local and non-local (conferences)? Did you prefer one over the other or did they complement each other well? Was non-local experience accessible?
Mid-South District was huge. HUGE. We were incredibly fortunate to have advisors who were willing to load up a big-ass van and schlep us from Atlanta to New Orleans, or anywhere in between. We would get to a Mississippi con, there would be 15 other people there, and we'd be like, "Woo hoo! Good size!" I loved those cons, and I also deeply loved ConCon -- my first one was at The Mountain, fairly close to home, but my parents saw how much it meant to me, and they paid for me to fly to Iowa and to Oregon, for later Opus (until I could pay myself), and for my sister in her time. I know I am very fortunate that they were both able and willing to pay my way to both small and large cons! Twice, I got to be part of the Youth Caucus at GA, and that was its own kind of awesome.
I never served on the Steering Committee, but I was always into the process part of ConCon -- took it seriously, didn't begrudge the time (which, I seem to remember, was HOURS long). I had mixed feelings, as an advisor, about the short shrift many of the youth seemed to give governance at the one district con a year during which they're asked to focus on it for an hour or so. ("You kids don't know how good you have it! Why, we voted uphill both ways, in the snow!")
I'm kind of sad that (since I bowed out) there are currently no advisors for our youth group who are enthusiastic about cons, which means that the few kids who want to go usually end up trying to find an advisor from another congregation who hasn't maxed out on teens. There's not a lot of enthusiasm in general for cons, in our group -- probably because the group is so large and diverse, has so many other local congregations' youth with whom to interact, and is getting all its needs met. I'm just nostalgic. I want my boys to go to cons!
They do go to Mountain Camp every summer, and I have actually considered sending them to cons there, but it's a 10 hour trip, and not practical. I'm pretty bitter that they don't have a chance at something like ConCon -- actually, I'm EXTREMELY bitter, mainly towards the UUA, for the way that youth and young adults have been swept under the rug, as if they're not the future of the denomination. I have a lot of feels, with some very bad words, that I'm typing and deleting right now. Back to the questionnaire!
How did your experiences affect your life in the short term and long term? Were you UU as an adult--why or why not?
In the short term, I think that BYOT and our advisors were the parts of the local youth group that affected me the most strongly, and I guess, in the long term as well. Cons gave me a whole lot of self-confidence and social openness that I think I may not have had otherwise, and also many very powerful worship services that I remember (in a dreamlike fashion) to this day.
Obviously, one long-term effect is that I was and will be an advisor for YRUU myself, and am a passionate advocate for youth concerns in our congregation and community. I also try to talk up the awesomeness of cons to both youth and the current advisors, but so far haven't convinced anyone but my own kids.
What was your awareness of the group and its activities as far as being youth-directed and the history of youth-direction in UU youth groups? If you hadn't much awareness of the history of UU youth groups, would you have been interested in learning more? If you hadn't awareness of the history of the UU youth groups, would education in that history have further molded your experience and expectations of yourself and others? Would it have affected a sense of legacy? If you were interested in legacy, did you feel you were able to contribute beneficially or not?
In my local group, and at Mid-South cons, I don't remember that youth-direction was much of a thing, other than insofar as our advisors were completely awesome and listened to us. At ConCon, however, it was a big deal -- as a younger youth, I often genuinely did not know who was an advisor and who was just a really cool older youth, because the youth were so "in charge," and the advisors were so hands-off. By-laws and governance were a huge thing, in my memory, and I gave them my full attention, as did almost everyone (napping may have occurred).
I came into Continental YRUU shortly after its creation following the dissolution of LRY, and ConCon was full of people with stories and feelings about the transition. I was eager to hear such stories, but didn't retain much factual information about the whole thing! I look forward to reading the histories you publish on your site, and will be directing all the former and current UU youth I know toward it, both to learn and to contribute!
As advisors, at least in our district, we were all about youth-direction -- I tried really hard to keep my "we did it this way" to myself, so contributing legacy was mostly in the form of songs that I didn't hear any current version of, or telling the youth about meeting my husband at Opus, or the like. History of UU youth groups, however, would be an excellent contribution to the youth program, especially the Coming of Age kids!
Edit: I was just reading the November 1984 Synapse (all mine are somewhere in the basement, probably eaten by mice -- THANK YOU for providing all this material on your site!), and saw an editorial by Daniel Gibson. He directly contradicted what I said about youth-direction at ConCon. I'm certain that he had a clearer grasp on the situation than I did, so take my fuzzy memories with a teaspoon of salt!
What was your sense of youth-adult relations between the youth group and the host congregation? The youth group and advisors?
As I mentioned above, as a youth I felt that our lack of dedicated space meant that the youth group wasn't as valued as it should be, and that the church focused too much on the younger kids. However, I think now that the congregation was doing its best with what they had at the time. Furthermore, it is absolutely apparent to me now that they valued teens and their input, as I was a fully immersed, voting member for two years, and was rarely treated like just a kid.
The advisors, as I've said, were very important in my understanding of how adults should treat youth and how they should treat each other, and (one reason I wanted David to be an advisor with me), the couples among them were very influential in my perceptions of adult love, relationships, and parenting.
As an advisor and now as a parent, I constantly remind people and committees of what the youth contribute, and what they deserve from us. We managed to get the right to decorate the room they way they want it... up to a point. We have a lot of rentals in our buildings, so the youth don't have decision-making powers on furniture, lighting, or major art installations. I do see more and more posters and canvases up, however! The annual Youth Service is, by the numbers, the best-attended service of the year, and we are now adding a dedicated fall service for the previous year's Coming of Age youth (rising 10th graders) to tell the congregation their beliefs. We have a large and talented Teen Choir. I encourage youth to join the congregation and vote at 16, and some do.
As an advisor, I felt just tolerated by some youth, appreciated by many, and ignored by the rest. That was fine. It was usually a pleasure to be a part of their work, occasionally a pain in the ass, and sometimes transcendentally wonderful! I miss it a lot, and definitely plan to serve as an advisor again in a few years.
It seems to me it would be useful to not just learn what individuals found beneficial or not about their experience in the youth group, but to contextualize it generationally. What was going on in your area outside the group in other formal and informal groups of individuals of similar ages? What was going on societally that you feel affected your experience of and participation in the youth group?
I remember several of my non-church friends belonging to Christian or Jewish youth groups, and comparing notes with them. Most of them really didn't understand what was so important to me about YRUU. They could take or leave their groups, didn't really feel strongly about them. One very, very Christian friend (who prayed for me daily, but not obnoxiously) and one very, very Jewish friend (not Orthodox, but maybe Conservative? Very culturally immersed, anyway) were the only two who understood what I meant!
The Cold War and the ERA are two societal forces that affected me back then. It was becoming apparent that women were not going to achieve legislated equal rights without a hard, hard struggle (and guess what...), and my friends and I were sensitized to that. I learned more about it at ConCon and at church than I did at school!
The Cold War, however, was EVERYWHERE around me. I really, truly believed that my friends and I might not live to full adulthood. I watched the Doomsday Clock advance. The music I listened to had frequent references to nuclear war. I wrote letters, made signs and marched, put posters on my wall -- I honestly thought WWIII would be the end of all of us. Every ConCon might be the last time I saw those long distance friends! I wasn't dwelling on it constantly; I was having fun -- but the cultural anomie was pervasive. When I look back, I still think we had a narrow escape.
Added 2014 July 29th.