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Clements to leave UU Service Committee

UUSC president chosen to head Harvard’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy
By Michelle Bates Deakin
2.1.10

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Charlie Clements

UUSC President and CEO Charlie Clements spoke to students at American University in Washington, D.C., in February 2008 after returning from a fact-finding mission investigating elections-related violence in Kenya. (Courtesy of American University)

Charlie Clements, the president and CEO of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee credited with boosting the group’s membership and effectiveness, is leaving the organization to assume leadership of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Head of the UUSC since 2003, Clements will leave the Cambridge, Mass., based group in February. Clements has pledged, however, to honor all his UUSC speaking engagements and commitments through July to help with the transition to new leadership.

In February, the UUSC board of trustees will meet to consider the next steps for the group’s leadership. Board chair the Rev. John Gibbons said that the board’s executive committee will recommend that they appoint an acting president while they conduct a national search for Clements’s successor.

“Charlie has been an extraordinary, charismatic leader for the UUSC,” said Gibbons, who is also senior minister at the First Parish in Bedford, Mass. “I can easily understand why Charlie would have been attractive to the Carr Center, due to his leadership at the UUSC and his life history as a human rights activist and organizer.”

The Rev. William F. Schulz, former UUA president, UUSC board chair, and Carr Center fellow, said that Clements is leaving the UUSC much stronger than he found it. “When he came, the organization had low morale and unclear direction,” Schulz said. “He has helped clarify the agenda, and energized the UUSC with his personal good humor, excellent speaking, and his willingness to engage with many constituencies, both within Unitarian Universalism and outside the movement. He reenergized the UUSC as I expect he will do at Carr.”

From his office at the UUSC headquarters in Cambridge’s Central Square, Clements discussed his tenure at the UUSC. He was just back from leading a Sunday service at the First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco, and he was preparing to fly across the country again to Southern California for two speaking engagements before continuing on to Ecuador with a program exploring water rights issues with a UUSC partner organization.

Clements has hardly begun to pack his boxes. He announced his upcoming departure to the UUSC staff on Monday, January 11. The next day, a massive earthquake struck Haiti. Within 24 hours of the quake, the UUSC and the UUA had already launched a joint relief effort for the quake victims.

“It’s a sea change from the way we used to respond to disasters,” Clements said. “One of the things I leave behind is the joint relief work between the UUSC and the UUA.”

When Clements arrived at the UUSC in 2003, there was no protocol for how to respond to disasters and no clear sense of whether the organization even considered that as part of its mission. Clements approached then-UUA President William G. Sinkford about hiring a consultant to study both organizations to determine how the two groups—that had become somewhat estranged—could collaborate.

The first disaster that the two groups jointly addressed was the tsunami that affected more than 12 countries in Southeast Asia and Africa in December 2004. The joint relief effort raised more than $2 million, double what either organization had raised previously in response to a disaster. Following the tsunami, and in subsequent disaster relief, the UUA-UUSC relief efforts have been targeted toward groups of people at risk of being overlooked by mainstream disaster relief efforts and toward people at risk of being further marginalized or neglected.

After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck the Gulf Coast of the United States in 2005, the UUA-UUSC Gulf Coast Relief Fund collected approximately $3.7 million.

“When I arrived at the UUSC, there was an ambivalent attitude about disasters,” Clements said. “The prevailing thought was that disasters distracted our staff from our regular mission and diminished our revenue stream because people would donate to disaster relief and not our programs.”

Clements believed that disasters are the UUSC’s mission when they occur. And the organization has seen its membership and it donations rise following disasters. “The joint relief work brought attention to us as an entity,” he said.

The joint relief work also underscored the UUSC’s identity as a Unitarian Universalist organization. The group began as an offshoot of the American Unitarian Association in 1940. It became an independent group in 1947 and evolved to be nonsectarian. Clements, however, said it was important “to reclaim our UU identity.” Leaders of the UUA and the UUSC have taken visible, international trips together, such as to the Darfur refugee camps in Chad. Clements and Sinkford also traveled together to Israel when two founders of the Unitarian Service Committee, Martha and Waitstill Sharp, were posthumously awarded the title of Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem for their work freeing Jews during the Holocaust.


Clements is hopeful that he can retain ties to the UUSC. He envisions new opportunities for both the Carr Center and the UUSC to advance their “mutually supportive missions.” And he notes that the two organizations are just “one T stop away,” on the Boston subway system’s Red Line.

Clements, 64, said that he had not been in the market for a new position when he was approached by Rory Stewart, a Carr Center professor and director of human rights policy, about the job.

Clements had a lot of thinking to do. “Universities aren’t known for making social justice,” he said. And Clements has spent his life doing just that. A graduate of the Air Force Academy, he flew more than 50 missions in Vietnam before deciding that the war was immoral and refusing to fly missions in support of the invasion of Cambodia. After the war, he earned a medical degree and worked as a physician in war-torn El Salvador.

He served as director of human rights education at the UUSC and as president of Physicians for Human Rights, where he participated in both the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony and the treaty signing for the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. His 1984 book Witness to War was the subject of an Academy Award-winning documentary of the same name.

“Harvard has hired an activist,” said Clements. “That was done for a reason. If you look at who is advancing human rights on the ground, it’s courageous NGOs. Harvard is perhaps interested in a blend of activism, research, and study.”

Stewart, who will be stepping down from his Harvard position to run for the British Parliament, says Clements is uniquely qualified for the Carr Center position, given his “unparalleled human rights experience, his distinguished wide-ranging international career, and his decades of leadership of nonprofits.”

As executive director of the Carr Center, Clements will act as the school’s COO, with administrative and fundraising responsibilities. His first day will be February 22.


Clements has traveled around the country speaking from the pulpit of UU churches about the UUSC and human rights issues, often as frequently as twice each month. “I’ll miss that contact I’ve had with people around the country,” he said. “I’ll miss the interaction with our constituency and with the ministers. It’s a remarkable group of people.”

He’ll be spending more time at his church, First Parish in Brookline, Mass., with his wife and two children, 12 and 14.

Clements and board chair John Gibbons agree that he’s leaving the UUSC in fine shape. Clements has honed its focus to four areas: economic justice, environmental justice, civil liberties, and rights in humanitarian crises. “Our mission remains quite stable,” said Gibbons. “We are coming to the end of a five-year strategic plan. We’re in the process of recasting our strategic plan for the next five years. And we think there will be a smooth transition to new leadership.”

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