Youth Leadership Retreat
October 18, 2013
I recently read an article about an increase in violence against women. Some of the most dangerous countries for women were identified as Latin. And, although four Latin countries have female Presidents … Chile, Costa Rica, Brazil, and Argentina … their visibility and leadership don’t appear to have improved the situation for women in Latin America. The article noted that, for example, El Salvador is one of the most violent countries for women, and in Colombia the practice of throwing acid in a woman’s face for the purposes of disfiguring her has quadrupled in the last few years. Some claim that part of the problem is that crimes against women are rarely reported. But the reality is that even when they are, few are investigated by police, and even fewer lead to any kind of justice.
That was a long foreword to this post. You may recall my referencing a youth leadership retreat for which the Cathedral Church of St. Paul received a grant (and a subsequent additional donation). Last weekend, twenty youth between the ages of 13 and 17, and nine adults, went to a retreat center in a community outside of Bogota (Cachipay). The youth and leaders came from different cities and towns throughout the Diocese.
The retreat program was filled with discussions, small group exercises, and educational games (the same kind we’re all familiar with from our own retreat experiences). Part of the program was to discuss the characteristics of a leader, mindful of being a person of faith and being a leader both in the church as well as in the community. The youth discussed characteristics of a leader in small groups, shared them with the entire group, and then invited some of the adults to share what they thought their leadership characteristics were. Later in the day, the youth broke into two groups. Their task was to develop a skit that demonstrated characteristics of leadership.
Much to my surprise, one of the groups chose women’s issues as their theme. In the opening of the skit, a young man was completely inappropriate with a female colleague. Then, another aggressively solicited a woman working as a vendor on the street. The leadership characteristics were demonstrated by yet another young man who challenged his friends, and got into a fight with one of them, regarding the behavior toward the women.
As I watched, I was reminded of a time in the classroom when young men no longer snickered when the words gay, lesbian, or homosexual were used by a classmate. I was reminded of an occasion when young men in a class presentation on the technology of birth control, and welcomed the way in which it empowered women and changed the social dynamics of dating. I was reminded of when President Obama won the primary in 2008, and noted that the political discussions on campus had little to do with the candidate’s race. I used to comment to my friends how it gave me hope for the future to see how much had changed, and was changing, among young adults (while still appreciating that I was on a private college campus).
The reality is that many young men grew up with professional parents and watched their mothers and aunts encounter a glass ceiling at work. They learned about sexism and its implications at a young age, through first-hand experience. Many of today’s young adults grew up in integrated schools and classrooms, developing close friendships across what were once racial divides. They have seen the ugly face of racism through the eyes of their friends. They couldn’t and still can’t understand it, given their friends are just like them … wanting the same things out of life. They grew up with gay and lesbian friends, aunts, uncles, parents, or parents of classmates, never quite understanding why their friends and relatives were treated differently and didn’t have the same legal rights as everyone else.
In my darker hours, when I was convinced nothing would ever change, I would think about the students I’ve had in classes, and in them I would note that not only have things changed, but they continue to change. I saw in those young adults a very different and changing world. Last weekend on retreat, I had the same experience. As I thought about the violence against women in Latin America, and then watched the skit performed by that group of teenagers, specifically identifying the challenge to sexist and inappropriate behavior toward women as a characteristic of leadership, again, I saw hope. Hope for the women of Latin America … hope for the church … hope for the world … hope for a better tomorrow for us all.