Youth Together for Justice
First Unitarian Society of Denver Youth Group Hosts MLK Con 2015
MLK CON 2015 In Review
by Sofia Avery-Kapulski and Max Pivonka
Picture a dense horde of teenagers packed into a church sanctuary, murmuring spiritedly. It’s night. Many of them have traveled long, exhausting hours just to congregate here, and yet the smouldering quiver of adolescent incendiarism can be felt from the steps outside. The air of inspired, visceral unity is formidable.
But this is no cult coming-of-age rite, nor is it the beginning of a subversive and dangerous riot. These youth are gathered together here tranquilly, they’re gathered because of a shared passion for justice, and they are gathered in the name of one of the most respected justice workers in history –the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.
A totally revamped and broadened incarnation of MLK CON took place for the first time ever at First Unitarian Society of Denver on MLK (Martin Luther King) weekend 2015. The past six times this event was held, it was in fact a single night overnight.The extension of the event from one night to two was only one of many changes that led to the spectacular nature of this YRUU Conference. This CON spanned to course of Saturday evening, the entirety of Sunday, and Monday morning, culminating in the annual MLK Marade in Denver over MLK weekend, and there were just under one hundred people in attendance, spanning four states and twelve congregations, expanding significantly since its inception as a cluster CON with a few congregations.
This year’s theme was “We Can’t Wait”, based on the title of Dr. King’s book on nonviolent take-down of racial segregation. We can’t wait for social justice to simply happen, we need to take a stand now and be proactive.
This conference differed from other youth CONs in that, outside of meals, sleep, worship, and the traditional culminating coffeehouse/talent show, most of the time was spent in “tracks” that youth chose when they registered for the conference. Each youth at the conference spent a total of 8 hours over the course of the event in two of the five available tracks: Racial Equality, Immigration, GLBTQ Issues, Criminal Injustice, and Reproductive Justice. Each track met four times for an hour each session. The tracks were structured as follows: One or two adult experts in the title field of the track and an official youth facilitator who was passionate about the topic led a lecture-type information and question segment, followed by an intensive discussion session with activities and supplementary media. In the Racial Equality track, for example, youth watched an excerpt from a documentary about Jane Elliot’s “Blue-eyes Brown-eyes” 1968 social experiment exploring discrimination in children (watch the documentary and learn more here) and then had a discussion about the origins and manifestations of discrimination in society at large. A major point of this conference was intersectionality; the idea that social categorizations such as race, class, and gender – as they apply to a group or individual – are in fact interdependent and overlap in issues of oppression, discrimination, or disadvantage. In the words of radical feminist Audre Lorde, recanted at the opening lecture on intersectionality during the conference, "There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.”
A simple graphic outlining the importance of intersetionality was shown during the opening lecture:
Understanding the plight of bob the stripey blue triangle gives us important insight into the perhaps too antiquated way justice work tends to be done. Having this in mind, the final session of each track focused on what kind of action we could take back to our communities after the con to heal the injustice in question. After some very productive and surprisingly practical, realistic brainstorming, all tracks culminated on Sunday night. The groups came together to work on our intersectionality chops with a speed-dating type activity called “The World Café”, where all participants picked one specific issue from their tracks and paired off with someone from a different track (between songs) to discuss how their issues could be dealt with intersectionally. Directly after this activity, whole-event reflection discussions were facilitated by youth leaders. This event was full to bursting with forward-thinking ideas that radically changed the perspective of more than a few attendees, from the musically and morally charged keynote by Johnny 5 of the Flobots to Sunday night’s intense worship, to the candid and sophisticated group discussions, to the union of dozens of different values for a single umbrella goal. The group of youth that marched for justice in the MLK marade on Monday morning was a drastically transformed and more enlightened group than the one that tumbled into First Unitarian’s halls only two nights earlier.
Why are events like this important to us as a faith? Let the reason be postulated thusly: As Unitarian Universalists, we like to think of ourselves as accepting and progressive. Every single one of our seven principles suggests that we enter all circumstances and interactions with an open mind and an understanding heart. But this gentle doctrine becomes much more difficult when we’re confronted with opinions and people who are different from us. One of the tremendous advantages of any faith community is the increased likelihood of cognitive and demographic congruence from person to person, but it can also be a deceptive and insidious crutch. Arguably, one of the most spiritually uncomfortable moments in life is when we feel ourselves violating our own values at the moment that we’re thrust into a circumstance that forces us to enact those values for the very first time. We cannot hope to be proponents of lasting change if we are unwilling to dip our hands into change’s messier side. What MLK CON and its content invited us to do is push through those initial feelings of guilt and incongruence and immerse ourselves in the complexities of every injustice we see. One can only imagine what kind of world we’d live in if every person launched into the world had the sensibilities and critical thinking that this conference nurtured.
As youth ourselves writing this article, we hope that this event will expand and gain footing even more in the future, maybe as an intergenerational and even interfaith project. This year’s MLK CON was one of a kind, and deserves the attention of everyone in our community – whether you’re an armchair activist or shout truths from a lectern at the world’s most influential rally.