I recently signed up for an event using EventBrite – it offered an option to post to my Facebook wall that I had RSVP’d and was planning to attend. I clicked “yes,” sharing it with my network via my wall. While some people responded that they would be joining me, another discussion also popped up – around the language that event organizers use when they want to attract – let’s just call it – “young energy.” The discussion was remarkable both for its intelligent conversation and for its tone of respect – not always a given in “Facebook wall discussion.”
In my post, I had described the event as being geared for “young professionals,” hoping to avoid the conversation about the stated age range (25-39), because - really, how are a 40-year-old’s needs or ideas older, or less valuable, than a 39-year-old’s? – age ranges delineate the difference between young and old in a way that’s not always helpful.
Sarah Lefton, co-founder of G-dcast.com, registered her frustration with the phrase "young professionals", noting that “this is a pet peeve phrase of mine and Federations seem to love it.”
Susanne Goldstone Rosenhouse (she of Jewish Tweets and so much more Jewish social media), added: “[she and her husband] went to an event here in Dallas for 'Young Professionals' and were literally the only marrieds there. The attendees thought we were chaperones or something. At least in NY or LA its a more ambiguous term.”
I (unintentionally) fomented the discussion with a few words. “Just don’t call it a singles event.”
Sarah responded that her objection wasn’t about marital status, but about the implication of “professionals”: “Are grad students, teachers, artists and nonprofit workers unwelcome? Because to me, what is coded into the phrase young professionals is, ‘people with money.’" She noted that, if truly everyone young is welcome, why not say young adults? Speaking from her experience as someone who was “dirt broke poor” as an artist and non profit employee and felt excluded by Jewish events, she said that “whether they MEANT to feel exclusive is not the point. It's what the perception is on the outside.”
Another commenter responded with the observation that in a different time and place, "Jewish Young Professional" could have meant something different, and that moreover, in different neighborhoods and denominations, even the word “Jewish” has differing definitions.
So here’s EstherK’s question: how do we make sure that what we name our “young professionals” divisions reflects both intention and a feeling of inclusion, while making sure that our events attract the appropriate populations?
Sarah (a former ad exec) suggests that “focus groups help us get outside our own experience…the phrase ‘young professionals’ seems to be at least a psychological barrier to entry to at least some people.”
Most organizations struggle with these labels as well as with age cut-offs. On the one hand, you want to indicate that a certain event is geared with a certain age, area of interest or marital status in mind, so people don't come with vastly unrealistic expectations. But who is to say that a 36-year-old has different needs than a 35-year-old when it comes to programming, socializing, etc? Take me as an example: I don't mind mixing with people who are already married, and who have children. But if an event promising an "exploration of the Passover seder" turns into "how to engage your children during a late-night Jewish ritual," that probably wouldn’t be something I’d make time for in my schedule.
Additionally, the term 'young leadership' may also be a challenge for people who might be looking for a way to engage, but as a participant and not necessarily want or have time for a leadership track. And you don't have to be a commitmentphobe to dislike this term. Unless we say "young leadership" is the same as "young adults" - which makes everyone a leader, whether or not they want it to.
I always vote for inclusion, and for events that are so wildly important and compelling that they include people from across different demographics in a perfect symphony of community...but which events (not the one-offs, like DAWN or even Limmud) can continually, successfully engage all demographics? The reality is that some events are more appropriate for certain populations than for others.
Sarah light-heartedly suggested that I "tell the funders you're achieving your goals on Facebook, to hell with the events. :)"
Done. I’m pretty sure my blog is now eligible for a major Jewish continuity grant.
What do you think, blogosphere? Is there a magic solution to this issue of language, inclusion and specificity surrounding “Jewish young adult” events?