Youth safety

Some people are living in the past. Specifically, some people apparently think it’s still the 1970s.

So I’m volunteering on a task force for a UU nonprofit that is trying to figure out how to offer safe youth programming. As part of the research we’ve been doing on youth safety, I’ve been looking at some sample youth safety policies from other nonprofits, as well as licensing requirements, recommendations from insurers, and other legal issues around non-school youth programming.

I already knew that sexual and emotional abuse of teens has been widespread in pretty much all youth programming. The Catholic church and the Boy Scouts get all the press, but from what I can tell all youth programs had similar issues. The Boy Scouts, the Catholics, along with other nonprofit youth programs, other religious groups, youth sports programs, after school programs, etc. — none has adequately protected youth. This is well-known, and I was expecting it.

What I wasn’t expecting was how bad some of the Unitarian Universalist (UU) youth programs still are.

Back in the 1970s, youth programming throughout society was influenced by a notion that subjecting people to intense situations in a very compressed time-frame would lead to personal growth. So, for example, “est” (Erhard Seminars Training) reportedly required participants to be present for an emotionally intense training from 9 a.m. to midnight with only one meal break. This is the era when ropes courses were popularized, subjecting people to physically demanind and physically frightening experiences to promote personal growth.

Back in 1995, when I started helping to lead UU youth programs, many of these techniques still reigned supreme. Sleep deprivation was seen as a positive force for personal growth, and teens were tacitly encouraged to stay up all night. Emotional intensity was used in many situations — there were “touch groups,” small groups where you were encouraged to bare your soul; there were activities designed to encourage people to reveal intimate personal details; and once you arrived at a “con” (youth conference) on Friday afternoon, you were pretty much stuck in this emotional cauldron for the next 36 hours.

Some teens did benefit from this kind of emotional intensity. Some White, upper-middle class teens who already had good emotional skills found the con experience to be highly beneficial.

On the other hand, over time I became aware that sexual assault and racism thrived in the con setting. I still remember being at the same conference center with a conference of non-White UU youth. Some of them spoke to me of how they experienced con culture as racist. I also heard about sexual assault at cons, ranging from unwanted touching to statutory rape. Most of my knowledge was second hand, but I’ve also heard from some women who experienced sexual assault at UU youth cons when they were teens.

And no wonder. The sleep deprivation and the emotional intensity led to poor impulse control, both on the part of youth and of adults. The organizational chaos resulting from all that emotional intensity mean adequate supervision was impossible. The chaos was amplified because there was no real curriculum, no real programming. So I stopped volunteering at cons and UU summer camps about twenty years ago. It just felt too dangerous.

What blows my mind is that there are still UU groups doing youth programming based on that old 1970s-era personal growth model. I guess these UU groups don’t seem to realize that standards of care have changed a great deal in the past decade — heck, they’ve changed a great deal in the past five years. These days, you have to have constant adult supervision and no chaos.

Equally troubling, we UUs don’t seem to have much else to offer. Too many UU programs for teens still focus on “personal growth.” Or the programming has the goal of “radicalizing” teens, which mostly seems to involve encouraging teens to go to protest rallies. By contrast, we’re not taking teens to speak at city council meetings, or to participate in labor union events, or to observe courtroom proceedings. Pretty much what you’d expect from upper middle class White folk.

Maybe we’re so backward on standards of care for youth programming precisely because we have so little to offer. Why invest in youth safety if you don’t really have a meaningful program?

I’ll end on a hopeful note. I’ve helped create UU programming for teens that’s not based on “personal growth,” that’s safe, and that’s also compelling. Once you let go of personal growth (and sleep deprivation) as the highest goals, lots of possibilities open up. But the first step towards meaningful and safe teen programming is to let go of that old 1970s-era personal growth model.

Risk Reduction Resource Kit

Alex, a friend who works at Health Initiatives for Youth (HI4Y) in San Francisco, told me about their Risk Reduction Resource Kits. These kits contain resources to help teens teens learn about sexuality and safer sex. Alex knows about the OWL comprehensive sexuality education program, and has heard me describe our youth programs, and based on that he encouraged me to put in an application for the last remaining Risk Resource Reduction Kit, and Carol and I went in to JI4Y’s offices to pick up the kit on Monday.

The whole point of the kit is that it’s supposed to be placed where teens can access it without adult supervision, to encourage them to explore the materials on their own. The kit was designed to accompany a sexuality education curriculum developed by HI4Y, but be accessible both to teens taking the curriculum and other teens. So for our congregation, it’s a prefect accompaniment to the OWL unit for gr. 10-12; for those taking OWL the kit will reinforce the curriculum; and it can also serve as an educational resource for those not taking OWL.

The Curriculum Subcommittee of our congregation met the day after I picked up the kit, and we devoted the meeting to talking about the kit. The Curriculum Subcommittee has been exploring ways to be more intentional about our congregation’s implicit curriculum, asking ourselves: How can we structure intentional learning opportunities that are not part of the explicit curriculum, the formal educational programs? We agreed that the kit is a solid addition to our implicit curriculum: Not only does it educate teens about specific sexuality topics, it provides a larger lesson that information about sexuality should be easily accessible and shared without shame or guilt.

Beyond educational theory, we also talked about how best to implement this aspect of our implicit curriculum. Alex had warned us that sometimes the kits get forgotten, and stowed in some obscure corner. So we’re going to provide orientation to the kit for key adults (youth advisors, OWL leaders, ministers, and others) to increase the chance that adults will remember to make the kit accessible. In addition, we’re also going to provide a brief orientation to the kit to teens — both to youth group members, and participants in OWL gr. 10-12 — showing them what’s in the kit, and telling them where it will be located. (When we offer OWL for gr. 7-9 next year, we’ll do another orientation.)

But the real strength of the kit is what it contains. HI4Y came up with some excellent youth-friendly resources, including comics, zines, books, and samples — I’m putting a complete list of what’s in the kit below. The materials are housed in a wheeled nylon case, like airline luggage (actually, it’s a scrapbooking case HI4Y bought from Michael’s art supply). A highlight of the kit is contraceptives samples that youth can examine: condoms of course, but also dental dams, female condoms, and lubricant; HI4Y even has some grant money left to replenish samples when they get depleted. There’s both a penis model (made of wood, not plastic!) for trying condoms, and a vulva/vagina model for trying female condoms. We were able to add one very important thing to this kit: our congregation has a ten thousand dollar bequest that we can use to put books in the hands of children and teens, so we are able to provide copies of the book “S.E.X.” by Heather Corinna that youth can take for their own.

We would not have been able to afford to put this kit together ourselves, and we are grateful to HI4Y for writing the grant and assembling the kit, and to the federal government for providing the grant money. Just in case your UU congregation can find the funding, I’m going to provide a complete list of all the resources in the kit below; at the very least, this list of resources might spark ideas for you.

The Risk Reduction Resource Kit (we added the sign at top).

Here’s what’s in the kit:

Birth control samples and examples:
Dental dam samples
Female condom samples
Female Contraceptive Model (to practice inserting female condoms)
Lubricants samples
Male condom samples
Penis model (to practice with male condoms)
IUD model
The Ring model
The Pill model
The Implant info card
Plan B info card
Birth Control Patch info card
“How Well Does Birth Control Work” info card

Home test kits:
Pregnancy test kits
HIV Home Test Kit information (actual kit is stored separately, per instructions from Health Initiatives for Youth)

Handouts and Miscellaneous:
“Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis” handout
Individual Drug Fact Cards (handouts)
Drug Fact Cards set
Chlamydia Plush Toy
HIV Plush Toy
Youth Clinic Youth Guide to San Francisco and Silicon Valley (list of local clinics that serve youth; includes 1-page summary of California law on youth’s right to treatment)
(We also added handouts from the nearest Planned Parenthood Health Center)

“Dr. Rad’s Queer Health Show: Self Exams & Check-Ups” zine by Rad Remedy and Isabella Rotman
“You’re So Sexy When You Aren’t Transmitting STIs” comic zine by Isabella Rotman
“Not on My Watch: Bystander’s Handbook for Prevention of Sexual Violence” comic zine by Isabella Rotman
“100 Questions You’d Never Ask Your Parents” book by Elisabeth Henderson and Nancy Armstrong
“S.E.X.” book by Heather Corinna
“LGBTQ: The Survival Guide” book by Kelly Huegel Madrone
“Birth Control Top Picks” magazine by

New male contraceptive in development

Jeff, one of the people who is volunteering in our comprehensive sexuality education program this year, pointed me to an article on a new male contraception product now in development: gel is injected into the vas deferens, preventing sperm from leaving the testes. Preliminary trials with rhesus monkeys show minimal side effects with one hundred percent effectiveness. More on this new product, trade-named Vasagel, is available online here, from The Guardian.

One of the challenges of teaching comprehensive sexuality education in the past half decade has been trying to keep up with the many recent developments in contraceptives. As challenges go, that’s a pretty nice challenge to have.

Who’s your youth advisor?

This story from the Babylon Bee (a completely reliable source of news, and besides everything on the Internet is true), reveals the truth about the Dakota Avenue Christian Church’s youth program:

“Scandal erupted at Dakota Avenue Christian Church on Sunday, as it was revealed that beloved and long-standing youth pastor Blake Dickinson, who goes by the name “Rhino,” was actually just a homeless guitar player that had wandered into a service several years ago.

“An internal investigation revealed that Dickinson had been sitting on the corner of Dakota Avenue and First Street one summer morning, playing acoustic covers of Radiohead songs in hopes of scoring some change from passersby. Wandering into the church to ask if he could use the restroom, he was immediately assumed to be the new youth pastor, due to the guitar he was carrying, as well as his unkempt looks, Birkenstock sandals, and distinct patchouli scent.”

This raises the question: Who, exactly, is the youth advisor at the Dakota Avenue Unitarian Universalist Church next door?

New models of youth ministry

The old model of youth ministry — inward-focused intensive overnight experiences like cons or rallies, plus weekly youth groups focused on community-building — still serves a significant minority of youth in our congregations. We shouldn’t abandon it, but my observations seem to indicate this model is slowly declining. My guess is in our increasingly multicultural, market-fragmented world, we are no longer going to have one single model of youth ministry that will serve the majority of youth in our congregations.

Given that the era of one-size-fits-all youth ministry is probably over, what are some other possible models?

Continue reading “New models of youth ministry”

Easy face painting

Some of our high school youth youth advisors went to Kids Carnival today, the fun event organized by the University AME Zion Church as a way for people of different races and ethnicities to get to know each other a little better while having a good time. Our youth group offered to do a face painting booth. We lucked out in that Elaine, a high school senior from the Palo Alto Vineyard Church, joined us — she is a fine artist who has her own business doing face painting for kids’ birthday parties. We let her do all the hard designs (Ice Bear, a Death Eaters logo, etc.), and we used our own easy designs.

Our designs turned out to be easy enough that children can do them (we let some of the children who came to our booth use our paints to paint designs on each other) — yet they’re satisfying and look pretty good when you’re done. I’m posting them here in case you want to use them next time you do face painting in your congregation. Except where noted, our designs are meant to go on cheeks or backs of hands. We had copies of the designs where children could look at them and choose the one they wanted. One last suggestion: it is worth spending extra money for good face paints; we bought the cheap ones, but when Elaine let us try hers, we saw that they were far better.

Face Painting 1

Face Painting 2

Face Painting 3

Black Mountain trail camp

More and more, I’m coming to believe that if organized religion is going to help fix global climate weirdness, we have to get out of our buildings more. Not that we should get rid of our buildings — we need our indoor spaces to accommodate a wide range of human person, including elders. But we also need to do more outdoor ministries.

Last night, group of youth spent the night at the Black Mountain trail camp, in Santa Cruz Mountains behind Silicon Valley. The hike in is two miles, with a total elevation gain of about 500 feet. We got to the camp, set some tents and made dinner.

After dark, some of us took a quick walk up to the summit of Black Mountain (elev. 2,800 ft.) and looked down at the bright lights of San Jose and Silicon Valley on one side, and the mysterious fog creeping up the valley on the other side of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Come to think of it, that image could serve as a metaphor for the role of organized religion in understanding humans’ place in the universe: if we wanted it to, organized religion could be the metaphorical high point where we could see both human-centered life on one side, and non-human-centered life on the other side.

Back in camp, some of us slept in tents, and some of us just slept out under the stars. The moon was really bright, so I slept restlessly. I awakened before dawn, and snapped this photo of our campsite:


Dawn from the top of Black Mountain was beautiful: orange sky at the horizon and pink clouds above. After a breakfast of bacon hot chocolate, and more bacon, we hiked out, and were back in Silicon Valley by about ten. It was a short trip, but short trips fit in well with the busy schedules of our teens.

Youth service trip, day two

We worked on a Habitat for Humanity rehab project today. Three of us worked on nailing down oriented strand board on the roof, then putting up drip edge. Four of us worked on painting and other miscellaneous tasks. I posted a couple of photos here. And here’s a photo proving that, even though I haven’t worked as a carpenter for 18 years, I still actually know how to use a hammer (thanks for taking the photo, Samuel):


By the end of the work day, we were pretty dirty, a little sore, a little sunburned, and very satisfied. Habitat for Humanity is a great organization to work for: they are well organized, they have clear goals, and they know how to manage volunteers.

We have another day of work at Habitat, and then we head off to volunteer at an ecology school doing trail maintenance. We’ll be camping at the ecology school, with no Internet access, so don’t expect another post until Saturday or Sunday.

(And, honestly, this service trip is more enjoyable for me than attending General Assembly. I’m doing something to make the world better! )

Youth service trip, day one

I’m on a five-day service trip with a total of seven youth and adults from the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto. Agenda for day one: drive to Los Angeles, check in at motel, eat dinner and maybe do some sightseeing.

We drove down in two vehicles, with four people in the Neffmobile minivan, and 3 people in my car. They napped in the other car, but our car was very chatty. When Sam joined my car after the lunch stop, the car had a majority of people who liked classical music, so it became the classical-music-and-chat car.

Los Angeles traffic proved to be just as heavy and slow as we thought it would be. The Neffmobile pulled into the motel parking lot just after we did — with brake problems. So we scrapped our plans of driving to downtown Long Beach for dinner and sightseeing, because Robert had to drive the van to a nearby repair shop (which, fortunately, was open until 9 p.m.). The rest of us went to eat at the motel restaurant — the food was just adequate, but it was quite inexpensive so we kept well within our budget.

We’re off to bed early tonight, because we’ll be up at 6 a.m. tomorrow morning so we can get to the Habitat for Humanity work site on time.


In this season of “bridging ceremonies,” that peculiar tradition of Unitarian Universalism that tries to convince graduating high school seniors to remain affiliated with our religious tradition, comes an article by Jen Bradbury in the May 29, 2013, issue of Christian Century titled “Sticky Faith: What keeps kids connected to church?”

Bradbury, a long-time youth minister in a Lutheran church in Illinois, begins the article by admitting that in spite of her attempts to make youth ministry relevant to teens, most of the teens who went through her programs left the church. It sounds like the same outcome she would have had had she been doing youth ministry in a Unitarian Universalist church: talk about “friendships, sex, and alcohol” during youth group, then watch the kids leave religion after graduation and never come back.

But, Bradbury says, a six-year longitudinal study called the College Transition Project carried out by Fuller Youth Institute (FYI) offers an alternative; the results of this study have been published in the book Sticky Faith: Practical Ideas to Nurture Long-Term Faith in Teenagers. According to Bradbury, the College Transition Project argues that most youth groups “offer teens a ‘Red Bull experience of the gospel’ — it was ‘potent enough to help them make the right decisions at a party in high school’ but not ‘powerful enough to foster long-term faith.’.”

Bradbury suggests ways that congregations could revise their youth ministries in order to foster life-long faith in teenagers. Continue reading “Bridging”