By Sonja L. Cohen
During the “Black Empowerment Controversy” of the 1960s and '70s, many African Americans left the Unitarian Universalist faith; Norma Poinsett stayed. A leader and worker for racial justice and change in the UUA for more than thirty-five years, she was honored this year with the President's Award for Volunteer Service.
“Norma has held this faith's feet to the fire not just on issues of race, but far more broadly across the board as we have struggled to live up to the principles we affirm,” said UUA President William G. Sinkford during the award presentation. A longtime member of the First Unitarian Church of Chicago, Poinsett served on the Commission on Appraisal (1973-1981) and the UUA Board of Trustees (1995-2003), and was a founding member of both the Black Concerns Working Group and the Jubilee Working Group.
Sinkford also gave the Association's Distinguished Service Award to a veteran of its most tumultuous period: the Rev. Dr. Robert Nelson West, president of the UUA from 1969 to 1977. Credited with saving the Association from bankruptcy, West is best known for approving Beacon Press's publication of the Pentagon Papers. Resolving the budget crisis required severe reductions in the UUA staff, and the General Assembly cut funding to black empowerment groups, but “Bob always kept his eyes on the larger social goals and purposes of liberal religion,” Sinkford said.West, who was unable to attend GA this year, will receive the award during the Board of Trustees' October meeting in Boston.