The First Unitarian Church of Oakland, CA has begun exploring a new and dynamic model of social justice ministry by partnering with the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. Working together with members of the community, their partnership seeks to address pressing local concerns, including high rates of teen incarceration, increasing urban violence and the need for green jobs that support low income families and people of color. The growing success of this partnership results from strong congregational leadership at First Unitarian, which sought support from the whole congregation, not simply a few members. By gaining a church-wide commitment to the Ella Baker Center and its work, First Unitarian has emerged as a leading voice for justice in Oakland. The partnership also benefits from the church’s long involvement in social justice, including work with the Center for Urban and Family Life, Unitarian Universalist (UU) Legislative Ministry of California, and Boost! West Oakland.
Most recently, First Unitarian Church of Oakland and the Ella Baker Center have been deeply engaged in the Occupy Oakland movement, which has drawn national attention for successfully closing the Port of Oakland and become a model for other Occupy efforts. The Ella Baker Center has organized on-line letter writing campaigns to the mayor, begun blogging about the progress the movement is making and has posted articles suggesting ways their supporters can get involved. First Unitarian Church is itself only three blocks from the Occupy Oakland camp, located near the heart and soul of the movement. Every Tuesday the church has prepared breakfast for “Occupiers” and hosts groups such as the Hospitality Workers Union who cook and serve meals. Adults and youth members have participated in marches carrying their Standing on the Side of Love banner and wearing their ‘Love’ shirts, distributed water and food, and supported the Interfaith Tent located within the camp.
The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights
The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights was founded 15 years ago by Van Jones, a long time community organizer in Oakland who became an adviser to President Barack Obama. The Center defines itself as “people powered” looking for “smart solutions and uplifting alternatives,” a place dedicated to “building a society where decisions and laws are based on love and common concerns.” Their methods for achieving change are diverse, “from grassroots organizing, direct action and media advocacy to public education, policy reform and legal service.”
Their work has paid off. The Ella Baker Center built the coalition to defeat Proposition 23, which threatened environmental regulation in California and led opposition to Proposition 6, which pledged to spend billions of dollars on prison building and send more youth into adult prisons. Their pioneering Books Not Bars campaign has reduced the California teen prison population by more than 60% and closed four youth prisons. Working locally in Oakland, they have mobilized over 1,500 hours of community service and voter registration, helping the marginalized be heard through the ballot box.
Taking the First Steps
The initial idea of partnership between First Unitarian Church of Oakland and the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights began through conversations within the church’s Justice Council, which coordinates the justice ministries of the church. Within the congregation of 350 adult members and 90 children and youth, several long-time members suggested the need to become more active in addressing issues of increasing violence, widening poverty and greater inequalities in education and health-care within the city of Oakland. The new Minister for Community Engagement, Rev. Jacqueline Duhart, worked with Justice Council members and identified the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights as a local organization that shared their vision for justice, nonviolence, and a sustainable environmental future. Another community organization that the congregation had worked with on worker justice issues was also considered.
In response to this growing interest in expanding the social justice ministries, the congregation’s Faith Action Team Steering Committee decided to offer a Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) Social Justice Empowerment Weekend in the fall of 2010. This UUA program is designed to help congregations “assess the quality of their social justice program” and serves as “an opportunity for members of a congregation to consider what they are doing as an institution to create a more just and caring world.” In addition to the Social Justice Empowerment materials that help congregations find the best fit for their congregation’s ministry, the workshop incorporated material from a handbook entitled A Community Builder’s Tool Kit: 15 Tools for Creating Healthy, Productive Interracial/Multicultural Communities that helped frame the conversations and encouraged deeper reflection. After considering two different organizations to partner with, the congregation decided at the workshop through a process of discernment and consensus that the Ella Baker Center would be the best fit. In making this decision, members of First Unitarian cited the Center’s inspiring vision, overarching analysis of structural racism, and its commitment to genuine change at the local level. Later, First Church of Oakland also held a UUA Anti-Racism training, which helped further prepare them for their work in their community.
The first official meeting between First Unitarian Church of Oakland and the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights occurred on January 30, 2011 when 75 members of the congregation attended a presentation by the Ella Baker staff. Since that time, First Unitarian has been involved in a range of activities in support of the Center's work. Most notably, they participated in the 2011 Oakland Running Festival, where 27 members raised over $2,100 to fund the Center’s programs. The festival was a great success for the Center overall, raising over $28,000 and mobilizing 120 volunteers. Members of First Unitarian have also participated in several service days where the Center worked in partnerships with other Oakland community based organizations.
The partnership between the First Unitarian Church of Oakland and the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights continues to grow and expand. Members recently worked with the fund-raising group for the Ella Baker Center’s annual awards dinner, which this year celebrated the Center’s 15th anniversary and included more than 550 guests. First Unitarian will also host Reclaiming the Future, a transformative and inspiring workshop that examines the structural and institutionalized racism in Oakland and look at ways citizens can engage with local issues.
The partnership has been complimented by rich conversations within the congregation around issues of accountability and how to incorporate spirituality into ongoing social justice work. Songs and readings are already being incorporated into the church’s social justice work, especially in their participation with the Occupy movement. Always looking to grow in practice and in spirit, First Unitarian Church of Oakland hopes to further engage the youth of the congregation and to increase the overall church ownership of the partnership.