Do Better, Young Life
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An open letter to Young Life administration, staff, supporters, volunteers, and participants in any capacity:
July 8, 2020
Since its founding, Young Life has proclaimed the notion of “every kid, everywhere.” However, it has simultaneously created both covert and overt barriers to every position in the organization, from participating students to volunteers to paid staff. There have been countless stories of queer (also referred to as LGBTQIA+), low-income, and/or Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) students being excluded, forced out, appropriated, or discriminated against. It is imperative that we address the pain of those who have been disenfranchised by an organization that claims to have room for all people. Young Life must do better if it wants to clearly represent the core message of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.
Under the DoBetterYoungLife hashtag on social media, there is a growing number of heartbreaking stories about how LGBTQIA+ individuals have been targeted and excluded from Young Life. This includes folx who have given their lives to the organization, serving as volunteer leaders, Summer Staff/Work Crew, and even as staff, only to have their communities and positions stripped from them after coming out as queer. This also includes leaders being told to stop interacting with their LGBTQIA+ identifying students. Many queer students joined Young Life before they discovered and/or embraced their sexuality and/or gender identity, and very few are aware of Young Life’s policies. They hoped to find acceptance and community in an organization that advertises its inclusion, only to be faced with rejection after coming out. There is no accurate way to describe how isolating and painful it is to be embraced by a community, only to have it desert you. This is not congruent with the teachings of Jesus, nor is it representative of the gospel. In Matthew 7, Jesus says, “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit… By their fruit you will recognize them.” Isolation and pain are not good fruit, and we present #DoBetterYoungLife stories to highlight the need for change.
According to a 2019 article published in the Journal of Gay & Lesbian Mental Health, participants who rated their church as rejecting of “homosexuality” had higher levels of depression and lower levels of happiness and overall well-being (Shilpa Boppana, 2019). Young Life’s website quotes Dr. Scott Poland, stating that “the vast majority of youth suicides could be prevented if more young people developed trusting relationships with adults and sought help for themselves or for their suicidal friends.”Without any out queer Young Life staff or volunteers, Young Life cannot be a place with the resources or breadth to support queer youth, who are particularly vulnerable to higher rates of depression and suicide (2). The celebration and inclusion of queer individuals is a matter of life and death. Young Life has been afforded the platform and ability to deeply harm or heal the mental, emotional, and social wellbeing of innumerable queer youth. This access and influence, at critical moments in youth development, must be held with accountability.
The notion that queer leaders and staff are unqualified to spread the Gospel is inherently against the premise of the Gospel itself. Just like Jesus, queer people have historically experienced oppression at the hands of government and religious leaders—and they still do. They have also experienced times of ostracization and have come out on the other side stronger and eager to experience the fullness of life. In that persecution (death), queer folx have found a deeper sense of life (resurrection). In this way, queer folx have a unique glimpse into the character of God and the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We affirm that queer people are just as qualified as non-queer people to participate in Young Life. Is the story of Jesus any less good when it comes out of the mouths of queer folx? The answer you give is indicative of how deeply you believe that Jesus is truly for every person. Young Life cannot continue to fail queer youth and adults alike by telling them that they are unworthy of participating fully in the organization. The collective trauma of homophobia and transphobia in ministry is causing devastating suffering to countless queer folx. Unless we wholeheartedly affirm and celebrate queer identities, we will only continue to do harm to queer lives.
There are also stories of barriers for low-income and/or BIPOC students and leaders. For an organization that is committed to “reaching adolescents of every ability and all economic, cultural and ethnic backgrounds,” (3) there are astonishingly low numbers of BIPOC and low-income participants in Young Life. There are less low-income volunteer leaders because they cannot afford to give up a paying job in order to lead. Simultaneously, leading can be an expensive task, as leaders are pressured to pay for meals, may be forced to drive long distances due to their placements, and are encouraged to purchase t-shirts, Bibles, stickers, etc. for kids. Lack of socioeconomic diversity sends messages to students themselves that only a certain demographic is welcome or able to thrive. Leaders also must work tirelessly to fundraise camp trips for their low-income students, as camp trips can reach up to and over $900. Wealthy students can afford to simply write a check, while their lower-income peers are forced to mow the lawns of community members or beg family and friends to purchase fundraising cards in order to pay for their camp experience. According to Young Life’s 2019 annual report (4), Young Life made $427 million in revenue, allowing executive leadership to make six-figure salaries, all while low-income students were doing physical labor in order to have the “best week of their lives” alongside their wealthier peers. Considering that wealth is unequally distributed among white and BIPOC communities, this further reinforces Young Life as an overwhelmingly white organization. The experience of being a BIPOC in Young Life is exhausting and isolating—being surrounded by white peers that consistently engage in microaggressions and who are blind to their own privileges sends a message to minority students that they are not welcome in that space.
For an organization that utilizes Black culture and Black music in an effort to unify students, Young Life has yet to publicly state that Black lives matter. This is not a political statement, but an affirmation for and an act of solidarity with the Black community. In 2016, from Young Life’s Young Life75 Celebration all-staff conference Instagram account, they posted a quote from speaker Efrem Smith: “ALL lives matter to God. But in this upside down, broken, Bizarro world, not all lives are treated equally. Black lives matter (5).” After pushback, Young Life deleted the post; then, “posted and reposted this quote numerous times, in different forms and with plenty of feedback (5)." In the post that currently remains, Young Life wrote, “Efrem Smith was clear with us that he was not making a political statement nor aligning himself with a party or movement (5).” As Black folx inside and outside of Young Life grieve the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Tony McDade, and the brutalization of so many more Black bodies, Young Life still has not stated that Black lives matter. In fact, they have intentionally chosen not to. And it’s time we begin to ask: what are they protecting? And at what cost? It has been said time and time again: silence is violence. Furthermore, Young Life continues to separate Black and Brown students particularly, from their white peers through Multiethnic Young Life (formerly Urban Young Life). While the ministry of Multiethnic Young Life attempts to mitigate barriers such as transportation and cost, it also makes Black and Brown students feel as if they are unwelcome among their own classmates and communities.
Though Young Life claims that every person was “made for this,” there are many explicit and implicit barriers that prevent queer, low-income, and BIPOC students and leaders from participating. This global organization has been slow to act, and it is past time for Young Life to be held accountable. Thus, we present this motion, of utmost urgency, for the following changes in Young Life’s organizational structure:
1. Immediate repeal of the Sexual Conduct Policy:
- Young Life must remove the rule that LGBTQIA+ individuals are not allowed to participate as volunteer leaders or as staff. This policy is blatant discrimination.
- Young Life should publicly announce the repeal of this restriction and apologize to those who have been forced out of ministry for their sexuality or gender identity.
- Until this policy is repealed, we demand transparency. Young Life’s Conduct Policies are not readily available online, and it is crucial that this policy is available for all to read. Clarity is the bare minimum.
2. Scholarships or stipends for low-income students and leaders:
- While opportunities for fundraising are useful for students that need financial support, there must be scholarships available to students for both summer camp and fall weekend.
- Recognizing that there is funding available for Multiethnic Young Life, we demand a larger percentage of Young Life funding is dedicated towards scholarships and stipends with an extension of these resources to all Young Life ministries. These resources should be readily advertised and open to students, with a greater sense of transparency.
- Stipends should be available to low-income volunteer leaders. This addresses the barrier of choosing between a paying job and leading ministry.
- Encourage staff to be more transparent about discounts and scholarships for events such as Committee Leader Weekend and Leader Overnights to support low-income leaders.
- Take into account placement location when placing low-income leaders to account for travel time and gas prices.
- Stop equating leading ability with financial stability. Leaders that pay for Bibles and ice cream are no “better” than leaders who cannot afford to do so. This language is demoralizing and should not be used to praise leaders.
3. Mandatory diversity and inclusion training—which at the very least includes anti-racist education (led by paid BIPOC) and fully affirming LGBTQIA+ diversity training (led by paid queer folx)—for all leaders, staff, and Work Crew/Summer Staff:
- Both covert and overt racism are visible in many aspects of Young Life’s ministry. From skits that reinforce racist cultural stereotypes to an organizational culture that centers whiteness, Young Life has a long way to go in cultivating anti-racist policies and actions.
- Statement and public apology must be issued for the “Jew Night” skit performed at Norman, OK Leadership in Fall 2018.
- Provide resources for different chapters to actively engage in these conversations and sustain them—more than once or twice a year at a conference.
- Leaders and staff must understand the racist structures and systems that surround them and how that impacts/creates barriers for the communities they interact with.
- Teach leaders and staff to be active allies in the fight for racial equity. They should be acutely aware that this is lifelong work. Every decision should be made only after asking how it may disproportionately affect minority students (this goes from songs at club to discussions during cabin time).
- Train leaders and staff to fully affirm queer youth.
- Leaders need access to resources that provide theological bases for fully affirming queer youth.
- In order to fully affirm queer youth, Young Life must: (1) Normalize asking for and using correct pronouns; (2) Fully affirm queer relationships and queer sexuality.
- Training must also be provided on how to affirm and support students of all abilities.
- Make all Young Life camps fully wheelchair accessible.
- Recognize that disabilities and abilities vary across the board, both mentally and physically, and assure that leaders are able to address needs or adjust activities as needed.
4. Elevate Queer & BIPOC representation in Young Life:
- According to Young Life’s 2019 annual report (4), there are “nearly 500 staff of color” within an organization that employs 5,678 staff members- roughly 8.8%. For an organization that impacted well over one million students in 2017 (6), many of whom are people of color, this is unacceptable. Young Life must set a goal of reaching a staff that is racially and ethnically representative of the communities it serves.
- Make transparent Young Life’s Forward initiatives towards diversifying the organization with concrete goals and timelines (such as becoming an organization with 40% BIPOC by 2025).
- Provide resources for teams and staff to learn the barriers to participation for BIPOC students, low-income students, and queer students, recognizing that diversity is a conscious choice.
- Teams must understand that Young Life’s general structure of club and campaigners may not be best suited for their area and adjust accordingly.
- Develop a Diversity & Inclusion Committee led by Queer and BIPOC individuals to identify how Young Life will be held accountable for supporting and driving diversity and inclusion initiatives
- Create policies and procedures to promote diversity and inclusion
- Promote training and events (such as the aforementioned anti-racist and queer affirmation training).
- This committee must be transparent about their goals and actions.
Diversity, inclusion, representation, and intersectional equity must be an ongoing conversation in Young Life that is rooted in action and visible change. This is essential to the story of the Gospel. If Young Life does not change its policies and actions, it will continue to harm folx who have historically been--and currently are--oppressed by religious and governmental powers. If Young Life is truly for every kid, it must include low-income, BIPOC, and queer representation from the lowest to the highest positions of power within the organization. For these reasons, we all say #DoBetterYoungLife.
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