From the moment our group of seven youth and three adults from the UU Congregation of Fairfax (UUCF) heard the first speaker, we felt the weight of injustice and we began to wear the colors of inequality. The 2016 Unitarian Universalist-United Nations Office (UU-UNO) Spring Seminar completely exposed our naïve understanding of systemic racism. The complex facts and straightforward stories speakers shared all pointed to a failed system—a system we are all a part of.
As each speaker shared a unique nuance of how systems of inequality are built, we became more aware of our own role in this colossal global problem. We heard 16 speakers (on four expert panels) talk about issues from around the world. And they were talking about us. Being exposed, we sat up and took notice. Each of us was called to open our eyes and our hearts to see, hear, and feel the unjust systems at work in the world.
We didn’t want to remain the naïve, careless, unknowing participants. We wanted systemic oppression to stop.
Our youth joined the other 200 participants frantically scribbling notes or taking screen shots of projected images that powerfully unraveled a global story of racial injustice. Systemic oppression is ugly up close. The week climaxed as we saw video and photographs of horrendous systems that imprison our youth and people of color in extraordinary numbers. The information would have seemed unbelievable, except that we were sitting in a huge conference room in the UN with multiple big screens and obvious experts sharing the data and stories.
On the bus trip home, we recounted our previous good intentions as well as massive ignorance. We shared how empowered we felt that we could be a part of the solution... if we paid attention to all that we learned. We couldn’t help but be energized to act.
Back at UUCF, one of the Spring Seminar youth joined our congregation’s Racial Justice Steering Committee, stating, “Going on the UU-UNO trip allowed me to learn about the different types of inequality in our world, especially in the American prison system. Income inequality affects everyone, not just those who are poor.” Her leadership on this committee has been informed by her deepened understanding of the causes of racial injustice and that our congregation is no more immune than any other UU congregation. As a volunteer on an education subcommittee, she co-presented options on how our congregation can deepen our own understanding with the goal of personal transformation that guides all of our decision making. Spring seminar helped prepare her to be a leader in our congregation.
We also learned that victims of systemic oppression must lead a problem solving effort for it to be effective. Two of our youth used their learning to be white allies for racial justice when they attended General Assembly (GA) in Columbus, Ohio, in June 2016. Spring Seminar prepared them with the knowledge and understanding that they were part of the system and thus obligated to be an ally. At GA, they supported rallies, attended worship services, and participated in sessions to deepen their understanding while uniting with people from all over the world against oppression. Spring seminar fueled energetic youth participation in UUA activities.
One of our chaperones commented, “I learned that we must pursue social activism, advocacy, and acts of love and justice from a position of humility. We must not presume to know what a community may need. We should work with marginalized communities to empower them to effect the change they wish to see (and need) in their communities. Despite a plethora of experts detailing all manner of devastating global inequities, I came home from the seminar with hope because of the vibrant, creative, and passionate youth I was able to spend time with this weekend.” The UNO Spring Seminar transformed each of us to do better.
We arrived fresh, interested, well-meaning, and curious. We left with a hunger for change, a breadth and depth of understanding that we could not have imagined, and a commitment to stop supporting unjust systems. These young leaders are informed and hungry. They are the emerging young adults we will meet in our congregations and our denomination. Be ready. They are the change.
Each spring, youth and adults from all over North America gather at New York's United Nations headquarters to dig deeply into global issues and discover passion for and commitment to international human rights. Learn more now about the UU-UUNO Intergenerational Spring Seminar; register online starting December 1. The 2017 dates are April 5 (orientation) through April 8.