The UUA Commission On Institutional Change: Cultural Tensions

Two long-simmering cultural tensions strongly influenced the content and methodology of Widening the Circle of Concern,(1) the final report of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) Commission On Institutional Change. This report is now guiding proposals for the restructuring of the UUA. This presentation explores these tensions and how they helped determine the content and direction of the 36 recommendations and 114 action steps in Widening the Circle of Concern, many of which are already being implemented.

What are these tensions? First, two different deeply imbedded world views are in conflict. One we are very familiar with – the Seven Principles. That’s the one we live by. Individual worth and dignity. A free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Democracy. It is why I am Unitarian Universalist. How about you? These are Enlightenment values. The world is objective in this world view. Facts are facts. Logic and scientific inquiry are important pathways to the truth. Freedom, Reason, and tolerance are very important values. Individuals are judged by their individual character and actions. I suspect that is what most if not all of us present today are living and breathing.

There is an alternative world view. You can see its appearance lots of places in history. It got spelled out in the 1970s and 1980s as Postmodernism. But it has many variations, many flavors. In this world view, facts are based on viewpoints. There is an argument for that. I have a viewpoint. You have a viewpoint. Why is your viewpoint better than mine? Or mine better than yours? In this way of looking at reality, stories convey more truths than logic and scientific inquiry. And community is more important than the individual. Communities are formed and guided by common stories.

There is one caveat in the way people look at this, not only in the UUA but in many places in our society. That is the belief that only people at the bottom of society can see what is really going on. There are arguments for that. People at the top don’t have to pay attention to life circumstances facing people not as fortunate. People at the bottom must pay attention to everything to survive. Therefore, only their stories are legitimate.

I am very aware that when I entered a volunteer ministry in my early 20s and lived near and worked in the Robert Taylor Homes Public Housing community in Chicago, I was totally baffled. What’s going on here? It was a totally different world. Everybody had to live by a very different set of rules than I had to live by. Both poverty and race played a part. I had to consider that, and many experiences since then, where I had to deal with the fact peoples’ worlds are different.

It was a very valuable learning lesson. Basic understandings can change if a person believes that 1) all truth is contained in stories; 2) everyone has a viewpoint; 3) facts can be very different for different people; 4) only people at the bottom can see the big picture; and 5) everyone must stick together to survive. Individualistic values like freedom, reason and tolerance are seen as causing much disruption. Therefore, they must be discarded or kept under control.

The last paragraph is a viewpoint. In my personal work, I try to understand the other person’s viewpoint. I try to feel the other person’s viewpoint. What would I feel given the same experiences? I actually try to go that far. Even when I disagree with a viewpoint, or especially when I disagree with a viewpoint, I try to understand it.

The second long-simmering cultural tension is two different ways that racism and antiracism have been understood and dealt with historically. This phenomenon is much larger than the Unitarian Universalist Association. But the UUA has certainly been part of the conversation, part of what’s going on.

One way to deal with racism is to bring people from all different backgrounds together in coalitions to change discriminatory laws and practices. Discriminatory laws and practices are the focus. That was the path used by Dr. King with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and John Lewis with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. I think of this as integrated antiracism. Or asset-based antiracism where everyone from any background is considered a potential asset to the cause. This type of antiracism accomplished major changes in our country in the Civil Rights Movement.

Because of its effectiveness, integrated, coalitional antiracism has consistently been opposed by institutions and people with entrenched wealth and power. Nonetheless, it continues to be effective when people work together for positive change. Many UUs are experiencing this today in Church Based Community Organizations like Jacksonville’s Interfaith Coalition for Action, Reconciliation and Empowerment (ICARE).

The other way to be antiracist is personal. Here the focus is on white racism and white guilt. White racism has been horrible in American History. White racism can and should be part of a larger approach. However, when it is the only area addressed, there is a problem.

In this more personal flavor of antiracism, racism is seen as a white people’s problem with white people needing to fix it. The role for black, Indigenous and People Of Color is to encourage white people to study the history of white racism, and own that history as their very own, by acknowledging their White Privilege and their involvement in White Supremacy Culture. Since the roles for white people and black people are quite different, I see this as segregated antiracism, or segregating anti-racism, or guilt-based antiracism.

The book, White Fragility (2), published by UUA’s own Beacon Press in 2018, the best-selling book Beacon Press ever published, is an extreme example of this approach. After George Floyd was killed there were two books that were sold all over the country: How To Be An Antiracist3 by Ibram X. Kendi, and White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo. Robin DiAngelo builds an extensive case that all white people are racist. Toward the end of the book she writes, “A positive white identity is an impossible goal. White identity is inherently racist; white people do not exist outside the system of white supremacy.” Taking things this far leads to a very Manichean picture where all black people are victims, and all white people are oppressors.

Both of the conflicts I have just talked about, the Enlightenment vs. Post-Modernism conflict, and the Asset-Based antiracism vs. Guilt-Based antiracism conflict, both of these conflicts inform the structure of Widening the Circle of Concern, the final report of the UUA Commission On Institutional Change. This reflects a major shift in ways of thinking, and not just in the UUA.

UUCJ Town Hall, January 14, 2024, Questions and PRO and CON Responses.

Questions submitted during or immediately after the presentation above are reproduced verbatim in bolded black. PRO and CON responses are identified beneath each question. PRO responses support a YES vote at GA 2024 for the proposed revision of Article II of the UUA Bylaws. CON responses support a NO vote.  

Was there any objective evidence presented by the Commission on Institutional Change (COIC) in Widening the Circle of Control that there was widespread racism in Unitarian Universalism, or was there just claims that this was happening?

PRO: From the perspective of many who support the proposed revision of Article II, there is no such thing as objective evidence. Facts are tied to viewpoints. Viewpoints grow out of personal and group experiences. People in minority groups, Black, Indigenous, and People Of Color (BIPOC), must cope within the culture of the majority as well as navigating their own cultures. This gives them the best viewpoint to truly understand what is going on in the world. Their stories tell the truths everyone needs to hear.

CON: From the perspective of those who oppose changing Article II, facts are facts. No change should be considered without objective evidence that supports the change. Asking only for stories of harm experienced by BIPOC individuals does not constitute objective evidence. Combining hundreds of stories into five Avatars and refusing to share the actual stories heard in the “research study” further disqualifies the study results.

PRO: The correct name of the COIC report is Widening the Circle of Concern (WCC). It is disrespectful of the questioner to change the name.

CON: Expressing the title as Widening the Circle of Control lifts up the emphasis on accountability that is present in Widening the Circle of Concern. Accountability means control. The proposed new Article II replaces the aspirations expressed in the Seven Principles with Covenantal relationships which are morally binding and potentially accountable.

COMMENT: Proposals for accountability entered UUA discussions after 2017 with the movement to include an Eighth Principle dealing with antiracism. Antiracism in this context refers to white racism in the context of White Supremacy Culture. In April of 2017, the UUA Board declared that the Unitarian Universalist Association is “swimming in a sea of White Supremacy Culture.” Following up in a forum at GA 2022 titled “Accountability, Justice and Wholeness – UU Theologies of Liberation,” Rev. Sonia Betancourt, now president of the UUA, said, “Covenant without consequences is not actually Covenant.”

To achieve the level of cultural uniformity imbedded in a Covenantal approach, the aspirational Seven Principles must be discarded or reworded to remove wiggle room in relation to behaviors that express the six values at the core of the proposed revision of Article II. Where the Principles allowed individual UUs to calibrate their own behavior, Widening the Circle of Concern, on pp. 130-132, calls for monitoring of individual and group behavior. The nuts and bolts of any system of accountability will be articulated in Article III of the UUA Bylaws which are up for review beginning after GA 2024.

Breaking news: A new “Accountability Launch Team” was inaugurated at the Saturday, January 20, 2024, UUA Board meeting. The mission is “to close the gap between who we want to be and who we are.”

What part did “avatars” play in pushing these claims rather than actual survey results? Were the results locked away?

PRO: The Avatars were the best way the survey results could be expressed. Asking for more than that is evidence of White Supremacy Culture. The five stories expressing the results of the survey are written as letters from five composite individuals or Avatars. Each Avatar represents many individual stories heard. Individual stories are not revealed for fear of backlash against the individuals who told the stories.

CON: This approach has no objective validity. There is no transparency between stories collected and the Avatars presented. This fallacy, added to the fact that only stories of harm were solicited, renders the research results useless at best, dishonest at worst.

What are the ramifications for congregational polity to have our UUA telling us we have 114 action steps to take to be properly antiracist? In other words, how does this affect our ability to make our own decisions on how to run our congregation?

PRO: The 114 action steps constitute positive guidance for a church that sincerely wants to be antiracist. To question them is racist. Getting White Supremacy Culture out of the UUA will take changing white UUs ways of thinking and acting. The baseline is well expressed by Robin DiAngelo in her bestselling 2018 book, White Fragility, published by UUA owned Beacon Press. “A positive white identity is an impossible goal. White identity is inherently racist; white people do not exist outside the system of white supremacy.” There is a lot of important work to do.

CON: Antiracism that sees a positive white identity as an impossible goal has zero track record for changing discriminatory laws and practices in our society. Policy-focused antiracism where everyone works together across racial and economic lines, on the other hand, has a strong track record for changing discriminatory laws and practices. John Lewis and Martin Luther King Jr. brought white and black people and groups together to dramatically change the legal and economic conditions of life for minorities in America in the Civil Rights Movement. Everyone willing to work on the problems was considered an asset to the cause. Church Based Community Organizations like ICARE in Jacksonville and other integrated organizations continue that asset-based approach with many positive results. “When we all work together, GREAT THINGS HAPPEN.”

I’ve heard there will be changes to Article 3 that could potentially decertify us if we don’t behave. What happens to the congregation, the assets, our money? Are you going to give us information on this?

PRO: Like UUA President Sonia Betancourt said at the 2022 General Assembly, “Covenant without consequences is not actually Covenant.” Congregational polity issues are not covered in Article II of the UUA Bylaws. Rather, they are covered in Article III and will be reexamined by a committee process beginning after the 2024 General Assembly. There are no changes in UUA congregational polity at this time.

CON: Like UUA President Sonia Betancourt said at the 2022 General Assembly, “Covenant without consequences is not actually Covenant.” Congregational polity issues are not discussed in Article II of the UUA Bylaws. Rather, they are covered in Article III and will be reexamined by a committee process beginning after the 2024 General Assembly.

Are you going to provide the congregation an opportunity to discuss the GA vote outcome? Is the congregation going to be able to participate in “What Now? after we find out GA’s result?

PRO: That is the UUCJ plan.

CON: That is the UUCJ plan.

 *     *     *     *     *

1. “Widening The Circle Of Concern,” the 223 page final report of the UUA Commission on Institutional Change, June, 2020, is available for downloading here.

2. Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, (Boston, Beacon Press, 2018).

3. Ibram X. Kendi, How To Be An Antiracist, (New York: One World Press, 2019).