by Director of Religious Exploration Linnea Nelson.

It all began with looking for volunteer opportunities for our youth. Ann Wood and Kerry Fraser had deep connections with Beacon House, a nonprofit, community-based organization that provides tutoring, mentoring, cultural, athletic, recreation and nutrition programs to at-risk, low-income children, ages 5-18, who reside in and around the Edgewood Commons community in Ward 5 of Washington, DC.

So we asked if we could send some youth to help Beacon House out.

But they didn’t want our “help.”

Instead, they wanted partnership. Beacon House Director of Engagement and Development Lisa Taber and Athletic and Mentoring Programs Director Rodney Cephas met with Kerry, Ann and me last summer to vision what a partnership might look like. We settled on an opportunity to have youth get together, first at Beacon House and then at UUCF over several months to talk with each other about race. With the help of a generous grant from the UUCF Endowment Fund, we were able to hire a professional counseling group, Luceo, to lead the discussions with the youth. Luceo created opportunities for the youth to share their experiences with race and how it affects their lives.

The workshop, “Conversations About Race and Equity With Teens,” was designed to create a safe space to spark conversation about race and equity with youth of different racial backgrounds. Twenty-five middle school students participated in the program, about half from Beacon House and half from UUCF. They talked about stereotypes and expectations around race. They explored privilege and friendship. They discussed why color blindness will not solve race relations issues. They looked at implicit bias and talked to each other about what they were learning. Yes, it was awkward, especially the first session. Imagine being 12- or 13-years old and talking about race with people you have never met before! Thank goodness for icebreakers and snacks to create a more comfortable atmosphere!

The youth learned how to interact with one another, listen to one another and have fun together. And as one of the Luceo counselors, Monica Lozano Caldera, commented, “They were learning how to love one another.” Tim Cottman, another counselor, reminded us that, “We are inundated with messages of people who are different from us. I appreciated being with the kids as they learned about each other, and hopefully about themselves and to meet people that they don’t meet on a regular basis.”

On the last day, UUCF artist Shari MacFarlane joined the group and led them to create individually crafted puzzle pieces, each as unique as each of them. These pieces fit together to create a colorful mosaic. Watch for more art from this group during UUCF’s October ARTspeaks installation.

We also had the opportunity for two parent sessions. One session was just UUCF parents exploring issues surrounding race that our teens experience. The second was a conversation about how each of us first encountered difference in our early lives. We were lucky to have a parent from Beacon House join us for this discussion.

Our goal is to continue in partnership with Beacon House and to nurture these budding friendships. As one of our youth shared after hugging her new friend good-bye, “It was just fun talking to someone who is different from me.”