I’ve visited this park several times – the first event was a reconnaissance trip. I was looking out for a park where my 3 yo could play independently and in relative safety for at least an hour, while I got some time to catch up on face time with the baby, or email, or reading, or some friends!
The most recent visit was with kids I was watching for a friend. They had only been to the park once before and loved it. We had to kill several hours so it seemed the thing to do.
All my visits were in the morning hours – and even in the late summer/early fall weather – it was chilly. But the children were never bothered by water or sand play in the cold.
This visit was sandwiched between several other related activities for the day – possibly a day in which I learnt to apply everything I knew as a junior youth program coordinator! But first, let me describe the visit:
I arrived at about 1pm, after picking up Julianne, one of the newly-trained animators. She had heard about this program from a fellow animator and eager to engage in constructive volunteer work immediately signed on for the weeklong training. Julianne is a high-school student with a desire to transform her environment and a friendly demeanor. I could tell that the junior youth would love working with her. I’ve noticed that the younger youth definitely are enriched by interactions with their older peers and have been thinking of ways in which we could encourage more high school students to consider volunteering for this service.
Julianne and I arrived to discover that only a couple of junior youth were around. They were twin boys, who had moved here several years ago from Iran with with their family, as refugees. The boys decided since the other junior youth were not there, they were going to go and invite their friends nearby. We visited several homes but no one seemed home and yet they were undaunted. We returned and decided that we would just start our group meeting anyway.
We got settled in the living room, and were soon joined by a couple of junior youth – Analucia and Alanna – who live nearby. It was a diversity of faces and races with Iranian, Hispanic, Caucasian, African-American and Malaysian friends, together. In this beautiful setting, we decided to start with some prayers for assistance in our efforts today.
The junior youth then reminded us that this was the day they had publicized the food drive in their neighborhood, using flyers last week. They had got responses from quite a number of homes to come and collect non-perishable food for the Oregon Food Bank. This was to be their first service project as a group. We split into two small groups and walked to each apartment that had indicated they would like to donate to the food drive. An assortment of food was collected – a total of 98 pounds we later discovered – in just under an hour.
We then drove to the Oregon Food Bank, which happened to be nearby. We asked the staff to explain to us how the Food Bank works and what other services could the youth volunteer to them. The junior youth were energized by their efforts and started brainstorming other things they could do as a group. It really seemed as if their identity as youth that offer service was really starting to crystallize. They wondered if having tshirts would help them be better identified amongst organizations so that they would be taken seriously (when they knocked on doors to collect food).
Once we got back to the apartments, where the junior youth lived, we consulted on the idea of tshirts and how we would make them. The realisation that they would need funds emerged, and instantly their minds starting churning out suggestions to raise money. The decision was made by the group to hold a car wash, and when they discovered another group was doing the same thing, they agreed to pool their efforts together!
One post-visit reflection I’ve had from this experience was about the motivation of youth when rallying around a constructive effort. It seems that when we believe that they are capable of service, and encourage and facilitate their efforts, the youth themselves start seeing themselves in this way. This solidification of identity that is positively-oriented towards service can have a powerful effect on a community.
Later that day, I had the opportunity to visit the mother of one of the junior youth, Alanna, to explain the junior youth program. I was accompanied by Esme, another animator. Alanna’s mother graciously invited us in and expressed confidence that this would be a good program for her daughter. We encouraged her, as a parent, to feel involved with the program too and serve as a chaperone whenever she could. Parental involvement not only strengthens the bonds within a family but it gives each community member a part to play in effecting this positive change in their neighborhood. Alanna’s mother agreed to help as a chaperone when needed, and also gave us the valuable suggestion of holding our group meetings in the community room where more junior youth could attend. She was positive and not at all fazed by the fact that this program was inspired by the Baha’i Faith (sometimes people are nervous about religion) and wanted to know more. It was really a pleasure to meet an open and like-minded mother, who clearly cared about her community and family deeply. I’ve learned that we have to find these common and shared interests with each other if we really seek to help our community progress.
Language is a tool we often unconsciously wield to serve our purposes. The effect of certain vocabulary on our conscious minds and our actions cannot be ignored, it affects how we are perceived by others and how we in turn perceive the world around us.
The training to become an animator starts preparing the participant to consider the type of language they may use in a junior youth group. Beyond simply avoiding coarse language, it can be noted that courteous and meaningful speech has a greater impact on those listening. Use of metaphors, stories and simple explanations, coupled with a humble attitude, can help bring understanding to an unclear discussion.
I have been reflecting on this question of language for several months now, and recently decided to try a simple exercise with some youth who were attending the last animator training in Beaverton. Part of the training involves being able to describe the junior youth program to parents, youth and others in the community. Sometimes we tend to take a formulaic approach to this explanation, using a “one-size fits all” spiel to everyone and we discover that we are unable to engage them in further conversation.
The exercise we tried was to roleplay the experience of introducing the program. We practiced as if we may explain it to a parent, and then to a youth. During the roleplay, I would freeze the conversation, or pause it, and we would stop to ask the participant why they chose a particular word or described something in a particular way. We quickly discovered that there are certain words that we rely on to try to capture someone’s interest – the word “fun” is one, another is “interesting”. It seems as if we have taken the advertising industry’s strategies and now try them on each other!
After the pausing and examining of vocabulary, I then asked the participant to think of a question they could pose to the person they were conversing with. How could they move from an informational conversation to an interactive one – where both parties felt empowered to act rather than one person trying to convince another of the efficacy of a program. Ultimately, any effort we undertake as community builders cannot be as service providers for a less fortunate community but rather as individual self-motivated agents of change working to improve our surroundings. This was perhaps the lofty outcome I had for this exercise. To end, we would debrief the role players, and ask the parent/youth how they felt at the end – if they were exhilarated by a the vision of transforming society, or if they had just said no to another solicitor..
Since the trip to Arizona, I’ve been reflecting and putting into practice some of the things I’ve learnt there.
Here’s a brief rundown on some of my reflections that I found most helpful in serving as a coordinator:
Learning to Collaborate
The degree of autonomy and flexibility given to the coordinators was at first unsettling, and it took me a couple of days to realize that this was a gift as it encouraged us to take action and start learning sooner. When I stepped back and simply observed, I was more likely to be critical of the approaches used, but when I embraced the efforts and attempted to collaborate – for example, with the youth doing the outreach – any criticism I may have had was forgotten and instead I was discovering various positive outcomes of the approach. Even better, I was even starting to refine the approach with others.
Importance of Unity
The more unified a team were, the more joyful the work and the greater the results. When I was part of a joyful team, the heat of the day could not even be felt and we would just keep going until we had accomplished all we possibly could. An example of this was when I went out with the Central Mesa team to find junior youth near an area with few family homes. We did not really find very many junior youth – certainly not enough for a group, but each encounter we had felt infused with joy, loving conversation with strangers and a strong desire to include everyone in this work we were doing. I attribute this state to the unity of action the team had as we went out together.
In another scenario, one team went out and each person had a differing vision of what activities we were to do in a neighborhood. The ride was quiet and almost sullen, my thoughts were not on spiritually uplifting hopes but rather fearful about offending others by saying the wrong thing, and the efforts to engage with others were limited as all had different expectations on time durations/activities.
Empowerment through Questions
I observed that the use of questions in response to confusion often helped us clarify what our next steps were. When questions were asked without regard for the answers then the purpose of empowerment was not served. It seems that we have to couple our questions with a requisite amount of listening too if we wish them to have an empowering effect, and use the answers to inform the next part of our conversation.
Purposefulness and learning to plan
Over the few weeks I was in East Valley, I became conscious of how I am responsible for the structure of my days and how purposeful I was. If my thoughts were focused on the reason why I was in the cluster, then “my movement and my stillness” was directed by this purpose – to learn about the growth of the JYSEP. It was initially frustrating to not know how I could be useful, but I learned that by inserting myself in the efforts to assist others, I was more likely to be of service.
It was helpful to have the morning consultation, as it would give me a sense on how I would plan my time and what my efforts may be focused on. The quote that joy is able to help us “find our sphere of usefulness” really assisted me when I was unsure on what to do in any particular moment during the day.
About a month ago, on very short notice in the midst of planning afore-mentioned youth projects, I received an invitation to attend a training session in Tempe AZ. The session was to last three weeks, in urban desert heat, and gave me an opportunity to see how the junior youth program was being implemented in a different part of the country.
The East valley area in Arizona is unique in that it has approximately 18 junior youth groups – based primarily in Tempe and Chandler. The program has grown rapidly there, and provides one with a laboratory to explore how the expansion has taken place and what effects it is having on both the youth, the families and the surrounding community. My focus during my visit was primarily to learn about the expansion of the program, and figure out what strategies I could implement in Oregon to connect with the youth population here and serve them better.
The following is a brieft sketch of activities I undertook during my 3 week trip in Arizona:
• Study of JYSEP resource person document with coordinators
• Study of work of JY coordinators document with coordinators
• Study of “Thinking about Numbers” with coordinators, animators
• Consultation, action and reflection on various outreach strategies to enlist more participants who may serve as animators, alongside both animators and coordinators
• Consultation, action and reflection on various outreach strategies to enlist more junior youth to form a new group or expand a current group
• Meeting and connecting with community or like-minded organizations in the area
• Preparing with animators to conduct and intensive study with 3 junior youth groups using “Thinking about Numbers” and visiting the groups
• Participating in study circles, as a participant/tutor for Books 1, 5 (part of a capacity building curriculum to train animators and community builders)
• Attending devotions
• Visiting with new contacts to engage in spiritually uplifting dialogue
• Consultation with cluster JY coordinators on activities in assigned neighborhoods.
• Consultation with local JY coordinator, and learning site coordinator on various elements related to JYSEP growth
• Consultation with community members and core team during reflection meetings, feast and devotional gatherings
• Consultation with animators about their respective JYGs
• Personal reflection on nature of conversations, questions, reflections and thoughts on how to move forward
I was visited today by Blas, a 10 year old who hopes to be in a junior youth group this summer. We shared how our day had been and he indicated that his had been a challenging one. Blas and his best friend, Brian aged 13, are no longer good friends and it seems that a number of “fights” had led to it.
After some reflection, I asked Blas if he wanted to keep this friendship, and he said he did. So I invited him to bring Brian over and perhaps we could talk about the challenges of their friendship. It was an interesting conversation, I noticed that the source of their conflict had been the fact that they did not enjoy losing to one another in competitive games. I would like to further explore how competitive games are practiced in schools and how we may engender a spirit of fellowship even in such games, so that healthy interactions with each other may be fostered even as we strive for excellence in all things.
Blas and Brian ended up watching part of a Disney film at my home, before they had to leave. While I’m not entirely convinced of the pure motives of Disney’s film agenda, the Fox and the Hound did impart to them the message of friendship, which we were able to discuss.
Last year, we held a summer youth project which engaged youth from all background to serve as children’s class teachers and junior youth animators in various neighborhoods in North Portland, Beaverton, Lake Oswego and Corvallis. Many of these continued in this path of service during the school year.
This year, we’re planning a similar project but with the intent to try this out in Beaverton, Benton County and Eugene. The process is determining a path of service for the youth is by asking them to write a personal statement about their experiences, and how they wish to serve their community.
The application form is at http://tinyurl.com/zaynab2010
A significant difference in this year’s planning process has been that our committee has a clearer vision of what we would like to achieve and share unity of thought about the training institute. This has led to richer consultation about the possibilities in various neighborhoods. I have been able to apply some of my skills learnt from Facilitation classes in serving as a chair for some of these planning meetings. There seems to be a fine balance between structure and flexibility that allows us to make decisions and come to consensus efficiently.