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Talking about Immigration with Children and Youth

General Assembly 2012 Event 322

Download the video file (MP4)

Program Description

Speakers: Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt, Jennifer McAdoo, Jessica York, Mandy Neff

How do we translate our theology of immigration for children? How can children develop multicultural competency as part of faith development? How do we balance our desire to protect our children while imparting the knowledge that not all children feel safe and secure? Religious professionals share reflections, stories, and practices.

Report from UU World


GAIL FORSYTHE-VALE: Good morning, everybody.

AUDIENCE: Good morning.

GAIL FORSYTHE-VALE: Good morning. This is event number 322, Talking about Immigration with Children and Youth. And I'm Gail Forsythe-Vail. I am the Adult Programs Director at the UUA. And I will say that this conversation emerged as—I served on the General Assembly Program Development Group. And when we looked at the proposals that had come in from all of the various places, what emerged as one of the gaps was a conversation about how we talk about immigration with children and youth.

And so some folks have graciously consented to be part of that conversation and join you in that conversation later on this morning. So I wanted also tell you that Barbara Johnson, who is a volunteer, is videotaping this morning. It is our hope that some of the insights that come out of the conversation this morning will become part of a short video with some reflection questions that we can make available to the [INAUDIBLE] chapters, congregations, and other groups later on in the fall.

So that's the plan. This is an open-ended conversation. I think the folks that are here—I'm going to introduce to you, and then let them tell you more about themselves in a minute—are the right people to be in this room. And you are the right people also. So in the spirit of inquiry and conversation, we're going to talk about immigration with—talk about talking about immigration with children and youth.

Our panelists are Jenn McAdoo, who is the Director of Religious Education at First Universalist Church in Yarmouth, Maine; Mandy Neff, who is the DRE at First Parish in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and also the author of With Justice and Compassion, which is the children's immigration curriculum; and Jessica York is the Youth Programs Director at the UUA. And I'm going to let each of them introduce themselves in more detail. OK? Great. Go ahead, Jenn.

JENN MCADOO: Hello, again. As Gail said, I'm Jenn McAdoo. I'm the Director of Religious Education in Yarmouth, Maine. And it's my privilege to also be a member of the Liberal Religious Educators Association Integrity Team, where we focus on challenging our members to be transformative agents in our congregations working on issues of marginalization and linked oppression.

And for those of you who are religious educators in the room, you know the link between being members of faith communities, being religious educators, and focusing on religious education, and doing the work of social justice. So this is work that we are all called to do. And I'm happy to be here to share what some of my thoughts are on this topic.

MANDY NEFF: I'm Mandy Neff, and I serve the First Parish in Cambridge, where we were recently delighted to create a new mission statement that specifically lifts up becoming a multicultural congregation. And over the past three years, I've been able to integrate more and more programming around the immigration issues that we wrestle with with children as young as first grade all the way up through our youth.

And on a personal note, I would also like to share the reason that I became interested in these issues in the first place. And that is my mother's story. And she immigrated to the United States as a teenager who spoke no English and had no job skills. And she was welcomed by at the time a church that was part of the Sanctuary Movement. And I am here today because it was extremely possible for a white, European, unskilled, non-English speaking woman to come and become a citizen within several years.

JESSICA YORK: I'm Jessica York. Happy to be here. One of the things I love about General Assembly is the opportunity to share wisdom. So I certainly don't see myself on this panel as any kind of expert on this topic, just here to share the experiences that I have.

So when I was asked to be on the panel, I give some thought as to what sort of experiences I've had that could lead me to share them here with you today. And I decided well, let's see, I was a child. That's a good start. I'm a mother of a 22-year-old.

I was an RE teacher at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Birmingham, Alabama, where I'm a member, for a few years before I became their Director of Religious Education for six years. I do serve youth at the UUA as your Youth Programs Director, where I help create curricula and resources specifically for youth, but sometimes for other ages also.

I am a lead adviser for Group BAGSLY in Birmingham, Alabama, which is the Birmingham Alliance of Gay, Straight, Lesbian, Bisexual, Questioning and/or Transgender Youth. And I've been doing that for about 10 years.

And I also am one of the co-facilitators of the Multicultural Leadership School, which happens every summer in Boston. It's a program that the UUA sponsors to build leadership skills in youth and young adults of color.

GAIL FORSYTHE-VALE: Thanks. I have some questions that we're going to work with first. And then we're going to invite your questions and input. And as I look around this room, I don't see an audience mic.

AUDIENCE: Oh, it's here.

GAIL FORSYTHE-VALE: Oh, it is. Oh, fabulous.

AUDIENCE: I unplugged it. It was in my food. When we need—

GAIL FORSYTHE-VALE: When we need it.

AUDIENCE: I'll plug it back in.

GAIL FORSYTHE-VALE: Oh, great. Excellent. That's the problem of not getting into a room until 10 minutes before a workshop. So here's the first question.

We're here at General Assembly, learning about and bearing witness to the injustice in our nation's immigration policies and enforcement. And the question is isn't this a complicated grownup issue? And why should we be talking about it at all with children or with youth?

And I'm going to invite the panel to really address that question, one at a time. And I think we'll maybe begin with Jessica this time and go this way. And then after the three of you have addressed it, you might want to talk with each other.

JESSICA YORK: Well, I've got a couple of stories that I think illustrate why it's important to me to talk about immigration and other complex and difficult justice issues with children. When my daughter was seven years old, we were reading a book at bedtime about the Civil Rights Movement. And we came to a page in the book that talked about the police setting dogs and fire hoses on protesters.

And my little seven-year-old daughter turned to me, and her eyes were this big. And she said the police did that? But the police, they're our friends. Why would they do that?

And it was a terrifying moment for me to try to answer that question. I know that she had been taught in school, of course, that the police are your friends. And she'd also been taught in school about the Civil Rights Movement, but obviously hadn't been taught about this part of it.

But the realization that came to me at that point was that I was raising a child of color. My daughter is biracial. But the world's going to look at her, and they're going to call her an African American woman.

And there is no way in our society that you can raise a child of color and protect them from some of the harsh realities of life. And so if you are in a congregation and you are going to have children in your congregation who are children of color, and I can see from the faces in the room that many of the people here, I think, probably do work with children in their congregations, and you know that your chances of having a person of color is increased if you're working with children, more so than the adult congregation.

If you're going to work with them, you can't protect them from some of the harsh realities of life. They're going to experience and learn about it one way or another. To try to not engage them on the topic and not help them process the topic from a young age is really a dangerous and irresponsible thing to do.

In my other example, actually ties into that a little bit also, we had a inter-generational service one Sunday. And after that, I had a time when I had all the elementary age children together. And I decided that we were going to talk about institutional racism.

I didn't really have a curriculum or anything to guide me on talking about institutional racism. But I thought we would sit down and we would have a discussion about it. And so one of the examples I gave to them we were talking about it was I said when you're in Birmingham and you go into a fast food restaurant, and you place your order, there's a good possibility that the person who's taking your order and the person is cooking your order is going to be a person of color. But who's going to be the manager they're going to call to the register when they have an issue there?

Or if you go to a bank in Birmingham, there's a good possibility that the teller at that bank, the person taking your money might be a person of color. But when you want to open a new checking or savings account, and you have to go to maybe the manager, the assistant manager, there's a very real possibility that will be a white individual. And a little four-year-old raised her hand and said that's just like during slavery time when there was a white overseer and the black people did all the work. And it blew me away.

But I knew this four-year-old and I knew her family. And I know her family had had some discussions like that before. And it reminded me of when we teach our whole lives to young people.

And some parents question whether or not we should be doing sexuality education in our congregations. And what I say to them is your child is going to learn about this one way or another. You might have some choice in how they learn about it.

They can learn about it in their family. They can learn about in the congregation. Both these places are loving, supportive, value-laden environments. So they can learn about justice and immigration in those environments.

Or they can learn about it haphazardly without your having any kind of control over it. They can learn about it by hearing Rush Limbaugh when they're scrolling through the TV. Or they can learn about it when they're in their friend's mother's car who's driving the carpool. And maybe they've got it on a radio station, and then someone calls in with some hate talk on that radio station. And so you decide how should your child learn about it.

MANDY NEFF: Well, I feel like I almost have nothing to add. But what I will say goes a little bit further into this question of how do we frame for our children, how do we hold our children in the realities that they already face? None of our children live in a bubble. They will face difficult things all the time.

And whether they are undocumented themselves or sitting in the room with someone who is undocumented or whether they are in a congregation that is far removed geographically from people of color, our children are growing into a world that is more and more diverse. And our congregations are the places where we build the cup for them that they will take forwards into their lives and how they will see the rest of the world and how they will behave in the world when they see injustice. We are here to help create children who can stand up for themselves and children who can be allies for those who cannot stand up for themselves in that moment.

JENN MCADOO: So I'd just like to add a personal story and then share a couple of reflections. And I want to echo what Jessica started out by saying and that is I am no expert on immigration issues myself. But my beginnings as a religious educator were in 2001. And my first Sunday as the Director of Religious Education for my congregation was the Sunday that followed September 11.

And immediately following September 11, my phone was ringing off the hook with people saying of course, we're not going to have RE this Sunday. Or of course, we will have RE this Sunday. And it was my job with the help of the minister and other congregational leaders to figure out how do we, as a congregation, help our congregants step forward through this tragedy.

And people of all ages were struggling with how to make sense of that tragedy. You all have your own experiences of remembering that tragedy. Well, our children were traumatized by that as well, whether we spoke to them directly about what had happened or they sensed that anxiety in their families and the people they cared about, their adults being distracted by this tragic event.

So to not address a significant issue seemed irresponsible, at least that was the approach that we took in our congregation. So I believe that dealing with difficult issues is the work that we're called to do in our congregations. And how we make meaning of challenging issues is what we do.

And hopefully we do it in developmentally and age appropriate ways. So yes, I believe that even though immigration is a difficult issue that it's important to find ways to engage our children and our youth in real and meaningful ways in those conversations.

So I just want to ask for a little audience participation at this point. And if you would show me by a raise of hands how many of you participated in one of the lectures by Louise Derman Sparks or are familiar with her work as an anti-bias educator? So, good number of you. And then I'm wondering how many of you participated in this morning's worship with Barbara Prose, preaching in the sermon. OK, great.

So a couple of takeaways is for me in those two instances, citing our experience here at General Assembly, is Louise Derman Sparks spoke about the ways our children learn about and absorb differences. And she said that at age one, children recognize difference. By the age of three, they're aware of unfairness. And anybody who's been around a toddler knows that, right?

So as Jessica said, how we guide our children in recognizing differences, in understanding unfairness, in building skills to help us work toward a more fair and just world is important. And the thing I'd like to lift up from Barbara's sermon this morning is that if we believe that our laws are not necessarily synonymous with morality, then we need to equip our children and our youth with the skills to bring that into alignment with each other.

GAIL FORSYTHE-VALE: Thank you. If any of you want to follow any further, or would you like the next question?

JESSICA YORK: We can go on.


JESSICA YORK: Next question's fine.

GAIL FORSYTHE-VALE: The next question actually follows a lot on what Jenn just said, which is how do we work with the children's developmental need to figure out the rules and play fair? And how do we help them understand unfair rules, and also, the same question regarding youth. Little bit different developmental stage, but the business of the rules and fairness and how does that play into our conversation about immigration. So Jessica, do you want to work with that a little.

JESSICA YORK: I'll just say a little bit about that, because what Jen said did strike me. Certainly one of the things that I've experienced is when you're working with youth, particularly around that middle school age, they can get a very strong sense of justice. I mean, it's really growing in them then. They're starting to interact with the world. And they are really starting to understand that what they've probably been talk taught about what's fair and right and good isn't always mirrored in the world.

They may have been experiencing this since they were children. But when they're children, they're still very focused on themselves. And they still are very concrete thing, where they take one instance at a time.

By the time they reach middle school and high school, they're able to step back from it, look at it more objectively in this abstract manner. And they're really starting to ask themselves some serious questions here about fairness and about justice.

And one of the things that I say to young people when they realize how much injustice sometimes exists in the world is that, because I believe this myself personally, laws and the way that we are together in the world, that's controlled by us. And we're people. And people are not perfect.

And sometimes we may have the best of intentions, and those intentions don't turn out right. And sometimes we don't have the best of intentions, because other things get in the way, and other priorities get in the way. And we forget our values.

And we don't live up to our highest values. And I confess to them that I don't always live up to my highest values. And other people don't either. And there are probably going to be times in their lives where they won't live up to their highest values.

So it's a matter of reminding each other, holding each other accountable to those values, so that we can return back to them. And I say to them that I want them to hold me accountable. And I hope that I can hold them accountable too and bring them back to those values.

And then when we're doing justice work out in the world, that's what we're trying to do. We're trying to help other people accountable to live up to what the highest values are, that we can as human beings, and that we each have a responsibility to do that.

And I hope that they will accept the mantle of responsibility for doing that, because we need to hold each other accountable. That's part of the sort of covenant that we have in our congregation. And it's part of the covenant that I think we have with the world.

I think if we don't talk to youth about these issues and don't help them process these issues, there's a real possibility that they will internalize a lot of anger and grow up to really act out some of that anger. Or the flip side of that is that they can become very apathetic. And they can think gee, I can't change the world. I don't really have any influence. I've been trying, and it doesn't get me anywhere.

And I've been known to resort to say sappiness from time to time. I'll do that. So I've shared with my daughter sometimes when she felt like she's worked on something and nothing has changed, I share with her the story about all the starfish that wash up on the beach.

And the people are walking on the beach, and one person is throwing a starfish one at a time back into the ocean. And the person accompanying them says what are you doing? You're not having any effect. All these other starfish are going to die. It doesn't matter what you do. When they pick up a starfish and they throw it in ocean and they say well, it does to that starfish. So sometimes I remind her take one starfist at a time.


JENN MCADOO: I guess one of the things I'd like to say is that it's important to know our audience. And I think in our congregations, we have such wonderful opportunities to be creative in the ways we engage with each other, trying to work through the many issues that challenge us in congregational life. So whether you're taking groups of small children or trying to approach issues across generations, I think it's really helpful to have a sense of the developmental needs of the groups of people you're working with.

So it's commonsensical to say that the developmental needs of preschoolers are different than high schoolers. I think most of the time, that's true, anyway. I live with high schoolers, so I can say that.

So thinking about you can take a big challenging issue and overlay some of the developmental characteristics of the groups we're working with and figure out how to break those issues down in real and meaningful ways. And I don't know.