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Young Adult Volunteers forge ahead for equity and inclusion

Together with World Mission, YAVs hold consultation with people of color

by Sophia Har | Special to Presbyterian News Service

The Young Adult Volunteer program collaborated with Presbyterian World Mission to hold an equity and inclusion consultation at Ghost Ranch last month. (Contributed photo)

LOUISVILLE — The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s ecumenical, faith-based Young Adult Volunteers (YAV) program is taking steps to embrace equity and inclusion in its recruitment and programming. As part of this endeavor, YAV teamed up with World Mission from April 30-May 3 to hold a consultation with people of color at the Ghost Ranch Education & Retreat Center in New Mexico.

The gathering convened more than 20 YAV alums, YAV site coordinators and Presbyterian pastors, as well as employees of Presbyterian Mission Agency and the Office of the General Assembly — all with varying degrees of familiarity with the YAV program. They met daily to brainstorm, share ideas and discuss how the YAV program can better serve young adult participants, YAV alums and communities of color throughout the PC(USA) and beyond.

Two themes grounded the conversations: recognition that the program has historically centered on the experiences of white volunteers, and the desire to make the program more inclusive to young adults of color.

One by one, YAV alums shared stories of how they experienced racism during their year of service and isolation as one of few people of color in their cohort. Some talked about the guilt, shame and stress they felt for falling short of fundraising goals or for taking a gap year, instead of financially supporting their families.

Their stories highlighted the challenges many participants of color face in addition to navigating a year of simple living in a new context. In some cases, these obstacles have deterred prospective volunteers from applying.

Over the past decade, the YAV program has worked to ensure recruitment strategies and programming strengthen its commitment to equity. Both YAV alumni and administrators point to the need to make the program more accessible to young adults of color.

Responding to the plethora of issues and ideas raised throughout the week, Jessica Vazquez Torres, national program manager at Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training, posed a question that guided the final day of the consultation: “What would you do if money were not an issue?”

Participants at the gathering brainstormed ways to better serve young adult participants, YAV alums and communities of color throughout the PC(USA) and beyond. (Photo by Tamron Keith)

With the challenges of funding out of the picture, the question created space to dream — to think beyond the usual tactics of running a program and imagine what the YAV program might look like in an equitable world. For example, what if the antiracism training YAV provides extended to high school or middle school students?

As a YAV alumna of color, participating in the consultation deepened my confidence in the program. I left Ghost Ranch with immense gratitude for the space to share my stories and suggestions, for the assurance that everything we shared is  in good hands and for the opportunity to learn from the wisdom and warmth of each person there.

While I don’t think I’ll ever forget the dread I used to feel leading up to a YAV event, I can now say that I belong in this program — and I’m not going anywhere. I hope to be a source of encouragement to current and prospective volunteers of color. I look forward to accompanying the program as the YAV office and World Mission review the recommendations from the consultants.

There is no doubt that the YAV program will continue to grow in its analysis and practice of equity. It remains to be seen how the program will influence the rest of the denomination to do the same.

Special thanks to the team that organized and facilitated the consultation for people of color: Rev. Richard Williams, coordinator, Young Adult Volunteer Program; Tamron Keith, Sr., associate director, Presbyterian World Mission; Lydia Kim, coordinator, Mission Personnel; and Bridgette Lewis, YAV mission specialist.

Sophia Har served as a Young Adult Volunteer in Colombia (2015–16).
Listen to a story from Sophia’s YAV journey in Colombia.

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