“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.”
—Commission on Institutional Change blog post, February 10, 2018, and February 18, 2019
Components of our work included:
- Call for Testimony—As one of its first acts, the Commission issued calls for testimony and examples of innovation. These calls were issued repeatedly throughout our three years of collecting data. Testimony took the form of individual interviews and submitted testimony. While many were ready to participate and provide their personal testimony, we also heard from folks unwilling to participate. Some expressed experiences too painful to be relived; others were resigned, having shared their stories at other moments of our denominational history and had their voices silenced.
- Focus Groups—For the first two years of our work, we convened focus groups in a variety of settings, including the 2018 and 2019 General Assemblies, regional and district meetings, meetings of professional associations, Finding Our Way Home (the annual meeting of religious professionals who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color), and online. These were designed to elicit feedback from a variety of groups. In 2019, we also extended invitations to those who had voiced concern about anti-oppression work. At the 2018 General Assembly, all participants were invited to take part in focus groups.
- Collaboratory—In the fall of 2018, under the leadership of consultant Melvin Bray, we convened a multi-day gathering of those who had been leading work on equity, inclusion, and diversity in the various facets of Unitarian Universalism to help set benchmarks for our work.
- Outside Audit—In 2019, we contracted with VISIONS, Inc., an international consultant firm, to review key documents and analyze our leadership structures, with a focus on systemic oppression.
- Surveys—We conducted several surveys at General Assembly, one through the GA app, which was accessible to all General Assembly participants.
- Social Science Research Tools—Transcripts of the testimony, focus groups, and individual interviews—over 650 pages of transcripts and eighty plus hours of audio/video interviews—were analyzed using Dedoose, a cross-platform research application for qualitative data. As our primary codes, we used the ten areas of priorities developed out of the work of the 2017 Atlanta Gathering (See Avatars on page xxiv) and the 2018 Collaborative to look for patterns and trends. In our analysis, we also kept track of emerging patterns in addition to our areas of priorities.
Confidentiality of Data
In our Board-mandated work, the Commission on Institutional change has gathered data on the direct experiences of Unitarian Universalists related to their experiences of institutional inequity, racism, cultural bias, and practices that are incompatible with our covenant and theology.
Due to the sensitive nature of these testimonies, the Board and Commission have decided to hold the recordings, documents, and other materials from public view for a period of five years. Afterward, the data will be available for academic use.
This presented a conundrum for the Commission: we felt that it was absolutely necessary to maintain the privacy and safety of those who bravely shared their testimonies, and yet we recognize the need to provide the full understanding of the effects of the institutional racism and inequity that is offered in the narratives. Attempting to manage this problem, we elected to compile composite narratives based on the testimonies provided. (See Avatars, below.)
The reenactments presented here contain events and stories based upon the testimonies given by the participants, with changes and alterations of certain details such as dates, times, and identities where appropriate, but maintaining the context, power dynamics, and impacts.
A Brief Overview
At the outset, we agreed on a commitment to ground our research and output in our lived experience. This particular approach is consistent with our theological mandate to hold our direct experience as one of the sources of Unitarian Universalism and with the Commission’s pledge to ground our work in our theological tradition. As one person put it, “We need people who are actively engaged in this work, not just cheerleading from the side.”
As a faith community, we place a high value on the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Yet this has somehow come to be interpreted almost exclusively through an individualistic lens. We suggest that as a religious organization, bound together by choice, we operate as a collective based on principle, so that this “free and responsible” search is done within the boundaries of communities.
When discussing the impacts of systemic oppression, we also needed to center the experience of those most directly impacted as that contains the core truth of the impacts and, when aggregated, can point to the levers that are most critical—those places where change in systems will reduce harm to the most people.
We used an action-based research methodology that involved collection of materials, analysis, and two outside consultants. This process was not without its challenges. The biggest challenge was that records on Black leaders, Indigenous leaders, and leaders of color, including those who were in ministry, have been largely nonexistent or highly incomplete. We learned early in our process, as we experienced difficulties gaining access to reliable information and faced the realities of informal structures that did not always keep complete and clear records, that we needed to create an archive of data to work from—despite the fact that information on the harm done to people of color has been collected at other times following high profile incidents throughout our history. This is problematic, and another example of the historic discounting and undervaluing of the experience of people of color and other marginalized peoples within our Association.
We committed to get as much information as possible from those most affected—yet found that many Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color chose not to participate because of prior experience with information gathering that led to little change, as well as the barriers posed by the large number of people, employed and lay, whose experiences have already led them to leave our Association. Therefore, our results are probably understated.
A starting point for us was a convening hosted in Atlanta by UUA co-presidents Rev. Sofia Betancourt, Dr. Leon Spencer, and Rev. William Sinkford. This was the first convening designed to capture many of the ideas that have been readily available and yet ignored about how to combat white supremacy culture and the marginalization of Black voices, Indigenous voices, and voices of color within the many expressions of our beloved faith.
When we issued our invitation in the fall of 2017 for testimonies from those who had been injured by a culture privileging white people within Unitarian Universalism, we quickly learned that people were reluctant to share their stories. One reason was that religious professionals feared losing their jobs or their abilities to perform their jobs, as did those who identified as white allies. Another reason was that people of color, whether professional or lay, felt that they had told their stories again and again, reliving pain and traumatic experience to no end. Over and over we heard from people who said they were no longer willing to describe the pain they experienced because, after the initial shock and reaction took place, little changed. Some described this as a form of “trauma porn,” in which those in the majority culture got a voyeuristic look into the lives of Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color; experienced deep emotions—and failed to act in any systematic way.
The fact that anonymity was required for people to feel comfortable sharing speaks to the extent of the racial divide and power imbalances. While we are using a limited number of direct quotes in this report to illustrate important points, we found a consistency of experiences. The vast majority of people of color and others from identities marginalized within Unitarian Universalism had experienced discriminatory and oppressive incidents or cultures within Unitarian Universalist circles.
Religious professionals felt these aggressions and attacks on dignity most frequently and most strongly. Those who were white had a spectrum of experiences ranging from denial that any kind of racism existed within Unitarian Universalism (“we have a 0-percent occurrence”) to those who saw clear issues with equity, inclusion, and diversity and paid a large cost professionally and socially to name them. The vast majority of people were in the middle—vaguely aware, somewhat committed, and feeling unskilled.
This report is based on more than eighty hours of audio and video recordings and more than 650 pages of documents from more than 1,100 participants. Out of this material, we created five avatars to represent the themes we saw represented in strong and consistent patterns. The avatars are composites of the testimonies that were submitted and also those that came out of the focus groups we conducted in 2017 and 2018. These avatars allow us to amplify themes of the testimony without endangering individuals’ livelihood or community connection.
Call for Personal Testimony, from the Commission on Institutional Change
The Commission on Institutional Change issued the following call after its first meeting in August, 2017, through its website and blog and through a video call that was released.
The Commission on Institutional Change requests personal accounts and stories about how racism has affected individuals and groups within Unitarian Universalism at the personal, institutional, or systemic levels. It is seeking to document incidents that occurred between individual Unitarian Universalists, within a congregational or Associational setting, or as a result of white-centeredness embedded within the greater Unitarian Universalist culture. Within this context, the Commission asks you to respond to the following questions with specific examples:
- In what ways have you or your group or community been hurt by current racist and culturally biased attitudes and practices within Unitarian Universalism?
- In what ways have we, as a faith community, been living outside of our values and commitments?
This process of collecting personal accounts and stories was ongoing from the end of GA 2018 until September 2019. A stream of testimonies flowed in too late to be included in the gathering but were included in our data collection.
This report uses several terms to identify Black, Indigenous, and people of color, for the purpose of avoiding reductive, institutional language that erases those whose very survival is dependent on visibility and inclusion.
The term people of color is used as this has been the accepted standard within Unitarian Universalism. We also use Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color to acknowledge the stark reality of worldwide anti-Blackness, as well as the experience of many Indigenous people who may suffer vast intersectional oppression both from global white domination and other people of color in their own lands (and often, the system of racism exacerbates existing inequalities between people of color and Indigenous people).
Black/African refers to those of African descent. Black is a political term utilized in response to the prevailing system of white domination.
Indigenous is a term referring to those who, though they are the original inhabitants of their land, have been attacked, subjugated, colonized, forcibly removed, systematically oppressed, etc.
People of color refers to all those who fall outside the white dominant identity, including multiracial people.
A great deal of nuance, intersectional experience, and range of identity exists within these phrases.
We also acknowledge that these phrases are responses to an existing structure of oppression.
In quoted text, we have left language as in the original except when that language is our own. In the process of preparing this report, we have come to understand that some of the language we have used before in our public statements has been ableist and have removed it here. However, in quoting the work of others, we have decided to let it stand rather than present others’ words inaccurately.
Call for Promising Practices, from the Commission on Institutional Change
The Commission issued this call through our website, public presentations, and social media outlets:
The Commission on Institutional Change is seeking stories and examples of best practices in the service of antiracism in UU congregations and communities.
- If you have been doing something in the field of antiracism that you think is going well, we’d like to hear about it. This might include:
- justice work grounded in accountable relationships with organizations led by and serving people of color
- providing space, child-care, or logistical support to movements led by and serving people of color
- partnering on grassroots local organizing campaigns
- multiracial staff teams serving congregations effectively for more than three years
- family ministries and/or religious education programming especially targeted to and serving congregants of color, both adults and children/youth
- multiculturally sensitive pastoral care programs
- a proven track record of financial partnership and fundraising for movements led by or serving people of color
- What has been the new learning to emerge as far as diversity, equity, and inclusion?
- How do you measure success?
- What has been the struggle? For what were you unprepared and what did you learn?