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UUs in 11 states forming legislative advocacy groups

Four state groups already active; work coordinated with UU Service Committee.
By Donald E. Skinner
12.26.05

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California Unitarian Universalists have a voice in state government thanks to the Rev. Lindi Ramsden--and Unitarian Universalists all over the country are following her example. When Ramsden left the parish ministry about two years ago she founded the Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry of California to bring the state’s UUs together to promote social change through civic engagement. As a result, California UUs are now lobbying consistently for issues such as marriage equality, the responsible use of water, and health care. “We’ve brought UU congregations together for strategic and thoughtful moral witness,” said Ramsden.

Unitarian Universalists in ten other states are also developing statewide advocacy groups. Washington State, New Hampshire, and Maryland have established groups and groups are emerging in Florida, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Rhode Island, Michigan, New York State, and Virginia.

Betty McGarvie Crowley, a member of the UU Church of Annapolis, Md., first heard about state networks when she and others from her church attended a workshop conducted by the California legislative ministry team at the annual General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. When they arrived home they found a surprising amount of interest in the idea. Seventy people attended an organizational meeting of the Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry of Maryland in November, and while the group still has much to do in terms of hiring a part-time staff person and creating a website and bylaws, it expects to begin lobbying the Maryland legislature in January, focusing on three areas: clean air, health care, and freedom to marry.

“California was a real inspiration for us in the way they organized and how they seem to be making a difference,” McGarvie Crowley says. “It’s the kind of thing we should all be doing as UUs.”

Unitarian Universalists in Washington formed a group this past summer called Washington UU Voices for Justice that will focus on issues of poverty, global warming, and marriage equality. “There are such critical issues out there right now and it’s so important to come together,” says co-coordinator Corinne Kelly. Adds co-coordinator Jerome Chroman, “Liberal religious people are seeing what the religious right accomplished. Some think it’s time that progressive people put our principles into action and take back our country.” He says 70 people want to be part of Voices for Justice.

Chroman and Kelly, both parishioners at University Unitarian Church in Seattle, are part-time paid coordinators through a five-year grant from the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, an independent human rights organization affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. Volunteers have agreed to analyze legislative issues and track legislation and create a website. “There is a great opportunity to be involved at the state level with progressive change,” says Chroman.

In addition to the California example, nationwide efforts to register voters and educate people about marriage equality have done much to spawn state advocacy groups. Says Kelly, “There was a great turnout last year for the marriage equality campaign here. A lot of UUs came out. That was an eye opener for us. UUs want to be able to do something like this.”

Jacqueline Ladd of the UUSC coordinates a monthly conference call with the directors of state advocacy groups. “The call keeps getting larger,” she said. “These are Unitarian Universalists who want to be more effective in advocacy work. They are learning from each other and we are starting to speak with more of a common voice.

“This work is all about building relationships among congregations and individual UUs, and with elected officials so that we can advocate for progressive public policies that promote and protect human rights.”

Laura Dely is a coordinator of the UU Legislative Ministry of Virginia, which will have its first organizational meeting January 14. “We hope to get more of our congregations working together by coordinating our efforts,” she said. “Even if there’s only one person in a congregation who wants to get involved in an issue, that person will be able to find others to partner with.” Dely is a member of the UU Church of Arlington, Va.

“I’m just thrilled about the development of these state networks,” says Rob Keithan, director of the UUA’s Washington Office of Advocacy. He credits the UUSC with helping form at least five of the networks. “The UUSC has made it a priority in dedicating both staff time and funding for these networks. The attention given by UUSC to these networks has in some cases made a difference between surviving and thriving. We have a really good partnership going here.” He said the UUSC is also helping support some of the earlier existing networks, such as the one in California.

“UUs can have a huge impact on the political process if they choose to,” Keithan says. “These networks are an acknowledgement that UUs want to have that power.” He urges such groups to keep three things in mind: “The work must be religiously grounded. It must be done accountably by listening to the people most affected and working to implement solutions they identify. And it must be strategic. That means being clear and realistic, focused on what you’re actually trying to change, and then doing the things that will make that change happen.”

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