brazil junior youth group

A junior youth group in Portal da Gloria, Brazil plants a flower garden.

It occurs to me that, despite how much I talk about being a junior youth animator, I’ve never really explained what the Junior Youth Spiritual Empowerment Program is all about. Not in a concise way, anyhow.

Junior Youth

A junior youth is someone between the ages of 11 and 14. In some places the “junior youth” designation starts at age 12, but here people start middle school at 11 and move on to high school at 14, so it’s a really logical social group. Junior youth is that time in between childhood and youth when we become more independent, start to look critically at the world around us, think more abstractly, ask big questions about the nature of things, and feel an awful lot like an adult, even if we don’t always act like one. Heck, we even start to look more like adults, too. Growth spurts and hormonal changes are a part of this time period too, for better or worse.

Spiritual

The qualities of the human spirit: courage, compassion, truthfulness, trustworthiness, love. Many people (junior youth, as well as those younger and older than them) navigate their spirit through the medium of religion or faith. Many people do not. So while religion inevitably comes up in conversation (and if you think junior youth aren’t interested in discussing religion, think again), it’s from a perspective of sharing and inquiry rather than proselytizing or catechism. The goal is to deepen the spirit: for the Muslim youth to be excellent Muslims, the Christian youth to be excellent Christians, the Baha’i youth to be excellent Baha’is, and the humanist youth to be excellent humanists. For those young people that are exploring religion in the hopes of choosing one to follow, the goal is for them to do so from a place of understanding and respect. Don’t forget, curiosity and creativity are also qualities of the spirit.

Empowerment

Empowerment means “to endow with power.” When junior youth work to make positive changes in themselves, it endows them with the power to change their communities. When junior youth serve the community in increasingly complex ways, it endows them with the power to change themselves for the better. Youth already have amazing capacities inside them: physical capacities for athletics and dance, mental capacities for critical and creative thinking, spiritual capacities for kindness and justice, and other uniquely human capacities for things like verbal communication and artistic expression. To empower junior youth doesn’t mean stuffing them full of power they don’t yet have, it means drawing out the capacities that are already latent within them and bringing them to fruition.

Program

While each junior youth group develops organically, there is a basic framework for the program. There are study materials that encourage discussion. Service to others is a major component, whatever form that may take. Artistic, athletic, and social activities are also important; forming strong friendships rooted in mutual respect is vital at this age.

All these things grow as the youth do. In the beginning, they read simple stories. While the topics may be profound, the depth of the conversation may or may not be. This isn’t problematic, it’s just a natural result of being 11. Service projects may be simple, like visiting the sick, reading books to young children, or cleaning up litter in a neighborhood.

After three years, the youth are reading stories at an adult level. Not only are their services to the community more long-term and complex (like holding a regular class for children or maintaining a vegetable garden for local hungry families), but they have taken on most of the responsibilities themselves. They call organizations to arrange a meeting or businesses for in-kind donations. They plan the lessons they’ll teach. They write the public talks they’ll give. (And arrange the venue. And write to the local paper about it.)

Does this seem like a lot to ask of a 14-year-old? Of course it is. But 14-year-old gymnasts with three years of training under their belts can do backflips. Imagine the citizens that 14-year-olds with three years of systematic empowerment behind them could be.

So what happens after?

Obviously, we don’t just ditch these youth on their 15th birthday. What happens next depends on the paths of service that each youth chooses to take, but many take all these skills for consultation, service, reflection, and community-building, and decide to become trained to animate their own junior youth groups. At around 16 (sometimes earlier, sometimes later), often with the assistance of an experienced mentor, they become that older sibling to a group of 11-year-olds who are just entering adolescence.

So when you hear me talking about my junior youth groups, this is what I mean.

It’s a process of empowering young people ages 11-14 to make a difference in their own lives and in the lives of others. It’s frustrating to be told that your entire life is a time of preparation for eventual adulthood. The best way to prepare for a life of service is to start making a difference now.

Photo used with the permission of the Baha’i World Center.

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