The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) Commission on Institutional Change is charged with supporting long-term cultural and institutional change that redeems the essential promise and ideals of Unitarian Universalism. Appointed by the UUA Board of Trustees in 2017 for a period of two years with an extension granted in 2018, the Commission was in place through June 2020.
At the New Orleans General Assembly in 2017, the UUA Board of Trustees announced and chartered the Commission on Institutional Change. The charge given was to conduct an audit of the power structures and analyze systemic racism and white supremacy culture within the Unitarian Universalist Association.
Purpose and Goals
The Commission on Institutional Change held its first in-person meeting on August 21-22, 2017.
After two days of deliberation and consideration of the charge presented by the UUA Board of Trustees, the Commission completed a statement of its goals, guiding principles, and approach to its work.
The Commission pledged to report back to the Board and General Assembly its learnings, recommendations, and guidance for ongoing work over the next three years. The Commission articulated its commitments to:
- ground its work in theological reflection and seek the articulation of a liberating Unitarian Universalism that is anti-oppressive, multicultural, and accountable to the richness of our diverse heritage
- oversee an audit of racism within UUA practices and policies and set priorities and make recommendations for anti-oppression strategies (including hiring and personnel practices and governance structures) that will advance our progress toward Beloved Community while holding the Association accountable
- collect stories of those who have targets of harm or aggression because of racism within existing UUA culture and identify the aspects of that culture that must be dismantled to transform us into a faith for our times
- examine and document critical events and practices at all levels of the Association, congregations, and related ministries as special areas for redress and restorative justice
- illuminate the expectations placed on religious professionals who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color in the transformation of our faith
- identify promising practices for recruitment, retention, and formation of religious leadership that spans the spectrum of race, class, and age and reflects an inclusive ecclesiology
Principles to Guide Work
The Commission spent time discerning the guiding principles with which to address our work to end systemic oppression in our Association, informed by the experience we each bring to this work. These will evolve, but we begin with these premises:
- We need our practice of Unitarian Universalism and our fellow Unitarian Universalists to call us into living the fullness of the theology we inherit and proclaim.
- Transformation is needed at all levels of our Association to abandon dysfunctional cultural expressions of our theology and polity.
- The covenants that bind us together, both within our own faith and to our partners in the world, are frayed and broken by the domination of white supremacy culture among us.
- To keep Unitarian Universalism alive, we must center the voices that have been silenced or drowned out and dismantle elitist and exclusionary white privilege, which inhibits connection and creativity.
- In this effort, we should be guided by the promising spots of creativity and learning where new multicultural and multigenerational expressions of our faith are found.
A Word About Centering
The patterns and habits of white supremacy culture are often unacknowledged, unrecognized, or openly denied. When we understand how these patterns and habits affect those who hold power and especially those who are harmed by them, we then also come to understand that we can’t dismantle systems of oppressive behavior without leaning into the knowledge and perspective of those most affected.
While proximity may not always guarantee expertise, it does guarantee experience, and often greater discernment due to higher personal stakes. Honoring this experience and discernment will require that we cultivate compassion. And it would help to look at the etymology of that word—com, meaning “with” or “together,” and “-passion,” derived from pati, which means “endure, undergo, experience.” Can we feel what another experiences?
This perspective offers us a more sensitive and sophisticated understanding of the oppressions that we are all dealing with in our work.
Some have taken the idea of “centering the leadership” of Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color and minimized it to a simple process wherein white or white-identified people express a desire for collaboration while avoiding the work that only they are in a position to do. Or even worse, they have misrepresented that suggestion to enmesh beleaguered Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color within their communities in inequitable and toxic systems of labor, responsibility, and accountability.
While we recognize that some use the suggestion to center people of color as a tactic of avoidance, we also understand that for some, the line between unequal labor dynamics and inappropriate control is occasionally unclear, especially when circumstances call for rapid action. Here, we believe that semantics can hold a great deal of guidance. When we lean into the idea of centering the leadership of Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color rather than following it (understanding that following may be necessary), we find a path. By centering, we mean a leaning toward, a prioritizing of perspective, attention to whose needs are considered and who is most affected.
Just as we can understand that the current paradigm of white dominance centers white identity and the comfort of white-identified people, we can also understand that a more just and effective system would center the comfort, safety, growth, agency, and capacity for self-realization of those who are currently most oppressed, which would have a benefit for all.