A Conversation with Luke Bolton on the Bahá’í Faith’s Junior Youth Spiritual Empowerment Program
Luke Bolton grew up in Durango Colorado but left home to go to Bard College in upstate New York. He graduated from college with a degree in International Relations and Middle Eastern Studies, initially intending to work in diplomacy abroad.
This soon changed when Luke started mentoring in a Baha’i-inspired youth spiritual empowerment program in New York City. Being a mentor and teacher to youth for the first time helped him realize that what he really wanted was a career in education. After a Fulbright to Egypt studying Islamic moral education, he enrolled in Columbia Teachers College where he completed a degree in Social Studies Education and started teaching at the New Visions Charter High School for Advanced Math and Science in the Bronx.
Two years later, Luke had the opportunity to help start a new public middle school in Harlem where he was a founding humanities teacher with a focus on character education. He has taught at the school for four years, building a 6th grade curriculum and developing systems and techniques to support students in their development of skills and personal qualities as well as content knowledge.
The Bahá’í Faith
PM: Can you tell us a little about the Bahá’í Faith, which I understand is established in more than 100,000 localities in virtually every country and territory around the world? What are the key tenants of the Bahá’í Faith? What do Bahá’ís believe?
LB: The fundamental Baha’i beliefs revolve around the principle of unity and oneness. At the broadest level this manifests itself in the belief of the oneness of God, the oneness of religion and the oneness of humanity. The Baha’i faith does not see itself as just one religion among many but instead that all the religions of the world are part of one unfolding progressive revelation in which God has continually been sending guidance to humanity in the form of divine messengers such as Moses, Buddha, Jesus and Mohammed. Baha’is believe that this divine guidance has continued in the form of the Bab and Baha’u’llah, who Baha’is belief are the newest manifestations of God sent to humanity to share revelation and guidance that suits our age.
In this way Baha’i beliefs such as the importance of prayer and fasting are both timeless and universal to all faiths. Some of the social teachings that fit today’s challenges are beliefs such as the equality of men and women, the harmony of science and religion, the elimination of prejudice and the removal of the extremes of wealth and poverty. Most importantly, Baha’is do not endeavor to bring these beliefs to life only in their own communities but are continually striving at the local, national and international level to build communities and institutions that help people of all backgrounds to become part of building a new civilization based on these deep spiritual principles. After all, Baha’u’llah said that “the world is one country and mankind its citizens.”
PM: When did you become a member of the Bahá’í Faith? Tell us about your journey to becoming a Bahá’í.
LB: I had never heard of the Baha’i Faith until I moved away to college. In fact, the first Baha’i I ever met was the woman who would later become my wife. When we were just friends, I was surprised to hear that she was both deeply religious as well as rational and open to new ideas. I had developed a belief in high school that people who were deeply religious were narrow-minded and followed a blind faith that was overly traditional and didn’t allow for questions. Talking with Caity shattered that misconception and redefined what I thought religion was and could be.
When our relationship became more serious, we planned a trip to Turkey, Syria and Lebanon together. This region was attractive not only because we were both interested in the Middle East and spoke Arabic, but it was also deeply linked to the history of the Baha’i Faith. Baha’u’llah and his family were repeatedly exiled from their homeland of Persia and one of the places where they were imprisoned was in modern day Turkey. It was incredible to read the history of the faith and visit the locations where these events had taken place less than 150 years before! This trip made the faith come alive and real for me in a way that reading books could not. Shortly after this trip I declared as a Baha’i.
PM: What are your obligations as a member of the Bahá’í Faith—to your family, your community, your world?
Baha’is believe that we all have a two-fold moral purpose. One aspect of this is to continually work for your own spiritual development through prayer, meditation and study of the sacred Writings of the Faith. However, this internal development is paired with a responsibility to work for the betterment of our community. Both of these duties are necessary and there is a brilliant quote from the Writings that speaks to this relationship: “We cannot segregate the human heart from the environment outside us and say that once one of these is reformed everything will be improved. Man is organic with the world. His inner life moulds the environment and is itself also deeply affected by it. The one acts upon the other and every abiding change in the life of man is the result of these mutual reactions.” As a history teacher, I find this concept particularly compelling because I have seen so many periods of history where efforts for reform mainly focused on changing laws but not hearts and then the initial problems and prejudices evolve and manifest in different ways, still plaguing us today.
We believe that carrying out these twin duties of personal development and contributing to our communities will help to build a new world civilization that is based on our essential oneness and can be for the benefit of all people.
Although much progress has been made in the past decades, Baha’is also acknowledge that every institution and relationship that currently exists is founded on and deeply influenced by old beliefs and prejudices. Therefore, we have to recreate everyone one of these relationships from the ways that our families function to the structure of our governments. This is no simple task, nor is it one that we expect to be done quickly or easily. It will take generations to see the fruits of our early efforts. But it is upon all of us to reconstitute the different aspects of our lives so that they align with our greater goals. To me that means that I need to create a united family, which is a key building block of a united community, and my efforts to bring together community members will help affect the greater neighborhood and so on.
The Junior Youth Spiritual Empowerment Program
PM: Let’s turn to the spiritual empowerment program for junior youth. What about this program resonated most with you; prompted your active involvement?
LB: It was actually service in this program that inspired me to become a teacher in the first place! It was the vision of the Junior Youth (JY) Program that initially attracted me. Whereas many people view the ages from 11-14 as a turbulent time of raging hormones that children just have to “survive” before they can reach a more meaningful or productive period of their lives, the JY program sees this as an age of incredible opportunity and transformation. It is an age where we transition from childhood and develop the intellectual and spiritual capacities and perspectives that form the foundation of our adult lives. This totally shifts the narrative and instead focuses on the potential of this age and how they can actively contribute to their own communities.
I felt like this new perspective was one that was sorely needed and forming groups that could provide the positive support and reinforcement during this time would not only be of incredible benefit to junior youth themselves but to our entire community.
PM: According to the Bahá’í Faith, young people in this age group are also experiencing an expansion of their consciousness. What does this mean exactly?
The period of adolescence is one where the intellectual and spiritual capacities that we have been developing during childhood begin to blossom. Adolescents begin to shift their orientation from an inward one to looking at the world beyond themselves. For example, this age is characterized by an acute sense of justice and the ability to analyze the world around them to see its beauty as well as its hypocrisy and deficits. When that consciousness develops it is so important to help build the framework required to understand the different forces at work in the world and how JY can contribute to creating something better. Otherwise we run the risk of developing a jaded or apathetic mindset where the problems are too big to handle and JY can’t see their place in the solutions that are needed.
PM: What are the key elements of the program?
LB: There are four main elements of the program: study, art, recreation and service and most group meetings will have these elements in some form.
The study portion forms the foundation of the program where JY read and discuss stories of people their age from all over the world who are dealing with problems that they face such as discovering what they want to do with their lives, facing hardships and bringing justice into their communities. The books help the JY to develop and discuss a moral framework that helps them respond to the challenges they are facing and find support among their peers.
The artistic aspect of the program can be used to help make meaning of the concepts discussed in the book or as a way of developing excellence in a craft. For example, in one group that I animated I worked with an artist who came in for multiple sessions teaching the JY how to do engraving, which we ultimately used to make an art project that we donated to the building where our group met.
Recreation is a great way to have fun together as well as develop teamwork group unity. As a teacher, I am keenly aware of important it is to have movement be a part of our learning.
The final and perhaps most crucial and engaging component is service. This differs from some other programs in that the service projects being carried out come from the JY themselves. This is a process where they look at their own communities and see what the needs are and develop a project to meet one or more of those needs. The projects are not developed overnight as JY are taught to take the time to be reflective about the root of an issue instead of just addressing its symptoms.
PM: Who is an Animator? What traits should someone who wants to play this role possess?
LB: An animator is the term that we use for the older youth who facilitate the groups. I love this idea because an animator is not a traditional teacher or someone who passes down knowledge to students but rather an individual who helps JY to discover and develop the talents that already exist inside of them. An animator is patient and encouraging, a close friend as well as a wise mentor. Chiefly an animator is someone who is willing to dedicate time to build a relationship with these youth and support them through this program.
PM: How do you recruit program participants—both JYs and animators?
LB: This program is open to anyone who is willing to join. Neither the participants nor the animators need to be Baha’i, or even have a religious orientation. We believe that this program is beneficial for everyone, regardless of their background. In many ways having a diverse group is best because it allows for the JY to benefit from the perspectives and experiences of their other participants and build meaningful relationships across religious, racial and socio-economic lines.
It’s true that the program is inspired by the teachings of the Baha’i faith, yet it is designed to be universally relevant and not to convert the participants. One of my most successful groups did not include any Baha’i JY and we found that if we created a space that was open and inclusive that questions and disagreements turned into points of learning for everyone involved, building our group’s unity rather than dividing it.
PM: Is there a limit to the number of youth who can participate at any given time and what is the ideal ratio of animators to JY?
LB: Groups tend to range in size but often have around 10-15 JY with 2 animators. You want to be large enough to have engaging conversations, recreation and meaningful service projects and not so small that conversations are not dynamic or having a few JY absent means the group cannot meet.
PM: Does the program run for a set amount of time? If so, what happens when participants complete the program?
LB: The program is designed to run for three years. After JY graduate from the program they are encouraged to continue serving their community in a path that supports them. This could mean working with younger children through the children’s virtues program that the Baha’i community also runs or even training to become an animator themselves. We have a training program that is specifically designed to help youth develop different skills for service and when junior youth graduate they have the opportunity to enter this training program.
PM: How often and where do participants get together?
LB: Groups meet on a weekly basis in a number of different settings. Groups that are formed after school might meet in a classroom whereas neighborhood groups could meet at a community center or in the home of one of the animators.
PM: What exactly happens in spiritual empowerment meetings?
LB: A meeting might start with a “check-in” where youth sit in a circle and share something positive that happened to them or something that was challenging. After this a group might transition to the story they are reading and a discussion on the concept of that day. This often then leads into an art project or game based on the idea that was discussed in the study portion. This could be followed by the planning of a service project or reflection on previous action. I have often then ended groups by going outside to play games or sports. Some meetings will include all these elements whereas others might focus on a specific one, such as dedicating the entire time to a service project or artistic activity.
PM: What are some of the challenges you face with the program you run in NYC?
LB: Each group has its particular set of challenges depending on the group or the setting. For example, I had a group where one of the members could not read for comprehension whereas the others were reading above grade level. This forced us to get really creative with the study portion! Another challenge might be forming a group dynamic that is united and safe. The JY might not be friends when they arrive and the disruptive or challenging behavior of even one individual can affect the dynamic of the whole group. Another significant issue that we face is irregular attendance, especially when groups just get started. There are so many things that compete for the time and attention of JY that regular commitments might be hard, or family situations might be unpredictable.
PM: If you could change one thing about the program, what would it be?
LB: I would improve the level of support and responsibility given to the animator. As we are still developing the program in New York City, we don’t yet have a wrap-around system of support for animators in all the different tasks required to start and maintain a strong group. For example, animators should also be developing relationships with parents so that they can support the JY in their growth and echo concepts studied in the program at home. Some animators work with a small team that can support them and help build these relationships as well. This a system of support that I would try to have for all the groups.
The Junior Youth Spiritual Empowerment Program and the Future
PM: As you know, the chief goal of this podcast is to help parents and people with children in their lives, fully appreciate the unprecedented world in which our children are coming of age and determine the practices that will best allow us to raise our children to reach their greatest potential and positively impact their world.
How do you measure success with respect the Junior Youth Spiritual Empowerment Program? What are spiritually empowered young people like? Who are they in their families, communities and world?
LB: This is a wonderful question in regards to redefining what success looks like for young people today. As a teacher I am frustrated that we continue to measure the success of children almost solely by the numbers on a standardized exam. In the Junior Youth Spiritual Empowerment Program however, we are working to develop spiritual qualities and the capacities for service. Progress in these areas is not measured by numbers but can often be seen in a shift in behavior. Families will often see JY involved in the program demonstrate more compassionate behavior towards siblings and parents as well as helping more with chores and family needs. We also see that JY become better able to analyze the environment around them, speaking with greater confidence about what they want and believe and being able to engage in deeper conversations on spiritual topics as well as social issues. On a deeper level, JY who graduate from the program see service as an integral part of their lives and use this as a guidepost when thinking about college and a future career path.
PM: How do you see the program evolving in the next 5-10 years? How will the changes we are experiencing in technology, demographics, the environment, etc. impact this work?
LB: I hope that the program will continue to grow in size and complexity in the years to come. Specifically, I can see the program embedded in neighborhoods where groups will have animators who grew up in the same neighborhood as their junior youth and went through the program themselves. When you have multiple groups in the same neighborhood then you start to see groups collaborate on service projects, multi-day camps and start to have substantive impact on the neighborhood.
I also imagine that issues of technology and the environment will be featuring prominently in the projects and discussions of groups. For example, I can imagine service projects that address the effects of climate change and educate community members on the actions that they can take to mitigate their own impact. In relation to technology, animators in the past have done specific projects around analyzing the effect of technology on our lives and I have even heard of groups of JY creating “technology free” nights where they invite their friends to connect and play games without anyone ever turning on a phone.
PM: What role can parents or the wider community play in reinforcing and supporting spiritually empowered young people?
LB: Parents and community members are key to supporting the development of JY. We know that there are many negative social forces that can influence JY and in order to fully help them to build positive identities we need people to support them from all sides. Parents and community members can support the desire of JY for service by providing them with opportunities and building positive peer groups to support these inclinations. We have often had community members contribute materially to our work, such as providing flowers for a beautification project or sharing their skills with junior youth, giving them a chance to explore professions from video-making to engineering.
PM: How can parents without access to this program, still provide the guidance, tools and experiences that teach their children to make sound decisions and inspire them to be forces for good in the world?
LB: At the beginning of this interview I described how the Junior Youth Spiritual Empowerment Program shifts the way that we think about this age. In this light, changing their mindset is one of the most important ways that parents can better support the empowerment of their adolescents. Truly believing that an 11-year-old has the capacity to contribute meaningfully in the home and in the community, requires parents to shift from doing things for a child to creating opportunities for adolescents to serve and engage in deep conversations and action. Part of this may be orienting our own lives towards service and making that example explicit so that parents are modeling they type of engagement we want our adolescents to have.
One of the most important things that the Junior Youth Program does is provide a moral framework for adolescents to use as they engage in the world. The decisions and situations that they come up against are going to become increasingly difficult and complex. We cannot anticipate the challenges that they will face, but we can give them the moral and analytical tools to face those situations when they come. Many of the discussions in the program are about taking a moral principle and applying it to our lives. This is a conversation that parents can easily have with their children as they face the challenges. There are also key themes that parents can address such as “how to find our place in the world” and “how to respond to hardship and failure” that will be strong building blocks that our adolescents can return to again and again as they work to find their own path.
I find it helpful to think of our children as trees. When they are young, they are flexible and can come back into shape if they are pushed in the wrong direction. During adolescence, however, they start to form the shape that they will have for the rest of their lives. After this point, the trunk begins to harden and it is much more difficult to change direction. In this light, we need to take advantage of every opportunity during this crucial time to support our adolescents so that they can blossom into the beautiful spiritually empowered individuals we know they can be.
PM: Thank you for so generously sharing this important program with us, Luke. We wish you continued success.