Handout 3: The Fort Worth Incident
Shortly after the 2005 General Assembly in Fort Worth, Texas, a Special Review Commission was appointed by the UUA Board and Administration to investigate "reports of distressing incidents regarding UU youth of color." In March 2006 the commission submitted a 17-page report, which opens as follows:
During the Closing Ceremony of 2005 General Assembly in Fort Worth, Texas, three youth entered the balcony area, moving about restlessly. Meeting an usher, who smiled and handed one a program, the youth threw it on the floor, walked on to another usher, asked for a program, threw it down, walked on to another usher, and did so again. To some persons—particularly adults—the youth appeared to be behaving with provocative disrespect. The youth understood their behavior differently. They were doing street theater, acting out the experience of how they had felt treated as youth, specifically as UU youth of color, at times accepted, even welcomed, and at other times thrown away like pieces of paper. "It was an act of protest, skillfully put together and humbly done, but it was a mean message; it was an evil thing to do to the ushers," one of them told us. Their enactment was a revelation of days, indeed years, of raw pain and distress, and a call to awareness that had precious little chance of being understood by most of those who would see it.
The report included a timeline of events, reconstructed from more than 80 interviews. The UU World story about the report stated:
. . . the timeline reports "miscommunications and misunderstandings" at a Leadership Development Conference in Dallas for youth of color the week preceding the General Assembly; a failure to reserve hotels for youth near the convention center; incidents in which GA participants mistook UU youth of color for hotel staff and others in which hotel staff ignored the needs of youth of color; a conflicted GA workshop on transracial adoption; harassment by Fort Worth police; and a confrontation between three youth of color and a white UU minister at the assembly's Closing Ceremony, leading to cancellation of an intergenerational dance scheduled later that night.
The report concluded with "The Elevator Story," which the Commission describes as a metaphor for the common understanding they reached as they did their work:
Each of us brings into every situation a personal body of experience that affects the nature of our interactions.
Here is the elevator story from the Final Report of the Special Review Commission, followed by the Commission's recommendations.
The Elevator Story: A Metaphor
In this true story, a woman of African descent recalls riding in a crowded elevator with several emotionally exhausted youth and young adults of color on the final night of General Assembly. Two of the youth had just been involved in a near-altercation with a white female minister outside of the Closing Ceremony. The elevator stopped, and as the doors opened, the woman heard a white woman yelling at the youth of color in the elevator, "If you people really want to be antiracist, you will get off the elevator now and allow this poor man to get on." The woman of African descent peered outside the doors and observed that the man in question was an older, black hotel employee with a food cart. When she looked at him, she read shame and embarrassment on his face. Meanwhile, the white woman had boarded the elevator. The woman of African descent remembers a flood of emotion. "In his eyes," she says, "I saw me." And she wondered, "What was I doing with rude, insensitive white people so far removed from his world, my roots?" This episode reminded her of many of the negative, race-based encounters she'd experienced within the UU community over the past 15 years. She questioned why she was a part of this faith community, but "I stayed on that elevator. I stood my ground. . . . I belonged on that elevator, too." Soon after she learned that the white woman was a UU minister, which increased her discomfort.
The white UU minister recounts the same event. She had heard only that the dance had been canceled due to incidents of racism and the youth community feeling "broken." Leaving the ballroom, she came upon an older, black hotel employee waiting at the elevator doors with a food service cart. An elevator arrived and a dozen YRUU youth hurried past him to fill it. This happened twice as she watched. The man told her that he'd been waiting for some time as this scenario repeated itself. The third time the elevator arrived and youth rushed to enter, she interrupted to ask if they would step out and let the man in. She recalls that the youth "were screaming at me that their world was broken."
She told them that if they were concerned about racism, they would care about this man. She reminded them that everyone at GA was privileged and urged them to look after the hotel staff. After boarding the elevator, she and the youth continued to dialogue until an adult woman of color said to her, "You need to stop now and go with your white community and talk about this."
This incident left her shaken. She was accustomed to speaking out for the underdog, she said. Although she too had attended the Closing Ceremony, "I had no clue what had happened with the youth or what I had gotten into." She described this incident as "one of the more unpleasant experiences in my entire life."
The story of the elevator demonstrates the vastly different lenses through which two women viewed the same event. While race played a factor, so had encounters immediately preceding this one and all the experiences associated with being an adult, a parent, a woman, a person of color, a white person, a person of authority, and so on. The Commission views the elevator story as a metaphor for many of the stories we were privy to during this investigation. It is our conclusion that a vital part of the effort to become a more whole and loving community involves listening to and sharing our honest perspectives—not to determine who is "right" and who is "wrong" but to identify where we have attempted to communicate with one another and simply failed. The good news is that we are reaching out and striving to connect. Let us be kind to each other and try again—and again, and again. Ours is a continuing story.
Recommendations for Our Future as a Community of Faith
So, what have we learned?
- That racism is a pernicious problem both in our larger society and in our faith communities
- That there is no simple solution to racism and that the nature of racism is adaptive
- That there is no hierarchy to oppression and that oppressions are linked
- That we need clearly defined accountability relationships that operate in both directions
- That we need to evaluate our current antiracism, anti-oppression, multicultural programs and determine if they are meeting our needs
- That we are an imperfect association of imperfect congregations of imperfect people, but this does not excuse us from admitting our mistakes and working to rectify those mistakes
The meta-solution to all of these issues, clearly, is to live our UU Principles fully in relationship with each other. Toward that end, we would re-envision GA as a prime venue to practice our Principles and call forth and commit GA delegates and participants of all ages to undertake this charge conscientiously. We offer these recommendations with that vision foremost in mind.
The Special Review Commission recommends the following:
- All GA participants are asked to wear and display nametags at GA events, regardless of identity and (assumed) status.
- GA materials will include information that will sensitize attendees to the cultural settings of the site and of GA itself and a request that attendees live our Principles in all interactions with everyone they encounter.
- Participants are urged to come prepared to practice hospitality, greeting one another as members of a religious community and behaving as gracious guests.
- Delegates are explicitly invited to learn from and minister to the uniquely diverse Unitarian Universalist environment that is GA.
- Program planners will continue to recognize and celebrate the panoramic diversity that is Unitarian Universalism at its principled best (while becoming aware and wary of tokenism) and will offer opportunities for individuals to explore their own personal identities and claim the fullness of their blessings and challenges.
- A written protocol is adopted to aid participants of all ages, specifically including youth, in seeking help when serious problems arise, including a contact list of chaplains, pertinent UUA staff, the GA Planning Committee, identity-based affiliates, and allies.
- Program planners are encouraged to consult with chaplains and other qualified leaders about potentially stressful events that may need the services of chaplains and/or counselors.
- There is greater availability of well-trained, identifiable, visible, and proactive chaplains for youth.
- Programs are developed that chronicle and demonstrate models for successful youth activism in the movement and celebrate the history of youth presence and influence on GA.
- Planners of youth programming will consider the existing time and energy commitments of youth leaders when asking them to take on more responsibilities, and youth will feel authorized to set limits on their spiritual and emotional energies and practice good self-care.
- Parents and sponsors will connect with their young people daily and provide them with a safe space for debriefing, deep listening, and rest.
- Youth are included in all levels of GA planning.
- Basic conflict resolution and communication skills training will become a regular, ongoing part of UUA, district, and congregational programming.
- All Unitarian Universalists will be encouraged to wear nametags when we gather at conferences and congregational events.