15 Year Review - YRUU and Youth Empowerment

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Table of Contents | YRUU Structure | Youth Council | Steering Committee | The Youth Office | Conferences, Trainings and Continental Events | Recommendations

YRUU Structure

The structure of Young Religious Unitarian Universalists, originally established by the members of Common Ground, consists of a variety of youth/adult collaborations, all of which are represented on the YRUU Youth Council. As the governing body of YRUU, Youth Council meets once a year during the summer and serves many of the same functions that General Assembly does for the UUA in its ability to make policies, adopt themes for the coming year's programming, pass resolutions, and offer a supportive community of Unitarian Universalists. The Youth Council is composed of 24 youth chosen by the districts; three at-large youth; eight adults confirmed by the Board of Trustees, including one member of the Board of Trustees; and the previous year's Steering Committee. (For a complete description of the structure of YRUU, see "Young Religious Unitarian Universalist Policies and Procedures", available from the Youth Office of the UUA, updated 1996.)

The executive body of Youth Council is Steering Committee, which meets three times per year to govern the affairs of YRUU in the interim between Youth Council meetings. The eight voting members include five youth and one adult elected by the Youth Council, the UUA Board liaison to Youth Council, and the Position on Appraisal. The Youth Office staff serve on Steering Committee in a non-voting, ex-officio manner. The function of Steering Committee is to carry out the mandates and policy decisions of Youth Council, to choose the moderator for Youth Council, to recommend to the Board of Trustees the adult-at-large members of Youth Council, to recommend candidates for YRUU Programs Specialist to the UUA Administration, and to plan and implement the annual Continental Conference and Youth Council meeting.

The Youth Office staff is the third factor in this structure consisting of the Youth Programs Director (YPD) and two YRUU Programs Specialists (YPSs) serving in alternating one-year appointments. Being that they are the point of intersection between YRUU and the UUA, the Youth Office staff have the difficult task of balancing their responsibilities to YRUU with their responsibilities to the UUA. Whereas the Youth Programs Director reports to the Director of the Religious Education Department, he or she is also "responsible to the Youth Council and Steering Committee in regard to YRUU programming" (YRUU P&P, Art. 7.1.1). The YRUU Programs Specialists, on the other hand, while employed by the UUA, specifically "serve the members of YRUU by fulfilling the responsibilities set for them by Youth Council and Steering Committee, as well as the ongoing responsibilities of the publication of Synapse and Spider, the coordination of the Continental Social Action Network, the coordination of the Advisors Network, and the general maintenance of the Youth Office." (YRUU By-laws, Art. 2.4)

The fourth component in this structure is YRUU's relationship to the UUA Board of Trustees, which has approval power over the Youth Council and Steering Committee's budget and by-law decisions. Finally, YRUU is connected to the districts through Youth Council representation from the district youth governing bodies (called variously the Youth Adult Committee, District Youth Committee, etc.) which often also have representation on the district board of trustees.

This structure seems to be functioning reasonably well for the involved parties at the continental level, including Steering Committee, Youth Council and the Youth Office working in conjunction with the UUA. However, there is a structural flaw in the persistent lack of communication between the continental leadership and the district and local constituencies. A number of continental youth leaders interviewed felt that while Youth Council is a valuable leadership opportunity, its effectiveness does not always extend beyond the carrying out of its annual business meeting. There appears to be a discrepancy between what is expected of Youth Council Representatives (YCRs) as expressed in the job description (YRUU P&P, p. 37) and what is actually practiced. The YCRs are not sufficiently conducting the business of Youth Council back in their districts, including, most importantly, the dissemination of information on Youth Council initiatives. YCRs need to be more accountable in the course of their two-year term for spreading the benefit of their Youth Council experience throughout their district.

Additionally, the relationship between YRUU and the UUA needs to be formally defined. Originally, YRUU was established as an "organization of the UUA" (YRUU By-laws, Art. 3.2), which gives it a sort of non-status since neither the UUA By-laws nor the YRUU By-laws clearly articulate the definition of an "organization of the UUA". Though the founders of YRUU were intentionally ambiguous on this point due to the troubled history of LRY, the circumstances are different now. A status of "sponsored organization" would benefit YRUU in concrete ways in that it would acknowledge YRUU's status as the UUA's youth program and would give YRUU more visibility within the association by ensuring a UUA Directory listing and programming slots at General Assembly. "Sponsored" status would reflect the fact that YRUU both receives its funding from and must have its by-laws approved by the UUA Board.

Finally, at the request of a number of current youth leaders, we looked at the budget under which YRUU operates. It was the opinion of these youth that YRUU has no real control over its own budget. While it is essential that the UUA continues its financial support for the maintenance of YRUU, giving the youth almost no control over the allocation of youth program money is disempowering. We do not advocate leaving youth with sole control over their entire program budget since the history of LRY illustrates that this amounts to an abdication of adult mentorship and responsibility and can therefore result in the deterioration of youth programming. But we do feel it is important for YRUU to have a source of income which the Youth Council and Steering Committee can apply at their own discretion to interests outside the normal maintenance of the organization.

Happily, bitter lessons were not all that LRY bequeathed to YRUU. LRY had its own endowment which was transferred over to YRUU and currently provides an income of approximately $4,000 per year. This money has been simply folded into the Youth Office budget, but we see it as a substantial enough sum to provide the YRUU Youth Council and Steering Committee with a fund to use at their own discretion. We encourage the UUA Board to grant this money directly to YRUU with the understanding that that amount will be replaced in the youth program budget from General Fund monies. We also hope that YRUU will endeavor to supplement this grant of the LRY endowment income with its own fundraising efforts.

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Youth Council

Despite the aforementioned communication problems, we find that Youth Council is an effective governing body which fulfills its purposes as stated in the YRUU By-Laws. However, there are two issues which arose in interviews with Youth Council members. First, many YCRs expressed concern that Youth Office staff are designated to break any tie that occurs in the Steering Committee election process. This does not happen as a result of a documented policy, rather it has been assumed by the Youth Office to be a precedent. Though this may appear to be a minor issue, it necessitates a reminder to Youth Council and Steering Committee that they have the right and responsibility to review, and alter if necessary, their election procedures. It is also the right and responsibility of these governing bodies to set their own agenda for business meetings.

The second issue, mentioned repeatedly by past and present Steering Committee members, concerns the role of Steering Committee at Youth Council. The current practice is that Steering Committee members do not speak during the plenary session unless the moderator calls on them to supply a point of information. Again, on investigation we find that there is no documented policy requiring this practice. We therefore encourage Youth Council to review their policy concerning this issue and to take into consideration the invaluable role that modeled leadership can have in governance. Denying a voice to the leaders of an organization during its deliberation and decision-making processes has the potential to be counterproductive to that organization's effective functioning.

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Steering Committee

Due to the operational challenges that occur within an organization as large as YRUU, from time to time duties will shift in ownership. We have observed instances in which functions intended for the Youth Council have been taken up by the Steering Committee, while responsibilities intended for the Steering Committee have fallen into the hands of the Youth Office. Although these shifts may serve the interests of expediency, we are concerned that the more these governing bodies are relieved of specific duties, the less investment the members will feel in the overall organization.

We note that the Steering Committee's internal structure, being based on consensus-style decision-making using a rotating facilitator, does not include a chair or president whose job is to set the agenda, convene the meeting, etc. We urge the Steering Committee to review its internal structure and explore ways to create more internal responsibility for specific tasks. This would also help maintain the balance of power between the Steering Committee and the Youth Office.

We also question the value of granting "powers" to governing bodies that are difficult to utilize in practical terms. The YRUU By-laws (Art. 5.5) state: "At each Youth Council meeting, the Council shall vote upon whether to approve the Moderator chosen by the Steering Committee. If the Youth Council does not approve the Moderator, a Moderator shall be elected from among the Council members." We find it improbable that the Youth Council would ever exercise their "power" to overthrow Steering Committee's choice for Moderator knowing that that individual's flight and accommodations have already been paid for by the UUA. For such power to be meaningful, there needs to be a practicable method through which to exercise it.

Finally, we have observed that, with elected Steering Committee members and appointed YRUU Program Specialists all serving one-year terms, in the highest levels of YRUU governance there tends to be an absence of youth leaders who have ever had the same responsibility twice (e.g., setting the agenda for Youth Council, planning and programming Con Con, etc.). This creates a lack of continuity from year to year and prevents the development of institutional memory. We hope that as Steering Committee further exercises its power, individual members will be motivated to run for second terms.

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The Youth Office

There are two areas that need clarification in regard to the functioning of the Youth Office. First, the most recent job description on file for the position of YRUU Program Specialist dates back to May of 1983, when YRUU was in its infancy. In view of the changes that have occurred within YRUU over the years (especially the title change from "Youth Programs Specialist" to "YRUU Programs Specialist" (YRUU By-laws, Art. 7.2) and the change in age range from 12-22 to 14-20 (YRUU By-laws, Art. 3.1), it is time to bring this job description up to date. Particular attention needs to be given to the question of whether this position is an "internship" (as it is advertised), implying a student engaging in a carefully supervised apprentice-like role, or a "specialist" (as the title suggests), indicating one who has a superior degree of knowledge in a particular field.

Secondly, we note that there is no formal procedure in use for employee performance evaluation. The YPD and the Director of the Religious Education Department meet periodically to review the progress of the YPSs. The YPD also meets regularly with the YPSs to discuss questions and concerns, and to review work. As each YPS finishes his or her term, there is an informal exit interview between the YPS and YPD to evaluate the experience. Yet, within these various discussions there is no formal avenue through which a YPS or Steering Committee member may evaluate other YPSs, the YPD, the Religious Education department, their own progress, or the job itself. Some of these concerns can be expressed through the informal processes, but for consistency and continuity a formal evaluation procedure needs to be implemented.

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Conferences, Trainings And Continental Events

Continental Conference

The Continental Conference of YRUU (Con Con) is the annual week-long summer conference that serves as the ultimate model of youth leadership in our movement. Each year, the conference is located in a different region of the U.S. to facilitate geographical diversity. Youth Council selects the theme and the Steering Committee is responsible for the planning, programming and staffing with a member of Steering Committee serving as Dean. Con Con programming includes week-long workshops, one-shot workshops, special events and worships in an inclusive, supportive atmosphere created by youth leaders.

Con Con is an important event in YRUU because of the opportunity it provides for older youth to demonstrate their leadership skills and for younger youth, as well as advisors, to observe effective youth leadership in action. For many youth this is an eye-opening experience that inspires them to take new skills back to their districts and local youth groups. However, formal leadership training should also be offered at each Con Con.

Youth Caucus at General Assembly

Since the 1960s, the interests of UU youth have been represented at General Assembly by the Youth Caucus. In recent years, Youth Caucus attendance has ranged from 50 to 80. However, the 1996 Youth Focus at General Assembly attracted a total of 348 youth participants, making it possibly the largest youth gathering in UU history. Through workshops, worship services and presentations at the GA plenary, this event was highly successful in exposing over 3,000 UU adults to our unique philosophy of youth empowerment and promoting youth programming as a priority in our denomination.

Based on the energy and excitement that the 1996 GA generated among youth, it is realistic to expect that in future years youth participation at GA will be significantly greater than pre-1996. Though there have been some efforts to continue to support youth programming at GA, there has been no increase in funding from the UUA to support these efforts. The resulting void is likely to have, at the least, a dampening impact on the positive momentum gained in 1996.

Leadership Development Conferences

In 1994, the UUA Board allocated $8,000 to the Youth Office for a $10,000 program to train 20 youth and adult leaders of Leadership Development Conferences (LDCs). These leaders, working in youth/adult pairs, were then available to the districts to lead weekend conferences attended by up to 40 youth and adults, ideally in a two-to- one ratio. This program has been highly successful, facilitating an exponential increase in leadership training throughout the association, such that in the fall of 1996, with another $10,000 from the UUA Board, a second group of leaders were trained. The conferences are almost unanimously acclaimed for having a galvanizing effect on youth leadership within a district, as well as helping adults get on board with the philosophy of youth empowerment. In evaluations, participants report feeling energized and excited about getting back to their youth groups to use the skills and knowledge they have gained. Many Youth Adult Committees experience a revitalization after an LDC has been held in their district.

In Leadership Development Conferences, as well as in advisor trainings, there is a focus placed on the need for building community in a youth group by strengthening group trust and caring. "The Five Steps to Building Community", a pamphlet by Jenna Martin adapted from the book Building Community in Youth Groups by Denny Rydberg, uses bonding, opening up, affirming, stretching and deeper sharing as a framework for understanding the process a youth group goes through to achieve a deeper and deeper state of connectedness. Participants at LDCs have an opportunity to experience this process as small groups in turn take the larger group through each of the steps in the course of the weekend. Youth and adults alike most often credit this section of the conference as their greatest learning experience.

Social Justice Conference

In 1997, the UU Social Justice Office in Washington jointly sponsored with the Youth Office the first-ever YRUU National Social Justice Conference. The four-day conference included 30 participants selected on the basis of a written essay and geographical representation. The conference was funded by a $4000 grant from the Fund for Unitarian Universalism and $1000 from the Youth Office budget. This committee commends this initiative and endorses further development of this conference as an annual event. Given that social action is one of the five components of balanced youth programming and the only one not represented in any other annual continental YRUU event, this conference offers a needed opportunity to bolster UU youth involvement in social action.

In view of the demise of the UU-UNO conference due to over-reliance on grant funding, we suggest that the Youth Council seek a more stable source of funding for the YRUU National Social Justice Conference.

Spirituality Development Conference

The first-ever YRUU spirituality conference, to be called "In the Spirit: The Continental Spirituality Development Conference" is planned for May of 1998. This conference will train youth and adult Spirituality Development Conference leaders who, in similar fashion to the Leadership Development Conference leaders, will work in teams of one adult and one youth. It is the goal of the conference planners that, to the degree possible, the adult leaders will be ministers. These leaders will then be available to districts to lead conferences that will train people in planning and carrying out worship experiences and developing worship tools such as songbooks and rituals.

In addition to providing a welcome forum for developing spirituality among UU youth, we hope this conference will also have the affect of bolstering ministerial involvement in YRUU.

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Recommendation: That Youth Council review the current Youth Council Representative job description and explore ways to hold Youth Council Representatives accountable for the dissemination of information to their district.
Recommendation: That district youth governing bodies (Youth Adult Committees, District Youth Committees, etc.) also explore ways to hold their Youth Council Representatives accountable for the dissemination of the continental-level decisions and information throughout the districts.
Recommendation: That individual members of the UUA Board of Trustees take a mentoring interest in the Youth Council Representative(s) from their district(s) in order to help nurture the leadership skills required to be an effective district representative. Recommendation: That the UUA Board of Trustees recognize YRUU as a "sponsored organization" and that YRUU be represented in the UUA Directory as such.
Recommendation: That the UUA Board of Trustees place the LRY endowment income, currently integrated in the Youth Office budget, under the direct control of YRUU with the understanding that that amount will be replaced in the youth program budget from General Fund monies; that the Steering Committee of YRUU be the executors of the LRY endowment income at the will of the Youth Council.
Recommendation: That the Steering Committee, with input from the Youth Office, create an updated job description for the position of YRUU Programs Specialist.
Recommendation: That the Steering Committee, the Youth Programs Director and the Director of the Religious Education Department together establish formal evaluation processes, including: an exit interview between the YRUU Programs Specialist and the Director of the Religious Education Department; an opportunity at the last Steering Committee meeting prior to their departure, for each YPS to give an evaluation of their experience; and an opportunity for Steering Committee to have input into the annual employee evaluation of the Youth Programs Director.
Recommendation: That Steering Committee consider implementing specific role differentiations among members, such as someone to set each meeting's agenda, someone to convene the meeting, etc.
Recommendation: That the Steering Committee include in Continental Conference programming each year an opportunity for leadership training.
Recommendation: That the General Assembly Planning Committee, the Youth Office, the Steering Committee and the Youth Caucus Business Manager cooperate in a task force to address youth participation and activities at General Assembly.

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