Is Your Youth Ministry Welcoming, Inclusive and Accessible?
You’ve got a kick ass curriculum lined up, your service project is on point, parents are energized and willing to volunteer, a lot of last year’s middle schoolers have even decided to stick around and try out youth group. YAY! Since you’ve built it, they will come, right? Well, they may come...but if new youth, and even returning youth, don’t feel welcome and included they probably will find better things to do during youth group time.
A youth group doesn’t magically transform into a welcoming, inclusive and accessible space as soon as you hang a poster of the Seven Principles on the door. We need to intentionally cultivate an environment where youth can practice caring for one another and holding one another accountable to living our highest values.
The principal tool Unitarian Universalists have for this is covenant. Co-creating a covenant with youth can be the beginning of a weekly effort to create a community more welcoming, more inclusive and more accessible than last week’s.
I asked a bunch of Luminary Leaders and Alumni about their experiences of feeling welcome or like an outsider and here’s what they had to say:
So how do you help youth create a welcoming, accessible and inclusive youth ministry? Here are some ways.
Banish the Idea That “We Don’t Have a Lot of Diversity at Our Church”
Assume that all identities are or could be present in the room at any time. Unitarian Universalists are a community that welcomes youth who identify their sexuality and gender in many different ways; youth from all types of families; youth of various racial and ethnic backgrounds and experiences; youth with different physical, cognitive, and emotional/relational abilities; and youth from various socioeconomic classes. Help youth discover, celebrate and talk about their differences as well as their commonalities. Use this Identity Mapping activity from Be the Change (PDF) to help youth examine their generation, geography, nationality, ethnicity, race, religious/spiritual orientation, socioeconomic status, abilities/disabilities, sexual orientation and gender. Don’t be surprised if there’s way more diversity in the room than you initially assumed.
Model Amplifying the Voices of Those with Marginalized Identities
Express gratitude when youth do so as well. When choosing readings, quotes or chalice lightings, ensure that a variety of identities are represented in the authors and that you make that explicit. The InSpirit Series from the UUA Bookstore is a great place to start. My personal favorite is Voices from the Margins. Make this question common place: “who’s voice is not represented in this conversation right now? What might might that perspective be?” Be cautious of not tokenizing someone because of a particular aspect of their identity, help youth explore the intersections of their identities. When bringing in guests to speak with or worship with youth, invite folks who can reflect both the identities present in the room and those absent.
Model Using Inclusive Language
Youth ministry is the perfect environment for encouraging youth to live out their Unitarian Universalist values by creating a just, compassionate, and affirming environment. There’s a great Inclusive Language Guide that provides a helpful starting place. For gender inclusive language, use “folks” or “y’all” instead of “you guys.” Consider what markers of growing up have class implications, not everyone will get a driver's license or car when they turn 16, apply to colleges or move out/away when they become adults. Make a point of correcting yourself if you use exclusive language so that youth can see that it’s not a big deal to mess up and correct oneself.
Consider Inviting Youth to Participate in a “Welcoming Audit.”
This investigation about how welcoming your congregation’s building is for new youth and their families can begin in the parking lot or sidewalk and end in the room where the youth meet. Almost like a scavenger or treasure hunt, ask youth to pretend that they are a newcomer and take note of the ways the congregation signifies welcoming, inclusion and accessibility. A quick Google search returned a few checklists you could draw from. A Church Welcome Audit from a Anglican church and a Hospitality Audit from an Evangelical church (PDF). They can write, draw or take pictures of their observations. Then gather their suggestions for making the the building more welcoming, inclusive and accessible. Remind them to think about what it might be like to approach the congregation as a new comer (is there proper way finding?), a person of color (do you have a Black Lives Matter sign?), as a gay or lesbian parent (is a variety of family dynamics represented in pictures), someone with a cognitive impairment (are directions to the youth room user friendly?) or as a person with mobility issues (how many stairs do you have to climb/descend to get to the youth room?). Remind them that visual or physical signifiers of welcoming are crucial, but most certainly not enough to create a truly welcoming congregation. After a discussion with youth, take their notes to your supervisor and talk about ways to implement their ideas.
By the way, the Youth staff for General Assembly have made it their mission to build and spread radically inclusive community in UU youth ministry. Check out their page, Creating Community at GA for more ideas.