Learning, action continue to mark youth movement

Youths study together during a session at Youth Week 1 last summer at Bosch Bahá’í School. Photo by Annabel Maldonado

Bahá’í communities in the Long Beach, California, area were having trouble sustaining the junior youth spiritual empowerment program.

“The junior youth group we had going in Long Beach stopped and started many times due to lack of human resources,” says Brittany Thomas. “I mean, our resources are slim when it comes to involvement in the junior youth groups.

“As a result of our inconsistency and perhaps naivete about the process, the youth and junior youth lost faith in us — though they always looked forward to coming to group if we were doing something arts-related.”

Animators finally decided to suspend the group and set their sights on training more local youths to lead junior youth activities.

Even that has been “as of yet inconsistent,” says Thomas, but as bonds of friendship are being forged one aim is to get the youths enthused about serving junior youths and “slowly we’ll work up to studying Book 1” of the Ruhi training sequence, Reflections on the Life of the Spirit.  

“Right now, you can feel the energy in the room drop at the mention of studying a book,” she says.

“But as we focus for the moment on service and meaningful discussion in the group, the facilitators are keeping a sharp eye on the progress and growth in capacity of the group members.”

That way, she says, “we can accompany them from stage to stage and eventually get them animating the neighborhood junior youth on their own.”

Lending impetus and direction to the process is that two of the young people attended a youth conference in 2013 and more have participated in follow-up youth gatherings.

Setting a spiritual tone for facilitation

A campaign of youth gatherings — 50 in one stretch of fall alone — has washed over the country in recent months.

Youth and young adults are being prepared to form the vanguard of efforts to build community locally and in areas with fewer Bahá’ís.

Ilya Brecque, a regional training institute coordinator for the Regional Bahá’í Council of the Great Lakes States, and Auxiliary Board members Oliver Thomas and Abby Wilson are heading up this effort in Michigan.

They are helping the state’s youths plan core activities locally and in areas needing an extra hand. Several travel to serve as tutors for study circles, says Brecque.

Two gatherings at Louhelen Bahá’í School in Davison, Michigan, have aided the effort.

Brecque points to the last day of one gathering that she terms “extraordinary.”

“We had just an hour and a half left to plan, as time ran out,” she recalls. “The youth were so skilled at reading their own clusters’ realities, recognizing the needs of the clusters, as well as the stepping stones. Then they created thorough goals.

“It looked like a gathering of world leaders,” she says. “Their level of discourse was so heightened, their keen awareness of individual, community, and institutional needs was clear, and their ability to make clear lines of action was compelling.”

Many of the youths are accompanying efforts in several areas, including their own, says Brecque. As part of their continual learning, they are studying Book 8, The Covenant of Bahá’u’lláh, together and meeting once a week to reflects on their own development and their clusters’ progress.

With the youths’ assistance, she says, most goal areas in Michigan have passed their first milestone of development — engaging in a program of growth at some level of intensity — and those that have not are receiving lots of attention.

“Plus, we are noticing that our ‘milestone one’ clusters need to heighten their three-month cycles [of activity], especially with expansion and consolidation,” she says.

“So our recent focus has been on learning about outreach in two clusters. We also have a Book 6 [training on Teaching the Cause] planned for these particular youth and those from their own clusters to really learn how to share the Faith with friends and work towards community development.”

A transformative experience for all

Summer youth and junior youth programs at Bosch Bahá’í School, located in the Santa Cruz mountains of California, have undergone a “reimagining … in light of the youth conferences,” says Deborah Conow, program coordinator for the school.

It’s part of a transformation in learning seen in all the permanent Bahá’í schools over the past few years.

“The time was ripe,” notes Sana Rezai of Fresno, “to further align what the youth do ‘up the mountain’ to what they do down below.”

Sana and his wife, Elena, served on a committee, which also included the secretary of California’s Regional Council and Bosch staff, to coordinate the 2014 summer’s youth and junior youth programs at Bosch.

To help make the experience more coherent, participants were accompanied throughout their study, recreation and other activities by facilitators — most of whom had taken part in the 2013 youth conferences.

To further cultivate an “environment wherein true understanding can blossom,” participants were “empowered to take ownership of their learning” in the spirit of the institute process.

Among results, Sana says, were that “the study became more open and uplifting” and the dichotomy between formal and informal activities faded.

Within days, he says, “conversations in the cabins and during break would just be an extension of earlier conversations from class, albeit in different forms, and the topics discussed in sessions would permeate all the various spaces and blocks of time throughout the day.”

Interestingly, the “desire to be entertained” nearly vanished, Sana adds.

The energy of the participants “was instead channeled into sharing of collective artistic expressions of concepts from the study, into group singing and learning songs together, and into acts of communal worship organized by the youth themselves.”

Transformation was also at work among the facilitators, as they learned more about accompanying others on a path of learning, the co-coordinators say.

The new mode of service “demanded a humble posture of learning,” Elena Rezai says.

Frustrations experienced at the beginning of a week often gave way to new insights a few days later as the facilitators consulted and experimented with different approaches.

Through persistent effort, Elena says, the growth in their capacity was evident as they took greater ownership over the process of their own learning. They “found joy in the serious pursuit of understanding” and built palpable unity among themselves.

“Ultimately, with time, consultation, action and reflection,” she says, “facilitators began to see their efforts not in terms of success and failure but rather as part of an unfolding process.”

That perspective helped them face challenges with calm determination, rather than with the fear that isolated events “would make or break the session.”

For another example of the refocusing of sessions for young people at the permanent Bahá’í schools, read “Laboratories for service” in The American Bahá’í, November/December 2014, page 11.

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