Commission on Institutional Change at General Assembly 2018 Report

Commission on Institutional Change General Assembly Report

Audio note: moving your audio balance control to the left will remove the echo on speakers; moving back to the right will let you hear more of the room, which is nice during singing.

Commission on Institutional Change: Religious Professionals of Color Panel

The Commission on Institutional Change is joined by Carey McDonald, Jesse King, Melissa Carvill-Zimer, Jessica York, and Taquiena Boston in sharing with the delegates of the 2018 General Assembly, their reflections on what is happening with Religious Professionals of Color within our faith.

On Thursday, June 21st, The Commission on Institutional Change presented the following report to the Delegates of the 2018 General Assembly in Kansas City, Mo.

The Commission on Institutional Change was appointed by the UUA Board of Trustees to analyze the structures and processes which perpetuate oppression and white supremacy culture within our Unitarian Universalist Association.

We have been working since August of 2017 to address our collective starting assessment that the Unitarian Universalist Association’s legacy of racism must be addressed to end harm to individuals and to ensure that we must remain viable as a faith. We envision a liberating Unitarian Universalism and are designing interventions that must move us dramatically closer to that work.

We begin with the premise in all our work that the values of Unitarian Universalism cannot be realized in a system which is centered around one cultural expression. In fact, the centering of white culture and values has stymied the development of a full range of cultural expression. In the Unitarian Universalist tradition, two “pillar” principles invite us to covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of all people and to acknowledge the interdependent web of existence of which we are all a part. Systems, policies, practices, and expressions of Unitarian Universalism which bias one racial or cultural group above others make a mockery of these two core values and so we are called into efforts to name and change them as acts of witness to a fuller and more authentic expression of this faith.

In our first year of work which will continue through General Assembly 2020, we examined the events surrounding the Southern Regional Lead Hiring decision in spring 2017. We found this to be but one eruption of the seismic tensions around race which illustrate the depth of the disillusionment and tension faced by religious professionals of color in our faith. A few highlights of that report which is available through our website:

  • When the Southern Regional Lead hiring process took place, racial tensions were already at a breaking point in the system, especially for religious professionals of color who endure countless insults and aggression as part of their work.

  • Our governance structures are outdated and designed for a system which centers white culture and is bifurcated in ways that do not allow for good governance. Widespread disregard of existing systems and policies shows a lack of trust in existing systems which have not been intentionally redesigned to reflect the complexities of an emerging multicultural Unitarian Universalism.

  • Assumptions growing out of ignorance of racial bias and white supremacy culture led to conclusions that harm people of color, those who work every day within it and those who would attempt to find a spiritual home within Unitarian Universalism.

  • The skills and perspectives of religious professionals of color are not valued within the culture of our institutions, especially our congregations.

  • A fear of open conflict and assumption of “good intentions” increased the damage done by institutional racism and other forms of oppression within our Association.

Truth must come before reconciliation and transformation, and truth-telling in 2017 and 2018 is still dangerous for religious professionals of color, who are often the advance team doing the work that prepares the way for members to join as people of color. We began planning for a racism assessment across Unitarian Universalism. We are looking at what it will take to build a Unitarian Universalism centered around a diversity of experience and capable of inclusion, equity, and true multiculturalism. We are examining data and collecting stories of how racism and oppression have affected those within our faith and have several opportunities for dialogue about this at this General Assembly in which we hope you will join us.

Yes, truth-telling is still a risk, in fact, it is still dangerous for people of color within our faith. Religious professionals are still demeaned and treated as if they are without competency. People of color within our membership or those who are friends, risk loss of community among us if they speak about the aggressions they face and so many choose to quietly exit.

The Board charged the Commission with examining the relevance of “truth and reconciliation” processes to key events in the Associations’ recent past. While we spent some time researching these processes as they have been used in a number of nations and municipalities to resolve issues related to damages from racial conflict, we find that the circumstances of the UUA may require a different kind of response. Some observations from our report:

  • While the Commission’s charge includes: “Establish a ‘truth and reconciliation’ process to create a climate of honesty, accountability, and disclosure essential to our learning and multicultural growth as an institution,” most religious professionals of color do not feel safe to tell their truths because of what they have experienced from congregational leaders, colleagues and many of the systems set up to support them.

  • The lack of true anti-oppressive, anti-racism orientation on the part of regional staff and “good officers” through the Ministers’ Association has been particularly damaging to religious professionals of color which is, in part, why the events around this hiring decision became such a lightning rod for criticism. As part of the conversations we have elicited, it has become clear that the Association’s credentialing system for religious professionals and its systems for developing lay leaders do not take into account the dynamics of oppression and its systemic effects.

  • No process exists for redress when damage due to institutional racism is done whether that damage is done to people of color or white participants. Trial in the court of social media is not a healthy alternative to a real process.

  • No consistent resources are available for religious professionals of color (or others) who experience traumatic stress as a result of the lack of clarity of mission around racial inclusion and the gap between our aspirations and our actuality.

  • No data is available on the number of religious professionals employed at the congregational level or the types of positions, other than in the ministry and these statistics are also not easily obtained. That an Association which claims to wish to become more diverse does not track data which most corporations now track is puzzling.

  • Since we began our work, more religious professionals have lost their positions or are in conflict with congregations and the existing systems remain inept and inadequate at offering help. The loss of any religious professionals of color among us is costly.

The time for “reconciliation” may be passed. What may be needed is what author Melvin Bray calls a “truth and transformation” process which looks at not reconciling us to equity under an outmoded system but reimaging a new system of equity, inclusion and innovation.

We begin with truth-telling. If you have an observation that we need to hear, please visit our web page's Call for Testimony where information on how to share your stories and perspectives with us.