Congregations traditionally promote and encourage Unitarian Universalist values through sermons, religious education, and social justice work. Unity Church-Unitarian in St. Paul, Minn., is taking its values to a new level—applying them to the companies that it buys products from.
Unity Church leaders refer to this as holding “values conversations” with those vendors. Here’s how it works: Any company that the church buys $2,500 in products or services from annually will be evaluated as to how well it meets certain social justice criteria—minority hiring, environmental sustainability, community engagement, fair treatment of workers—and whether its fees are competitive.
This practice, which gets underway this summer, had its genesis in the renovation of Unity Unitarian’s building, which was completed in November and dedicated May 19. Going back farther, said Barbara Hubbard, Unity Church’s executive director, the congregation has had an active antiracist and antioppression effort for at least ten years, and that work is becoming woven into the fabric of congregational life.
So when the time came to interview contractors for the prospective $8 million renovation it seemed appropriate to ask the contractors—and through them the subcontractors—about the number of minority and female workers in their workforces, for example. “We recognized we were about to spend a lot of money and we had an obligation to express our values through how we spent that money,” said Hubbard.
She added, “We chose a company with a very good track record of hiring minorities and women. Then after we hired them one of our staff members wanted to know if we’d asked them anything about providing equitable pay and benefits to same-sex partners. So we went back to them. They both had to do some research on that. Our contractor said ‘Yes, we do.’ Our architect said, ‘No, but we’ve been thinking about that.’ And then they did begin providing those benefits, so we found that simply asking questions can be a form of advocacy and education.”
The renovation project led to a conversation at Unity Church about applying similar social justice standards to the congregation’s largest vendors. Last November the governing board and other leaders drew up a policy, named Policy J, calling for vendors to be evaluated on social justice criteria.
Here is Unity Church’s basis for Policy J:
The Executive Team believes that the church expresses its values in the way it spends its resources. We are committed to being intentional with contracts for services and vendors. We believe that the process of evaluating and educating current vendors and the process of intentionally choosing new vendors based on our values will promote our anti-racist and anti-oppression agendas.
Said Hubbard, “Thinking about expressing our values through the ways we spend our money is a powerful tool.” She noted that the conversations with vendors are just beginning this summer. “This first round of evaluations will be primarily educational. The first year will be a grace period, to give companies time to learn about the policy and think about their own practices. To start with, we’ll be using the audit as a tool, to let vendors know what our values and our hopes are.”
Already Hubbard has had a few phone conversations with vendors. “They’re curious about this.” She added, “Most vendors have never been asked these questions. It’s important to not ask the questions in a way that sets up a confrontation or implies they have failed.”
Hubbard said Unity Church has about a dozen vendors that meet the $2,500 benchmark. Eventually smaller vendors may also be evaluated. The five criteria are weighted. Minority hiring practices and whether the company has competitive fees are each weighted 25 percent. Fair compensation gets 20 percent of the rating, and the last two, local engagement and sustainability, each get 15 percent. "Any other congregation doing this would have to determine its own criteria,” she said.
There will be semi-annual reports to the congregation and the board on the program. Policy J also requires that the Sunday offerings that are donated to nonprofits be evaluated by antiracism standards. Those offerings total $80,000 annually.
Read the Unity Church's Policy (PDF). This summer the staff will be developing a Vendor Audit—the list of questions to be asked of vendors. That list will be available on the congregation’s website when it is completed.
Contact Barbara Hubbard (firstname.lastname@example.org) for more information on Policy J.