Sponsor: General Assembly (GA) Planning Committee Special Featured Presentation; Co-sponsors: Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) Advocacy & Witness, Congregational Services & Identity-Based Ministries Staff Groups, UU Service Committee, and UU Society of Community Ministries
Presenter: Linda Stout, Executive Director, Spirit in Action
Responders: Paula Cole Jones, Lead Consultant for UUA JUUST Change Anti-Oppression Consultancy; Rev. Jeanne Lloyd, President of UU Society of Community Ministries
Prepared for UUA.org by: Susan Leslie, Reporter; Margy Levine Young, Editor
In this featured presentation that attracted close to 400 attendees, Spirit in Action Director Linda Stout shared strategies for building a new inclusive democracy movement developed from hundreds of diverse "Circles of Change" initiated by Spirit in Action and held across the country.
Susan Leslie, Director of the UUA Office for Congregational Advocacy and Witness, introduced Stout saying, "As you know, this year's General Assembly theme is 'Moving toward right relations.' Our featured speaker, Linda Stout, offers a clear, new vision of how people can join in moving toward right relationships by building a successful movement for democratic social change from the heart that heals divisions across communities." She outlined Stout's journey from working as a community organizer for various national and community organizations to starting up Piedmont Peace Project (PPP) in North Carolina.
Leslie described how PPP grew from a handful of people to an organization of 44,000 people strong, mostly poor African Americans, and low-income white folks, joined by middle class white allies—many of them UUs. The audience cheered when she told of how all members were registered to vote and trained to get out the vote and that the organization had changed their district representatives voting records from 0% favorable on peace issues to 83% and from 30% favorable on social and economic justice issues to 98%.
Since then Stout went on to national leadership, heading up the Peace Development Fund where she conducted the national Listening Project which surveyed hundreds of grassroots organizations to understand their barriers and needs. Stout documented these experiences and lessons in her book Bridging the Class Divide and Other Lessons for Grassroots Organizing, published by Beacon Press in 1997. From there Stout established Spirit in Action to address those needs.
Spirit in Action has developed four core strategies for building a new inclusive democracy movement:
- integrating a spiritual perspective into political change work;
- fostering positive collective vision;
- healing divisions to build community; and
- taking action for deep and lasting change.
Stout described how Circles of Change provide training and renewal for social change makers and a safe container for addressing the divisions of race, class, sexual identity, and issue focus. She explained that all the Circles have 50% people of color and are led by facilitators trained by Spirit in Action. The thirteen-week Circles, which meet weekly, usually choose to continue by working together after they complete The Facilitating Circles of Change Curriculum Guide. Stout invited audience members to join the Circles program, which has already held hundreds of circles across the US, and for some to consider applying for the training to become a facilitator.
A particularly compelling story was about the New Orleans Circle, who working with the Progressive Communicators Network, established by Spirit in Action for progressive media professionals and consultants, have worked diligently to keep the issues of race and class at the forefront of reportage about New Orleans. Stout said, "The focus in the media stories on race and class is no more accidental than was Rosa Parks decision to sit at the front of the bus."
Stout's presentation was followed by a testimonial from Paula Cole Jones, Lead Consultant for the UUA JUUST Change Anti-Oppression Consultancy, and a board member of All Souls Unitarian in Washington, DC. Jones described the experience of being in a multiracial, multicultural setting that she experienced as "a truly non-judgmental space." She said, "Now ask yourself: When have you ever experienced that?" She went on to describe how since attending a Circle training with Susan Leslie, they had started a collaboration which included bringing Spirit in Action learnings to the UUA Social Justice Empowerment Workshop program, to JUUST Change, to a pre-GA social justice gathering, and the partnership to bring Linda Stout to General Assembly. She said, "It's through directly dealing with these divisions as part of developing our social justice work that we will be effective change-makers and do the work of reconciliation required to be in accountable, right relationships that can build community and just change."
The Rev. Jeanne Lloyd spoke about the covenant of the UU Society of Community Ministries to:
- Respond to these cries of pain, to our own brokenness, and to awaken the healing spirit of hope.
- Engage in a broad spectrum of ministries through and with Unitarian Universalist congregations, with the larger community, and, increasingly, in a global context.
- Celebrate the diversity of life within our elemental interconnectedness.
- Challenge one another as individuals and as members of institutions to identify, analyze, and act upon the basic causes of human hurt and separation.
All three speakers emphasized the partnership between all these efforts and the need to create mutually supportive networks. Leslie invited the audience to consider hiring UU community ministers to direct their social justice programs. She also talked about how Circles provide an opportunity for UUs to develop partnerships with diverse groups of faith-based and community organizers in their regions.
A lively interaction between audience members and the panel followed and included questions about how to start a Circle, how to become a Circle facilitator, how to ensure 50% people of color participation, and how to address issue of privilege and oppression from a heart-centered perspective.
One participant suggested that it would be helpful for UU social justice affiliates to know about some of the efforts Stout shared from the Progressive Communicators Network for developing overarching messages across issue focus. Leslie was pleased to report that such a meeting had been held the day before with a broad array of UUA Social Justice affiliated organizations, UUA and UUSC staff, and Stout.
The Rev. Lloyd closed the gathering with a benediction that "The compassionate, liberating, prophetic ministries and spirit we have experienced here today be held at the very heart of our religious practice and our work for justice."
- Spirit in Action
- Facilitating Circles of Change Curriculum
- Circles Leadership Network Training
- Progressive Communicators Network
- UUA Just Change Anti-Oppression Consultancy
- UU Society for Community Ministries
- Bridging the Class Divide and Other Lessons for Grassroots Organizing by Linda Stout (Beacon Press, 1997)
- UUA Social Justice Programs