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.