President's Blog

The Communication Dance

March 13, 2018 - Tracy Fortmann, President

It was Saturday, February 17, a little less than a month ago that I realized that the manner in which America's youth communicates has changed. I was immersed, neck deep, in the review of a Value Analysis (VA) document (a way to choose between construction alternatives) at the kitchen table. It was a quiet afternoon and I was fully engrossed in this technical rehabilitation analysis when I felt a presence. I glanced up and there across the table sat my daughter staring at me intently.

"How long have you been there?" I asked.

"Few minutes," she replied, her eyes never leaving mine.

"What's up?" I asked.

"Nothing," she replied. There was a pause. "I'm thinking."

I smiled and went back to reading. My daughter and I have grown into an easy relationship in which we choose when to talk. We have this unspoken ritual we follow when we want to talk about something important. When she wants to talk with me, she frequently initiates the conversation in an indirect fashion, say, like sitting across the kitchen table staring silently at me while I'm reading. I know that in this communication "dance" that we do that I do not immediately dive in which is my want. I instead have learned that I need to give her the space to determine when she actually wants to begin the conversation. So, I go back to reading. A few moments pass.

"So, we've been talking about want happened in Florida on Valentine's Day," she begins. "We're really concerned and we want to take some action to let people know how we feel, but do it in the right way. We're discussing a number of actions that we could take."

"Who's we? Are you talking about your friends?" I ask.

"Everyone, mom. Sure, my friends, but the conversation is nationwide. It's kids across the country and we're all discussing and debating among ourselves as to what's next."

I then began an eye opening, inspiring conversation with my daughter. Young people across the nation were discussing on snapchat, Facebook, Instagram, and through other social media the need to take action after the horrific shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on February 14th. It was just three days later and my daughter was discussing just one of likely thousands of high school students across our nation who had taken it upon themselves to create a dialog of concern that had gone viral. It was there that she shared that students were discussing the possibility of a walkout from school on March 14th for 17 minutes to pay homage and respect to those who had lost their lives.

"Mom," she began gravely. "This is serious. We want everyone to understand that all of us—not just there or here, but everywhere want to be safe in our schools."

I learned a lot from my daughter that day about how she, like so many young people in our nation, is thoughtful and should not be taken for granted. Her fellow students and she should not be viewed as too young to understand complex, difficult societal issues. She shared that this wasn't about playing hooky or goofing off. This was about acting in a deliberate, impactful way. Together, we discussed the importance of school and education and being responsible. Together, we decided to notify her Principal to let her know that many high school students across the country were engaged in conversations and that we wanted the school to be aware.

There is a lot to criticize about social media today and we all should have tremendous concern about how this new way of communicating is conducted for good or evil. There is so much misinformation and material that truly "wastes" one's time and mind (I know I sound like a mother). I think the list of social media's inadequacies, problems, and true dangers is a long one. And,yet, here is an example in which social media provided young people the opportunity to engage in important conversation—to discuss a life and death situation and how they want their world today and tomorrow to be.

My daughter shared, "It's about speaking up about how important feeling safe is to us through our numbers. We want to be heard." Social media provided that avenue for young people to talk, share their feelings, and then choose to mobilize throughout the United States. In this instance, social media truly served our young in a very amazing way.

My daughter, with careful deliberation, will step out of school on March 14th, exactly one month after the tragic deaths at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High and quietly stand and reflect for 17 minutes on those who lost their lives. They are sharing with us. They are speaking to us. This is the manner they have chosen to state what is important to them. This is their communication dance. I hope we all take heed. I know I will. I am listening and I know many others across the country are listening too.


Exploring our Faith

March 1, 2018 - Tracy FortmannPresident

I was not raised a Unitarian Universalist (UU) and growing up I did not know anyone who was UU. I came to our church late in life. I was raised, for the most part, as a Methodist although I had strong leanings to Lutheranism (my father's faith) and a connection to Baptists (my mother's faith). I still have loving childhood memories of these religions. In addition, I grew up in Southeast Asia where I was fortunate enough in middle school to learn about other religions, including Buddhism and Confucianism. 

With an introduction and connection to so many religions, I have wondered how I came to our church. My path to UU is clearly my own—it is a long one that seemed, perhaps at times, without direction. Certainly, my first encounter with a UU touched me in a very special way. I had forgotten that moment until recently, it was dredged up from the recesses of my mind when my family spent two weeks in the Black Hills. It was then while I was retracing my time there with my children and husband that I found myself recapturing that important moment that had occurred many years before. 

I met my first UU in a crystal covered underground wilderness called Jewel Cave. Deep in the Black Hills, this ornate cave system is one of the largest and longest caves in the world. Jewel Cave is a cave of exquisite beauty for which the end has not yet been discovered and perhaps never will. 

I was on an hour long tour. Jewel Cave is surreal-- the crystals shine and glisten creating an underground wonderland of natural beauty. It is an otherworldly place and truly worthy of being one of the treasured places that the American people have set aside and preserved forever as part of the national park system. 

On this first descent into the cave, I was mesmerized – I found it almost numbing. The environment of the cave is significantly cooler than the temperature above ground, and the tour required hundreds of steps, including ladders, to climb up and down going deeper into the cave and the darkness. It was incredibly impactful. However, it was the human connection at the end of the tour that was the most special, when the ranger closed her tour by sharing how important it is to protect and preserve these special places. She then quietly began to sing a few lines from Big Yellow Taxi, a song by Joni Mitchell:

They took all the trees
And put them in a tree museum
And they charged all the people
A dollar and a half to see' em
Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you've got
Till it's gone

They paved paradise
And they put up a parking lot
They paved paradise
And they put up a parking lot.

It was such an extraordinary way to conclude the tour. This young ranger's crisp lovely voice quietly reverberating off of the cave walls created a haunting echo. She said nothing else. Everyone on the tour began simultaneously applauding. It was an incredible touching moment. 

I was able to speak with her later outside of work. I commented on how unique her tour was and her decision to end the tour with song. I still find it to be a wonderful way to remind us how fragile and precious Jewel Cave is and how important it is for all of us as a people to protect it. I asked her how she came to this ending and she responded in a very measured way. She shared that she felt strongly about protecting the environment and taking the right actions and measures to protect our planet. She then shared that she was a UU. She talked about her faith that evening while we had dinner together.She was the first UU I knowingly had met and without a doubt she made an impact on me. 

As Unitarian Universalists we meet and interact with others each and every day. We represent our religion -- we speak for our religion and our actions speak for our religious convictions. We connect with each other and those who have no knowledge of our religion. By way of our faith we can and do make differences in our lives and that of others and we likely do so in small ways that we are not even aware of. 

Our lives are made up of millions of moments—big and small. We often focus on the big moments of our lives and yet the many small moments can be life changing. Certainly, it was for me. It was a small moment in which I was touched by a thoughtful UU who sang a few lines of a special song in a vast, ancient place that helped me along my way. Words do matter. She helped me find my path that has brought me here now to be with all of you. Words can bring us together and how one chooses to thoughtfully interact in our sanctuary and community matters. I commit to remember that how I speak and act does make a difference, and that I have the ability as each of us do to connect positively—with love, respect, and purpose.