How FES Started
St. Louis Ethical Society and Future of Ethical Societies alumna
As a kindergartener I joined the St. Louis Ethical Society Sunday School at a time when their religious education program had really blossomed. That meant there were five of us in my class—me and four boys. All five of us continued coming to Sunday School, Coming of Age, and then Youth Ethical Societies (YES) group almost every Sunday for the next 12 years. By the time we reached Coming of Age, we finally had some girls join our group, and while in the YES group we got to spend more time with those in grades above and below us.
It was at YES where I learned there were, astonishingly, kids all over the country raised in communities similar to my own. And it was during my YES years that I became critically aware of the fact that I was raised in a movement which had been steadily shrinking in size ever since Felix Adler's death. My parents enlisted me, demanded my attendance at, and taught me to love this sinking ship of a community.
As YES members we were about to fit the demographic that was absent from most Ethical Societies. We were attending YES conferences with as many as 80 attendees and had already built many strong friendships that we maintained over four years despite geographical separation. Ethical Culture had trained us to take action, so we took it upon ourselves to address what we saw as a national problem for the Movement.
As our graduation year approached, the St. Louis youth group leaders, Dennis Roach, Maria Schmidt, and Josie McDonald, along with the national YES Advisor, Susan Buzek, helped us create a plan to keep our momentum going as we headed off to college knowing we'd be even more dispersed in the future. In 2004 the first FES conference was hosted in Chicago with about 14 young adults attending. This conference set the precedent for those to come, and it gave us some organizational direction. The group stayed in a hostel, had a mix of social time and more structured conversations, and conducted some organizational business—such as voting on a name for the group: the Future of Ethical Societies, or FES.
Since 2004, we have held conferences annually in spring across the country with a regular attendance of anywhere from 10 to 25 young adults. With time, our traditions and charter developed. We always stay in a youth hostel in the city we're visiting and leave time to explore some sites together during the weekend. Since action and service are core tenets of to our shared philosophy, we have made a point of doing a service project at the FES conference for the past 4 or 5 years. The American Ethical Union (AEU) has sponsored scholarships to help FES members attend the FES conference, the AEU Assembly, and the Summer Leadership School. This year, we will be hosting a workshop at the AEU Assembly—another tradition we hope to carry into the future.
FES was founded to act as a national community to overcome a national crisis of little or no involvement by young adults in Ethical Culture. Our group exists for two main reasons: to keep young adults engaged in the Ethical Culture Movement and to provide them a sense of community. We are designed specifically to meet the needs of young adults recognizing that at this time in our lives we may not be geographically tied. Although many of our school, social, and early professional obligations keep us from attending or joining a local Ethical Society, with FES we can still find ongoing affiliation with Ethical Culture.
In fact, I believe FES is now a key ingredient to the Ethical Culture Movement, and that this group has an invaluably unique point of view. Early on FES decided we wanted at each conference to visit one Society for Sunday platform. FES is now uniquely positioned to have a real national-lens, grounded in relationships at many Societies, of what Ethical Culture looks like today. I was there when we stuck out like a sore thumb as the only young adults at the Philadelphia Society, when we learned about the extensive conversations about growth and expansion that the Washington Ethical Society (WES) had already begun, and when we chatted with Northern Westchester about how their youth group had waxed and waned in size over the years while always providing a strong community as a type of extended family for the active youth.
As FES continues, the founding youth have aged into their mid-to-late twenties. We've battled with the question of what it means for FES to serve "young adults" versus "college-aged youth." We've had our ups and downs with active leadership, a familiar theme for any volunteer organization. Occasional mid-year projects and gatherings keep people involved with FES outside the annual conference. With FES, Ethical Culture has a channel through which young people can express new ideas and move us forward. Any movement needs young leadership and contemporary thinking to keep it relevant.
FES members and friends enjoyed a Brooklyn dinner together in December 2011
So who are these young leaders? Graduating YES seniors who have established a sense of identity and community within Ethical Culture are the core incoming group of FES. Some of our most active members never attended a YES conference, but find community in FES nonetheless. There are people like Liz Mulhall, Amanda Liebenhaut, and Matt Herndon who were raised in a Society and are no strangers to the phrases "platform," "elicit the best in others," or the name "Felix Adler" but never attended a YES conference, and it was through FES that they began to associate themselves with a national group of like-minded adults. There are members like Jean Rohe of the Brooklyn Society across the country who find their way to Ethical Culture and continue regular participation, sometimes as the token young-adult in the community. They should all know about FES and have the chance to meet FES members.
Within the founding group of FES we have already seen this transition from YES to FES back to local Society membership play out. Many FES members have, in fact, settled near a local Society and re-engaged with those communities. For example Sean Taft-Morales (WES) and Tara Klein (Long Island) have served as YES group leaders for the last couple of years. And with time, as FES members settle down and look for communities to raise their own children in, I have no doubt that those who have remained active in FES will look to their local Ethical Society first.
FES is a link in the lifecycle of an Ethical Culturist. Our hope is that Societies across the country join us in adopting this vision for the Ethical Culture Movement and that new FES members continue to take on leadership and move us all forward. We are the Future of Ethical Societies.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.