How the youth conferences increased our capacities

Posted: 2014/09/11

Emad Talisman, logistics coordinator of  the Ottawa youth conference held in mid-August, describes the capacities that the Ottawa Bahá’í community developed as a result of planning, participating in, or supporting youth to attend youth conferences and associated activities.

Small group discussions at the Ottawa conference.  Photo: Louis Brunet

Small group discussions at the Ottawa conference.
Photo: Louis Brunet

Last summer, a cohort of 125 youth from our cluster attended the youth conference in Toronto. In early March, Ottawa hosted a one-day youth summit that gathered approximately 100 youth to celebrate the progress that had been achieved since the 2013 Toronto youth conference. In mid-August, Ottawa responded to the call of the National Spiritual Assembly by holding a three-day conference, which 142 youth from our cluster attended.

Since the youth conference in Toronto, we have seen both quantitative and qualitative gains as a result of focusing on youth. The quantitative progress includes increases in both the number of junior youth in junior youth groups and in those being trained as animators. We have witnessed an 11 percent increase in attendance in junior youth groups, a 19 percent increase in the number of junior youth participants from the wider community in the programme, and a 50 percent increase in individuals who have completed Book 5 – Releasing the Powers of Junior Youth. The capacity of Bahá’í youth to invite their friends to participate in a conversation about their role in contributing to the betterment of society has also increased. While only 15 youth from the wider community participated in last year’s conference and the summit, 44 attended the conference this past summer.

The qualitative gains include a perceptible increase in the dedication of the youth to the Plan, the spirit of friendship and joy that animates their interactions, the enhanced maturity and commitment that characterizes their service, and a greater capacity to think and act systematically.

Typically, our conversations about the youth conferences are centred on the impact these gatherings have on the youth and junior youth. These conferences have also had a tangible effect on Bahá’í communities, as the Universal House of Justice writes:

And while we acknowledge that the youth are at the forefront of this advance, its distinguishing feature is that the community rose as one to support, encourage, and champion this phenomenon, and now rejoices to see itself progress as an interdependent, organic whole, readier to meet the imperatives of this day.

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Youth enjoy some fresh air during the Ottawa conference.  Photo: Louis Brunet

Youth enjoy some fresh air during the Ottawa conference.
Photo: Louis Brunet

This past summer, I was asked to assist with the organization of the Ottawa youth conference. During the past few months, I have had the privilege of witnessing the advancement of a community as it “rose as one” to support the youth conference. Below, I offer my thoughts on how I believe the youth conference advanced our cluster.

The youth conference increased our capacity to:

1. Efficiently execute large campaigns within a cycle of activity. The youth conferences were announced three to four months in advance. That is basically the length of a cycle. During that time, to prepare for the youth conferences, the friends coordinated intensive campaigns to expand their circle of friends and to invite them into the institute process. Sometimes there were enrolments. If you ask me, this process has some elements of a cycle.

2. Rally an entire community around a focused activity of fixed duration. The capacity and skills required to plan and coordinate a youth conference are very similar to those needed to prepare for a teaching project, an institute campaign, or an expansion phase.

3. Work with larger groups. In the past, the friends were encouraged to “each one teach one.” Later, as our capacity increased through the institute process, we became tutors of study circles and learned to work with groups of five to 10. Now, as a result of the youth conferences, we know that we can effectively work with groups of 20 to 80. Impressive.

4. Identify and accompany facilitators to gather groups of 20 youth. The facilitators gained insight into promoting an environment of joyful participation on the one hand, and profound study and discussion on the other. Large groups of friends planned and executed art activities and fundraisers, studied guidance from the Universal House of Justice, and explored their role in contributing to the advancement of civilization.

5. Reflect on what we have learned, and to generate, synthesize, and diffuse knowledge among large groups of people. This is what the participants did during the three-day conference. At the end of each day, the facilitators gathered and identified key pieces of learning from their groups. Then, they identified individuals to articulate this learning to the plenary group. This seems like a useful skill that will contribute to the progress of our communities.

6. Understand the intimate relationship between material resources, community building, and the growth of the Cause. More importantly, we have learned that this relationship is sustained by a life of sacrificial service and generosity.

7. Integrate arts into the learning process. Previously, we would splice in prayer-bead and bookmark crafts between studying sections of the institute courses. These youth conferences forced us to express our learning directly through the arts.

8. Read our realities and ask questions rooted in reality as we plan for growth. In my experience, abstract thinking can often distort the planning process. What if this outcome happens? What if that outcome does not happen? What if, What if, What if! The conferences trained us to ask questions based on what is actually happening and to avoid imposing theoretical outcomes on our plans, which end up stifling action. We also learned to build on experience rather than to set unreasonably large or unambitiously small goals.

9. Appreciate that to truly understand Bahá’u’lláh’s vision for humanity, we have to engage large numbers of people. When I think back to my experience as a Bahá’í youth, I remember how we struggled with questions that centred on the needs of a small Bahá’í community, such as the use of the Bahá’í centre, who would host Feasts or Holy Days, and the educational requirements of Bahá’í children. It is clear to me now that many of our challenges stemmed from a lack of growth. The flurry of activity and the challenges involved with preparing the youth conferences by expanding our circle of intimate friends has forced our community to pose different questions, and to revaluate its understanding of what characterizes a Bahá’í community.

10. Understand that growth inevitably leads to challenges and increasing complexity as more diverse groups of people participate in a unified pattern of action. Thekeyword here is diversity. As we grow, we inevitably become more diverse. Often, this diversity challenges our traditional understanding of certain Bahá’í concepts. To achieve Bahá’u’lláh’s vision of world unity, we must learn to become detached from our own narrow conceptions, and to respond to change with humility and love.

11. Respond quickly to the demands of growth and change with humility, love, and steadfastness. One thing I have learned from serving the Cause is that change happens rapidly. Before last year’s conference, many of us had developed a small measure of comfort with the pace, methods, and inner workings of the framework for action, but as a result of sustained action, reflection and study, our collective understanding has advanced tremendously. The rapid evolution of the Cause requires us to draw on spiritual powers such as humility, love, and steadfastness.

12. Understand the importance of fellowship. Singing, laughing, conversation, and food give life to study, reflection, and planning. Without fellowship, our coming together becomes mechanical and draining. Fellowship gives us joy, and joy gives us wings.