Archives for posts with tag: junior youth group

What does it mean to be an animator-

  • Be a true friend to those who are younger. Junior youth, or those who are between the ages of 11 and 14, are at an age where they rely on their friends. When they experience friendship that isn’t rooted in superficial interests or appearances, they thrive.
  • Provide an example of positive growth. Since you are just a bit older than the junior youth–not so old that they can’t relate to you, but not quite so young as to be a peer–they will look to you to see what kind of person they could become in just a few years.
  • See potential in all its forms. Society offers us a vision of junior youth that isn’t necessarily accurate. Looking at adolescents and seeing their capacity for kindness, for creativity, and for service to others helps them to see themselves not as a problem to be fixed, but as protagonists and agents of change.
  • Unite youth, families, an communities. A junior youth group doesn’t only affect participants, it draws in everyone around it. Through service, visits, and consultation, the presence of a strong junior youth program can actually transform the surrounding culture.

Interested in becoming a junior youth animator? Learn more about the training institute or contact the Baha’i community nearest you.

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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.

Daisy and I walk down the road together. There aren’t any sidewalks here, but people drive slowly, knowing there are always children playing in or near the street.

“Where are you from?” Daisy asks.

“You mean where was I born?”

“Yes.”

It’s a logical question, in a neighborhood like Vickery Meadow. Many of the residents are refugees and immigrants from all over the world. There are 28 languages spoken in just one square mile. It’s an amazing little microcosm of the world.

“I was born in America. My father and his parents were born in Canada, and their parents were born in Romania. Where are you from?”

“Africa.”

“How wonderful. What country in Africa?”

“I don’t remember.”

We walk a bit further. It’s 95 degrees outside, and both of us are sweating.

Daisy asks, “Do you have a religion?”

“Yes, I’m a Baha’i.”

“Does that mean you pray to many Gods?”

“No, it means I believe people of all different religions pray to the same God.”

Her brother jumps in from behind us: “Do you believe in Muhammad?”

“I believe in Moses, and Jesus, and Muhammad, and also Baha’u’llah. That’s what makes me a Baha’i. I believe that people who pray different ways can still love one another. Like my family. My mother is Christian, and my father is Jewish, and I’m a Baha’i. We’re different religions, but they are still my family. Just like you and me. We’re different religions, but we’re part of the human family, so we still need to love each other and take care of each other.”

Daisy again: “Is everybody here a Ba-who?”

I glance back at the pack of boys and girls following at some distance behind. “Nope, just me and Nabil. There are lots of different religions here. Isn’t that nice?”

We keep walking, past neighbors speaking Spanish, Nepali, French. Children chase each other and play basketball. Babies are fed, laundry is hung, the sun beats down. Daisy and I keep moving forward in the heat and the light. What else is there to do?

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 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 i

It’s rare to see the quality of ingenuity encouraged in school. Generally speaking, who, when, and where get answered, while, “How might you?” is left behind as too messy to grade. It’s one of the most difficult qualities to foster in people who’ve so far been encouraged to dedicate their lives to arriving at the correct answer, not a new one.

When I lived in Malawi, I was talking with a group of secondary school girls who were complaining about a teacher. They told me, “He puts things on the test that he never teaches us in class.” This seemed like simple poor pedagogy to me, until they continued, “He says we’re supposed to think for ourselves. We shouldn’t have to think for ourselves until college or something.”

While it’s rare to find an American student so forthright about their expectations, the attitude itself is common.

But practice makes perfect, right? There’s always hope.

If you run into a problem while working with young people, enlist their help. Work through it out loud. Brainstorm. Be creative first, then be logical. Between those two attitudes, you can get pretty far.

I’m not a very clever innovator or problem-solver, by nature. But that’s why I have my junior youth to help me. We’ll get there together. As for the exactly how, that remains to be seen.

photo credit: Leo Reynolds 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

letter f

Every one of us has a family, whether we like it or not.

Engaging families can be a difficult task for an animator of junior youth groups. On the one hand are the overcommitted, overscheduled families. They can be so busy with softball games and viola lessons and the PTA that the idea of taking an interest in even one more of their child’s activities can seem exhausting. They’ll often show up when a group first begins to make sure it’s legit, but then be happy for a couple of hours of solitude each week, during which they can leave their child with you and run a few errands, or sit down with a book for a change.

At the other extreme are disengaged parents. Due to stress or a heavy workload or simply disinterest, they don’t take any particular interest in their children’s extracurricular activities. Unless you go out of your way to get to know these families, you might never meet them at all.

Of course, there are other reasons why family engagement can be tricky, like language barriers or lack of mobility. But these seem to be much more easily overcome.

Two things I’ve learned about family engagement:

  1. Every parent loves to hear good things about their child. Of course, it’s important that the praise be true. That’s why it’s so important to take notes and keep track of the progress you see. 
  2. Degree of engagement is less important than consistency of engagement. The parent that can commit to having one conversation over dinner about the group’s topic every week ends up doing more good for the group than the parent that organizes an entire service project once.

Just like their children, most parents are happy to be listened to. Start there. Work forward. And don’t give up.

photo credit: chrisinplymouth via photopin cc

letter e

A lot of people say that youth need things to be exciting if it’s going to interest them. This is probably true. But what excites them?

When I was a preteen and a teen, I got excited when I was able to experience things that weren’t allowed when I was younger. Signing up for elective classes of my choosing, going away to summer camp, and wearing pointe shoes in ballet class all fell into this category.

I got excited when I accomplished something that took a lot of effort. Finally getting my bar routine in gymnastics in one continuous motion was exciting. Being accepted into the Senior Youth Orchestra and playing more difficult music than I’d ever tried before was exciting, too.

I got excited when I was able to make new friends. Student council and after-school clubs were exciting.

I got excited when people recognized my achievements. Best poem in the whole school district? Exciting. Being asked to co-sign a declaration (which I’d written), with my mayor and my congressional representative as a high schooler? Very exciting.

I’ve forgotten most of the parties, the games, the shows. They were fun, which is important too. But not so exciting, in the end.

If you believe that youth are shallow, then those are the sorts of things that will need to be used in order to excite them. But if you think of them as people who are just gaining a broader and deeper perspective of the world, who are gaining new degrees of independence but are uncertain what to do with it, who spend their school days forced to do every kind of work but work that actually has an impact on the world … exciting could mean something different. It certainly did to me.

photo credit: chrisinplymouth via photopin cc