Sally Kingsland, Canberra Regional Meeting
The place of young people in our Australian Quaker community has been of great interest, and some concern, to me for many years. It has been a question of direct personal relevance as I have journeyed as a committed spiritual seeker, a faithful member of my local Meeting and as a Young Friend.
The critical importance of children and youth to our Society has been elaborated various times recently including in Tracy Bourne’s Backhouse Lecture (2014) and the Young Friends’ Backhouse Lecture (2010) of which I was one of the authors. It is very clear to me that the revitalisation of our Society, that so many people long for (and express in many different ways), must have young people at its core. Many Friends seem to despair about this possibility; I do not. We must, however, both support our young people and renew our faith and practice.
In this article I am going to address only the first point – how to support young people in our Society, particularly the teens. I have been concerned for many years that the current system in Australia is not optimal and, since moving to the USA, I have been able to experience a different way of doing things that I believe is better for everyone in the community.
Here in Pacific Yearly Meeting, which includes Friends from California, Mexico, Hawaii and Guatemala, a program is available for teens aged 13-18 years. However, it is not just provided for them; the teens, through their own leadership structures, are equal partners in running the program. Their program is called Junior Yearly Meeting (JYM) and has its own clerks, ministry and oversight committee and so on. The teen leadership team, usually comprised of older teens who have some previous experience in the program, works with an adult support committee to organise their own program within Yearly Meeting. Teens have real responsibility including, for example, clerking the planning meetings at which both teens and the adult support committee are present.
Many of the adults on the JYM (teen) support committee are Young Adult Friends (YAFs). YAFs here are aged 18–35ish. Like Australian Young Friends, they provide a welcoming space to those who aren’t quite sure if they want to be Quaker or not, and many of them are deeply committed Friends who are active in the life of the broader Meeting.
As it happens, my partner and I were not going to join the YAFs when we moved to California, feeling like we were too old and having already moved on from Young Friends in Australia. However, we were welcomed with open arms and encouraged to keep coming back by all of our new Friends, including the younger YAFs. YAFs provide amazing support for the few of us who have children, and there seems no problem with cohesion within the community of predominantly 20+ and 30+ year olds. The teens who do come to YAF activities (some as young as 15) have no problems fitting in and are easily included legally by having a young adult “sponsor” at the event. In my experience, the older YAFs (30+) provide stability, experience and greater financial contributions for the community.
I have a number of formal roles with both the YAF and JYM communities here so am getting a good look at the way things work. Among other things, I am the registrar/treasurer for the annual YAF gathering over the new year (rather like the Australian Young Friends Easter camp) and am serving on the adult committee that supports JYM. What I see are really engaged teens and young adults who are active in the (senior!) Yearly Meeting (YM) as well as their own “young Friends” communities.
I suspect that one of the reasons that YAFs are so engaged is that they were well supported all the way through their teens and given the opportunity to develop their leadership skills through JYM. Something else I have noticed about the YAFs here is that they are often involved in the children’s and teen programs. YAFs, and other adults, are able to volunteer as child carers (for the children under 13) or Friendly Adult Presences to work with the teens at YM and other gatherings. As such, they have their registration, accommodation and food paid for (as remittance for their volunteer work) so are able to be at YM without financial burden and are engaged and contributing.
Anyone 21 years or older can volunteer to work with the children or teens. A comprehensive set of information is provided to potential volunteers on the YM website including a questionnaire similar to the one I filled out when I applied to be a child carer for my local Meeting in Victoria. All carers are also subject to an external background check. The child carers work for around four hours per day. The Friendly Adult Presences (FAPs) sign up as either a ‘night FAP’ or ‘day FAP’ and are on duty for around twelve hours per day. The “night FAPs” sleep in the teen area. The FAPs are not responsible for running the whole program and there are enough of them that they are able to take breaks. The full-time care means that teens are able to be at YM independently of their parents, somewhat similar to being on camp for the week.
One further factor in the success of both JYM and YAF communities here in Pacific Yearly Meeting is the paid Youth Programs Coordinator and Coordinating Committee, an initiative begun in 2009. The Coordinator supports both the teen and young adult groups to develop programs and events for annual session and throughout the year and to find ways to collaborate with adult Friends. She also mentors adults to build their capacities as allies to youth and reinforce the volunteer committee structure rather than rely mainly on one paid individual to be responsible for program delivery. She is not involved in the children’s program, as it is supported by a children’s religious education committee.
A number of my Friends here have been quick to point out how formative it was for them when they first joined JYM in their early teens and witnessed the 17- and 18-year-olds clerking meetings. They were mightily impressed I think and probably greatly inspired by these older teens who were their new peers, leaders and role models. What a way for these older teens to experience themselves! It stands in stark contrast to my memory of a 16-year-old Young Friend in Australia I watched at their first YF gathering before YM. This young person was trying really hard to fit in with the older crowd (myself included) and was, to my mind, well out of their comfort zone.
Here JYM almost always finds a way to participate in service projects. I believe that being supported to do service through to 18-years-old is not only fun but sets a norm for future activities. The inclusiveness of JYM also flows through to the YAFs who are probably the most radically inclusive group I’ve ever encountered.
I would like to see Australian teens given the same opportunities as teens here in the USA both for their own sake, and also to strengthen the YAF and older adult communities. Changing our current way of doing things would require a culture shift as well as some training of adults in how to support older teens. Supporting JYM involves a lot of listening, holding back, and speaking up only when necessary – and it is different each year as groups of people move through the program and grow as individuals. Some years the teen leadership require very little adult support and intervention; other years they need much more. This requires maturity on the part of the adults who support them.
While it is very important to maintain broad diversity in the adult support committee, YAFs are often in a great place to provide some of this support as they have a more recent understanding of the needs the teens, and are, in my Aussie and US experience, extremely respectful and capable people. Having YAFs involved in supporting the teens is also a way of providing meaningful engagement for YAFs within the YM, particularly for those who don’t otherwise feel very engaged outside the YAF community.
I suspect that it would take extra resources to get a Junior Yearly Meeting up and running for the next YM in Australia, however, I see the possibility for actually strengthening our collective resources as we are able to keep more young people engaged in the Society. I hope to see this become a virtuous cycle bringing new life and vitality to our Australian Quaker community.