Recent Events at UUA Related to Racial Discrimination Within the Organization

May 8, 2016

Many of my fellow Unitarian Universalists do not follow closely what is happening in our national organization–they can’t affort to attend GA, they have limited free time and prefer to spend it on their local congregation, and/or they feel a certain disconnect from the “bureaucracy” in the UUA.   Occasionally, something major catches their attention, and they want to know more.

This is a summary of recent events related to our faith and our beloved UUA.  The basic theme concerns the largely unintentional racial bias in hiring, with broader implications for our UU culture as a whole.  While the short-term impacts of the events may seem alarming (defensive statements by various individuals and multiple resignations by key leaders) the events can also provide a tremendous opportunity for reflection, dialogue, and change.  If UUA were to make racial equity a priority within the organization, it may affect other priorities and ways of doing our work together.  As we gather very soon to elect a new UUA President, it seems important for more people to understand what is going on.

Here are some of the events, as I understand them after researching and reading a rather large volume of material.  However, since I am not a “player” on the national scene, I may have made some mistakes.  Please send me suggested corrections if you see any factual inaccuracies!

  • There is an upcoming vacancy for a Regional Lead in the UUA Southern Region. Currently, all UUA Regional Leaders are white.
  • Rev. Andy Burnette (a white male) and Christina Rivera (a Chicana/Latina female), both of whom are current members of the UUA Board of Trustees, applied for the Southern Regional Lead position.  Board members are, according to some sources,  prohibited from applying for staff jobs, but they were granted special permission.
  • Burnette is currently minister of Valley Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Chandler, AZ, and working on a doctorate at Pacific School of Religion.  Rivera is currently Director of Administration and Finance at Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church Unitarian Universalist in Charlottesville, Virginia. She previously served as a DRE for the UU Church of Waynesboro.
  • Burnette was selected for the Regional Lead position by Rev. Scott Tayler, the UUA Director of Congregational Life.  Burnette had stated he would not plan to live in the Southern region, which had previously been a requirement of the position.  That requirement was waived.  (Tayler says he waived the requirement to increase diversity in hiring.)
  • Rivera, who lives in the Southern Region, was reportedly told she was not the “right fit for the team.”
  • Rivera soon shared her blog post, expressing  the harm, frustration, and concern it caused her and her family, and placing this event in a larger context of similar decisions repeatedly affecting persons of color in our faith.  Many others echoed her sentiments.
  • Rev. Peter Morales, UUA President, responded to the situation by sending a letter to UUA staff, a letter which quickly went viral within UU circles and which contained some controversial statements.   For example, in reference to the controversy over the hiring of Burnette and lack of diversity in leadership at the UUA, he stated “Each of us should be accountable.  However, I wish I were seeing more humility and less self righteousness, more thoughtfulness and less hysteria.”
  • Morales’s letter to the staff inflamed the tensions and he resigned quickly thereafter, in a letter to the UUA Board of Trustees.
  • Various groups began a dialogue about racial issues in the UUA and how the organization has and should address them.  This dialogue grew both heated and sometimes defensive. For example:
    • The Executive Director of the UUMA, Don Southworth, shared a controversial letter with the UUA Board and others.  (This letter has since been removed from Rev. Southworth’s blog. )
    • After controversy erupted,  the UUMA Board disavowed their Executive Director’s letter and stated that it does not represent their position. This is their letter.
    • Rivera also responded to Southworth’s letter, which had contained some criticisms of her and others.  By refuting some of his contentions, she also refers to specific details in the letter that Southworth has deleted.  Having read both letters before his was deleted, I consider her defense to be milder and less angry than she might have been.
  • Soon, two more senior UUA officials resigned, Revs. Harlann Limpett (COO) and Scott Tayler.
  • Andy Burnette has indicated he will not be accepting the Southern Regional Lead position, after all, and that he plans to remain at his current church.
  • The overall controversy has garnered national attention, as indicated in this Washington Post article.

The good news

  • Three extremely qualified co-presidents are working to finish Morales’ term (Rev. Bill Sinkford, Rev. Sofia Betancourt, and Dr. Leon Spencer.) They are working to ensure that UUA can leverage this controversy into meaningful change, to plan for GA and manage the organization until the new President is elected in late June, and to provide a pastoral presence where needed.
  • Our co-presidents and many, many other leaders are seeing this as an opportunity.  This is  opportunity is made clear in the resignation letters of the former UUA leaders, as well as the comments of our new co-presidents.
  • Teach-Ins about race are occurring in UUA congregations around the country.  This includes some Teaching Tolerance modules for kids that Brian Willoughby helped produce!
  • Discussion of language and terminology is taking place, so that we can have a common understanding of how terms are being used.  For example, did you know that “white supremacy” does not refer to deliberately seeking to harm or discriminate against persons of color; e.g., KKK, or other hate groups.  It also refers to the hierarchical structures and norms that keep POC from attaining equity.  For example, hiring based on “best fit for the team” means the new hires will almost always look like the current white people already on the team.

I look forward to learning what our candidates for UUA President, who will take office in June, will have to say in the next six weeks about the direction the organization needs to go.  All have made comments, but I hope to hear or see video of their comments soon.

Karen’s Personal Road Map, Version 1.0

November 18, 2016  (Ten Days After the Election that Shook the Nation)

Some of my friends were interested in my plan of action, so here is what I have so far.  This list does not seem ambitious enough, and I hope I can expand it.  But I’ve also been doing some soul searching and trying to figure out what I could sustain.  What do I believe is within my sphere of influence and abilities?

Like many people, I have a history of failed New Year’s resolutions that gives me pause. For example, I sometimes still curse like a sailor. What does that fact possibly have to do with my plans for responding to the recent election? If I am brutally honest with myself, I don’t think I really wanted to stop cursing completely.  So, these are based on knowing myself and what I really want to do.  That seems likely to make these plans more sustainable.  I look forward to hearing what others are planning to do.

Put the phone number for my Congresswoman (Jamie Herrera Beutler) on speed dial.

The state of Washington has two progressive women Senators, Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell.  They have proven they don’t need my input to do what is right. But a Republican Congresswoman represents my district and she will be getting phone calls from me on a regular basis. My limited research suggests that calling is more effective than emails or even snail mail letters. (I am willing to learn  about more effective strategies, so hope to hear more from others about the best approaches.)

Support REAL newspapers, as our best hope for honest investigation and communication.

We already subscribe to The New York Times and The Washington Post online. These two newspapers have been the voice of truth during a flurry of lies surrounding this election.  Meanwhile, our president-elect has threatened to punish both of them!  We will also continue our subscription to a local paper that we considered dropping.   Our local paper is ridiculously narrow-minded, with an editorial board composed solely of conservative, older white males.  But I believe they will be more likely to listen to a subscriber’s complaints than to complaints from a nonsubscriber.  (By the way, The Guardian, and the New Yorker, and the  Atlantic are other excellent sources of information.)

Be especially vigilant about religious persecution of Muslims.

Yesterday, I signed up for and also donated to the Council on American-Islamic Relations.  Going forward, I will participate in protests to help prevent discrimination and terrible atrocities such as the registration of Muslim Americans, as long as the temperature is above 40 degrees Fahrenheit, or a bit colder if it isn’t pouring rain.  (I promised to be realistic about what I was really committing to do.)

Get more involved in party politics and the local Middle Class Alliance.

I consider myself to be a pretty independent version of a Democrat, and have been known to cross party lines. While I typically agree with liberal positions on all social issues, the fiscal and foreign policy decisions of both Democrats and Republicans do not always make sense to me.  Bernie Sanders tried to move the Democratic focus in this election to populist issues, but Clinton’s ties to Wall Street were blinding her.  The Democrats have clearly lost touch with the middle class. The party needs mavericks, not just people who agree all the time, and I am a maverick.  They need me.

Resist the tendency to shrug off fascist attacks on democracy as the new normal.

“Fascist” is a strong word, and I tend to speak in more measured terms.  However, columnist  Zoe Williams (The Guardian), said it clearly:  Normalizing is not anything the rightwing extremists do, and they do not try; they don’t look for acceptable labels for themselves. It is the mainstream that twists itself into conciliatory pretzel knots finding nicer words for “fascist”, such as “alt-right”.

Meanwhile, when I find myself shrugging with resignation, I will pause.  I will resist accepting as normal the fascist measures we are likely to see, such as nepotism, financial corruption that is politely called a “conflict of interest,” the registering of Muslims, and the threatening of personal or political opponents, including attacks on freedom of the press.  That resistance means complaining about them every time.  And not on Facebook, but in the newspapers, to Congress, law enforcement, etc.

For more about the normalization that is likely to happen or is already happening, below are some links that shaped my thinking.

Money, Part 1: Increase donations to specific organizations.

The organizations below are the ones I have selected, but there are many others that would be good to support, as well.  (I realize that this is not something everyone can do, although the idea of one million people collectively giving the ACLU at least $5 a month makes me smile.)   These are groups that are fighting on behalf of human rights and our precious democracy. The first two will get monthly donations from me, and the rest will get quarterly donations.

  • ACLU
  • Southern Poverty Law Association
  • Center for Reproductive Rights
  • Natural Resources Defense Council
  • International Refugee Assistance Project
  • International Rescue Committee
  • Planned Parenthood
  • NAACP Legal Defense Fund
  • The Trevor Project
  • Mexican American Legal Defense Fund

Money, part 2:   Vote with my wallet, my feet, and my stomach.

I will intentionally support some businesses  and avoid  other businesses that don’t share my values (like Hobby Lobby and Chick-fil-A.)  We eat out a lot, and I will research restaurants that not only support fair labor practices, but also those that respect the planet.  Googling the term #GrabYourWallet  resulted in a list of some businesses with Trump connections, but I won’t adopt this list verbatim.   For example, Jeff Bezos founded Amazon, which still carries some Ivanka Trump items, but he also bought and kept afloat The Washington Post, which is one of the major investigative newspapers still around.  And Bezos has frequently criticized Trump often over the last year.  I will build my own list.

Be visible and act when needed.

I will intervene.  If you are a person of color, even though you are my friend, you may be predisposed to laugh off my safety pin, my Black Lives Matter tee-shirt, or other outward signs of my convictions.  Given this country’s history, it would be understandable if you assumed these were just hollow gestures.  But I have actually intervened in the past when people were being harassed and will do so in the future.  If I see something, I will not be silent.  I may need to brush up on my non-violent communication techniques, so that I don’t escalate the incidents.  Sometimes, I get really angry when I see discrimination, and that does not bring out my best skills at defusing tensions.

Practice kindness and compassion, while recognizing and resisting my own white privilege.

Our country is hurting. The most vulnerable amongst us are truly shocked and frightened.  I read a suggestion a few days ago about performing at least one random act of kindness per day.  Right now, that seems totally inadequate, but I think it could be a baseline.  If one defines an act of kindness being something significant, like buying a meal or hotel room for a homeless person, then once a day is not trivial!  But if it is defined more broadly, like holding the door for someone who looks different than I do, or being particularly respectful to someone who is likely to be disrespected by others, then I can probably do this a dozen times a day.  I will do what I can.

“Change Voters”: Dangerously Frustrated

I am not really talking about Donald Trump today.  Nor will I talk about how to make the “Change Voters” change, but rather how we tap into some shared concerns and make our country better in the process.  In other words, I don’t want to manipulate them into voting the way we want them to vote, but to look at some root causes of their voting behavior.

Cultural Differences Are Not the Whole Story.

Some frustrated liberals are decrying the insularity of white, working class communities, and assuming that they must be ignorant to vote they way they do, which sometimes seems as if they are voting against their own best interests.   Shouldn’t they be voting with the liberals?  While their insularity is a problem, the situation is actually quite similar to the one in another country.  Specifically, many working class communities in the U.S. have been affected in the same way as small towns in Britain were, after the European Union was created.  Brits don’t vacation in the Cotswolds or on the southern coast of England anymore, they just hop a plane or head through the Chunnel towards Southern Europe, where the water is warmer and the weather is more reliable.  Small towns in England are drying up, as Bill Bryson points out in his book, The Road to Little Dribbling. American towns in the “rust belt” are struggling in the same way, only it may be worse. Meanwhile, Brexit was a foreshadowing of what happens when entire towns are lacking in work and opportunities.

There certainly are  cultural differences between working class communities in formerly-industrial areas and  the cities and towns in more affluent and liberal parts of the U.S.A., and I am not denying them.  If you haven’t had a chance to read it yet, I would highly recommend  Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, by J.D. Vance.  The ways in which working-class white Americans access news, their cynical opinions of government, and their disdain towards advanced education are just a few of the factors that affect their voting choices.

Not all “change” voters are the same, obviously.  People across all demographic groups voted for change.  We should not even assume that all who voted for the “change” candidate are apathetic or antipathetic to LGBTQ folks, or immigrants, or women’s issues.  Many of these voters may actually believe that those issues are getting sufficient focus already or have been largely resolved.  Regardless, even some voters who might acknowledge that these issues remain serious, they just prioritized other issues much more highly.

Why?  We have a broken political system, as articulated clearly by Bernie Sanders during his campaign.  Our political primaries can produce seriously flawed and sometimes extreme candidates.  The DNC manipulations that killed Sanders’ candidacy are just one example of a broken system.  Some of our national policies are problematic for a large swath of Americans,  while being good for the so-called”economy.”  Our trade policies help corporations, for example, at the expense of jobs.  Here are expanded explanations of two reasons I feel are particularly important.

It’s the REAL economy, stupid

A shorter version of this phrase was Bill Clinton’s campaign slogan: “It’s the economy, stupid.”  Hilary never really seemed to really grasp this point in 2016, but Trump and Bernie Sanders got it and they tapped into all the emotion behind it.   While I support Barack Obama, in general, he was unable to fix the deeper problems in the economy.   Most politicians, when they talk about the economy, are talking about how strong the stock market is and how the U.S. dollar is doing in the global currency market.  If they worry about employment and jobs, they look at the unemployment rate or the number of jobs created.  I would argue that the economy that mattered to voters this time around was not going strong and we can see it if we look at the phenomenon of under-employment.  The fact is, people who lost their jobs over the last decade did not normally find another job that was just as good.  Many gave up looking for work and aren’t counted in unemployment numbers, while others are under-employed;  e.g., in lower skilled jobs, part-time work, jobs that pay less for the same skills, etc.  Millions of people were badly hurt by the mortgage loan debacle that occurred in 2008-2010, and have never recovered.   College students who graduated during the worst of our recent recession are still making less than people who graduated a few years later.  And we all know a barista with a college degree and student loans to pay.   When people are told our economic policies are working, at the same time things are not working for their family, it just makes them angry.  And they are very angry.

The Income Gap

People expect a person who runs for president to be wealthy, because no one else can afford to do it or even wants the job.   It makes not one whit of difference to a family living on $40,000 per year whether a candidate is worth $10 million or $2 billion.  What they do care about is that the CEO of their company, assuming they even have a job, is likely making millions on the backs of their labor.  This is happening at the same time their family can’t even afford a Hyundai unless it is eight years old.  They are angry, and the Democrats nominated a candidate that didn’t focus:  It’s about the REAL economy stupid.  

Trade Policies

Here is an analogy.  You have 5 kids,  and you must whether to accept a new job that will cause your family to relocate.  The new job will pay you 50% more, so the economic aspects look good.  But here is the bad news.  Three of your kids will be slightly better off in their new elementary and middle schools, and one will be much better off because of the prestigious high school.  But one of them will now  drop out of school completely, because there are no suitable career/vocational programs in your ritzy, new community, and he or she has learning disabilities that realistically preclude any other option.  Would you accept the relocation, knowing that it would be really bad for one of your kids?

Our international trade policies remind me of this family situation.  A few people are much better off with more open trade policies, while most of us are slightly benefitting, and the “economy” is better.  But one of our five kids lost any chance for a bright future.   With the exception of some immigrant groups, it usually takes a couple of generations to turn a blue-collar family into a white-collar one.  There are exceptions, but you are not going to re-train most 40-year-old UAW workers to become engineers, doctors, computer programmers, or other professional jobs.  And their 20-year-old sons and daughters may have only slightly more options, unless they take out huge student loans, which is another whole issue that is making people angry.   Our international trade policies brought rapid change, when measured in generational terms.


People who have lost their jobs probably know those jobs aren’t coming back.  They do not really believe the rhetoric of bringing back jobs, anymore than you or I believe it.  But they are angry and hopeless and they feel they might as well blow things up, because they see no way out.

Washington is Broken and Even Corrupt

Our government, and particularly Congress,  is broken.   Just consider the role that Republicans have played in obstructing legislation and presidential appointments.  The military-industrial complex that Eisenhower warned about is alive and thriving.   Military contracts are still awarded for items like planes that the military doesn’t even want!  If we are honest, there is corruption throughout the system.  For example, the number of people who have gone to jail for the mortgage loan debacle of 2008 ranges from zero (CEOs of major companies) to about 35 if you count the people convicted of misappropriating the bailout funds awarded to address the problem.  We note that Wall Street bankers are still resisting regulations, while lobbyists, corporations,  and Congress all seem to love each other very much.  The Citizens United decision declaring that corporations have the same free speech rights–and rights to give money to political causes–as individuals has increased the corruption that was already there.  It’s a mess, people are fed up, and they believe that voting for an “outsider” will help.

What do we do now?

In addition to fighting the attempts by Donald Trump and his cronies to erode our principles and our democratic society, we have to be honest.  This is not navel-gazing about how we didn’t listen to the working class and got what we deserved.  It is a simple statement that until we are honest about the failed policies, about the role of money and corporate influence in Congress, and about the real reasons people are angry, we can’t defeat the next lying, mentally unbalanced person from tapping into the same anger that Trump did.   We have to stop lying to ourselves first.