‘Young people are really hungry for opportunities to talk about these issues.’
High school youth from six states attend the Conversations about Racial Equality for Youth conference at North Shore Unitarian Church in Deerfield, Illinois, in March 2016. (Courtesy of Shannon Harper)
A Black Lives Matter banner hangs across the stained glass windows of the old stone church in Milwaukee. Inside the religious education classrooms in the basement, about 200 children in grades K-12 are learning about the issues behind those words.
Like many Unitarian Universalist congregations, First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee has been a staunch supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the church is also committed to engaging youth in antiracism work. After months of writing curriculum and lining up guest speakers, in January the church’s religious education leaders presented a special two-week RE program called Black People Matter. Church leaders say this kind of program is especially needed in Milwaukee, which is the most segregated metropolitan area in the United States.
“Racism is inculturated,” says RE director Beryl Aschenberg. “Many of our children see it in their lives, especially here in Milwaukee, but don’t have a name for it or a sense of how it plays out. I see our responsibility in religious education to help young people recognize that this is an issue, even when they often see themselves as being ‘color blind.’ Once they recognize racism, they can start to address it.”
Aschenberg and Patrick Mulvey, a former member of the church’s RE committee, spent several months crafting ten lesson plans—two for each age level—plus supplemental activities. Activities ranged from the youngest children reading books about segregation and analyzing their own skin colors to the teens meeting with Peter Mulvey, Patrick’s folk singer-songwriter brother whose song “Take Down Your Flag” went viral after the church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina. Children also heard from special guests in the Time for All Ages portion of the adults’ services, including a powerful performance by two young spoken-word poets—Chris Fears and Thomas Leonard—and string musicians Monique and Chauntee Ross, who make up the SistaStrings duo. The children’s RE program coincided with the congregation’s participation in the UUA’s Thirty Days of Love campaign, which included adult RE programs, films, forums, and other activities focused on racism and segregation.
The RE committee is planning to do another session next winter. “We realize we’re just scratching the surface, but if we waited until we had a comprehensive plan to combat racism, we knew we’d never get started,” Aschenberg says.
Several UU churches recently hosted youth conferences themed around racial justice.
“I think that young people are really hungry for opportunities to talk about these issues, and faith communities have an obligation to create a safe space where they can have these conversations,” says Leslie Ross, director of religious education for First Unitarian Society of Madison, Wisconsin, which hosted an interfaith event titled “Let’s Talk about Race: A Conversation with Teens” in February.
In March, the MidAmerica Region of the Unitarian Universalist Association sponsored the Conversations about Racial Equality for Youth conference, which was hosted at North Shore Unitarian Church in Deerfield, Illinois. The weekend-long event drew around twenty high school UUs from Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Minnesota, and Missouri.
“The biggest focus was empowering youth to become confident in talking about race and race relations and knowledgeable about it so they feel empowered to interrupt racism when they hear it with their friends, with their families, and at their church,” says event co-facilitator Shannon Harper, who is the youth events coordinator for the MidAmerica Region and director of religious education for Miami Valley UU Fellowship in Dayton, Ohio. “Interrupting racism is kind of like CPR—unless you’ve practiced it, you might be scared when you have to do it for the first time.”
The conference included music, thought-provoking YouTube videos, and small-group discussions. “Don’t plan to have this kind of conversation with youth without planning for a breakout session by identity group,” says Harper. Identity groups are spaces for youth of color to talk about their experiences, free from worry about offending their white peers. White youth simultaneously congregate in another space to explore their own journeys.
It’s important for youth of color to be able to share their experiences and emotions with each other, and for white youth to talk about their experiences and emotions as allies, Harper notes.
Discussions in racial identity groups were also an important part of the program for around fifty UU teens who gathered for the Metro New York Youth Racial Justice Conference in December. The event was planned by India Harris, youth and young adult program coordinator for the UU Congregation at Shelter Rock in Manhasset, New York, and Kamila Jacob, youth ministries coordinator for All Souls Unitarian Church in Manhattan. It was the first racial justice event for UU youth in the district in several years.
“We recognized that people need the foundation and basics of the racial justice lexicon to move to understand Black Lives Matter,” Harris says. “If you don’t have a common definition or shared analysis of what racism is, then it’s hard to do any sort of movement work. It was really important for us to work with and support youth of color in their identity development and support how all the youth can be an ally in racial justice work.”
Aisha Hauser, director of religious education for East Shore Unitarian Church in Bellevue, Washington, and chair of the diversity and inclusion team of the Liberal Religious Educators Association, believes in taking a holistic approach with antiracism education that includes everyone. “I don’t do antiracism work with youth and children first. The parents have to be comfortable with having these conversations,” she says. But she makes sure that youth are always invited to the table. Last year, in honor of the fiftieth anniversary of the marches in Selma, Alabama, she focused on the Children’s March in 1963 in the Story for All Ages portion of the Sunday service and in the RE lesson that followed. Another recent multigenerational event at East Shore was the viewing of the film Dear White People. After the movie, the participants—who ranged in age from early teens to eighties—broke into small groups for discussion. The church has also hosted workshops with Robin DiAngelo, a professor of multicultural education, who coined the term “white fragility.”
It’s vital that UU churches involve youth in antiracism work, church leaders say. But congregations who have waded into this territory know that it’s not easy. “Start the conversation and understand what it means to be intentional, and know the conversations are going to be hard,” Hauser says.
Because of the predominantly white culture of many UU congregations, it’s important to be sensitive, says the Rev. Dr. Elaine Beth Peresluha, who was senior interim minister in Milwaukee through April, when she moved to East Shore. First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee incorporated input from local community leaders, including Reggie Jackson of America’s Black Holocaust Museum, who vetted lesson plans, consulted, and provided teacher training and adult education classes.
“Your own intrinsic bias can pop up in ways that you don’t expect, so it’s important to have people of color who are collaborators,” Peresluha says.
High school senior Ally Alito, who helped lead the Milwaukee youth group’s discussion, says she hopes to continue the conversation. “Race is kind of a taboo subject and people feel uncomfortable talking about it, and that fuels the fire. In order for there to be change, you need to start young.”
Jacob, who helped plan the Metro New York conference, offers this advice to congregations interested in getting youth involved in antiracism work: “Just do it. Start the conversation. Reach out to UUs and local organizations already doing this work and team up!”
Other UU congregations have already expressed interest in using Milwaukee’s curriculum, and the church plans to make it available later this year, after RE leaders rewrite some of the less-effective activities. Contact Beryl [dot] Aschenberg [at] uumilwaukee [dot] org.
Aisha Hauser, chair of the diversity and inclusion team of the Liberal Religious Educators Association, also recommends:
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Nicole Sweeney Etter, a member of First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is a freelance writer and editor.
As their spiritual educator, I’m teaching my kids the importance of authenticity.
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