15 Year Review - Appendix D
Reflections On The History Of LRY And The Transition To YRUU
by Rev. Wayne Arnason
As part of the research for this report, the Rev. Wayne Arnason was asked to reflect on his memories and personal role in the transition from LRY to YRUU during the period 1967-1982. The essay that follows is his response to that request.
When I look at the YRUU group in my own congregation, and talk with their advisors, it does not look or feel that much different from the LRY group I was a part of in Winnipeg from 1965-69. We did not follow a structured curriculum, although we occasionally did use structured resources for programs. We devised our own schedule of activities working with our advisors. We did some fund-raising, we attended regional conferences, and we planned an annual Youth Sunday Service. The relationship we had with our adult advisor was different than what we experienced with teachers or parents. It had a quality that gave us permission to explore a different kind of relationship with each other--a relationship that for me was more trusting and risk-taking than what I had with friends in high school. These relationships were intensified by our shared experiences of going to regional conferences, which were very exciting. Being in Western Canada, these trips often involved overnight train travel just to get there.
Being that we were generally 15-17 years old, the intimacy and interpersonal risk-taking that would happen in my group and at regional conferences in my "federation" was charged with sexual tension. Some people were sexually active and everyone who wasn't desperately wanted to be, or at least fulfill their fantasy of what being sexually active meant. Alcohol was not a big factor in our local or regional meetings, and, even though we heard about the emerging youth culture through the media, my first couple of years in LRY in Western Canada didn't reflect much of it. Rock'n'roll had definitely reached us, but sex and drugs were minimal until 1968-69, when I was almost done with high school myself.
Taking the leap out of Western Canada in 1967 to attend Continental Conference in Oxford OH brought me into contact with the wider world of American and Canadian LRYers. Even though that year's Continental Conference had a major controversy about conferees harvesting and smoking wild marijuana growing nearby, drug use tended to be limited to older youth from the two coasts, and a minority of them. However, often the folks who smoked dope or dropped acid were some of the best and brightest leaders among us. They also had the most insights and skills in dealing with adults.
Between 1967 and 1970, youth culture emerged all over the continent as a social phenomenon. Clothing and hair style were used to shock the adult population, serving to set this youth culture apart from the mainstream culture far beyond the usual inter-generational tensions. LRY, being made up in large part of the children of the monied cultural elite, was firmly grounded in the youth counter-culture. Likewise, the political ideologies of the time had a profound effect on LRY leadership. Agendas of empowerment--for blacks, for women--were what was happening. Why not for youth?
In 1969, following the lead of the Black Affairs Council which, the year before, had asked the UUA for "no strings attached" funds for their economic empowerment projects, LRY also asked to be free from UUA control over its funds. Since its birth in 1953, LRY's budget had been created by an adult Executive Director who worked with the youth leadership in a way that already gave the youth considerable authority over how the money was spent. However, for the UUA leaders, it was this adult who was clearly the authority when they wanted to know who was in charge. When the Executive Director Richard Kossow resigned in 1969, while it was partially for personal reasons, it was also out of a conviction that this role was not one an adult should be playing. The LRY youth leadership asked that no new Executive Director be hired. I was part of the leadership group that made this request.
LRY had its own endowment, but the interest from it did not go specifically towards youth programming. It went into the UUA's general budget that in turn funded the LRY budget, the largest part of which was the Executive Director's salary. What we proposed to the UUA was that we could do better youth programming if the salary and endowment interest went directly to LRY. We had bright ideas and proposals. It was the last year of the last term of Dana Greeley as UUA President, and both Dana and Vice President Ray Hopkins had a really good relationship with Larry Ladd, the President of LRY. Because Larry was incredibly trustworthy and competent, I think Dana and Ray felt it would be okay to go in the direction we proposed, especially given that it would be hard to find a new Executive Director under the circumstances of Kossow's resignation. I also don't think they believed this would last. Large numbers of youth were preparing to attend the 1969 General Assembly to lobby for our proposal. Making a deal with us beforehand defused at least one volatile issue in what already promised to be an explosive GA due to the Black Affairs Council appealing the decision of the UUA Board to renege on the $1 million the 1968 GA had promised them.
The LRY's request for control of its budget was granted. The outgoing UUA Administration agreed to work directly with the youth leadership and the new UUA President, Robert West, had to honor that agreement. For the next ten years the UUA had a denominational youth program with no adult director or advisor in charge or in a team relationship with youth leaders.
So what happened during those ten years? In brief, I would say that the adults of the UUA gradually despaired of effectively working with youth after they gave up formal power over them. What happened first at the continental level gradually happened at the district and local levels as well. Youth leadership in local groups said, "We don't need an advisor," and adults said, "Well, okay . . . ," and walked away from it all until there was trouble.
Liberal Religious Youth continued to elect Executive Committees for ten more years composed of young people generally 17-19 years old. They oriented each other to their job and to the UUA, but they were not well integrated into the entire UUA staff. They knew very little about how to effectively run a program that is supposed to service the needs of youth groups and churches across the continent. They did not know how to manage a budget, and by 1975 the endowment was depleted by half due to an ideologically pure but financially unsound investment in Black Affairs Council bonds.
During this time there were clearly some stellar LRY Executive Committee members and there were some fine program materials that were produced. However, what was gradually lost was any meaningful connection or support between the continental level of LRY and the regional level and local congregations. The regional level almost dwindled away to nothing by 1975-76. Some of it was due to "sex, drugs and rock'n'roll" as regional conferences occasionally self-destructed around behavior issues and local congregations resolved to no longer support or encourage their youth to attend them. Instead, LRY youth would invite their friends to come, such that sometimes federation conferences had more non-UU involved youth than those from UU families. Youth who ascended to regional and continental leadership roles did so out of their longevity as conference-goers rather than from experience in a local youth group. This was a great cause for concern among adult UUs.
This ten-year breach between the UU association of congregations and its continental youth organization has had tragic consequences for our denomination. During the 1970s, an entire generation of UU youth were lost to our religious movement when the existing youth organization was not supported and an alternative program was not provided in its place. These youth got the message that UUism was not interested in them and consequently they wandered away. It is particularly interesting to me to read the names of the LRY leaders involved at the continental level during the period 1973-1978. There is not one that I recognize as having a continuing relationship with Unitarian Universalist churches or leadership as an adult. Even those youth in leadership positions could not be retained for adult leadership in UUism. This is quite different from the number of current ministers and lay leaders with LRY experience previous to 1973, as well as different from the leadership we have gained since 1978.
In my opinion, the biggest problem for LRY during this period, and especially from 1973-76, was that it lost its institutional memory for how to sustain a strong service program to districts and churches. These few years were an eternity for youth leadership, but the blink of an eye for local church ministers. Congregational leaders came to see that, in spite of some quality programs on paper and the occasional articulate, well-organized youth leader, they were not getting much help for their local youth program from LRY. Consequently, lay and clerical leaders--on the other side of the cultural Great Divide from the youth in LRY--began regularly attacking the ineffectiveness of the program. A few adult advisors and ministers who were supportive of LRY would defend the program in spite of personal misgivings and minimal results. I was one of those.
Indeed, adult advisors were not totally absent from the program during this time. Many were wonderful people, committed to the UUA and to successful youth programs. Unfortunately, though, they were not always clear on the appropriate boundaries between their adult advisor roles and their friendships with the young people, aligning themselves more closely with youth culture than with the adult mainstream. Consequently, their endorsement did not help answer the question of what the appropriate relationship ought to be between a youth organization and a parent institution. Adult advisors to LRY often had an anti-establishment attitude themselves.
The section of "Follow The Gleam" that I wrote on the dissolution of LRY was written in 1979 and stands up pretty well today as a good description of what happened. By late 1975, a political process of evaluation and decision-making on youth programming, initiated at the request of LRY, was launched in the UUA with the appointment of the Special Committee On Youth Programs. In their November 1977 report, SCOYP recommended that resident youth staff be replaced by one adult staff person and a secretary. The UUA Board wanted to follow this recommendation and terminate the youth staff presence at the UUA. Two years of political maneuvering within the continental Youth Adult Committee and the UUA Board followed. A floor fight at the 1979 General Assembly resulted in a compromise that I brokered, and that the new UUA President Gene Pickett promised to endorse. The compromise was to leave the LRY Executive Committee in place while bringing on the new adult staff person, and to give that person a year to work out a new direction. I was hired to be that staff person.
In January of 1980, three weeks after I arrived in Boston and at my first UUA Board meeting in my new job, I had to negotiate furiously to retain any funding at all for the LRY Executive Committee in the upcoming year's budget. I presented a proposal to undertake a democratic re-structuring of the entire youth program from top to bottom based on representation of youth and adults from the local and district levels up. It was a plan that the LRY Executive Committee and the LRY Board had to buy into and willingly accept, along with the UUA Board and Administration.
Ultimately, everyone did buy into the plan. By August 1980, when the LRY Board voted its support, all the major players had agreed to participate. Over the next year, a structure for sending delegates to a "constitutional convention" was created. The site was to be Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. The goal was for delegations to be district based with a 2:1 youth to adult ratio, so I travelled all over the country convincing districts to buy into the process. I recruited a wonderful staff for the conference, and we devised a title and theme: "Common Ground".
To this day, I believe that Common Ground was the best work I have ever done. It included everyone in an authentically democratic process which resulted in the LRY leadership agreeing to end LRY's existence to transform it into a new youth organization. We only got the job part way done at Carleton College, and came together again the next summer at Bowdoin College in Maine with both new and returning delegates for "Common Ground II". That was where the name Young Religious Unitarian Universalists was decided, and where the current YRUU structure was created.
There was no way that every person who had ever had an investment in LRY could be happy with the decision to surrender it. This is especially true for those who were not present in the process. In fact, it took great courage and insight for the LRY leaders of that time to see that the organization they loved had to die in order to survive for future generations of youth, and I believe that is exactly what has happened.