Youth racial justice initiative opens grown-ups’ eyes, too

Amid the national debate over the best way to teach United States’ fraught racial history to school-age youngsters, a UCC pastor in suburban Milwaukee is leading an initiative aimed at empowering a rising generation of racial justice advocates.

Anti-Racism for Youth, spearheaded by the Rev. Laura McLeod, pastor of Brookfield Congregational UCC, launched late last year with a retreat at America’s Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee. Monthly meetings will continue through May with homework assignments in between. The project was supported by a $3,000 Catalyst Grant from the Wisconsin Conference.

The effort is personal for McLeod, who has an adopted 22-year-old son of mixed African and Native American descent. McCleod is a UCC-certified facilitator of Sacred Conversations to End Racism.

“Raising a Black son in a predominantly white community and serving predominantly white churches made me think about the racial justice mission of the church,” she said. The program has five student participants ranging from seventh grade to sophomore year in high school, drawn from First Congregational in Waukesha, Pilgrim UCC in Grafton and McLeod’s congregation. Four of the participants are white, and one is biracial.

“They have assignments to read and watch different things before our sessions,” McLeod said. “A lot of that is stuff they’re not getting in social studies and history classes in schools, starting with Africa’s great civilizations. . . . They have a journaling component, too. When we’re together, we debrief about what they’ve been reading and learning.”

McLeod co-facilitates the in-person sessions with the Rev. Andre Pirtle, a Black Baptist pastor from Milwaukee she calls her “accountability partner.” The group is joined over Zoom by the Rev. Kris Watson, a UCC pastor and lawyer in New York. Watson, also a Sacred Conversations facilitator, is founder of Nurturing Justice, a nonprofit that works to dismantle the notion that human value is based on skin color. The Wisconsin initiative is designed to test the youth curriculum developed by Nurturing Justice.

“These are conversations (the students) are not having in their schools,” Watson said. “They’re building the muscle to talk about race.”

Conversation is the heart of Anti-Racism for Youth. “This is relational work. We don’t just lecture the kids,” McLeod said. The discussions provide the students the opportunity to talk about microaggressions they’ve witnessed and the misstatements about race and history they sometimes hear from educators.

“I hope these kids are empowered to be anti-racist,” McLeod said. “’Anti-racist’ is an active term. It’s one thing to recognize bias. An anti-racist fights for justice.” That message seems to be taking root.

“One of the ah-has for me was just how intelligent, thoughtful and proactive this group of kids is,” she said. “They understand they’re not gong to get this information in school, so they seek it out. And they’re not afraid to speak truth to power, whether teachers, administrators or their own churches.”

Watson said the students are more open-minded than the adults she works with.

“The questions they asked during that immersive experience” – the retreat at the Holocaust Museum – “were so insightful that it told me they get it better than adults do,” she said. “I left there feeling blown away.”

Once the Wisconsin test of the youth program is complete, the organizers plan to make some tweaks and then promote the initiative to congregations and communities across the country and beyond the UCC.

“In working with these kids, I have become hopeful,” Watson said. “Because I profess to follow Jesus, my faith tells me to be hopeful.”

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