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UU College of Social Justice Report, General Assembly 2014

General Assembly 2014 Event 503

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This report is part of a longer event. Go to General Session VII for the complete video and order of business.


JIM KEY: Now I'm pleased to introduce the Reverend Kathleen McTigue to bring us up to date on what is happening at the UU College of Social Justice. Kathleen was, like Bill, one of the first to reach out to me soon after my election, eager to talk about the College of Social Justice. And she introduced me to the best coffee shop in Boston, I should add. The Thinking Cup on Tremont. I'd recommend it to you. Give it up for Kathleen.

KATHLEEN: Good morning. The great Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote, "the beginning of faith is not a feeling for the mystery of living, or a sense of awe. The root of religion is the question, what to do with these feelings? Religion begins with a consciousness that something is asked of us."

Religion begins with a consciousness that something is asked of us. This is not a foreign an idea, for us as Unitarian Universalists. Our hands-on, grounded in this world religion is not about a private feeling of happiness or well being, or even a feeling of gratitude or awe. But what we do with those feelings. Especially how they lead us to turn our gaze outward, toward a fractured world, and put the weight of our lives on the side of it's mending.

The UU College of Social Justice was created to help us find new ways to do this. During the busy two years of our existence so far, we have created different kinds of programs, all designed to help participants grow in three ways. Gain a deeper understanding of structural injustice, be inspired by new ways to create justice, and find grounding and sustenance in the spiritual truths of our faith.

Experiential learning is where we focus our programs, because we believe the most powerful kind of learning—the kind that sometimes leads us to literally change our lives—comes not from books or films or lectures or sermons, but from direct, first hand experience that takes us out of our comfort zones and shows us something new about our world and our place in it.

So we've created three different kinds of programs. First, we offer short term journeys of a week to two weeks. These are pilgrimages of faith and solidarity, linking us to people on the front lines of justice struggles in our own country and abroad. We support the programs with a short course of study on the politics and history of the place and people. We focus on how we can deeply ground ourselves in our faith, not only by talking or thinking about what we believe, but through contemplative practices of prayer, meditation, and worship that hold us open to new learning.

This year, we'll bring groups to Chicago for worker justice. Arizona and Mexico, studying immigrant rights. Mississippi, with the Living Legacy Project, a civil rights pilgrimage. India, with the Holdeen India program, studying land rights and gender justice. And Haiti, focused on continued just recovery.

Our second area is for high school youth. We offer intensive trainings that help them build community with their peers, and develop their own ways to manifest our faith through justice. This summer, we have one and two week gatherings in Boston and New Orleans, and we just held our first annual one day GA training here in Providence.

Our Mississippi journey is intergenerational, so there will be a focus for high school youth in that July program as well. In the coming year, we'll explore more youth-focused service learning journeys, especially within the US. So please, if your youth group is interested in developing these new opportunities with us, contact us.

Our third area is focused on young adults, especially those of college age. We've created summer-long internships with justice partners in the US and as far afield as this placement in Kenya last year. These young adults experience effective social change up close. We support them in both spiritual growth and vocational discernment through weekly reflections, and we link them to one of the UU ministers serving as program leaders to the college.

Last summer, we had nine internships. This summer, we have grown it to 15. And we're only two years old.


We are really excited about expanding our internships, because we know that these young adults represent the long-term future of our faith. A key part of our mission is to help them envision new ways to find themselves within a vibrant, relevant, Unitarian Universalism.

In the coming year, we'll grow our other programs as well. Next spring, we'll pilot a program focused on the rights of indigenous people in North America. Our partner is the Lummi Nations Service Organization in the Puget Sound area of Washington State. We're partnering with the UUA's Central East regional group to bring groups of volunteers to Brooklyn, to help in the long rebuilding after the damage done by Hurricane Sandy.

And we're piloting opportunities for skilled adults in retirement who would like to put their lifetime of skills to work with one of our partner organizations in the US or abroad.

As I've outlined, this rapid growth of the UU College of Social Justice, I hope the core elements of what we are trying to accomplish shine through. Though the programs differ from each other in structure, destination, and the age groups we are targeting, central to all of them is the bright flame of our mission. To inspire and sustain faith-based justice engagement on issues of local, national, and global importance.

One of the reasons experiential learning is such a powerful way to support this lofty goal is because it gets into us in a way that intellectual understanding alone does not. When we meet and work alongside people whose struggles are different from ours, the result can be a real shift in how we perceive and move through our world. We learn new truths about inequality, both within the US and between nations. We expand our field of vision, and understand more deeply where we stand.

We see new commonalities and connections, yet there are real pitfalls in this work. Short term journeys are often criticized as unhelpful or even damaging. North Americans on service trips to the global South can be naive at best, paternalistic or self serving at worst. Even when we think we are going with our eyes open, we can bring along the invisible baggage of our assumptions, or our privilege. Though we don't mean to. Sometimes we unconsciously support the very frameworks of injustice we want to challenge. To avoid these pitfalls the college builds our programs around these core elements.

First, they are grounded in justice partnerships with organizations that are led by the people they serve. People marginalized by our political and economic structures. We enter, not as top down helpers, but as allies working in solidarity to change unjust structures.

Second, our framework of study, reflection, and preparation grounds us in our faith and in justice education. Participants learn about our destination and the organization we'll visit. But we are also learning to study ourselves. To see where we each stand in the matrix of privilege and power, and to be more aware of all the things that shape our points of view. As we try to change the world, we are also open to being changed.

And third, we focus not on the help we might be able to give while on a short term journey, but on how the inspiration and learning of the journey can translate into new commitments for justice on our return. It is perfectly possible, for instance, to spend 10 days repairing houses from Hurricane Sandy destruction without ever really seeing how vast the difference in impact has been across communities. How terribly slanted aid has been by race and class.

It is possible to spend a week trying to help the people in Haiti, without ever hearing Haitians themselves tell you what they need. Or comprehending the decades of harm done there by the United States. It is possible to immerse in the tensions and struggle of our border regions with Mexico without finding ourselves in the immigration narrative. Without gaining a handle on how we might put our own small weight on the side of justice there.

Our programs help you find yourself in the story. They help you prepare for a boundary-crossing experience, and then to take the insight and inspiration you gain, and translate those into new ways you can make a difference. Because our faith is not something we simply feel. It is something we enact.

I invite you to join us on the journey, and I welcome you. Thank you.