One of the ways we can be helpful to young people in times when they are processing difficult topics is by creating space for them to speak with each other, without the pressure of adults in the room who can be perceived as judging them. This is a basic outline to aid in the creation of a talking space for just that purpose. You could use it for conversation about school shootings, gun violence, violence in general, or just about any controversial topic.
Room Set-up: Up to 20 chairs, arranged in the round, with a mini-altar in the middle. That altar can be created from items meaningful to the group that is gathering, or symbols and signs that represent the community they have come together to discuss. Do include a candle (real or symbolic) and a cross. If you have more than 20 participants, consider having two sessions. Have several trusted adults in the room on the periphery to make sure things don’t go off the rails.
Leadership: Invite one or several mature youth to consider leading the session. Meet with them ahead of time to prepare for the conversation. “Guides in Covenant Discipleship with Youth” can provide helpful guidance for selecting and preparing youth leaders.
Step 1) Creating a “brave space” rather than a “safe space”.
- As a group, the youth should make a list of rules/norms that they would all agree to follow throughout the conversation. (example: speaking from their own experiences, asking questions instead of making assumptions, etc). Keep this list of rules/norms visible during the meeting. This can be done using either a large piece of paper, or white board.
- The youth leader can invite all participants to be honest and open, and bravely talk about their thoughts respecting each other even though there may be disagreement. The suggested time is 15-20 minutes, led by a youth who was chosen ahead of time.
- Consider printing cards for each participant with Eric Law’s “Respectful Communication Guidelines”. Participants can use them during the conversation to keep things open and positive. (Go over these together to be sure there is common understanding).
- Also consider naming a person (preferably a youth or young adult) who is observing and has a way to signal the group if they perceive the need for a time out for prayer, to sing a song together, or to take a break. If a rule/norm is being broken, or seems close to being broken, this observer can simply point to the rules/norms list as a signal to pause and change the course of the conversation.
Step 2) Naming the Landmines (or Trigger Words)
- As a group, name unhelpful words/phrases that the group agreed not to use (like “gun nut” or other derogatory language) As terms are lifted up, the youth should justify why the words are unhelpful, and the final list must be agreed upon by everyone before the conversation itself can begin. The suggested time is 15-20 minutes, led by a participant chosen ahead of time
- Offer a list of definitions, or a process the group can use to define terms specific to the conversation, so that each participant agrees on what a term means (For a gun conversation, consider how the definitions of semi-automatic, assault rifle, and bump stock could be similar, but each are very different)
Step 3) “How is it with your soul?”
- An adult observer asks the question “How is it with your soul?” and explains its significance as United Methodists. Everyone around the circle gets one sentence to answer. (If the group is larger, you may want to do this in smaller groups to save time)
- This is the jumping off point for the topic at hand. Once everyone has spoken, turn over to the identified youth leader for folks to ask each other questions about their answers and how we can support each other. Everyday Disciples: John Wesley’s 22 Questions may be helpful here. It provides other questions that John Wesley and the original Methodists used to keep each other accountable. The suggested time is 60 minutes.
Step 4) “What do you want to do about it?”
- This step can go as long as the youth are willing to keep dreaming. Nothing is off the table. This is NOT a time for pragmatism or saying why things won’t work, but rather a time for folks to imagine a new reality and prophetically call for a different future.
- The leader for this step will give each youth 5 sticky notes and ask them to write down their dreams (up to 5, one per sticky note).
- The group then posts their dreams on a whiteboard or newsprint and together determine those that are similar, attempting to group them as the conversation continues. Consider using a mind mapping process to organize the ideas. This could be a great place for adults to connect (directed by the participants).
- Participants are invited to commit to the dream they want to work on.
- Set a timeline and process for reporting progress.
Step 5) “How is it with your soul?” Round 2.
- Go around the circle again to take the temperature of the room.
Step 6) Closing Prayer
- Invite a youth other than the one leading the conversation to write this prayer ahead of time to share with the group. Some elements that could be included:
- People are hurting
- We don’t all agree
- We want to DO something
- God’s love is greater than any issue, problem, or disagreement
- We are together because we love God and each other
We did this whole process over about 2.5 hours on a Friday night from 7-9:30. The youth were pretty mentally/emotionally drained afterward. However, every one of them thanked us for creating the space for the conversation to happen.
One last thing; when it comes to mobilization we really do need to be willing to turn over the reins to the young folks! I look at the thousands of marches, protests, walkouts, and other acts of civil disobedience that young people have been participating in and leading over the last month, and I know how uncomfortable that must be for some of the adults in those kid’s lives. Many of these young leaders have faced online harassment and been threatened with disciplinary action from school administrators for daring to claim their voices. They’ve evaluated the risks amongst their peers, weighed the cost of inaction, and have unequivocally decided that the risk is worth it.
These student-led actions are messy and the messaging has been considered “sloppy” by most political standards, but in the midst of their pain and determination, there is palpable authenticity and power than I have rarely experienced. I don’t know where it’s going to take us, but I will gladly follow their lead.