By Trish Cowan
Our teens pulled off an incredible YES 2021! During the annual Youth of Ethical Societies (YES) conference, sponsored by the American Ethical Union, teens travel to either New York, St. Louis, or Washington, DC, to visit friends’ Ethical Societies and share an intense weekend of discussions and fun. Last year’s conference was the final group activity for many of us, as everything quickly shut down soon afterward.
For YES 2021, teens gathered online from the evening of Friday, March 5, to the evening of Sunday, March 7, to discuss this year’s topic, our country’s public education system. Twenty-eight teens, including Garrick Sandhusen (lower right in photo) from the Bergen Society, and six adults attended the conference, representing the Societies of Bergen, Mid Rivers, St. Louis, Susquehanna Valley, Washington, and Westchester.
“This year’s YES conference was great,” Garrick said. “The format allowed me to join into conversations throughout the day, and seeing all of my friends that I made last year was a great experience. The YES conference has always been a great experience, and I’m glad we got to continue it this year.”
Thinking critically about learning
The online format made it easy—and inexpensive—for folks to attend. Friday evening, after introductions, ice-breakers, and forming a group agreement, we welcomed James Croft as a guest speaker. James inspired us to think critically about what we’re taught and how we learn best. After his talk, the teens had an organic large-group discussion about their education, sticking around and talking for nearly an hour and a half.
Saturday began with a Kahoot (game-based learning) created by Ellie and the responses helped shape our discussions. Teens then chose break-out groups for more specific discussions. The break-outs about sex and gender topics were LGBTQIA+ issues, sex education, and sexual harassment; the race issues break-outs were school-to-prison pipeline, funding, and honest history. Each break-out group, along with the rest of the conference, was entirely teen-led.
Opportunity to discuss challenges
Saturday evening was more relaxed and unstructured. Teens separated into two groups to watch movies and then a small group returned to our Zoom room to have what we call a Sharing Circle. During this time, the teens are free to share anything that’s on their minds—anything that they were excited about or struggling with. Given the year we’ve had, the opportunity to discuss challenges and stressors was powerful.
Sunday included a presentation about FES (Future of Ethical Societies), led by Anya Overmann, a bridging ceremony for seniors, elections for YES 2022 officers, and planning our upcoming all-Societies plaftorm. We hope you’ll join us on May 16 when our teens present about YES!
Many thanks to our fantastic planning team for YES 2021: Jasper (president), Ellie (vice president), Caroline (officer), Abby (officer), Bella, Bryan, and Ella.
One-day online conference this fall
We look forward to being back to an in-person conference next year, with plans to meet in New York the first weekend of March. But… one of the silver linings to being forced into a virtual YES for this year: We’ve decided to also add in a one-day fall conference, online!
Teens are connecting across several Ethical Societies, and youth group advisors have been meeting to share challenges and successes from the year. Next up, we’ll be looking to connect the broader Ethical Education community. If you would like to be part of the upcoming conversations, please contact Trish Cowan-Williams at [email protected] or 314-680-3348.
Trish Cowan is the Children and Youth Program Coordinator for the American Ethical Union.