05 January 2005

Puzzled and Concerned Over Criticism of UU Youth Anti-Racism Work

In case you hadn't seen it, there's a discussion thread on the Philocrites blog on the withdrawal of official UUA support for the Young Religious Unitarian Universalist (YRUU) Continental Conference ("Con Con"):

"So much for 'Con Con: The Movie.'"

The author/editor of the Philocrites blog is Chris Walton, the Senior Editor for the UU World magazine.

Frankly, I'm both puzzled and disappointed by the "blame anti-racism" attitudes in the original blog posting and the replies to that posting.

My only experience with Continental YRUU anti-racism work was at the 2003 YRUU Long Range Planning Conference and it was an overall positive experience for me. However, I've also encountered anti-racism work in other UU settings.

The anti-racism and anti-oppression work I've experienced in other UU settings (congregational workshops, LREDA Fall Conference, SWUUSI youth camp, YRUU Cons, ConCentric) have varied greatly from being highly effective and challenging to highly ineffective due to a lack of participant support.

I have seen the same lack of interest in my congregation's adult community with the Welcoming Congregation program. We've even had some of our naysaying members complain that the Welcoming Congregation program is out of touch for the "real UUs" in our congregation, the UUA staff has been taken over by "hippies," etc.

To me, this suggests that the problem with Con Con isn't one of "elite" YRUU vs. local congregational youth. It's more like our UU youth (non-congregational and congregational) simply reflect the rest of the UUA in microcosm. Face it -- most adults and most youth are not involved in UUA denominational events outside the walls of their congregations. Oftentimes, the results of our denominational decision-making surprise who are not connected with the wider association.

If Con Con and Youth Council are "out of touch" with local youth groups, isn't the same "out of touch" situation also present with General Assembly and adults in UU congregations, SWUUSI and adults in the SW District congregations, etc?

Most adults in my district don't attend my district's summer institute, district conferences, General Assembly, etc. Most youth don't attend the Con Con, the summer institute's youth camp, or YRUU rallies (what my district calls YRUU cons). This is often called "not meetings the needs of all youth" but it's considered acceptable for adults though.

The "fragility" of our youth programs that Philocrites refers to on his blog is also present in our adult UU programming. As an "association of congregations" or a "denomination" (pick whatever term is appropriate for your view of our polity), too many adults know too little about what is going on in other UU congregations, in their districts, and throughout the UUA.

This is not a youth-only issue but apparently a denominational issue in my opinion. I see the same trends in UU adults. We are not a well-interconnected cooperative network of congregations promoting faith development throughout the lifespan. And part of this is due to our congregationalism being taken to the point of unhealthy "idolatry."


Anonymous said...

Since my focus is on congregations, I obviously prefer to support and enhance congregational programs. In my view, some of the non-congregational sub-cultures within the UUA wield disproportionate power -- among them the denomination-focused culture of YRUU. I'm not passing judgment on the place of anti-racism ideas among UU youth and the adults who work with them at the denominational level other than to point out places where that work generates or exacerbates tensions with congregations. Those tensions need to be addressed more successfully than they have been, or we're going to witness the death of LRY, round two, which had disastrous consequences for youth ministry in many of our congregations.


Anonymous said...

Steve, I'm actually in agreement with you that Con Con's disintegration (and the general lack of representativeness of the YRUU/UUYAN leadership in general) is due mostly to a general UU phenomenon of attention to the local. Perhaps I stressed the anti-racism angle too much in my comments at Philocrites, writing a long post like I did can make it hard to tell how balanced you're being. Sounds like you may have had more positive experiences with UU anti-racism movements. I believe you, but in my case, I haven't had positive experiences. Removing discrimination and institutional racism from our denomination and making our congregations both more inviting and increasing their effectiveness as spiritual homes for people of color are all issues of real importance, as is the Welcoming Congregation program you mentioned. But, in my own personal experience, the movement which is called "anti-racism" within UU circles is largely a destructive, divisive, strident, and hopelessly self-righteous phenomenon that sets its own goals back by continually alienating potential allies and hijacking any and all forums. Maybe I've just been unlucky enough to repeatedly run into the darker sides of anti-racism, but I've also had similiar reactions expressed to me by many other UUs who, like myself, are deeply concerned about finding ways to break down UUism's entrenched denominational focus on wealthy, educated, and European-American elites.

Jeff Wilson

Anonymous said...

Mr. Wilson, what do you mean by "hijacking any and all forums"?

I think the idea that anti-racism work takes anything away from us privileged folk is pretty silly. It gives us the opportunity to really understand what underlies our relationships with each other. Societally granted privilege is just not a part of my identity that I'm going to miss as I help it to trickle away.


Steve Caldwell said...

I'm a person who wears many identities:

-- 45 year old adult
-- white male
-- parent of two youth (17 year old daughter and 12 year old son)
-- youth advisor
-- religious educator
-- bisexual activist
-- UU youth and young adult ally

As a youth advisor who has participated in some UU anti-racism and anti-oppression workshops, I realized that UU youth advisor work may be a good foundation for future AR/AO work.

As youth advisors, we are trained to be aware of power, priviledge, prejudice, and oppression with respect to ageism. When another advisor or youth provides feedback to me about power and priviledge, it's simply accepted.

I don't have to feel "guilty" for being 45 but I have to be aware of it and own the consequences of being an adult in a YRUU setting.

I don't know an easy way to translate this awareness and acknowledgement of power and priviledge from ageism to racism. I'm open for suggestions.

Anonymous said...

My reply on AR/AO thread,
revised Excerpt from my Philocrites post:

My challenge to Tim and other AR/AO youth and young adult leaders would be to take Jeff Wilson's and Chris Wilson's critique of these AO efforts a little more to heart. The whole concept of Anti-oppression work for UU youth, who score highest of any group on college entrance exams, is a real cunundrum. These youth are among the least oppressed humans in the world in terms of their opportunities, and that includes the People of Color youth. Not that they aren't oppressed in some ways, as are we all.

However, with the support of the UU Administration, the Youth Office and other authority figures, some UU youth and young adult leaders have taken AR/AO to an extreme. They talk about how to use love while acusing any white person of being a racist. It's dysfunctional, at the very least. AO/AR work has become very loud and very deaf. I don't think this is what the UUA, the Youth Office, or AR/AO intended.

AR/AO destructive to our youth and young adult is also becoming more and more harmful to UU youth and young adult conference communities because it displaces business and leadership training time with identity group meetings and protests against unintentional institutional racism.

There is a real failure of the AR/AO leaders to recognize their own INSTITUTIONAL racism in their efforts to put themselves forward as good people who are good role models. This is creating a mentality that they are the ones empowered by the UUA to ferret out evil in the world as if they themselves are non-racist, non-oppressive people themselves.

This might be true in terms of where their hearts are at, but in terms of the institutional matrix in which they are embedded, their hands are dirty too, just like the folks they accuse, but they fail to recognize this and instead are coming across as deeply disfunctional and incredibly strident in their accusations of racism and oppression in other people. What started out with good intensions with some good work done is quickly degenerating into an unhealthy UU A0/AR sub-culture which is doing more harm than good to our UU youth and young adult con communities.

Salem had its witch hunt and now the AO/AR work is degenerating into a "witch hunt" with all of the atmosphere of hysteria that occurred in Salem.

Meanwhile, the AR/AO folks are claiming that they are the ones being hurt by racism at UU youth business meetings, which is a load of horse manure. Because, the AR/AO folks are not recognizing the context of institutional racism present and are resorting to theatrics to empower themselves, just like the teen age folks who started the Salem witch hunts. There needs to be some responsible intervention from our UU leaders in regards to the new rise of the AR/AO witch hunt sub-culture before more damage is done to our UU youth and young communities.

I recognize that the Journey to Wholeness or any community building effort will go through periods of chaos, but then, folks need to drop their strident personal agendas and start listening to one another in order to engage in the process of building a real UU community where everyone is once again included as who they see themselves to be if they are not trying to hurt other people.

People who are close to one another hurt each other very easily, even just by NOT paying enough attention, but we need to be able to recognize when people are not intentionally hurting other people even as we state clearly our own joys and concerns.

This goes for "UUism is only about local church on Sunday" UUs and ministers as well as "youth cons and young adult cons are the most meaningful thing happening in UUism today" UUs, like me, and even "you are a racist oppressor because you are white and I'm not because I'm a PoC or a white AR/AO leader" UUs.

All of these groups, so well represented in this debate, need to drop their agendas and start caring about one another as people who are different than them and have no intension of conforming to the other's opinions entirely.

Jim Sechrest