Alison Miller’s Responses to Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism (BLUU)
Presidential Forum Follow-Up Questions for Candidates
The main reason that there are so few people of color in Unitarian Universalism is because so many of our institutions are centered in whiteness. Our faith itself – our theologies, philosophies, and covenants – transcend racial boundaries. However, our congregations/covenanted communities and our association wide, affiliated, and regional institutions are generally steeped in a culture of white supremacy. Our shared work in this time is to learn how to decenter whiteness, to unlearn anti-blackness, and to center the leadership, the cultures, and the experience of people of color.
A culture of white supremacy manifests in a myriad of ways in our congregations and in our wider institutions overlapping with governance, leadership development and hiring, worship, religious education, community life, and justice work. People of color are raised in and join our faith, but regular experiences of the distance between who we say we are and how we operate takes a spiritual and psychological toll. As someone who has grown up and served in our faith for decades, I am aware of stories and experiences of people of color, which have been disheartening and led to distancing and disconnection from our faith.
The following are a few examples of the kinds of experiences that manifest a culture of white supremacy. While many white UUs testify to the community aspect as the reason they are in our faith, many people of color say they remain in spite of disconcerting experiences of micro- and macro- aggressions experienced in community life. Our anti-Christianity streak and the ensuing ways it impacts our worship and what we say must also be examined in light of anti-blackness, especially when a large portion of our African American and Latinx UUs identify strongly with our Christian heritage. Over and over we hear about and are present to examples of the times when the culture, history, and experiences of people of color are centered, but in ways that are shallow and offensive.
I also carry stories of times when we have committed to antiracism and diversity in our congregations and at the level of our greater Association, and the positive impact it has made towards our commitments. When we have spent time, energy, and funds on dismantling white supremacy, centering the leadership of people of color, and building up spaces for people of color to be in community and worship one another, we have seen an increase in the numbers of people of color and white allies and co-conspirators who continue to identify UUism as their spiritual home. However, our history is replete with examples of limited follow through on these commitments, which has devastating consequences. Withdrawing time, energy, and funds and removing our priorities around supporting people of color gatherings, antiracism networks, racial identity and justice curricula, and leadership development, has been experienced as a betrayal and a re-injury. Our shared work moving forward is also that of learning and claiming our history around race and implementing pathways for repair and reconciliation.
This is a challenging question to answer at this moment, when I am disappointed that Peter was not more willing to engage in collaborative leadership, owning our failings around white supremacy, and moving as a partner towards redemptive change. However, I’m deeply aware that I will benefit from the hard work of my predecessors.
Peter Morales has been willing to examine things that have been cherished, possibly kept for tradition’s sake, and to ask whether they are still serving our faith. Peter asked whether the location and the cost of remaining on 25 Beacon Street was still serving the movement. The group who made the decision found reasons compelling enough to warrant a change, and Peter accomplished that change successfully, including the need to navigate the controversy surrounding it. In some ways, the building move was a technical fix and now our shared work is to examine how we operate and to engage in adaptive change.
Peter led an examination of the district structure and asked whether it continued to make sense. A regional structure was imagined with a set of goals, including unifying UUA staff at the headquarters and regions and fostering a sense that we are all one UUA. While there is plenty of follow through that remains and additional changes needed to address weaknesses present, Peter’s team moved a process of change forward. Our shared work now is to imagine and implement a regional structure that builds on these changes and among other goals, improves the quality of connection and services between the UUA and our congregations and develops greater networking and learning opportunities between and among leaders in the congregations.
Under Peter’s leadership, our UUA team facilitated a conversation about imagining our faith beyond congregations. At times, our congregational polity has limited our presence in innovative projects outside of traditional congregational contexts. As chair of the Board of the Church of the Larger Fellowship and as someone who as engaged with youth and young adult ministries of varying types, I know the value of experimenting and succeeding with ministries that serve populations who are underserved by our existing congregations. I appreciate that this conversation was held through UUA channels and that a workshop was provided for some ministers to develop their ability to launch entrepreneurial ministries. While conversations were helpful, I didn’t see the UUA commit to resourcing growth oriented ministries, some of which require only modest investments. There seemed to be a fear of failure, which is necessary to overcome on the journey to build something new.
If I am elected, my immediate predecessors will be Sofia Betancourt, Bill Sinkford, and Leon Spencer. Although, they have only been in office for a matter of weeks, already our Association is benefiting from experiencing a shared leadership model at the center of our faith and the courage to face our history around racism and white supremacy, to engage with it, and to imagine pathways forward. I look forward to the opportunity to build on their shared work.
Spiritually alive, multicultural worship is part of the core mission of our faith. Currently, our UUA has one part time dedicated staff member (~15 hours) who supports our Worship Web. This tiny allocation of staff resources to something which is connected to an activity that happens in all our congregations doesn’t come near staffing at the level of a priority. I am committed to making spiritually alive, multicultural, multigenerational and spiritually inclusive worship a priority during my tenure.
This is an opportunity to center leaders of color as we determine what our needs are and what our opportunities are for deepening and broadening our worship life. We have religious professionals of color who are working in the field of ministerial formation to equip ministers to lead worship in a multicultural, multiracial world. In my own congregation, Dr. Elias Ortega-Aponte is an example of a religious professional of color who is a professor of Afro/Latino/a religions and cultural studies at Drew Seminary. We have religious professionals who come to us out of diverse religious and cultural traditions who are already bringing spiritual gifts and authentic relationships to practices to the congregations they serve. Additionally, we have youth and adult lay-leaders with a talent for creating different styles of worship for small and large gatherings of people who come from diverse backgrounds. We can reach out and have conversations and bring together gatherings with the aim of exploring our weaknesses and our opportunities for deepening, learning, and growth. Out of a robust engagement with these leaders of color and also including engagement with white leaders of worship around the country, we can create specific and measurable goals that we believe will lead us to be a relevant and robust faith for multicultural, multiracial, multigenerational, and spiritually diverse UU communities.
The following are some goals I have in mind to support:
Worship is the center of our faith out of which we build caring communities and lifelong learning communities whose aspirations for building the Beloved Community takes shape through partnerships of service, agitation, activism, anti-oppression, and advocacy in the world. I look forward to spending time and energy in my tenure supporting the development of our spiritual life and worship practices.
I have heard it expressed that our polity prevents the UUA from coming in and forcing a congregation to change. This statement oversimplifies power dynamics and underestimates the sources of appropriate power the UUA has at its disposal. Yes, each congregation has autonomy, but the UUA carries the powers of influence, reward, and consequences.
It is my hope that we can move to a stance of more proactivity in the areas of our priorities. We don’t have to wait to hear about a racialized conflict, we can assume that in many of our congregations this will be present. The UUA can help congregational staff, boards, and leaders become more adept in how to engage with conflict in healthy ways. While it might seem counterintuitive to some, it is valuable to surface the conflict that already exists and to address it and create avenues for reconciliation and moving forward with greater health without waiting for the next explosion. The UUA can provide trainings in leading through conflict in healthy ways and mindfully offer it when we have systemic change priorities as we do now with dismantling white supremacy.
We have recently experienced a model of using the powers of influence, reward, and consequences to the effect of a priority moving through most of our congregations. Religious Educators – Aisha Hauser, Christina Rivera, and Kenny Wiley – along with Black Lives of UU recently invited UU congregations to hold White Supremacy Teach Ins. They brilliantly used the power of influence through social media and webinars to encourage UU communities to say Yes to something challenging. They also empowered UU congregations by offering substantive resources to assist congregations be better equipped to succeed in holding dynamic, fruitful, forward thinking anti-oppressive conversations. They rewarded congregations who held Teach Ins by sharing their names publicly and celebrating them. Some other consequences are that communities have been energized to continue the work, and congregations that haven’t been willing to step up are not receiving flattering remarks online.
When a board refuses to support black organizers, it may be a community which hasn’t experienced antiracism trainings ever or recently. Given our priority to become antiracist, anti-oppressive, and multicultural institutions, the UUA needs to rebuild networks of antiracism training and trainers across the Association that reach to the level of leadership in our congregations. The UUA can influence congregations to include such training as part of the pathway of local leadership in the same way we expect our national leaders to receive training. There can be rewards tied to spending time developing the skills to become an antiracist, anti-oppressive and multicultural community. While there is a value to working with outside trainers like People’s Institute, there is also a value to developing UU trainers who share in the work of reflecting what it means for us theologically to engage in antiracism. We also need to continually assess and reevaluate how well the trainings are doing at meeting our priorities and seek to improve them over time.
I acknowledge that our history and our present hiring practices show a pattern of anti-blackness and white supremacy. I also share a commitment to implement hiring and personnel practices which include hiring, supporting, and promoting leaders of color as an integral part of health in the overall system. I am conscious of the work that is beginning under the leadership of Sofia Betancourt through the Commission Institutional Change, which will offer us insight as to what is happening, what needs to change, and recommendations for moving forward. I plan to support the Commission’s work which will continue under the next President’s tenure, and I look forward to working with them and to implementing change with a spirit of collaboration, courage, and creativity.
Successful hiring is connected to communications, recruitment, hiring, retention, and evaluation.
We already have examples of harm done and the Commission on Institutional Change will likely surface additional grievances that people of color across the Association have had around hiring practices. Redress will necessarily involve talking with the people who have been injured and asking them what steps would lead towards greater wholeness. I commit to participating in a truth a reconciliation process.