Elias Estabrook was a recent grassroots mobilization intern at the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) whose work focused on engaging youth. Here he reflects on the National Youth Justice Summit, a UU College of Social Justice program that he attended in the final week of his internship.
Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
—Rev. Howard Thurman
What does this mean for young people like me? Rev. Howard Thurman’s widely cherished and respected words capture what I grapple with as I seek out opportunities to learn about the world and make a difference. Where and how will I discover what truly makes me come alive? And how can we help other youth discover that for themselves?
Over the past two months, after an eight-month immersion experience abroad, I’ve settled into UUSC’s office in Cambridge as an intern for grassroots mobilization. Just as I did in my rural, Senegalese host community, I’ve taken on the challenge of examining the role of youth in social change — and formulating ways for them to engage as leaders and aware members of society. In particular, I’ve focused on youth activism with respect to economic justice, from fair trade to restaurant workers’ rights.
In my final week, I had the opportunity to attend parts of the National Youth Justice Summit, a UU College of Social Justice program. It was a privilege to see how 10 young Unitarian Universalists — much like I was just a few years ago — are tackling fundamental questions about social justice and developing realistic visions for how they can be agents of change. During the week, the youth forged connections as they shared perspectives. They were united by not only their UU faith and their leadership qualities but also their joint motivation and aspiration to make a difference. And that week can serve as the jumping off point for something even bigger.
It was a blessing to end my stint at UUSC with such an interactive week. As we closed one of the sessions, assembled in a circle with joined hands, I voiced my gratitude for seeing my hopes for engaged young people manifested in the wisdom and determination of these eager leaders. Even though I spent much of my internship at a desk shaping important research and creative ideas into strategic information kits and workshop programs, being face-to-face with young UUs for a short time was ultimately the most gratifying. It made the youth-led social-justice movement I was envisioning and writing about incredibly real.
The world needs youth leaders to take on the complicated challenges of our time. But there are far too many for one young leader to take on alone. And so, as Howard Thurman believes, we need more youth who are intrinsically motivated and passionate about the good they can do in the world. As they explore, they will discover what they are most drawn to, whether it be campaigning for marriage equality or coordinating job-training programs for marginalized youth.
Bringing out this enthusiasm and conviction is, of course, easier said than done. Reaching and harnessing this energy was one of the greatest challenges of my work. How do you motivate youth to contribute to social action, to understand and get involved with an important human-rights campaign? These were the questions I pondered. Yet, after this National Youth Justice Summit, this task seems much more possible. Surrounded by lively, inquisitive, and invested youth, I find my optimism about our generation reaffirmed.
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