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Race, Youth, and General Assembly: What We've Learned

General Assembly 2005 Event 4044

Presenters: Members of the Special Review Commission, including Hafidha Sofia Acuay, Rev. Jose Ballester, Rachel Davis, Janice Marie Johnson, Rev. Margaret Keip, and Kay Montgomery, Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) staff liaison

Moderated by Gini Courter, UUA Moderator

Prepared for by the Rev. Dan Harper, Reporter; Margy Levine Young, Editor

The Special Review Commission held this workshop as a forum for further conversation about events that occurred during and prior to General Assembly in Fort Worth, TX, in June 2005. The Board of Trustees of the UUA formed the Commission following last year's General Assembly, charging the Commission "to review the trajectory of events which impacted the Unitarian Universalist community of color, especially the youth of color community, leading up to and during the Fort Worth General Assembly." This complex series of racially-charged events revealed racist attitudes among Unitarian Universalists.

"This Commission was started because of certain incidents that happened at Fort Worth," said the Rev. Jose Ballester, who is both a member of the UUA Board and a member of the Special Commission. "It shook this association to its very core." For a full understanding of this series of incidents, the Commission strongly recommended reading their full report, completed in March, 2006, and mailed to Unitarian Universalist congregations; it is available online.

Following the Ft. Worth General Assembly, Ballester said, the UUA Board of Trustees opted for immediate action. The first action the Board took was to write a letter of apology to the youth of color who were involved in the incident.

After the letter of apology was sent, the UUA Board appointed a special commission to investigate the series of incidents. "What we were charged with," said Ballester, "was to look into what had happened, and look into the trajectory of events. How could this have happened among us?" Ballester also pointed out that "a lot of the core problems have been with us for a long time and it's time for this [racism within the UUA] to stop."

Gini Courter, moderator of the UUA, said of the members of the Commission, "This was the dream team that we designed, and we were honored that they all said 'yes'" to serving on the Commission.

Members of the Commission are: Hafida Sofia Acuay of Portland, Oregon; Rev. Jose Ballester of Houston, Texas; Rachel Davis of Teaneck, New Jersey; Janice Marie Johnson of Brooklyn, New York; Rev. Margaret Keip of Grants Pass, Oregon; and Kay Montgomery, Executive Vice President of the UUA.

Davis gave a brief summary of events which preceded the Fort Worth General Assembly. A number of youth of color had attended a Leadership Development Conference in Dallas, where the host congregation was not welcoming. Early on at Fort Worth General Assembly, some white General Assembly attendees asked Unitarian Universalist youth of color to park cars or to carry luggage, assuming these youth of color were not part of General Assembly. In addition, a General Assembly workshop on trans-racial adoption resulted in raw emotions for some youth of color. All these incidents led up to final climactic incidents during the closing celebration of the Fort Worth General Assembly.

"We were tasked to look at those events and decide what things led up to the last night's explosion," said Acuay. "We identified people who were really key in leadership and who were really involved in the events of that night." To that end, the Commission conducted over 80 interviews with youth of color, white youth, young adults, and adults who were involved, as well as UUA staff, ministers, and "just a large number of people whom we felt had some insight." Then the Commission met several times to go over that information.

"The greatest recommendation," said Johnson, was to "open our hearts to more than who we are." While many of the recommendations of the Commission's report have been carried out, Johnson said it is necessary to go farther than that, "understanding the depth of them and making them real."

"Quite frankly, we will continue making mistakes," said Johnson. Mistakes are inevitable, but it's what we do about those mistakes that will be important, she said. "It's understanding this, rather than holding the mistake within yourself, that is important. Use these mistakes as teachable moments for yourselves and others, and grow your spirit."

Ballester added, "It's important that when we make mistakes, let's acknowledge it and let's not deny it. We have to forgive ourselves, but don't stop there.... We are a covenanted community, and we have to treat each other like a covenanted community."

Acuay pointed to what should come next. "When we come together as a General Assembly community, we don't have to think that Unitarian Universalists look a certain way or act a certain way," she said. Much of what happened at the Fort Worth General Assembly was a result of mistaken assumptions that Unitarian Universalists all look and act the same. "In order for us to be really pluralistic, we have to have a pluralistic culture," she said. "We really have to transform ourselves before we come here" to General Assembly.

The Commission left more than half an hour after their formal presentation to allow the audience to ask questions and make comments. Some of those asking question or making comments became very emotional, and some of the follow-up discussions became heated. In this report, names of those offering comments or questions have been omitted, partly out of privacy concerns (some of the speakers were legal minors) and partly because not every speaker gave his or her name.

In response to a question from a white woman, Keip pointed out that bridging racial divides need not be an impossible task. Speaking as a white woman, Keip suggested that white people can reach out to people of color. "It's the making of friendships, I think, the crossing of bridges through friendships" that can make this a task that is possible for the individual.

A woman from a multi-racial family stated that her family had chosen to stay home from the Fort Worth General Assembly because of the city's reputation for racial intolerance. Davis, speaking as a youth of color, said that some people of color would prefer to go to Fort Worth than to, say, New Hampshire where they would be in a tiny minority. Courter added that there have been many racial problems at past General Assemblies, such as in Boston and Cleveland. Thus, the real problem is to address racism among Unitarian Universalists.

In response to a question asking for greater detail about the Fort Worth incidents, Ballester said that it was important to read the entire final report of the Commission. Keip said, "It's so complex, it feels impossible to explain fully."

A white woman from First Unitarian Society of Chicago said that her church is a truly multi-racial church. Questioning the tendency towards dividing into "caucuses" based on racial identity, she said that there are other approaches to doing anti-racist work. She said that she felt that the UUA is resistant to alternative models of anti-racism work, noting that her congregation has proposed to lead anti-racism workshops based on their experience has not been acknowledged by the UUA. "We were never even given an acknowledgement that they were received," she said.

Her statement led to some of the most emotional exchanges of the workshop. Davis offered the explanation from her perspective as a youth of color, saying, "People do feel that it's sort of segregationist," but that she feels it's necessary. "The reason we do I.D. [racial identity] groups is so that we can get through our own personal racism."

Johnson, who is African American, also responded, saying, "I would invite you to consider the inherent privilege you white people have in deciding whether we [i.e., people of color] can caucus or not."

Acuay, speaking as a woman of color, also responded, saying that she used to feel that breaking into racial identity groups would be divisive. She noted that most of her close friends are white, and that being able to spend time in a racial identity group allowed her to explore parts of her identity that she would not otherwise have known. "I was changed as a person of color when I was able to be around people of color."

Later on, a youth of color commented on this as well, but was overcome with emotion before she could complete what she had to say. She asked a white ally friend to speak for her. He reported that the youth of color had been very upset by the comments from the woman who did not like caucusing in racial identity groups, upon which the woman from Chicago apologized. The youth of color fled the room in tears.

Towards the end of the workshop, there was yet another comment on this topic. A white woman from California pointed out that there are many different approaches to anti-racism work, and that those within the UUA should acknowledge the multiplicity of legitimate approaches to doing anti-racism work. "We are limiting ourselves as an Association by saying there is only one way to do anti-racism," she said. "We need to acknowledge the multi-racism model, and we have to accept both the caucusing model and the anti-racism model."

Others from the audience spoke from a wide range of perspectives, about other aspects of the Commission's work. One audience member drew attention to the fact that "we can't isolate this to this one incident" and that a long process led up to the Fort Worth incidents. Another audience member encouraged white people present to join Allies for Racial Equity.

A woman stood up and spoke about how she saw one of the incidents at Fort Worth. "My tribes are Navajo and Ute, and I'm a Sephardic Jew, and I've been stuffing it inside for too many years," she said, fighting back tears. "I can blend, I can look white some of the time, but I speak and you know I'm not white." Sobbing as she related the incident she witnessed at Fort Worth, she said, "This is so hard to be present to these things." Referring to racism, she said, "It's got to stop, we've got to turn it around, and I have so much hope now."

Time ran out before all those who wished had time to speak. Many audience members continued having conversations in the hallways outside the room where the workshop was held. Several people sought out chaplains who have been trained for this General Assembly to minister with people who are dealing with issues around racism.