In 1989, a report titled “We Have No Problem… Again,” from the Black Concerns Working Group,  included the following words:
That the white majority refusal to acknowledge and accept the firsthand knowledge that people of color, indigenous and other marginalized groups face within our frames is maddening to those who experience it over and over among us.
These words still resonate three decades later. This lack of regard and respect is what leads to an evolution from accusations of “racial bias” to “racism” to “white supremacy culture.”
In spite of the promise of our movement, we still need to address the bias and oppression within our systems to build resilience in our living tradition for the times we are in and strengthen it for future generations. Making these changes will allow us to stay relevant. Addressing these issues will allow us to live into the theology we profess. Furthermore, if we are committed to this work as central to our faith, we will create the conditions in which all who are attracted to the theological premises of our faith can thrive.
This form of creative, faithful engagement is joyous when it is done in a spirit of aspiration to deepening our spiritual commitments. It can also be heartbreaking. Much of that heartbreak comes from the fact that we spend most of our time talking about whether we have a problem… again. As a faith, we have struggled to engage this question decisively, putting into relief our investment in maintaining the structures that create and perpetuate unequal arrangements.
As a Commission, we do not believe that a single path exists that will work for every UU individual or group or evenly across the current fragmentation among Unitarian Universalists. We have offered here, in good faith, and in carrying out the charge we received during the 2017 General Assembly, our best synthesis of the ideas and recommendations developed from this collective work and the work and ideas of Black, Indigenous, and other people of color who have offered them to no response generation after generation. These ideas and recommendations are a distillation of many conversations, laments, arguments, written testimonials, focus group interviews, gatherings, reports, and institutional data that we have been privy to over these years of service as your Commission on Institutional Change. As our work comes to a conclusion, we feel confident that there is much wisdom within these pages that comes not from our perspectives as Commissioners but from the cumulative lived experiences and ideas that have been fermenting for many decades among us.
As we prepare to close, we would offer one further distillation of all of that is contained within these pages. We affirm that, ultimately, what we have been talking about for these years are basic commitments that grow out of our theological legacy. Retailored for our time, these are the commitments:
- Hospitality—the willingness to welcome all who would find solace, comfort, and inspiration in the values that we hold.
- Common sense—the idea that we can often just do things in a more simple and basic way that makes sense rather than make things unnecessarily convoluted.
- Empathy—the ability to perceive and care about another’s sore struggle even if it is not your own, recognizing that it is part of ours and that we are bound together through the interdependence that is part of our faith.
- Compassion—the ability to walk with another and to be caring toward that one as if they were ourself.
- Self-awareness and mindfulness—recognizing the power we have over one another, simply allowing ourselves to wake up to that, not to be shamed or made guilty, rather simply to allow ourselves to prepare our own hearts for transformation.
- Continuity—the recognition that we would not be having these conversations in 2020 if we had kept them going in the 1970s, the 1980s, and the 1990s, for commitment and continuance are what will allow real progress.
- Humility—knowing we don’t know the answers, especially in these times; offering to one another those glimpses of what we do know and so, together, creating a clearer sense of where we are going. In the spirit of that humility, we acknowledge that we have no doubt forgotten some ideas and recommendations that should be included and have perhaps misformulated others. And once again we acknowledge the debt to our ancestors: much that is written here is the collective wisdom of those who have travelled in the valley places of our faith. With this we pass the baton for others to pick up and carry.
- Restoration—understanding that where harm has been done, effort must be expended to provide address and redress.
- Prioritization—Many of our recommendations are about focus and emphasis, rather than money. Though investments are needed in specific areas, much can be accomplished through education and attention.
What Do We Mean by Systemic Oppression?
The following is a Commission on Institutional Change blog post published on March 13, 2019.
This post is offered in solidarity with our transgender, genderqueer, and gender-expansive kin whom we have previously cited as experiencing similar dynamics as those experienced by people of color within Unitarian Universalism. We affirm, prioritize, and wish to amplify the analysis of the specific dynamics to those leaders and community members most directly impacted by these dynamics as that is a principle of accountability that we honor, the violation of which has caused much pain among us.
We do wish to pause a moment to discuss the costs of systemic oppression. As we have pointed out in previous posts, the oppression faced by transgender, genderqueer, and gender-expansive Unitarian Universalists, while unique in its manifestations, has many of the same dynamics that animate racism. A denial of the differential treatment faced by those whose gender identity is marginalized among us was the cause of much pain. We are deeply saddened by that pain and ask the larger Unitarian Universalist community to engage in self-study, learning, and transformation.
Those who are marginalized among us are not on display for the learning and edification of the majority culture. We treat people as “other” when we treat them as objects or when we act as if our understanding is more important than their right to dignity and privacy.
Second, we note that these sorts of damaging dynamics are perpetuated by a culture that values “expertise” rather than a culture of learning in which we know that we are all learners. The need to “master” knowledge in this way, especially by using individual lives as the teaching tools, further objectifies people.
Third, we note that we have a generational understanding gap in social justice issues. For many of our younger members, and certainly our youth, our failure to be able to expand our inclusion causes us to become irrelevant and also results in a culture in which we reject and harm people.
Fourth, we must create a culture of hospitality in which we allow people to enter into our congregations with the identities they claim without questioning their experience or their truths. Failure to do so feeds into a dynamic that denies that those targeted by hate in our larger society also struggle to thrive among us.
As we said in our blog post of September 2018, “Our basic premise is that if we can live into the full participation of those who have been most marginalized among us, we can create a responsive, vibrant Unitarian Universalism. A Unitarian Universalist faith marked by full equity and participation will continue to play a vital role in transforming lives and communities.”