Commission on Institutional Change General Assembly 2019 Report

Redeeming the Promise of Our Faith: General Assembly 2019 Themed Program

Commission on Institutional Change report to the 2019 General Assembly

Redeeming the Promise of Our Faith: General Assembly 2019 Themed Program

We want to take a little time and offer an update on our work, especially our work since we reported to this Assembly last year. The Commission on Institutional Change was charged with identifying the long-term cultural and institutional change needed to redeem the essential promise and ideal of Unitarian Universalism.

We were specifically charged with addressing the long-festering issues of race, racism and white supremacy culture within Unitarian Universalism and as part of our charge were directed to unpack the controversy in the spring of 2017 around the southern regional lead hiring process. We did this in our first year and reported extensively on this at last General Assembly, finding, in summary that our Association had created conditions in which religious professionals of color could not thrive or, in many cases, even survive. You can read our report on our website.

This year we expanded our focus, keeping our concern about religious professionals who should not sacrifice health and wholeness to serve among us and also turning our attention to the greater issue of how we welcome, or fail to welcome, a diversity of people into the congregations and other communities of our faith tradition. In part we did this by continuing to take testimonials of those who have experienced Unitarian Universalism and many responded to this opportunity to tell the stories they have had on their heart and let their voices be heard.

As we deepened our work towards hearing the stories and collecting information, we realized that it was difficult to make recommendations about the Unitarian Universalism we wanted to create because we so often focus on the difficulties and problems people of color and others with identities outside the white, resourced, cisgender, straight dominant identity experience in our faith. So we focused by convening what we called the Happy Valley Collabytory which gave us a chance to bring together people to create a vision for what an inclusive, diverse and more equitable Unitarian Universalism could look like.

We are grateful for those who came together. Perhaps the most refreshing and inspiring part was when we don’t have to spend our time arguing about whether we have an issue with racial bias, we can get a lot done. Many, many ideas are out there, pent up and awaiting expression and the spirit of creativity and cooperation should give us all hope.

We asked, What benchmarks, processes and accountability mechanisms are needed to transform persistently inequitable material outcomes into full access, full inclusion and full participation in our communities, seminaries, affiliate orgs, credentialing bodies, and the national organizations for UUs of color (recognizing the multiple social locations persons of color can hold relative to gender variance, class and ability)?

We made some assumptions based on our first year’s work including that equity, diversity and inclusion is possible within our faith, that multiple truths coincide, that we move best when we move together, the oppressive systems we have moved in have wounded people, we lack common agreements on past inequities and concluded that a Unitarian Universalism which addresses these systems will work better for everybody.  We identified what the characteristics of a more diverse, equitable and inclusive congregation would look like, what the UUA staff work would look like, what partner and affiliate organizations would look like in addition to what credentialing would look like. And what we found was that structural and systematic changes were needed.

We are appreciative of the many, many people who have contributed to our work. Since appointed, we have been collecting testimony and data to try to look for patterns across the data for so much of the conversation thus far has been shaped around events which were named and explored, often on social media. Data collection through interviews, focus groups and document submissions have produced 100 plus hours of audio and video recordings, and 450 pages of documents from over 225 participants.

Revised 10 Critical Areas on Intervention

From this we identified 10 critical areas of intervention, which we have revised more recently to encompass the analysis of the data we received and the patterns that it revealed. Through our work this year, we identified ten critical areas for intervention. If addressed, we believe these areas can allow us to make significant progress towards creating a more inclusive, equitable, hospitable and diverse Unitarian Universalism. We will touch briefly on these areas today and you can read more about them on our blog.

Today you will hear us engage in conversation about solutions more than problems, however, these areas come out of our deep engagement with what has been happening among us. We believe that we must articulate a theology of liberation, experimentation, and innovation grounded in our Unitarian Universalist principles and sources of inspiration. We need to ground our communities in a shared theology that helps unearth, manifest, and point the way towards liberation along with experimentation that strives for our collective flourishing.

The data we have collected led us to conclude that we need communities based on covenant and commitment rather than comfort and conformity with shared learning and exploration as a foundation. Most institutional forms of Unitarian Universalism are congregational and dominated by the practices familiar and comfortable for those who are white and well-off, cis-gendered and able-bodied. These can be seen as the only right way of being together and do not allow space for those from other experiences to lend their leadership and gifts. Those who would call us to more fully live into a liberatory faith are often cited as troubled or troublesome and we lack processes to allow healthy conflict instead of resorting to secrecy, bullying and isolation. These times and our living tradition requires us to always be living into new ways of being.

We also believe we must acknowledge the loss of those who have not been welcomed or accepted into Unitarian Universalism and deepen our practice of hospitality. People of color, LBTGQ people, people with disabilities and poor people are not new within Unitarian Universalism and many of us have been here all our lives. And yet so many have come, served and eventually had to leave because of disillusionment, trauma or a culture of white supremacy. Many of them are part of the majority of people who identify in census and surveys as being Unitarian Universalist and who have not found a way to be comfortable in our congregations. The greater Unitarian Universalist movement should be aware of these people and their contributions and should also recommit to the learning and growing that would allow our communities and bodies to be more hospitable.

We assert that we must value the knowledge of people of color and other groups we marginalize in our common life and ensure opportunities for full involvement for UUs of color in the various settings of our faith. We have heard countless stories of how our congregations and organizations diminish people of color who come in. Many people of color do not end up staying, some are repelled immediately, others are burned out. Those who opt to stay labor to nurture our faith and are not acknowledged for their contributions. And this year we saw that those who would be allied are often forced out. We also need to understand people of color are more likely to come into Unitarian Universalism because they hold another marginalized identity rejected in their birthright religions, especially LBGTQ.

We believe we must provide tools for us to understand the systemic and cultural impacts of oppression among us. We also do not have trauma-informed ministries and so do not understand--and often--judge systemic effects of racism as incompetence. We do not recognize the systemic effects of racism and white supremacy culture which results in more people of color struggling economically and still depending on self-funding to participate in much of our volunteer activities. This General Assembly is increasingly out of reach for most. We should consider the cost of losing work for those younger in their career or in more tenuous positions because of their race or other marginalized identities. [SLIDE 33 end] We need tools for assessing our congregational practices to understand how they uphold a culture which privileges whiteness and we need healthy ways of managing the controversy and backlash directed at the lay leaders and religious professionals who work to be more inclusive.

Last year we spoke extensively about the need to ensure quality of livelihood for religious professionals of color, especially those with complex identities for whom our current systems are destructive (or who bear the brunt of the destructive power of our current broken systems). We will hear some of the responses to our work in a few minutes.

The data we have gathered also makes it clear that we need to prioritize and enable leadership from those who are underrepresented in our communities including people of color, young adults, LBGTQ people especially those who are transgender or gender non-binary, people with limited economic resources, people with disabilities, and working age people. Intervention with the 18-60 age ranges and their involvement in leadership (young adults and working-age people) is needed. Who has power? The young folks already living into the culture that we want and so they have valuable skills. Youth are not the future, they are the present. People who are undervalued in the dominant culture also have many of the intelligences needed to navigate a more diverse world.

We also believe that we must identify, develop and spread examples of innovation of equity, inclusion, and diversity and establish channels of innovation and risk-taking. People and congregations are taking risks to be inclusive and we have models worth considering, not yet for widespread replication, rather, to inform and inspire. Developing a culture of experimentation will be essential in bridging the large gap between where we are and where we need to be. Learning to be comfortable with risk, healthy conflict and change is also critical. Culture change will necessitate that we stop punishing our truth-tellers and risk-takers and instead cultivate cultures of curiosity and humility.

As we have heard the stories of how people have been treated in our communities, we also believe it critical to develop healthy processes for repair, restoration and reparations. Within our larger Association and within our local communities, we need healthy processes for repairing relationships which have been damaged and understanding the boundaries that come with such restoration. When wrong is done, our practice should be to name and confront rather than ignore or cover up. Unitarian Universalism as a whole is woefully behind other civic and religious groups in exploring what it would mean to make real reparations to those who have been wronged as the resources which fuel our faith have been built on the uncompensated property of indigenous people and the unpaid work of people of color, especially African Americans during slavery, and of women.

And the last area we have identified based on interviews, conversations and surveys is the need to enact mechanisms of accountability and integrity towards shared goals of equity, inclusion, and diversity which transcend particular leadership. Mechanisms of accountability and integrity that identify the chains of command, place checks and balances through the system, and promote just relations are needed. Accountability is to the principles, to the commitments that have been and will be made; it is not accountability to any one group of people.

Next for the Commission on Institutional Change

As we leave here, the Commission will be focused on completing our data collection activities and our audit of systemic racism.  We will continue to analyze the information we have collected to date including all that you will share with us over the next two days. The last area or inquiry from our charge will be to explore systematic ways to repair the harms and heal relationships. We will then turn our attention to writing our recommendations for the continued work in our Association and congregations.  We’ll be delivering those culminating in a final report at next year’s General Assembly. When we started this work, we reflected on the necessity for our work not to be a report that sits on a shelf and is not actioned. Our history has many stories of starting anti-racism efforts, moving on without completing the work and reaping the consequences and harm of this approach. In one of the focus groups this spring, a participant likened the continued focus needed to create real transformation to making microwave popcorn. You need the full-on, full two minutes without stopping because 12, 10 second intervals isn’t going to get you your popcorn. We want to invite all of you to continue in this work with us and stay the course so we can all live the promise of our faith.

How can you help? First, by participating in the conversations and survey. And most importantly by getting your congregation talking about and engaged in conversation about how to be more hospitable and inclusive. We have resources on our page and suggested practices. We will make available study materials through our blog and the Congregational Resources section of our website.

Our work has convinced us that engagement in this work is essential to the future of our faith in this era when organized religion is on the decline. We have the beliefs that make sense and a culture that needs to be recentered. So many identify with who we are and yet cannot find a home among us. Too many have been injured by our lack of awareness. Younger and more engaged people expect a progressive religion to be hospitable and welcoming. Though there are many levels of engagement, from dialogue to learning and studying, to advocacy and self-reflection and learning, if you can do nothing else, the most basic support is to acknowledge the need for change, to listen and to not block action. Ultimately this will allow us to move to the structural reform and advocacy which we need and which we can do if we stay in dialogue.