In a special meeting Thursday night, April 6, to respond to the crisis around hiring practices at the Unitarian Universalist Association— which critics see as white supremacy and which the UUA’s Leadership Council in a letter to congregational leaders said reflects “unfulfilled commitments to dismantle racism”—the Board of Trustees voted to authorize its executive committee to select a group of trustees to begin the hiring process for an interim president.
The president they appoint, possibly as early as Monday, April 10, will fill out the weeks remaining in the term of the Rev. Peter Morales, who resigned April 1.
To support the speedy selection of an interim president, the board also approved an interim transition plan to describe the actions it wants the president to focus on during the brief time they will serve before a new president is elected on June 24 by the General Assembly. The Rev. Rob Eller-Isaacs, UUA secretary, said the process of choosing an interim is expected to “happen very fast” because the board believes that “the best interests” of the faith are served by “moving as quickly as possible,” which is why trustees worked quickly to craft the transition plan. Final recommendations will be presented to the full board before being made public, said Vice Moderator Denise Rimes.
More than 150 people attended the online meeting, which lasted about an hour and half.
The board will meet again in a public meeting on Monday, April 10, at 8 p.m. EDT. The board is meeting in executive session on April 9 with the UUA Leadership Council to continue discussion of the issues, said UUA Moderator Jim Key, and the executive team charged with identifying an appointee is meeting April 8.
The board will meet in person in Boston April 21–23, where it will focus primarily on the crisis, which led not only to the resignation of President Morales but also, on Wednesday, to the announcement that two other UUA leaders, the Rev. Harlan Limpert, chief operating officer, and the Rev. Scott Tayler, director of Congregational Life, will also step down. The agenda for the April meeting will be posted in the next several days, said Key.
Addressing white supremacy using Policy Governance
The board approved a motion that declares that two anti-discrimination policies of the UUA regarding staff are not being fulfilled. The board directed the administration to reassess its implementation of those policies, and also charged the UUA president to develop a reasonable interpretation of the policies with “metrics and indicators that demonstrate that the UUA is dismantling structural racism and the broader culture of white supremacy within the UUA and making concrete progress toward expanding the number of professional people of color, including but not limited to ministers and other religious professionals employed within Unitarian Universalism. This includes particular and measurable emphasis on senior staff positions including the executive and first management level of the UUA.”
The vote is not “the solution” to the issue of systemic racism in the UUA, said trustee Tim Atkins, but rather a way that the board, through Policy Governance, “can make it clear to staff we do find a problem with what’s been going on.”
From now on, the board will receive quarterly monitoring reports on whether the anti-discriminatory policies are being implemented appropriately by the staff.
Lucia Santini Field, the UUA’s financial advisor, said she supported the motion but expressed concerns about the way the term “white supremacy” was being applied to the UUA without acknowledging the way the term is used in the broader culture. “I don’t want this document to make people think we think the UUA is anything close to Breitbart, so I’m simply trying to contextualize it,” she said.
Elandria Williams responded, “White supremacy is not the KKK, white supremacy is about the culture of an institution.” She also said, “When you have two staff groups that are all white, that is white supremacy. When every regional lead is white, that’s white supremacy.”
Christina Rivera added that the reason religious educators are assembling resources for a UU White Supremacy Teach-in, which the board endorsed on April 3, is to “destigmatize that phrase” so that UUs can “understand that term and how it applies to our congregations and our association of congregations.” More than 290 congregations have signed up to hold teach-ins, most on Sunday, April 30, or Sunday, May 7.
Eller-Isaacs said he has heard from colleagues from other denominations who have commended UUs for having the courage to have a conversation that they themselves would never allow to become public. “I personally feel we are doing a service beyond our own denomination to open up a conversation that’s risky, and I understand a lot of people won’t like it, but it’s brave,” he said.
Board to commission ‘racism audit’
The board also voted to instigate and fund “for as long as necessary” a racism audit of the UUA, an “outside, independent investigation” into the “extent and depth of white supremacy” in the association and affiliated UU organizations, in line with the 1981 General Assembly resolution, “Racism Imperative.” The audit would also look to centering the leadership of UU communities of color “as part of the future of our faith,” and investigate the hiring process of regional leads and staff teams that “are filled entirely by white people.” The investigation will include interviews with candidates for staff positions and staff and volunteers in the process, with a final report to be presented to the Board of Trustees, which will share it publicly as much as possible while protecting the privacy of people involved.
The purpose of the investigation “is to learn what could have been done differently or better and inform changes to policies or practices that are likely to be made in light of the recent controversy.”
The motion also requires a plan “to increase religious professionals of color in executive and first level management positions by at least 20 percent by 2019,” and to leave positions unfilled “unless qualified applicants of color are part of the applicant pool.” (The administration’s 2016 Ends Monitoring Report counted twelve staff at the executive level and thirty-six at the first management level; 83 percent of the executive staff and 86 percent of the first management level staff were identified as white. Not all employees in those positions are religious professionals.)
The motion also commits the board to seven other actions to support people of color in the UUA and in Unitarian Universalism, including evolving Finding Our Way Home into a collective of religious professionals of color and establishing a truth and reconciliation process “that examines our history of practices and decisions that have harmed the livelihoods and wellbeing of people of color and antiracist white allies in our Association including hiring processes.”
Several trustees said they had not had enough time before the meeting to read the draft of the motion, which was not posted in the board’s meeting room but was published on the UUA website. Greg Boyd, who introduced the motion, objected to delaying the vote until the board’s next meeting, on Monday, April 10, saying that while the new draft came in late, it “did not come in that late,” and that people of color on the board were prepared to vote. Trustees Santini Field, Atkins, and Eller-Isaacs abstained, as did Youth Observer Bailey Saddlemire. The motion passed 5-1.
The Rev. Sarah Lammert, who will become acting chief operating officer on April 20, when Limpert’s resignation goes into effect, said that she wanted to note that UUA staff who are people of color “are under particular strain” during the current crisis, and that they are bearing that dualism “with incredible grace.”