Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism (BLUU) Presidential Forum
Follow-Up Questions for Candidates
I attribute the reason there are so few people of color in the UU faith to persistent mono-cultural practices and perspectives within UU congregations. In other words, despite the radically inclusive message of Universalist and Unitarian theologies, our congregations are deeply rooted in white-protestant and white American cultural norms that center white narratives, experiences and perspectives. This marginalizes the experiences and voices of people of color in Unitarian Universalist communities. I would also add a layer of analysis about the way that “U.S. exceptionalism” and colonialism run through our institutional culture. After all, the roots of our tradition rest with the colonizers of this continent and the beginnings of the establishment of the USA. Many of the organizational structures and power dynamics in our faith mirror that of the U.S. government and are historically rooted in systems that preserve the status quo.
To truly build a new way will require a deeper practice of our theology and faith. Too often our congregations become like social clubs. When this happens the cultural norms of the group hold the center more than the theology, which can make racial and cultural diversity more difficult. Finally, we need new ways of “doing business” that promote transparency and collaborative uses of power and models of leadership. I’d love to see us move from models of debate in decision making, to discernment where voices from the margins are central. We have to make the ways we do things, from worship to decision-making, explicit and negotiable so that voices of people of color and indigenous people may be central in shaping the covenants and cultures of our congregations, communities and institutions.
Finally, historically, there are many instances when Unitarian Universalism failed to provide strong investment in black Unitarian Universalists leaders and their innovative ideas and ministries to grow and develop Unitarian Universalism within communities of color. The organizing collective of BLUU and the commitment of the UUA to fundraise with BLUU $5.3 million is a critical opportunity to invest in black leadership and black innovation with Unitarian Universalism and I am excited for how it can foster transformative growth and change for Unitarian Universalism and Unitarian Universalists.
Much has changed in the UUA and with our now former UUA President Peter Morales since you first asked this question over two months ago. I have been deeply disappointed and disheartened by Rev. Morales’ words and actions, but I also have deep compassion for him. And I am grateful for his leadership in several areas.
First, I recognize the important work Peter Morales did to build partnerships with other faith groups and justice movements. Partnership is a key part of my platform as a candidate for UUA President because I see partnership as a way to help Unitarian Universalism move beyond the cultural persistence of individualism and a kind of isolating or elitist exceptionalism that keeps us small. In Phoenix, the partnership we have with Puente Human Rights Movement has taught our congregation a great deal about courage, resistance and the power and impact of truly following the vision and strategies of leaders of color. It has helped create shifts in our congregation’s cultural and our ability to be flexible, take risks and experiment with new ways of doing things.
Rev. Morales’ work to build stronger relationships with liberal Christians, Muslims, Jews and others is important. I believe the challenges we face across the country and the planet are fundamentally the result of a moral crisis and that there is a need for a powerful moral and religious voice within the resistance. Through partnership and broad coalitions, we can more powerfully advance a moral vision for human rights, racial justice and climate justice than we could alone. And as Unitarian Universalists, we are in a unique position, because of our theology, to nurture and help build interfaith coalitions. But the opportunities for partnership are not just with faith groups, but also with grassroots movements like the Movement for Black Lives.
Personally, I will never forget President Peter Morales standing with Salvador Reza and many other Latinx leaders and Unitarian Universalists in shutting down Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s 4th Avenue Jail. I was grateful to have President Morales standing next to me and amplifying even further the resistance in Arizona. I believe this work can provide a model for how a President, local leadership and Standing on the Side of Love can amplify and support congregations and partners in moments of crisis and resistance.
Finally, while it is hard to judge things in the immediate context, moving the UUA headquarters was a powerful leadership effort. It took a great deal of work and there was resistance to the change. The technology improvements possible in the new headquarters have already improved transparency and accessibility of the UUA Board. When used well, I believe these technologies can better connect the UUA and congregations. However, there is still more to do to further equal access in the new headquarters.
If elected President, I would see my top priority as engaging the Association to articulate a clear and compelling vision that puts anti-racism, counter-oppression and multicultural ways of being at the center of all we do. From this clarity, the next step would be helping to shape our overall institution to foster and live into this vision. This clarity would shape worship at General Assembly as well as the resources on Worship Web. Further, living into this vision will also require collaboration with the seminaries and religious professional associations to train religious professionals for this future.
The President can be intentional in setting strategic, measurable goals that ensure that religious professionals who are leading in multicultural worship, ritual, and educational models are leading courses, workshops and programs sponsored and supported by the UUA. Being specific and setting measurable goals for ensuring multicultural and racial diversity in what is offered and promoted by the UUA could make significant shifts in the overall culture of the faith. Imagine if 50% of the books being published by Skinner House are from UU’s of color, 60% of the materials offered through Worship Web are from religious professionals of color and 70% of Renaissance modules are led by religious professionals of color – what changes that might offer in the style, stories and language used and shared by religious professionals all across Unitarian Universalism.
I return to the critical necessity of articulating a clear and compelling vision for the Association that puts anti-racism, anti-oppression and multiculturalism at the center of what we do. This is not just a social vision, or political vision; it is fundamentally a theological vision of who we are and what our faith calls from us. Unitarian Universalism teaches a radical message of love – that no one is outside the circle of love – yet we don’t live this fully in our congregations. We must dismantle the internal ways that systems of oppression including white supremacy bind our congregations and the full practice of our faith.
This is not just the work of the President. We need a way to foster a larger conversation about who we are called to be. Currently the mission of the Association says the UUA is here to “serve the needs of congregations.” This is a recipe for failure. This mission isn’t inspiring or challenging…but our faith is! I’d like to see the UUA articulate a mission of equipping congregations for radically inclusive, multicultural ministries for the 21st century. This clarity of mission would ensure that the UUA is equipping and hiring congregational consultants who can help congregations in naming systemic or dysfunctional power dynamics that marginalize people of color and preserve the status quo.
One of the UUA’s primary jobs in this area is to provide resources and consultants to help congregations through conflict. Making ARAOM work central to the vision of the Association would require making sure consultants are equipped. I am committed to making sure congregational consultants have anti-racism, counter-oppression, multiculturalism training and that the UUA hires people especially trained at helping congregations through this work.
This being said, there can also be dynamics that are not easily changed or fixed and congregations unwilling to do this challenging work. The UUA needs to be thoughtful about helpful incentives and restrictions to encourage greater congregational health, vitality and mission. However, there is also an old saying about how if you can’t organize something to change, you may have to organize around it. So, we also need to look for innovative opportunities to nurture diverse and multicultural ministries. I am excited for the innovative ministry ideas of BLUU and how the UUA can support innovative ministries led by and for people of color.
As UUA President, I would be committed to implementing the new hiring practices and policies currently being designed by the three interim co-Presidents, Rev. Sofia Bentacourt, Rev. Bill Sinkford and Dr. Leon Spencer. I will also fully support and resource the Commission on Institutional Change and implement recommendations from that commission. To address anti-black, white supremacy within the UU, one of the first steps I will take is creating diverse hiring teams that include black leaders to provide input on the hiring of the senior level positions open at the UUA. I am committed to hiring people of color to the senior and management positions of the UUA and practicing a collaborative leadership style that gives authority to leaders, shares power and invites multiple voices into decision making, including the President’s decisions.
As for redress to people of color who have been injured by these practices, I would like to know more about the situations and what redress feels in order. I am open and ready to listen and understand the situations more and find ways to restore trust and relationship.