Introducing River Rising

By Shannon Harper

River Rising Logo, honor ancestors, find balance, ground yourself, weave connections, leadership for a new future.

The Central East Region is excited to announce the creation of a new week-long youth leadership experience happening this summer in 2019. Rising River will include several aspects of the previous Goldmine Leadership School but with lots of new exciting changes.

Why Change Leadership School?

I’ve staffed 7 UU Youth leadership schools. Every single time I have been awestruck and humbled by the transformations I’ve witnessed. Transformation from a bunch of virtual strangers to a fully bonded, inclusive and empowered community that cares for its own and stays in contact with one another into adulthood. Transformation from teenagers who don’t “connect” to worship into sacred space creators, ritual makers and story weavers able to collaborate and combine their passions into truly worshipful offerings to their community. Transformation from someone who feels and acts helpless to someone who feels and acts confident, capable and full of possibilities. These weeks have truly been magical and life changing.

But the ultimate vision of leadership school has never been just about what happens during that week. The idea was to equip young people with the skills needed to enhance their participation in church, school, work, community - life - as a productive and well rounded leader—or at least an active and responsible participant. We told them to strive for leadership and we taught them the qualities of a good leader—compassion, courage, credibility. . . We taught technical things like how to facilitate a meeting, handle disruptive committee members and give constructive feedback. We taught how to lead a meaningful worship service taking into consideration who their audience is what their space constraints are. We also taught UU history and encouraged conversations about ethics and values. We told them that it is our duty to help heal the world; that they are a light unto the world and they should let their light shine. And we encouraged them to take responsibility for their space both figuratively and literally by creating covenant and cleaning up after themselves. These are all worthy skills. But as I talked to other leadership school staffers and thought about what kinds of things teenagers are dealing with today, and what they are bound to come face to face with in the future, I came up with some additional skills to build a more holistic approach to leadership:

  • Due to climate change the world we live in could look very different even 10 years from now. Are we teaching skills that encourage adaptability, resilience and creative problem solving? Do they have a healthy respect and understanding of the balances of our natural world?

  • Our current government administration's policies will have a rippling effect for years to come on health care and education. Are we talking enough about the importance of self care (both physical and mental), spiritual practice, and the wisdom of elders?

  • High school has always been potentially high stress with social conventions to adhere to, grades to watch, questioning identity, budding sexuality and a looming independent future. But now many of our teenagers enter a high school building every day where they walk through metal detectors and have active shooter drills. Are we equipping young people with ways to relieve stress and create the supportive communities they need?

  • Online and/or in person teasing and bullying is something almost all youth have experienced at some point in time. Low self esteem and feelings of worthlessness trigger harmful behavior and the opportunities for engaging in that behavior will only increase as they grow into young adulthood. What are we doing to instill in them a deep self-worth and the ability to see worth in everyone? What challenges can we present that when thought of in the future will remind them that they are so much more than someone else’s mean words?

  • Are we centering marginalized voices in everything we do and talking about liberation for all?

What are the Changes?

  1. The name! - We decided that a new program deserves a new a name. Our inspiration was water.

“Water is versatile. It can be big and powerful, it can quench thirst, it can be healing, it can drown us. It finds its own level, always. That is, water is always seeking balance and has a place it has to go. It can be scarce, it is necessary. We’re utterly, devastatingly dependent on it. It’s beautiful and tragic and it feeds us sometimes. When we hold water back we can create power but there is danger when we remove the dam unexpectedly. It’s really flexible and adaptable. It takes the form of our containers. Bruce Lee says ‘Be like water. . .’ If we can understand fully the nature of water we can understand what we’re doing here.”

—Aisha Shillingford, originally from Intelligent Mischief, quoted by Adrienne Maree Brown in Emergent Strategy

Rivers connect everything. They move earth, carve rock, create their own path. A rising river is something to pay attention to. It’s a sign that it’s time to prepare a plan. There is a precariousness in a river rising. Too high and the result is flooding, which can be devastating and dangerous. And yet in nature, with flooding can also come renewal, when the flood waters recede the ground is left more fertile. That is the balance of nature.

  1. The age range—Goldmine was previously for youth who had already experienced at least a year of high school. Now we are shifting down a year, accepting rising ninth graders and cutting it off at rising 12 graders. We think it’s important to “capture” the enthusiasm that younger teens have while they are still eager to bring it back to their congregations and youth programs.

  2. River experience—We plan to add a day spending time interacting with nature on a river. The exact experience we plan will depend on the accessibility needs of students - river rafting, canoeing, and exploring are all possibilities. Our goal is team building, group bonding, personal challenge, respect for nature and fun.

  3. Anti-Oppression and environmental themes—Rather than adding and updating activities and verbiage that reflects culture shifts around AR/AO and the environment, this new curriculum will use these lenses to run through the entire program.

Schedule changes—Our daily schedule will be relaxed. Leadership school shouldn’t be an exhausting test of physical will. We want youth to go to bed tired but wake refreshed and ready for the next day.

Interested in learning more? Visit our River Rising webpage. We have 2 different weeks in 2 locations this year for youth who are interested in participating.

About the Author

Shannon Harper

Shannon Harper joined the Lifespan Faith Engagement Office as Co-Director in the summer of 2022. Previously, Shannon worked with the Central East Region since the Fall of 2016.

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