A Program Leader Reflects on UU Youth as the Present and the Future; The Change We All Wish to See

My name is Sam Wilson, and my primary job is to serve Winchester Unitarian Society (WUS) as their Director of Youth Ministries, which means that I feel incredibly blessed to count myself amongst those who truly love what they do! I also have the incredible fortune of being a Program Leader for the UU College of Social Justice, which means that during my time off from WUS over the summer, I get to meet and connect with even more UU teens by leading UUCSJ Activate! Youth Justice Trainings. I actually found the CSJ booth at its debut UUA General Assembly in Charlotte rather accidentally; I was still in college at the time and wanted to see how I could transfer there!

Cut to 4 years and 4 more GAs later, and I have now proudly led 2 Youth Justice Trainings in Boston and the pilot Activate! Training in Tucson last summer, helped with 1 pre-GA Activate! training for youth, served on panels for 3 CSJ-led workshops on youth and justice work, and even manned that CSJ booth a few times while explaining to several different people that the name is actually a bit of a misnomer, and no, you cannot actually get a college-level degree from us! I also always add that you can, however, get the experiential and transformative education of a lifetime in way less time (and without any student loans afterward, too!)

All youth staff for NYJT '14 (now called Activate). From left to right: Ravenna, Charis, Kye, Sam and Alexandria

All youth staff for NYJT ’14 (now called Activate). From left to right: Ravenna, Charis, Kye, Sam and Alexandria

As you can probably tell, I am a big fan of working for CSJ, and really enjoy doing as much as I can to support them. There is one thing, however, that really bums me out about this work, sometimes a program doesn’t run. Last summer I was all set to lead my 3rd Youth Justice Training in Boston, but the program was cancelled due to under-enrollment. You might be thinking “who cares; if only a few youth signed up then there were only a few people who didn’t get to do it.” Here’s the thing, though. Every single youth I have ever talked to about their experience during Activate! tells me some version of the following:

“The Boston trip was one of the most formative experiences of my life… I was a completely different person before and after and it left me with a desire to make the world a better place, while giving me the tools to do so… It’s an experience that everyone should try to have to better themselves and the world.”- This quote comes from Julia Nichols, a teen I first met in 2013 at the Boston Training, and then again in 2015 when she came back for Activate! Tucson (where I was thrilled to hear about all of the justice work she had been doing at her school in the interim). Julia intends to do the NOLA Activate! with us this summer, too, and is one of several planning on attending their 3rd training with us then.

What this means, though, is that every slot that is not filled by someone on an Activate! Program means one fewer young person who gets to have a life-changing experience that summer, who has the tools to become a thoughtful and engaged activist before even getting to college, and who goes back to their congregation and community excited to share their newfound passion and skills with other potential advocates, allies and activists.

Activate Alum, Alexandria Boutros, has said, “There are so many UU youth all over the country who would love this. I did this program… and then my life became justice.” I first met Alexandria at the Boston Training in 2013. Now she is a sophomore at DePaul University, where she majors in Peace and Justice Studies with a Minor in Community Service Studies, while interning for The Food Chain Workers’ Alliance. She continues: “I literally would not be at DePaul right now, studying Peace and Justice, if it were not for the Boston training.”

For me, these programs represent the convergence of my two main passions: ministry with youth, and social justice work. I am simply amazed by the thoughtfulness, intelligence, compassion and individuality that each set of UU youth brings every year. Plus, like these youth, I am a big fan of keeping things interesting by contrasting absurd irreverence (let’s make pancakes! With pink food coloring! And cloud sprinkles! While dancing!) with deep, heartfelt moments of reverence, grace, love, and often sadness too. Every single training I have attended there is at least one moment where I am caught off-guard by my own immense pain at learning about some new, insidious manifestation of hatred and injustice that I had not previously considered. Suddenly tears are flowing down my face, and I’m momentarily flustered as our roles are briefly reversed and the teen asks me if I’m okay while offering a hug.

I’ll wrap my thoughts up by letting readers in on a little secret (that I’d bet resonates with most if not all of the other people who get to work with UU youth). I love this work for the exact same reasons that all of these teens do. In our programs, the youth and adults simultaneously act as participants and leaders, teachers and learners, speakers and listeners, poets and readers, and worshippers and preachers. For I, too, always emerge from these trainings a different person from the week before. My eyes are cracked open just that much more to truth; my heart set that much stronger on paving the road to justice with equity and love.

Read Sam’s follow up post “5 Reasons Why You Need to Tell Every Teenager You Know to Apply Now!”

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