The Commission on Institutional Change's Insights from Its First Six Months

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 ensure that we remain viable as a faith. We are working for a vision of a liberating Unitarian Universalism and designing interventions that move us dramatically closer to that work, in this way we affirm the aspirations of our shared principles.

We have been doing this despite not being given the resources which were conditions of our service including dedicated, independent staffing which we were told would be in place when we began our service. Without that staffing, our progress has been slowed, and we have moved forward on various fronts. While we are not surprised by this lack of follow-through, we do feel it is time to address some more of our initial findings.

We have devoted hours to seeking to define our mission, to doing the work to try to secure staffing, and to fulfill the part of our charge that instructed us to unpack the events around the Southern Regional Lead Hiring decision. The latter will be addressed more fully next month.

Here are our conclusions from our first six months:

  • Theologically Unitarian Universalism is uniquely positioned to answer the call among us for a new kind of faith which would serve the needs of our communities — including advocacy and support for those most targeted by the politics of hate. Yet the systemic racism, patriarchy, and other forms of oppression among us makes it impossible for us to answer this call without new commitments, accountabilities, and visions for change. We find Tema Okun’s writings on ‘white supremacy culture’ instructive around what we see at the heart of many of our problems with relationships, power, and structure. These forces also deny access to our faith to those people of color who are attracted by our theological traditions and repelled by our culture. Our dominant culture has historically and continues to marginalize and unleash harm upon people of color who come into our institutions. Religious professionals and volunteer leaders of color are not able to share their gifts without fears of retaliation, nor live the fullness of their vocation and calling. The perspectives, talents, and leadership of religious professionals and dedicated volunteers of color are so needed in our faith. We need to be aware that a number of religious professional of color have lost their jobs among us since last summer.
  • That our systems have lacked and still lack accountability and transparency and this is widespread across the working of the UUA Board and Administration and within other UU-focused institutions. Our practices are outdated, outmoded and slow to change; as we have experienced simply in trying to obtain the resources promised in our charge as a Commission to do the work entrusted upon us.
  • That a lack of a common commitment and sense of urgency to address the racism and other oppressions coupled with a lack of humility means that we continue to hear disparate treatment of people of color — -and the removal of religious professionals of color from congregational positions which has continued beyond the events of the spring of 2017. We call on Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, President of the UUA, and her staff, to investigate these situations. Furthermore, we call for the expedited creation of a special field staff team to intervene in situations involving religious professionals of color.

The relentless persecution of people of color make the systemic oppression built into our structure more costly as those who could find shelter and sanctuary amid us instead encounter aggressions and bias. Unitarian Universalists must continue to pay attention to the many ways white, affluent, cisgender, heterosexual culture is centered. Furthermore, Unitarian Universalism needs to move from lip service to ally-ship and from acts of naming to concrete actions.

In light of this, we make the following calls for action:

We call on the UUA Board of Trustees to account for the fact that this Commission was established without funding and with no mechanism to provide independent staffing which was required for us to act effectively and to extend our charge through General Assembly 2020 to allow us to address the immense charge before us.

We call on UUA President Susan Frederick-Gray to release an analysis of the decline of the number of members and number of congregations over the last decade underscoring the importance of large-scale systemic change to ensure the survival of our faith tradition. We believe that these numbers should be reported to the General Assembly annually to show that Unitarian Universalism must fulfill its mission to serve all and that business as usual will mean following the path of mainstream denominations into decline. Included in that number should be the number of congregations which would not meet the minimum requirement of 30 members to qualify as a new congregation today.

We call on the Member Congregations and Affiliate Organization of the Association to undertake the following activities as witness to their commitment to Racial Justice and Radical Change within our communities:

  1. To answer the call to fund BLUU as an act of reparation for the denial of opportunities over centuries;
  2. To, as congregations, take up the challenge of boldly affirming Black lives through the support of Black Lives Matter activists, Brown lives through support of Muslim and immigrant of color-led activists, and other movements led by people of color as acts of public witness. In all things, we call on our communities to listen to those directly affected and targeted by hate, and to strive to be of use more than to be in control of how we can serve in this moment. Examples may include, and are not limited to:
    • use of congregational facilities by local activists of color for gatherings
    • financial support to resistance groups
    • offering safe harbor to activists in our sanctuaries as long as congregational sanctuary holds up
    • creation of community centers for those resisting persecution in our times, and/or making space within current programmings,
    • support activist families by offering free or low cost child care,
    • providing meals to local activist groups at their meetings in their own space
    • donating time and expertise to support the work of local resistance groups
    • taking the lead from LGBTQ people, people with disabilities, families of color, and mixed race families on how best to offer spiritual and communal support during this time of attack, enacting this support immediately
  3. To create spaces for conversation about systemic racism, other oppressions and internalized oppressions and to seek resources for addressing racism, bias and discriminatory practices.
  4. To frankly examine how white supremacy culture, conflict avoidance, a lack of humility, scarcity mentality and a preferencing of safety over faithful living is limiting the justice work.
  5. We call on individual Unitarian Universalists to answer our call for stories of how racism has affected your experience as a Unitarian Universalist. These stories have not been widely heard, documented or preserved and, despite a professed commitment to diverse staffing, the UUA has not maintained records of the racial composition of the religious education community, these stories are essential to documenting and synthesizing the true impact of racism in our Association, an impact that we acknowledge is real, imminent and pre-dating even as we document its intricacies.
  6. We call on individual white Unitarian Universalists to engage in deep spiritual discernment including engagement with our need to examine the dominant white-centered culture of our congregations.
  7. We ask Unitarian Universalists to call in for a special videocast to be scheduled within the next few weeks in which we will discuss the events surrounding the Southern Regional Lead Hiring decision of last spring, an event which led to resignations and chaos in our Association.

Thanks to Meadville-Lombard Theological School and the UU Congregation of Phoenix for their support and hospitality and the members of the staff of the Unitarian Universalist Association who have worked hard to fill in as we try to address our need for staff.