At a gathering convened by Unitarian Universalist Association co-presidents Rev. Sofia Betancourt, Rev. William Sinkford, and Dr. Leon Spencer in Atlanta in 2017, Unitarian Universalist leaders of color were asked to share their insights into how the Association could continue moving forward in the midst of another racially charged moment.
Among the lamentations and learnings the assembled Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color identified were these:
- Addressing the perennial problem of race in Unitarian Universalism is not broadly seen as a theological mandate.
- No shared accountability structures and processes are in place to hold people accountable for the continued harming of Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color among us.
- The diffused nature of our organizations, each with their own accountability structures, means that ignorance and aggression are experienced again and again in different leadership contexts and as leadership changes.
- Our faith seems to have no room for repentance and saying when we have failed.
- We need new definitions of competency for religious leadership, and multicultural competency has to be part of those new standards.
- We need to both learn the lessons of history and acknowledge that these are new times.
- We need to be intentional in our support of people of color in our congregations and encourage them to be connected to national and regional communities of support and others within their congregations.
- We need to center the experiences of Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color.
- Regional staff, good officers, and others key to crisis response need to be comfortable with productive conflict and multiculturally competent.
- Too few white people are engaged in intentional anti-oppression work.
- We lack a consistent analysis of how power works among us and how that power is centered around white, cisgender, heterosexual, and temporarily able-bodied people with means.
- We need resources for ritual and worship that sustain the souls of people of color and other oppressed folks in these times.
Three years later, much has changed, and much remains the same. What has changed? A responsive Association under the leadership of President Susan Frederick-Gray and a Board under the leadership of co-moderators Barb Greve and Elandria Williams have set much in motion:
- New hiring practices are documented and followed.
- Public accountability about the number of employees who are Black, Indigenous, or people of color and their positional levels is modelled.
- Plans have been developed for a Rapid Response Team to intervene when religious professionals of color encounter difficulty.
- Our General Assembly (GA) has centered the voices of Black people, Indigenous people, people of color, and also people who are gender-expansive or living with disabilities.
- The UUA leadership teams reflect more diversity and the wisdom of leaders who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color.
- More congregations are offering welcoming spaces such as a people of color caucus, reading group, or circle.
- More white people are engaged in anti-oppression work.
- Theologians among us have begun to articulate what a liberation theology could look like for Unitarian Universalists.
- The sense of urgency that was present in Atlanta—“We can’t blow this again!”—is even stronger, as those targeted by hate in our national policies have even less tolerance for it within our religious framework.
And what remains the same?
- In 2020 as in 2017, religious professionals of color struggle to maintain their jobs, and many end up deciding to leave or being asked to leave.
- Efforts to focus on equity, diversity, and inclusion are met with derision, false news, and shoddy research masquerading as truth.
- A disturbing new trend is that white leaders who openly speak out about white supremacy culture and the need for change are also finding their employment ended or affected.
- We still too often confuse social customs among us with theology.
- People of color and others targeted and endangered in this world come into our congregations seeking solace, only to discover that while our beliefs are grounding and life-giving, the ways they are practiced in too many of our communities cause harm, confusion, and pain.
- We still lack the systemic resources to support Black people, Indigenous people, people of color, and other marginalized people or an analysis of power among us.
- We continue to overlook the special gifts and intelligences of people who already know how to resist and survive in these times, when these skills are needed more and more.
What was asked for at the Atlanta gathering was a process of truth and reconciliation. The Commission on Institutional Change has served as the beginning of that process. This is a summation of some of our findings and recommendations. If it is received as nothing more than a document, that will be a travesty and fresh source of injury to all who participated in offering and compiling the wisdom found here. Though we have no doubt not captured all that was shared, we have made an attempt to capture that which was heard repeatedly or which seems particularly important to creating systemic change.