Archives for posts with tag: empowerment

I love how the more I work in the community, the more it becomes a process of mutual sharing. Sharing a song with the youth in a study circle is so much lovelier when they teach me one in return. A gift of my time visiting a neighbor in her home is quite literally sweetened by the tea she serves me. A word in English traded for a word in Spanish, or in Nepali, or maybe just a loving smile.

It sounds so selfish, I know. We’re taught that we should give selflessly, without regard for reward. But I can’t help the feeling that what I’m experiencing isn’t something as petty as tit-for-tat, it’s an emerging environment of equality. We’re just neighbors. Collaborators. Friends. There are no martyrs here.

So I know a prayer in Sanskrit now. I’ve learned to make chatpate from a group of middle school girls and to make origami flowers from a talented boy who used to curse at me in the street. I hoard a collection of construction paper cards that say “I love u Mis Cat” and “Thank you for being a awesome friend.” I’ve been invited to saints’ days and birthdays and dinners and festivals. And I’ve come to understand, most people love the opportunity to share what they have. Knowledge. Art. Stories. Passion. Faith. It brings people joy the same way it does for me. Silly not to have known it all along, eh? But I’m so much richer for having discovered it now.

Celebrating Holi with the some fabulous youth.

Celebrating Holi with the some fabulous youth.

 “You keep saying that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

-The Princess Bride

Coherence does not mean the same thing as balance. To balance two or more aspects of your life, they must be separate, but given equal or appropriate weight. To live a coherent life is to understand how your work, your health, your service, your family, support each other, and are one. A coherent community does not attempt to separate the needs of children, youth, adults, families, and institutions. A coherent thought does not need to be diagrammed, balance sought between nouns and verbs. If balance is a pie chart, coherence is the combined ingredients in a strawberry-rhubarb pie. There is a difference.

Sustainable does not mean the same thing as easy. Lowering your standards might seem like a great way to ensure that a program or habit can carry on for years, but without the thrill that comes from meaningful challenge and the chance to create true change, is it really so feasible? Daily flossing is easy, but many people skip it even so. Try to see the sustaining power in exhilaration, inspiring greatness of spirit rather than smallness of action. There is a difference.

Empowered does not mean the same thing as independent. Just because someone cannot take on all the responsibility for a task without help does not mean that they cannot begin by taking some. Just because someone has all the skills to act without support from others doesn’t mean that they should. Abandonment is not a condition of power. There is a difference.

walking the path

A few reflections on walking a path of service, a theme that ran through the 10 day intensive youth training campaign I helped facilitate over the last two weeks.

It’s a path, not a road. It is built by the people who walk it. It is being built by you, now, for as long as you walk it, until you stand still. And even then it is shaped by your stillness, your feet sinking into the mud and leaving the imprint of where you stopped to catch your breath and look forward and behind.

But it’s still a path. It’s not only for you. Hiding the way so that you can show how singularly unique you are does not make you a pioneer, it makes you an egotist. The one less travelled by may very well be the better choice, but it is because of the challenge of the journey and the gorgeous views from the top of the mountain, not simply by virtue of being less walked.

Some walk at different paces. Smile and accommodate them. Step to the side for the quick ones, excuse yourself to the slow ones. Touch hands and walk alongside someone for a while, then separate when your legs beg you to stretch them out and give them a really good run.

It’s not criminal to step off the path, but it will certainly expend more energy and slow you down. Sometimes that’s okay. Sometimes it’s not. How important is the direction you’re headed?

When in doubt, move forward. Quit assembling maps and equipment and go. Leave your shoes if you can’t find them. There is someone else on the path who will help you if you need it. But they’re not waiting for you. Walk out and let your feet find a place they can move as they were meant to, with joy, one in front of the other.

You’re not the first person to set out on a life of service. But your service matters just the same.

photo credit: Skinnyde via photopin cc

It’s funny, when you ask an expert, “What science fiction should I read?” you get straight answers back. Maybe a list with lots of “if you’re more into dystopia than I’d try these three” kinds of qualifiers, but an answer, at least.

When you ask an expert, “What should I listen to in order to get a feel for big band music?” you get answers. Enthusiastic ones, with suggestions cross-referenced by song, band, and year.

When you ask an expert, “What should I do in order to be educated in my field, to the same degree that others are regularly educated in theirs?” you get a few answers. Science! Math! But you get more talk about why people don’t want to be educated, why you should lobby for a school to provide you with an education, why you should raise money to hire some people to educate you, why it’s not financially helpful to be educated, why teachers won’t find it financially feasible to educate you, why you need accreditation to be educated, why other people should be educated first.

Folks who teach know what educated people read. They know what educated people practice. They know what educated people do to prove they know what they know. It’s in their syllabi. It’s their job. But for some reason, they don’t hand you a syllabus. They talk around you while you try and explain, “I wasn’t asking for your bureaucracy, I was asking for your advice. What should I read? What should I listen to? What should I do?” They’re wonderful people, friendly, intelligent, and polite. But the answers I crave aren’t forthcoming. I’m left with the same general list of subjects I had before the conversation.

I feel like I could save a lot of time, knowing what they know I should know. I could move forward with new things with more confidence. I could build a better plan. They seem to think I can’t learn it without their help. Or that, in the absence of outside validation, it won’t matter if I do. I don’t know, maybe it’s true. I’m glad they want a meaningful education for everyone, and someday they might get it. But in the meantime, I’m left here where I started, selfishly wanting it for me.

 

I’ve got a chemistry test in a week. I wrote it for myself. I’ve been at this, all on my own, for years. And it seems like that’s the way it’s going to stay for a while.

Everywhere I go, a path of service has already been prepared for me. Junior youth empowerment is a process that is evolving in every corner of the world.

Junior Youth Group

11- to 14-year-olds have many of the same needs everywhere. The need for a safe environment. The need to explore their identities and their dreams. The need for an encouraging voice and a listening ear. This is true for everyone, whether born in a swanky American suburb or a refugee camp in Nepal.

Junior Youth Group

Everywhere there is this tension between wanting to play like children, and wanting to be heard like adults. Luckily, there’s plenty of space for both.

Junior Youth Group

All photos taken by Kat, who is clearly not a photographer.

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.

letter k

Ever get one of those writing or thinking prompts that goes something like, “What would you have done differently in middle school if you’d known then what you know now?” There’s nobody I know who wouldn’t have lived those years of their lives with some drastic changes.

That’s the power of knowledge.

To make a change, you have to know your reality. You have to know what you want. You have to know how to get there (or at least know how to experiment until you do). And you have to know enough about yourself to figure how to put all of this together.

That’s a tall order for a 13-year-old. Or an adult. But it’s true, anyhow.

That much I know.

photo credit: chrisinplymouth via photopin cc

letter j

Who puts their hands on their hips, stomps their foot, and shouts, “Thanks not fair!

A spoiled brat?

An immature child?

How about a champion of justice?

Justice means seeing with your own eyes, hearing with your own ears, and not relying on thirdhand information before you judge.

Justice means equality, except when it doesn’t.

Justice is a sense of right and wrong that permeates the consciousness of adolescents, whether their vision jives with that of the adults in their lives or not.

And surprisingly enough, justice promotes some decidedly un-childish qualities. Generosity. Compassion. Determination. Self-sacrifice.

If your knee-jerk response is, “Well, life isn’t fair,” you’re missing out on an opportunity.

How isn’t it fair?

Why isn’t it fair?

And most importantly, how do we go about changing that?

photo credit: Leo Reynolds via photopin cc

letter h

My father tells his students that “hope is a four-letter word.” He means this in the sense that when hope replaces action, it’s useless. “Hoping” that your grades, your job, your relationships, or your skills will improve doesn’t accomplish much of anything.

On the other hand, hope is a necessary prerequisite for action. Why work hard to improve when the situation is hopeless? You can always use a different motivator in place of hope, but as people who work in dead-end jobs with only a paycheck to motivate them show, there’s a difference in quality.

If you believe that no child is incorrigible, then there’s hope.

If you believe that the state of the world reflects a distortion of the human spirit and not its essential nature, then there’s hope.

If you believe in … anything, at all. People. Nature. God. Change. Any brand of goodness, really, take your pick. If you believe that there is or can be a force for good, from whatever source, then there’s hope.

Just be sure to take the next step. Action, practice, movement, service: none of these are four letter words, so don’t hesitate to make them your own.

photo credit: chrisinplymouth via photopin cc

letter g

When my sister was young, she wrote a letter to a kid, about her age, who was in juvenile detention awaiting trial for murder (he was later found not guilty). He wrote back, “It’s so hard to be good here.”

Most of us aren’t living in the prison system, but it can still be pretty tough to be good.

Some people will tell you it’s most important to be smart.
Some people will tell you it’s most important to be cool.
Some people will tell you it’s most important to be successful.
Some people will tell you it’s most important to be tough.

If it’s most important to be smart, you’ll do what it takes to show how smart you are, even if that means making others look stupid.

If it’s most important to be cool, you’ll do whatever the cool people do, whether it makes any sense or not.

If it’s most important to be successful, it makes sense to cheat, as long as you don’t get caught.

If it’s most important to be tough, you’d better not show gentleness or compassion or show sadness or fear.

It can be hard to be good, unless goodness is the goal. So how can we restructure our communities to make sure that it is?

photo credit: chrisinplymouth via photopin cc