15 Year Review - Progress of YRUU

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Table of Contents | Introduction | A Brief History | Young Religious Unitarian Universalists | Youth Empowerment | Adult Support Of Youth Programming | Diversity In YRUU | The Transition From YRUU

A Brief History

Young Religious Unitarian Universalists was not created out of a primordial void. Those who were involved in the design of YRUU were able to draw upon structural and philosophical models coming from a rich history of Unitarian and Universalist youth organizations that date back as far as the 1890s. In the Universalist movement there was the Young People's Christian Union from 1889 to 1941 and Universalist Youth Fellowship from 1941 to 1953. The Unitarians had the Young People's Religious Union from 1896 to 1941 and American Unitarian Youth from 1941 to 1953. Then in 1953, Liberal Religious Youth (LRY) was formed as a combined Unitarian and Universalist youth organization, preceding the 1961 merger of the parent denominations by eight years (1). Our religious movement has much to be proud of in its long history of promoting leadership, worship and social action experiences for its youth population.

However, YRUU came into being during a time of crisis in the Unitarian Universalist youth movement. LRY, during its growth period in the 1950s and 60s, had been a vibrant, politically involved, largely youth-run, continent-wide network of federations and local groups providing a sense of religious community and UU identity to thousands of youth (2). In the late 60s, a series of decisions made by both youth leaders in LRY and adult executives in the UUA provided the youth organization with the autonomy it was seeking, but ultimately amounted to a form of abandonment on the part of Unitarian Universalist adults (3). This led to widespread alienation and distrust between congregation adults and LRY youth, seriously limiting LRY's ability to be effective on the local and district levels (4). In keeping with the times, there also inevitably arose problems with excessive behavior on the part of the youth. Unfortunately, despite LRY's past successes, by the early-70s it was largely the excesses that it was known for and to this day, people with no direct LRY experience are more likely to associate it with behavior problems than with the positive episodes in its history. (For a broader description of LRY from 1967 to 1982, see "Reflections on the History of LRY and the Transition to YRUU" by Wayne Arnason in Appendix D of this report.)

In 1976, in response to a growing concern over a lack of adult support for youth programming, the LRY Executive Committee asked the UUA Board to establish a Special Committee on Youth Programs (SCOYP). That committee's 1977 report stated "it is difficult to ignore the massive abdication of adult responsibility" (5) in the existing youth program. Although this would appear to vindicate LRY's call for more support from the UUA, the committee unfortunately also had to note that negative feelings toward LRY had become so entrenched that the dissolution of LRY and creation of a new program would possibly be the only way to adequately serve the future of UU youth (6).

This finding gave way to the formation of Young Religious Unitarian Universalists. In the summer of 1981, the first Common Ground conference was held at Carleton College in Northfield, MN, with district representation constituting an overall two-to-one youth-to-adult ratio. The conference undertook a democratic process through which the current leaders of LRY agreed to end its existence in order to transform it into a new youth organization. The next summer, the delegates of Common Ground II decided on the name Young Religious Unitarian Universalists and created the basic structure that is still in operation today. According to Rev. Wayne Arnason, a former LRYer who was hired by the UUA Board to shepherd the restructuring process, "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 happened" (7). On January 1, 1983, YRUU was born.

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Young Religious Unitarian Universalists

The intention of Common Ground was to form a youth organization based on a model of youth/adult collaboration rather than youth autonomy in order to bring the district and local levels back into a constructive relationship with the continental leadership. But the youth, even with their history of autonomy, were not necessarily the hardest ones to bring to the table of collaboration. In 1989, the YRUU Five-Year Review Committee report, while highly supportive of YRUU, pointed to many of the same inadequacies in adult involvement that the SCOYP report brought out, and that we find ourselves having to reiterate here. Their report states, "Adult involvement in YRUU has improved somewhat from the ‘massive abdication' found by SCOYP in 1977, but it is still far below what we feel is necessary" (8). This problem, while showing improvement from 1989, remains today.

However, this committee also notes with interest that the overall tone of the Five-Year Review Committee report seems to reflect a continuing emphasis on the development of youth/adult collaboration within YRUU. This is not surprising considering the origins of the organization. Our committee, on the other hand, has found in discussions at all levels of our movement an unquestioning acceptance of the collaboration between youth and adults with the growth area being in an increasing consciousness of and emphasis on the philosophy of youth empowerment. What emerges from this is a picture of UU youth programming over the past 20 years which has evolved from a guiding philosophy of youth autonomy, which created a crisis of confidence on the part of adult UUs, to youth/adult collaboration, which sought to bridge a chasm of hostility and distrust between the generations, to youth empowerment, which is now being differentiated from youth autonomy and reemphasized as a philosophical priority. The fact that the larger movement can comfortably return to the philosophy of youth empowerment is the clearest possible indication that a great deal of adult confidence has been restored in youth programming since the crisis of the mid-70s. This is an accomplishment deserving of celebration.

But it also indicates the need for adult involvement to be more conscious and intentional than ever. The demise of LRY demonstrated that youth empowerment is only meaningful and can only be maintained when it is done in direct relationship with adults. A failure on the part of adult UUs to participate in that relationship amounts to abandonment of the youth.

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Youth Empowerment

The issue of youth empowerment vs. adult responsibility is simply one of balance. LRY was a membership organization which directly elected its continental leaders, but had minimal contact with the UUA. In contrast, continental YRUU was conceived to exist in a more cooperative relationship with the UUA and thereby structured as a service organization with youth staff selected through an application process by the elected members of the YRUU Youth Council's Steering Committee. However, in the planning of the new organization's structure, the specific definition of the relationship between YRUU and the UUA was left intentionally vague. In part, this ambiguity was designed to reflect the developmental tension between youth and adults, but it was also specifically intended to be somewhat unclear about the balance of power between the UUA Board and the YRUU Youth Council (9).

The vagueness of the UUA/YRUU relationship has helped YRUU, especially in its formative years as members struggled to learn how to put into practice the concept of youth/adult collaboration. But it has also burdened recent generations of youth leaders, for whom the youth/adult tensions of the 1970s are not an issue, because it fails to provide a clear model for putting into practice the overarching philosophy of youth empowerment. In order for YRUU to be a truly empowered youth organization, the UUA and YRUU together need to more clearly define the balance of power between them.

Despite this one area of ambiguity, the structure of YRUU provides youth leadership with a great deal of power to run their organization. We encourage the youth of our religious movement to recognize the power they have been given and exercise it to the fullest extent of their abilities.

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Adult Support Of Youth Programming

The importance of wide-ranging adult involvement in youth programming was the biggest lesson learned from the dissolution of Liberal Religious Youth. LRY's overemphasis on youth autonomy created a deficiency of adult involvement on the continental level. As a result, when hostility arose towards LRY from the denomination, the relative lack of adult voices advocating on behalf of the organization only increased the youth/adult communication gap.

On the local and district levels, successful youth programming is even more dependent on the interest of adults. The 1977 SCOYP report found that "Where there is evidence of adult interest, concern, involvement, sensitivity and continuity, there is apt to be strong youth activity. Where there is neglect, noninvolvement, lack of adult concern or continuity, the programs are most apt to be weak or nonexistent"(10).

Again, the success of this relationship is dependent on balance. The fine line between supportive adult involvement and inappropriate adult management must be actively monitored to remain true to our goal of empowering our youth. When adults take too much control of youth programs they undermine the goal of youth empowerment.

However, there is a potential in YRUU for youth group advisors to misapply the concept of youth empowerment by subverting their own needs in the interests of not disempowering the youth. It is essential that it be understood throughout this denomination that advisors require their own "care and feeding" (i.e., support and training) and that this care and feeding of youth advisors is an adult responsibility. While seasoned youth can be involved in the process of training advisors to the extent that their leadership abilities allow, it is not the youth's responsibility to make sure advisors are trained. Neither is it their responsibility to enforce the code of ethics and to remove an advisor who is exhibiting unhealthy personal boundaries. Youth empowerment does not make it the youth's job to recognize the need for advisors to be trained, supported and appreciated; this responsibility lies with congregation and association adults.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that many religious educators, no doubt overburdened with the younger ages, continue to give a low priority to their congregation's youth group, or even simply the congregation's youth. To be sure, there is much evidence of individual efforts to correct this situation, but there is also a need for an active exploration of the relationship between religious education and youth programming, on both a practical and philosophical level. There are touchy issues involved--by putting youth groups under the heading of religious education (i.e., "Church School") are we disempowering youth? On the other hand, by not doing so are we neglecting them? Many local advisors expressed a wish for more high school level curriculum. The UUA thrust in recent years has been away from adult-led programming in favor of developing youth leadership. The result is that the UUA offers very few high school curriculum resources.

The most significant innovation in our religious movement's approach to youth in recent years has been the "Five Components of Balanced Youth Programming." The seeds of this concept were first planted in an essay entitled "Visions for Youth" by Eugene B. Navias that appears in the appendix of the Five-Year Review Committee's report (11). Over the years, this vision has been honed, refined and put into great effect through inclusion in advisor trainings, Ministry with Youth Renaissance Modules and the literature that comes out of the youth office.

In brief, the five components are: 1) learning experiences, 2) community building, 3) worship, 4) social action, 5) and leadership development (12). Advisors, religious educators and youth leaders are encouraged to incorporate some part of each component into their program, but it is also understood that the degree of each will always vary depending on the needs and inclinations of a particular group. Most importantly, the "Five Components" provide validation and acknowledgement of the whole range of needs that youth have. According to this model, "hanging out" (i.e., community building) has as much place in the religious life of a young person as committed social action does, and leadership development is its own learning experience with as much value as what might be gained from a structured curriculum.

The "Five Components of Balanced Youth Programming" were put forth by the Five-Year Review Committee as a way to begin to address the need for a statement of UUA philosophy of youth ministry (13), a need that had also been cited in the SCOYP report (14). While we applaud the Five Components model, this committee finds that, in addition, clearly and broadly stated philosophical guidelines are needed that can inform decisions on issues involving youth/adult power balance, advisor/DRE relations, adult accountability, parental involvement, group confidentiality and the inclusiveness of local groups (i.e., openness to youth with non-UU parents).

Our cherished philosophy of youth empowerment in a liberal religious context--incorporating the value we place on youth/adult collaboration, balanced youth programming, building community, physical and emotional safety, spiritual nurturance and affirmation--is thorough, consistent and well-grounded. It is the sacred piece of what we do and our unique gift to youth. But, we do it haphazardly and sporadically as long as it is not understood at all levels of our association.

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Diversity In YRUU

We feel it appropriate to make a special mention of efforts in YRUU towards racial and cultural diversity in view of Unitarian Universalism's recent anti-racist and anti-oppression initiatives. Unsurprisingly, YRUU's past progress in these areas has generally been only as much or as little as that of its parent organization. This year, however, youth leaders have responded to the UUA's call for action in a number of ways. Among these efforts we note that the 1996 Youth Council passed four resolutions on racial justice issues including a resolution to create and distribute a resource for promoting youth-specific anti-racism materials and a resolution calling for at least one anti-racist program to be offered by YRUU each year (which was fulfilled for 1996-97 at the Social Justice Conference in Washington); that the 1996 Youth Council Racial Justice Working Group created a process-oriented program for congregations and youth groups (15) distributed in the fall 1996 issue of Spider; that YRUU s Steering Committee has met with Mel Hoover and Christine Murphy of the UUA Office of Racial and Cultural Diversity to plan YRUU involvement with anti-racism efforts and the Youth Office has been following up on the work begun in that meeting; and that the 1996-97 social action theme and the spring 1997 issue of Synapse have Racial Justice as their theme.

The Youth Advisor's Handbook, published this year, sets forth YRUU's operating philosophy in regard to diversity: "A YRUU youth group is the perfect environment for encouraging youth to live out their Unitarian Universalist values by creating a just, compassionate, and affirming environment. This means creating a safe community that welcomes gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered youth or youth from gay or lesbian families, youth of color, youth with different physical abilities, and youth from various socioeconomic classes. ... YRUU groups can help congregations walk their talk around issues of racial and economic justice" (16).

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The Transition From YRUU

Some comment should be made on the prevalent belief that many of our youth wind up leaving Unitarian Universalism after their rich experience with YRUU. The accompanying assumption that this is simply a normal part of the life process--rebelling against religion in general while the tasks of young adulthood are encountered--needs to be challenged. Among adult UUs, our so-called "come outers" (those who have been raised in another faith tradition) may regard it as normal to rebel against their childhood religion. Similarly, our so-called "come inners" (those who were raised without a faith tradition) may regard it as normal in young adulthood to not be interested in religion. However, the recent increased activity in campus ministry and the Unitarian Universalist Young Adult Network shows that there is a place and a need for ministry to youth in transition to young adulthood.

In recent years, many young adult former YRUUers have spoken of the difficulty they have had in making the transition from the YRUU experience into the adult congregation. One way of identifying the source of this difficulty is suggested by the typology of new, mid, and deep UUs. Briefly, "new" UUs are the beginners in our movement, who are learning about the UU way of being religious, and who often have issues with their former religious tradition or their lack of religious grounding. "Mid" and "deep" UUs have moved beyond introductory and reactionary involvement and into the development of their own sustaining spirituality and religious involvement, and to helping others in their quest. Of necessity, much of our adult programming is aimed at new UUs. But our youth who have participated in YRUU have moved past that stage and need opportunities for religious depth and sustaining involvement. We must remind our congregations that our YRUU-experienced young adults are not beginners at Unitarian Universalism. We cannot expect them to be well served by programming intended for new UUs.

We encourage our congregations to keep in mind that YRUU-experienced young adults have been empowered for active involvement and leadership in Unitarian Universalism, and that they are often ready for roles which their "come outer" or "come inner" adult co-religionists are less prepared to handle. Conversely, we encourage our youth moving into adulthood to keep in mind that part of what their empowerment has prepared them for is both to find their own place as an adult in our religious movement, and help pass on the gifts which our religious tradition has given them. Our congregations and young adult former YRUUers have much they can give to each other.

(1) For a complete history of Unitarian Universalist youth organizations from 1889 to 1980 see Follow the Gleam, by Wayne Arnason, Skinner House Books, 1980. (2) Follow the Gleam, pp. 170-174. (3) "Reflections on the History of LRY and the Transition to YRUU", by Wayne Arnason, appendix. (4) "Report of the Special Committee On Youth Programs to the UUA Board of Trustees" (SCOYP Report), November, 1977, p. 9. (5) SCOYP Report, p. 1. (6) SCOYP Report, p.13-15. (7) Arnason essay, appendix. (8) "YRUU: A Five-Year Review of Programs for Youth", April, 1989, p.2. (9) Five-Year Review, p.28. (10) SCOYP Report, p.7. (11) Five-Year Review, p.32. (12) Youth Advisor's Handbook, by Shell Tain, Unitarian Universalist Association, 1996, p.25. (13) Five-Year Review, p.3. (14) SCOYP Report, p. 7. (15) Youth Council resolutions (16) Youth Advisor's Handbook, p.14-15.

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