On a warm, autumnal afternoon shortly after the start of the school year, a group of ten students came to me and asked, “Dr. Chen, can we scale up the impact of our work?” They were referring to the work they had done through the Trinity Institute for Leadership and Social Justice at our school. This enthusiastic group of juniors and seniors did not come to me with an attitude of self-promotion.
Instead, they genuinely wanted to share the lessons they learned over the past years with others and inspire others to do the work of justice and leadership. They also wanted to tap into a larger network of justice-oriented young people to crowd-source inspiration and ideas to further their work. After a brainstorming session, these students came up with an idea to host a completely youth-led and youth-organized national conference. Two weeks later, they placed a well-written, 14-page proposal on my desk, and the Micah Conference was born.
In this completely student-written proposal, my students wrote,
“We have been learning and responding to God’s call to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with Him through the Trinity Institute and we firmly believe in the importance of empowering youth to carry out this work. Our involvement in the Trinity Institute has sparked our passions to see the broad impact of God’s love and justice on earth as we utilize our leadership skills and resources to act on such passions in meaningful ways. With such experiences, we aspire to expand the breadth and depth of young people’s impact on various critical social problems in a significant and relevant way. This, we believe, is our role as stewards on this earth. The Micah Conference seeks to unify youth across the nation and provide them with the knowledge and skills necessary in order to bring justice to their communities”.
Wow, these are the words of 16 and 17 years old students! They spoke of the way the Trinity Institute has sparked their passion to see God’s work. They were inspired!
Whether it be student-initiated anti-human-trafficking campaigns, local development projects, or the Micah Conference, ideas like this happen often in our school and through the Trinity Institute. Over the years, many colleagues around the country have asked how I developed student leadership programming and for concrete steps to train students to take responsibility, assume leadership, and accomplish great things.
My answer: it has never been about developing programs; it has always been about forming a culture.
Let me be clear – the Micah Conference did not happen by accident. But it also did not happen through something that I said or did. While certain specific curricula and programs were helpful in providing these students with practical leadership skills, it is very hard for a stand-alone program to inspire authentic passion to engage the world, creativity to generate fresh ideas, courage to take risks on something like this, and a deep love for this broken world. I believe that the driving force behind their initiative, courage, and social entrepreneurship was the air in our school – the sense that young people were valued, trusted, capable, purposeful, and destined for great things. Culture matters and makes educational programming possible.
Building a Culture
So, how does one shape a culture that is conducive to inspiring and developing young leaders? I started Trinity Institute in 2007 and no one knew what it really was (in honesty, I didn’t either). Some thought it was an afterschool club while others thought it was just another community service program. But, I soon thought of it as a culture formation process for the school. I began to generate conversations about educational purposes, global engagement, human flourishing, and our participation in God’s restorative work with students and colleagues.
NT Wright wrote these words in “Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense”.
“We honor and celebrate our complexity and our simplicity by continually doing five things. We tell stories. We act out rituals. We create beauty. We work in communities. We think out beliefs”.
I found these words helpful when thinking about some key elements of shaping a strong school culture. Little by little through the Trinity Institute, our school began to articulate what we really thought about the outward expression of our faith. We began to find opportunities for both teachers and students to serve alongside each other as a community. We integrated faith, learning, and service thoughtfully and strategically throughout our core curriculum so that various educational programs were not simply add-ons, but they were integrated. We developed various school traditions to highlight excellence, service, and leadership from unexpected places. We found ways to tell and re-tell stories of our students’ learning experience, risk-taking process, and deep engagement in the world. We explored what it really meant to love our neighbors locally and globally.
First Step in Building an Inspiring Culture
While I find it challenging to articulate completely the concrete steps to shape a culture that is conducive to developing young leaders, I do want to highlight one important and fundamental step. It is authentic discipleship.
Here, I do not mean the kind of interactions that only focuses on deepening our relationships with young people and transferring knowledge. I do mean the kind of interactions that can activate their minds, feed their deep hunger for purpose, and inspire them for serious engagement in the world. In my experience, it seems that through genuine relationships with them, young people get to see, follow, and partner in what their mentors do in leading change. In the rabbinic tradition, disciples would emulate the words, life, and actions of their rabbi. I suspect that such a rabbi-disciple relationship was the essential context when Jesus invited his disciples for greater work and declared that they would “do the works [he has] been doing, and they [would] do even greater things than these.” Similarly, the young Timothy certainly was steeped in that tradition as he followed the teachings of Apostle Paul, partnered in his ministry, and found inspiration in the way he lived his life. Paul expressed such leadership principles many times when he urged his followers to “follow [his] example as [he had followed] Christ.”
Taking from these lessons, one of the first things we do to offer students some sort of inspiration is to show them how to do the work of leadership. At our school, we consider our teachers to be living curriculum. This means that our teachers are active in the way they engage the larger community so as to provide inspiration to our students and be models for them to emulate. For example, a history teacher is a true historian and writes and engages actively in academic discourse. Another art teacher developed and serves at an arts education program for homeless people at a local shelter. Another English teacher offers tutoring at a safe house for sex-trafficking victims in her free time. As for me, I bring students with me to Nepal and they work alongside me in researching the plight of widows or teaching developmentally disabled children.
Moreover, our school culture enables our students to believe that they matter to us. They believe that we take their ideas to engage the world seriously. We train them to set agendas for meetings to discuss important topics. We train them to facilitate leadership trainings alongside us, and are provided with space to conduct trainings to develop leaders among younger students. We equip them with the concrete academic and organizational skills that enable them to write proposals like the 14-page Micah Conference proposal on my desk. We train them to believe that the voices and perspectives of young people matter. All of these ideas and skills are deeply baked into our school culture. I believe this culture provides the context that then inspired my students to dare to dream big, and believe in the idea of the Micah Conference.
Questions to Consider
To close, these are some questions to consider when thinking about youth leadership.
- How do you provide opportunities for students to make meaningful and weighty decisions and truly partner in the work that you do?
- How do you foster in students the courage to take risks?
- How do you provide students a safe space to work out ideas, learn to dialog, engage in the midst of disagreement, and work to build consensus?
- How do you inspire your students to lead others with a servant attitude by building deep relationships with others, working to reconcile broken relationships, and restore brokenness in a larger social context by doing so in your own life?
With an End in Mind
In writing about praying for the world in his book “Prayer”, Richard Foster relates a story about a conversation between a sage and his disciples.
A venerable, old sage once asked his disciples, “How can we know when the darkness is leaving and the dawn is coming?”
“When we can see a tree in the distance and know that it is an elm and not a juniper,” ventured one student.
“When we can see an animal and know that it is a fox and not a wolf,” chimed in another.
“No,” said the old man.
“We know the darkness is leaving and the dawn is coming when we can see another person and know that this is our brother or our sister.”
At the heart of youth leadership development, we want to walk with them in such a way that when they look across the room, they don’t see the old from the young, rich from the poor, skinny from the overweight, white from black, tall from short, male from female, popular from the outcast; they don’t see the labels and caricatures. If we are successful in bringing young people alongside us as godly leaders, then they will see others as their brothers, sisters, mothers, and fathers. It is in these deep, authentic, and genuine relationships that we have with young people that such leadership development can happen. It is in the deep, authentic, and genuine relationships that they have with others that restoration may happen in this broken world. And, it is in modeling for our young people and taking them alongside of us in what Paul calls, the ministry of reconciliation, that young people may find inspiration to do the greater things.
Micah Conference 2015 at Cairn University
Trinity Institute for Leadership and Social Justice