“They’re a Group of Youth at the Vanguard”: Working with Groups in Greenboro

Youth gather outside of their beautified Neighbourhood Centre in Greenboro-Heatherington, Ottawa.

In Ontario, several centres of intense activity have been making incredible strides towards their goals, witnessing the “swelling tide, whereby the capacity, confidence and accumulated experience of most communities are rising.” [1] Many friends and teams across the region are engaged in setting audacious plans for the summer. In the Greenboro-Heatherington neighbourhood of Ottawa, one can see how efforts accelerate markedly when friends from a neighbourhood are themselves “in the vanguard of such an effort. These individuals will have special insight into those forces and structures in their societies that can, in various ways, reinforce the endeavours under way.” [2]

Institute camps had been held since 2015 in Greenboro but sustainability was often a challenge. In the summer of 2019, the Greenboro team made it their sole focus to bring about a movement of youth, drawing on learning from Delhi and Sydney. At that time there were 21 educational activities with 146 participants and 139 of whom were from the neighbourhood, and the question became how to get to 100 core activities and beyond, a kind of thinking that allowed the team to work in new ways. In this case, they focused on bringing in a large cohort of new youth into the process, engendering the feeling of a movement, and quickly accompanying them as leaders of that movement. The team has since doubled in size, twice, and now with 183 core activities, attended by over 600 friends of the Faith, they have demonstrated to all those labouring in Ontario, that the movement of youth from a population, is possible in our context. While this learning traces an inspiring trajectory for many localities in the region, the process continues to pose new questions and one can discern an expanding nucleus of friends alive to the way “a commitment to learning also meant being prepared to make mistakes.” [3]

A movement is About Bringing Groups: Campaigns and Service

In considering their audacious goal in 2019, the team wondered how to grow significantly and drew on learning expressed by friends in Delhi, in the film A Widening Embrace, describing how the number of activities had essentially plateaued:

 “The realization came that perhaps we need to double the number of youth entering the institute process. When a larger, double number of youth enter the institute process, naturally, a larger number will be proceeding to the higher books and serving as animators or children’s class teachers.” [4]

A key aspect of Greenboro’s learning has been about bringing groups of youth into the institute, and this has impacted both the planning of campaigns, and how youth are carrying out their service. The approach here brings to mind the way the International Teaching Centre describes specially organized gatherings that engage youth “in discussions that open before their eyes ‘a compelling vision of how they can contribute to building a new world’, invite them to study the institute courses, and then assist them to move swiftly into the arena of service.” [5] 

Caitlin Moore, junior youth coordinator, describes some of their first steps: 

“When we started with this focus on engaging larger numbers of youth in the institute  we didn’t really know what to do, so we told ourselves: ‘Let’s just book a place, one week in July and August, we’ll do whatever we can to get people to just come, and we made an effort to reach out in any way, all are welcome!’

So we brought a group there and they had a transformative experience. We were intentional that it was about a movement of young people working towards the transformation of their neighbourhood, and that they would be applying what they were studying right away. They have to know that they’re a group of youth at the vanguard and that the group gains in strength as more are welcomed to participate. From the outset they were encouraged to invite their friends and accompany them with whatever experience they had gained. You’re going to be replacing us by next summer” THAT was the game changer for us. Really seeing them as the tutors and thinking “we’re going to do our best to tutor them but when they tutor their friends, that’s when we’ll see a strong movement”. 

The team’s planning and choices about their 2019 summer campaigns came from reading the reality of the youth: 

“If you’re going to an away camp, you aren’t going to just go by yourself, you’ll bring friends. We also offered a discount for youth who registered with their friends as a way to encourage them to sign up in groups. The generation of a movement is about bringing groups. It’s harder to bring someone out of their regular life and their normal social circle into this other thing that they like, but then they can’t connect it to their ‘real life’, so we always invited them to at least think of one or two friends that they wanted to come with.”

Cards created for neighbours and frontline workers in Greenboro, Ottawa

When the youth started their activities in the neighbourhood, they also worked in groups: a group of four friends would start two or three activities and they would do them all together. Caitlin describes how this also impacted outreach for the second camp of the summer, “they could see on Snapchat that many of them were doing it, so other youth would say ‘what is that?’ And they knew they were responsible to help their friends that came along.”

Trusting that their experience is sufficient

In the summer of 2020, the youth that had trained as animators the previous summer began serving as tutors themselves, accompanied by those with more experience. Because of the restrictions of the pandemic, the pioneers in the neighbourhood had few options for outreach. This allowed them to further support the youth themselves to lead the process. The Greenboro team brought all the planning questions related to the campaign to the youth: length, activities, start times, how the visits should be carried out, and noticed how the amount of time they had had in the field naturally led them to study texts together and ‘act like coordinators.’ Caitlin describes:

“We had to trust that their experience in the institute was sufficient. They could tutor book 1, we knew that, but everything else about how they would explain it to their families, how they would invite others, all of it was on them, we said to ourselves ‘we have to let them do what they think is going to work.’” 

Working with Families & Introducing Elements of Formality

One month before school finished, the team realized that away camps wouldn’t be possible due to the pandemic. Having the goal of raising tutors from the population that summer, the team consulted about other ways the youth could be mobilized as tutors. It was unclear if the youth would be able to serve in person or if they would have to start study circles in other creative ways, but either way, they trusted that if they gave the process to the youth they would know how best to engage their peers. 

In collaboration with the Local Assembly, the team formalized a ‘summer program coordinator position’ that was offered to all of the youth who had completed 2-4 courses of the institute. The position came with a description of responsibilities, a weekly schedule as well as a list of capacities that would be acquired by the end of the summer. In this way, youth and their families had a very clear understanding of what they would be doing all summer and enthusiasm was garnered for this rich and unique learning experience.  It just so happened that the restrictions eased in time to have 10 people safely in the neighbourhood centre, and in this way, a group of seven friends arose, with 49 youth entering the institute process between June and October, 2020. Other elements of formality such as graduation ceremonies, certificates for all participants upon completion of their course, a book of quotes to share with their families and an acknowledgment of their volunteer hours for school were all part of this program.

A screenshot from the Greenboro Neighbourhood Centre’s website, describing their programming.

The team continues to read their reality and challenge their own conceptions of what growth demands and looks like within a given population. After a period of intense service, where youth undertook a formal summer of service position, families reasonably assumed that the focus would shift come September. Building on the strong relationships that are being developed in the neighbourhood, the team continues to ask itself how to learn alongside families as they come to see themselves as part of the same conversation and movement. At another point, the team realized that weekly meetings weren’t possible for the youth during the school term. While this caused some initial anxiety, with patience, they saw that as soon as a school break came, the youth were not only back immediately, but they brought even more new friends into the process. 

As guidance is applied across the region, “every cluster, given time, will progress along the continuum of development” and in Greenboro, one can see a community that has shown “an ability to foster unity of thought and to learn about effective action. And they did so without hesitating to act.” [6]

[1] Universal House of Justice, Riḍván 2021

[2] Universal House of Justice, December 29, 2015

[3] Universal House of Justice, Riḍván 2021

[4] A Widening Embrace, Film, Universal House of Justice, 2018

[5] International Teaching Centre, Training Institutes: Attaining a Higher Degree of Functioning, 2017

[6]  Universal House of Justice, Riḍván 2021

Get in touch with the neighbourhood team in this story, or share your own learning with Ontario Baha’i here.