Rev. Elizabeth Nguyen
June 2018
Berry Street Response

Thank you Meg and Rosemary. And thank you to the Unitarian Universalist youth and young adults of color of Thrive and to the youth justice community of Boston. I’m so grateful for and accountable to all that those ministries and all they have gifted me.

One of the best youth organizers I know from that work says that we need to be organizing ourselves out of our jobs.

Youth and young adult spaces are brilliant about mentoring and leadership development because they have to be. The fourteen year old only has 4 years before they age out. The goal is never that someone stays as long as they can. The goal is always to build skills and joy and smarts and strategy in everyone coming up. And to build a love in them for passing it down. I learned, never do alone what someone else needs to do with you, so they can learn. Whether it’s making popcorn without setting off the fire alarm, creating an agenda for a meeting with a legislator or facilitating a workshop, the metric in youth work was never about how good I did it: it was whether or not the young people walked away confident they could do it better.

Another way of saying this is that our goal is always to generously dispense all the knowledge and skills that have been invested in us. And never to be indispensable.

I’ll be honest this has become harder since I took a role with our Unitarian Universalist Association three years ago. It’s a lot trickier develop leaders alongside via email or phone or General Assembly than when I could just holler to a young person, “Come on over! What are your goals for meeting with this senator?” Or, “How long do you think this popcorn needs to be in the microwave?”

I’ve also experienced a mainstream ministry culture where the metrics for successful and faithful leadership are sometimes more about us than about all the leaders that grow among us.

My colleague Evan introduced me to the idea of the ‘star volunteer.’ Basically a person who wants to do it all - partially out of ego need and partially because they don’t know another way. Star volunteers don’t see it as part of their roles to develop other leaders, share social capital or bring people into relational networks. They see their job as saying yes to everything and growing their own skills. We probably know a few stars. We probably each have a little or big piece of ourselves who wants to be a star!

Mentorship and leadership as Meg so beautifully made clear are not about being a star volunteer. Adrienne Maree Brown has talked about how leaders can become seduced by a story of ourselves as exhausted, overburdened and special. And we can become so attached to this story that we do everything we can to keep it true. We don’t really want to organize ourselves out of our jobs because it’s our uniquely exhausting job and we want to keep it that way.

That young person who says it’s our work to organize ourselves out of our jobs? She also says that if we’re not doing that, it’s time to quit.

Many of the justice movements that are most effective in this moment take decentralization is a core principle. A big part of this is about defense – when we are the star volunteer we make everyone else vulnerable to our own vulnerabilities. We are trying to learn from gutting of the Black left by COINTELPRO and from the fallibility of individual leaders who led countries out of colonization in the 20th century. Momentum, a group of people who train and think on social movement propose that we build every single meeting we have around answering these questions: “What is the information your group would need to operate without you? What are the skills your group would need to operate without you?”

If we’ve talked in the past year you probably had to endure me explaining my favorite leadership graph about these two things - knowledge and skills. This graph has process and content on the axis which go from easy to super challenging. The idea is that when we do things that are challenging content wise but pretty easy and familiar process-wise - think sitting in a circle talking about white supremacy - we build knowledge, but not skills. When we do something that is challenging process-wise - tell a family member the truth, engage in direct action, hold a meeting a totally new way - we build skills.

In much of our mentorship we focus on challenging content. So we build knowledge. But our process is usually unchallenging. We meet for coffee or talk by phone or Skype. We may not invite a mentee to be with us while we fire someone or manage up or take on an elected official or let down a donor. What I learned from youth organizing taught me that whether we call it mentorship, apprenticeship, leadership development, doesn’t matter that much. What matters is whether or not someone walks away with the skills to do it themselves, to do my job or yours and better.

One of the most precious leadership development experiences of my ministry was joining the founding team of the Lucy Stone Cooperative in 2010 during my first year of seminary. We would often read Marge Piercy’s the Low Road together. It ends:

It goes on one at a time,
it starts when you care
to act, it starts when you do
it again after they said no,
it starts when you say We
and know who you mean, and each
day you mean one more.
May our egos be free from the idea that being special and busy are the markers of good ministry.

May we measure our ministries by the one more. By the legions of leaders and practitioners who say, “She refused to accept my insecurity. He did not let me go it alone. They risked telling me the truth.”

May they know where we have been by the leaders that come behind us.