How FES is Growing
President of the Board of Trustees, Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture
This year I've learned a lot about Ethical Culture, both as a Board member at the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture (BSEC) and as a liaison with the Future Ethical Societies (FES) Steering Committee. This is an ambitious Movement, struggling to do the good work that needs to be done while nurturing community and spirit. When you're talking about a community made up in no small part of opinionated, independent thinkers with a whole range of views, this is quite a feat.
One thing that has come out loud and clear through this year of getting to know Ethical Culture better is that the Movement needs to keep growing and changing if it is to survive. We see this in a microcosm here at BSEC: the volunteer force is operating at maximum capacity. Change here happens slowly because we have a limited amount of human power, time, and money to devote to the Society. We could use more members and a good number of those new people need to be young people, bringing with them their energy, ideas, and ethical concerns, lest the Movement lose relevance and die.
So there's been talk of how the Ethical Culture Movement needs to be able to engage young people. And yet this statement has an inauthentic ring, as it presumes that youth are not already engaged. This couldn't be farther from the truth. Ethical Culture has played an important role in the lives of so many of the FES members here as they moved through childhood all the way up to where they are today. For others, like myself, it became an important touchstone only in their young adult years. Why is it, then, that Societies everywhere feel a sense of urgency, stress even, about building their memberships, especially among young people?
I think that part of the answer to this predicament lies in reframing the way we think about youth engagement. So often we here at BSEC lament the low turnout for a particular platform. Or the cry goes up, "We need to get more member applications in!" Friends of mine who have come to platform from time to time have noted a look of desperation in our eyes that is not necessarily attractive. "We need fresh blood for Felix Adler!" Or member pledges fall short of the amount that was expected for the year. All of these can be important markers of engagement and active membership. But they're not the only ways to measure participation and, when it comes to young people, they may in fact be the worst ways to measure it.
Our needs in our late teens and early twenties do not necessarily include a stable community located in a fixed place on Sunday mornings. Often young people are transient. We are feeling out our lives' possibilities. Though we may not have children or mortgages or careers, many of us have student loans, lack access to affordable health care, and are struggling to find jobs that pay us what we're worth and make use of our skills and interests. And we've come of age in a time of war without end. We have fewer social services at our disposal. We young people have a real need, not only for spaces to organize against these challenges, but a place for respite and refuge from them as we start to find our wings in this world. Given that FES-age people have a unique set of challenges, life circumstances, schedules, and needs, how can we re-imagine the functions of the Society so that youth can plug in on any number of levels? Can we include youth who participate in Societies in non-traditional ways when we count ourselves? During a meeting about the Society's strategic planning process, we came away with a model that I've been calling "orbits of affiliation."
Picture concentric circles, like the paths of the planets around our sun. Some of those paths are closer to the center and others are further away. The center is BSEC in my model, some FES members have their Societies, "ethical action," "the AEU," or other orientations to the Ethical Culture Movement. Each orbit represents a young person and his or her relationship to the Society, which can be very fluid and change over time. Also, unlike our planets, thankfully, the orbits may intersect. In the nearest orbits we'd find the most traditional Ethical Culture roles. A Society might have a fabulous Leader like Catherine if it's lucky—a young leader or one able to listen and respond to youth. A Society might have a seat on its Board marked specifically for a youth Board member. Moving away from the center we'd find FES-aged people working on committees, teaching Sunday School, or doing activities with YES members. Here in Brooklyn we've fulfilled some of these inner-orbit possibilities.
But what about the middle orbits? How about more young platform speakers? An annual FES-led platform, maybe at times in the year when college-going folks are likely to be home? A FES-organized coffeehouse concert once a month?
The outer orbits of affiliation are the most important when we talk about youth. These are the places where young people will be most likely to plug-in and also help our society in its inner orbits to better live our creed. Our Society is small in membership, humble in the treasury, but wealthy in space and wealthy in its core values. We're coming out of a period of regaining our footing as an organization, stabilizing BSEC internally, setting a firm foundation. Now how do we leverage our assets to become a positive force in our community, especially the community of young people?
I want to see BSEC fling its doors open wide, not just on Sunday mornings, but all the time. I want to see book clubs, skill shares, clothing swaps, workshops, community mediation, peer education, artist salons, parties with a purpose (even if the only purpose is fun), performances, study groups, battle planning, and anything else that visionary, justice-minded young people can imagine. I want BSEC to be known among young people in Brooklyn as a safe space to gather away from the pressures of a world that values money and status over ethics and kindness. A place to recharge our batteries or mount the next creative attack.
And I want us to be able to do this without any expectation that these young people will join us on Sundays (though they very well may) or that they'll become members (though it could happen) or that they'll lend a hand at craft fairs or gardening days (though I wouldn't be surprised if they did). We need to look at the cultivation of those outer youth orbits as a goal in and of itself and trust that it is the path to walk at this stage in our growth. If young people don't cross this threshold they'll likely never know who we are and what we do. And BSEC members won't know about them. Without this fertile interaction, BSEC will have a hard time making it another 104 years.
We need to trust that the steps on the path toward youth involvement at BSEC will bear fruit over time, maybe even in delightful ways we never planned. Our partnerships with young people will come just by encouraging them to take the lead with our space and support. I ask today for your patience, support, and engagement with this important path ahead. I have laid out a vision. Now we need to come together to build the strategies that will transform these hopes into a vibrant reality.Support the Future of Ethical Societies by making a donation online
or mailing your contribution to FES, 2 West 64th Street, New York, NY
10023. The 2012 FES Conference will be in North Carolina May 25-28.
Email fesconference[at]gmail.com for information on registration.