Monday, January 3, 2005
So much for 'Con Con: The Movie.'
Update 1.6.05: I've added a clarification to my comments at the end of this post.
Unitarian Universalism watchers may have received an e-mail from the denomination's Youth Office on December 15 announcing the end of support for "Con Con," the annual continental conference of YRUU, the denomination's youth movement. (I'm going to do my best to get through this post with a minimum of acronyms and euphemisms, but we are talking here about the most acronym-happy organization in all of disorganized religion.) Earlier this year I had suggested that "Con Con: The Movie" could be the Unitarian Universalist companion to the parody of Evangelical adolescence in "Saved," but it looks like my proposed film missed its moment. Con Con is no more, and you'll have to forgive me if I don't shed a tear. Don't worry, though: The opportunities for parody have not disappeared entirely.
Any other institution might have been able to say that a poorly attended, drugged up, chaotic conference for a handful of spoiled kids that didn't meet institutional objectives and consistently went over budget wasn't worth the money and effort it was spending on the conference, but we're talking about YRUU here: There must be a better reason than any of these to kill the conference.
The Youth Office (which consists of four young adults) justified their decision like this:
In the end, we decided that what we have done has been to identify (as described in this letter) one of the most expensive, time-consuming, unaccountable, racist, classist, unsafe, and unnecessary institutions in all of continental YRUU and UU youth ministry, and to stop supporting it. We have done this without putting the burden of identifying it and working to reform/eliminate it on the communities who have been marginalized by our past support of it. We consider this a case of "stepping up" as anti-oppressive allies who are in a position to make positive change, and not of "stepping on" as oppressors. [emphasis in original]
One could say many things about these intriguing sentences (and about the rest of the Youth Office letter), but I know you're clever enough to read the whole thing and draw most of the inescapable conclusions. I'll try very delicately to point out one fundamental paradox in it: In order to put even more emphasis on "anti-racism/anti-oppression" training programs — which the in-group of denominational YRUU leaders spends much of its time attending — the Youth Office has pulled the plug on a conference that it deemed too elitist. And yet, if you read down through the letter, you'll notice that the Youth Office isn't just expected to serve the needs and interests of an elite group — oops, beg your pardon, a diverse and multicultural group of youth-empowered youth leaders — known as the YRUU Steering Committee. It's also expected to serve local congregational youth ministries. This expectation (as the letter points out) comes from the UUA's Board of Trustees and presumably from the UUA's administration rather than from YRUU. Meeting both sets of expections — from the youth Steering Committee and from the adult UUA Board — is a lot of work for a staff of four talented and hardworking people.
My own experience as a youth advisor in one of the largest Unitarian Universalist congregations left me with the distinct impression that congregations are almost entirely on their own when it comes to youth ministry. A few kids get excited about district and denominational programs, but as those programs have become more and more identified with a specific political-ideological agenda, they become increasingly isolated from the needs and interests of the local groups. It's a situation that's bound to generate tension. There may be great reasons for directing most of the staff support and volunteer leadership into anti-racism programming — the fact that the General Assembly, the UUA Board, the UUA Administration, and the leadership of YRUU have all made anti-racism/anti-oppression "work" a priority, for example — but the truth is that the focus on these training programs makes it harder to focus on the resources that congregational youth ministry requires. I don't think these are mutually exclusive goals; I'm simply pointing out that the tension exists and won't be going away.
For hints at how widespread these tensions might already be, check out the first section of the minutes from the 2004 Youth Council meeting that took place the week before the ill-fated final Con Con. Watch for references to "AR" — "antiracism" — and conflict with local congregations. Much of this conflict has to do with problems associated with poor adult supervision at youth conferences, and some of it is just the good-old-fashioned generation gap, but some of it is clearly tension among teens themselves about YRUU's intensifying emphasis on the ideology of anti-racism. Other acronyms you'll need to know: "LDC" is "leadership development conference"; "SDC" is "spirituality development conference"; "DYSC" is "district youth steering committee." More than any resistance to "anti-racism," however, you'll notice just how fragile most district and denominational youth programs really are. It's not a picture of institutional health. Happily, YRUU leaders and the UUA Board know this and have started planning "Common Ground III" to review YRUU. The first "Common Ground" essentially dissolved YRUU's predecessor in 1981; the second created YRUU in 1982. Another major transformation may be on the horizon.
Update 1.6.05: Six months ago, the YRUU Steering Committee announced: "The governing body of YRUU is considering calling a new 'Common Ground' meeting, similar to the meetings that created YRUU over 20 years ago." (Scroll down to "Common Ground Survey," 6.7.2004.) "Considering" does not mean what I said above, however. I wrote that "YRUU leaders and the UUA Board . . . have started planning 'Common Ground III'." That's not actually where things stand right now, and talk about "Common Ground" may misrepresent the intentions of the people involved. So here's some clarification, based on a closer reading of some of the materials and conversations with a few people who know a lot more than I do.
A letter last summer from the Steering Committee and President Sinkford notes that "Youth Council decided that it needed more information and more dialogue before making a recommendation regarding another Common Ground." I understand that this means at least two important things: First, although conversations are underway about how to expand and strengthen youth ministry within Unitarian Universalism, those conversations aren't focused entirely on YRUU the way that Common Ground I and II were. As the letter acknowledges, YRUU is in nowhere near the shape that LRY was when it was disbanded. Talk of another "Common Ground," however, brings up anxieties about the wholesale transformation of YRUU that are probably not merited.
So, although many conversations are underway about how to improve Unitarian Universalist youth ministry, I jumped to a conclusion about what sort of transformation is currently in process.
Copyright © 2005 by Philocrites | Posted 3 January 2005 at 5:56 PM