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Youth Engaging Pluralism: An Encounter Model for Unitarian Universalist Congregations

General Assembly 2009 Event 4016

Presenters: Denny Davidoff, Janice Marie Johnson, Lalitha Janamanchi, and Abhimanyu Janamanchi.

Bringing together youth of widely varying faith traditions and teaching them that it is safe and perhaps life-changing to talk about who they really are and what they really believe is the vision of an organization started in 2005 by Denny Davidoff.

Davidoff said the program grew out of two basic concerns: a general ignorance of the religious freedom this country was founded on, information not taught in civics classes in our high schools; and a need for Unitarian Universalists to get outside their congregational walls and participate more with other religions.

Davidoff’s organization is called Leadership Education Advancing Democracy and Diversity (LEADD). It throws together high school students for a weekend spent exploring the history of religious liberty, discussing current issues of church and state, and sharing personal beliefs. The organization was developed by members of the Interfaith Alliance, in partnership with Unitarian Universalist congregations.

The first weekend event was held in the Tampa Bay area of Florida with twenty-three youth participating. The second event was held in Oklahoma City and involved fifteen different faith communities. A third LEADD weekend is planned for November in New York City.

Faculty Janice Marie Johnson and Davidoff, local organizer Lalitha Janamanchi, and student Abhimanyu Janamanchi all talked in glowing terms about their experiences thus far and the benefits of the weekends.

Abhimanyu described how, after a showing of the film Dream in Doubt, which focuses on post-9/11 hate crimes against Sikhs in America, the group started to realize the importance of interfaith communication. He emphasized the relationships built up during those few short days and said the intimate bonds participants formed by talking in depth about their beliefs made them feel as close as siblings. They continue to keep in touch.

 Janice Marie Johnson was clearly excited by her experience in working with the youth. She called them “inspiring” and highlighted the value of “experiential learning.” One of the exercises participants have done, for example, is taking cases currently before the Supreme Court and enacting debates, with some youth playing the roles of the justices and some the roles of the lawyers. 

Davidoff was asked how the weekends are funded. She said that money comes from the Interfaith Alliance, grants from the Veatch Program of Shelter Rock, the Dolittle Foundation, local monies raised (about $5000 to $7000), and tuition of around $125 to $160 per teen.

Any group interested in holding a LEADD weekend in their area, presenters said, can find out how to get started by emailing ddavidoff @ or visiting the LEADD website.

Reported by Dee Ray; edited by Dana Dwinell-Yardley.

For more information contact web @

This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations. Please consider making a donation today.

Last updated on Thursday, September 8, 2011.

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