Change From the Inside Out

Change From the Inside Out

Unitarian Universalist programs seek not only social justice in the wider society, but cultural transformation within.

Elaine McArdle
Multicolor stylized illustration of many androgynous heads in profile
© The Laundry Room/Stocksy United


For the past five years, the Unitarian Universalist Association has focused on an unprecedented, widespread cultural transformation to eliminate systemic racism and white supremacy culture both within the Association and within Unitarian Universalism.

This shift began in April 2017 after the resignation of UUA President Peter Morales, when the UUA Board of Trustees created a historic co-presidency to serve until a new president was elected. Three Black UU leaders served as interim co-presidents: the Rev. Sofía Betancourt, the Rev. William G. Sinkford, and Dr. Leon Spencer. Their shared leadership signaled the beginning of cultural transformation toward a more transparent, equitable, and diverse faith movement deeply rooted in UU theology.

Under the leadership of the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, elected as UUA president at General Assembly 2017, the UUA and many congregations and affiliated organizations have made cultural transformation a top priority. In 2017, the board appointed the Commission on Institutional Change to conduct an audit of white privilege and the structure of power within Unitarian Universalism and to analyze structural racism and white supremacy culture within the UUA. The Commission’s 2020 report, Widening the Circle of Concern, comprises the UUA’s core mission priorities and provides a blueprint for the Association, congregations, and UUs to forward the work of dismantling white supremacy culture.

This article looks at the work of cultural change within three UUA staff programs—the Side With Love Organizing Strategy Team, Faithify, and the Lifespan Faith Engagement Office—and at the Living Legacy Project, a multifaith program with strong UU roots.

Living Legacy Project—sharing stories of the Civil Rights Movement

The Living Legacy Project was founded fourteen years ago by UU leaders—the Rev. Dr. Gordon Gibson and Judy Gibson, the late Rev. Dr. Hope Johnson, Dr. Janice Marie Johnson, and Annette Marquis—to deepen understanding of the Civil Rights Movement and connect it to ongoing racial justice work needed today. In its Living Legacy Pilgrimage s, people tour significant sites and talk with people who lived the movement. During the pandemic, it has pivoted to virtual programming, including a webinar series, Speaking Truth: Countering Disinformation About Racial History, that explains critical race theory and other topics. [See “ WhatIsCritical Race Theory?”]

“We have always tried in every way to make that history present enough so people can begin to see it in real time in present day,” says Reggie Harris, a singer/songwriter and Living Legacy Project’s co-president.

Project co-president Dr. Jan Sneegas explains, “Our mission is to provide people with tools to address racism and oppression in their communities and beyond.”

The project “exists because there is still a need for culture change,” adds Marquis, director of operations.

“We hear it over and over: our pilgrimages are transformative,” says Sneegas. “They are not a tour; they are a journey that is soul-shaking because you are listening firsthand to the stories people tell and standing in Medgar Evers’s driveway and seeing the bloodstains where he was shot—you cannot go on the pilgrimage and leave the same person as when you first stepped on the bus.”

Though the project’s multicultural team is immersed in the work, that doesn’t mean they are free from white supremacy culture. Marquis, who is white, tells the story of one pilgrimage where she took the microphone from Hope Johnson, who was Black, during a bus tour and thoughtlessly never gave it back. It was very difficult, but they stayed in relationship and worked through it, Marquis says. Transcending difficult situations instead of leaving “is culture change,” explains Harris.

“For us, there’s a very high level of trust within our group, knowing we are going to make mistakes and we will be called into conversation around that, and you may be uncomfortable, really uncomfortable—and that’s the work,” says Sneegas.

Faithify—crowdfunding to support a wide variety of UU ministries and projects, which operates within the UUA’s Stewardship & Development office, was “designed to disrupt traditional dominant culture funding models,” says Halcyon Westall, Faithify project manager, by pivoting to a more transparent and democratic framework.

Through crowdfunding, Faithify enables any congregation, organization, or individual in relationship with Unitarian Universalism to raise money for their projects and removes insider networks that make it difficult to obtain funding through traditional methods, Westall says. “Faithify widely distributes funding power so anyone can participate, whether you give $10 or $10,000 to a project.” Faithify has presented workshops at the UUA’s General Assembly on such topics as unconscious bias in fundraising.

In response to user feedback, Faithify removed the goal threshold for raising money for attending GA and for UU religious professional credentialing and professional development. “Allowing people to keep what they raise for these campaigns expands access to these educational and networking opportunities, and in the case of General Assembly, brings people with diverse economic backgrounds to the business of Unitarian Universalism,” Westall says.

Faithify projects “help keep asylum seekers safe, strengthen voting rights, support Indigenous independence, fight for climate justice, and more,” Westall says. “While you might not know it from our site’s 84 percent success rate, Faithify also subverts dominant culture by embracing failure. We encourage authors of unsuccessful campaigns to learn strategies, characteristics, and practices that help them bounce back as individuals and as organizations. As we Unitarian Universalists dismantle white supremacy, we need to take risks, and some of those risks won’t hit the mark,” Westall says.

The UUA’s Stewardship and Development team is working to fund the recommendations of the Commission on Institutional Change, including expanding support for religious professionals in formation, says the Rev. Lauren Smith, director of Stewardship and Development. “We’re also taking a deeper look at the UUA as a grantmaking entity, reviewing our grantmaking to ensure that what we’re doing reflects our priorities and our core values,” Smith says.

Lifespan Faith Engagement—curricula and professional leadership to support religious education and more

The UUA’s Lifespan Faith Engagement Office, which includes the former Faith Development Office and the Office of Youth and Young Adult Ministries, provides curricula, programs, and professional leadership to support religious education programs and faith development initiatives for UUs of all ages. It has made a major shift in recent years to collaborate much more with other UUA staff groups and within its own staff, says Anna Bethea, Lifespan Faith Engagement director. That collaboration led to a turn from an emphasis on national programming to more regional and cluster programming, especially in response to the Commission on Institutional Change’s recommendation to provide more equitable and aligned support for youth and young adults across all regions.

The office is also reexamining longstanding programs to focus on arising needs and include more voices and perspectives in its work, which ties directly into dismantling white supremacy culture. It’s a move away from “an approach of individuality versus a more interdependent and collective movement,” Bethea says.

As one example, the Rev. Sarah Gettie McNeill, professional development programs manager, called together religious educators and other religious professionals from diverse backgrounds to “really upend” the Renaissance Program, a training program for religious educators and those interested in faith development. In response to their guidance, it has created a new module, “Leading UU Culture Change,” for religious professionals who are leading culture change in their congregations.

“That’s one of the biggest areas we see folks needing support around,” says Bethea. “A lot of times, religious professionals are at the forefront of pushing for change, but they may have other staff or people in the congregation hesitant or oppositional, and it can feel isolating.” Piloted last year, it ran its first full program in the late fall.

Bethea serves on the Commission on Institutional Change Implementation/ Mission Alignment Team, a staff team charged with coordinating and monitoring the ongoing work within UUA programs and staff to implement the Commission’s recommendations. The report suggested that the UUA create a congregational certification program and lifespan and antiracism curricula, which is being organized under a reimagined Mosaic Project. The Our Whole Lives sexuality education program is also undergoing updates.

“OWL has been based on pretty much white dominant norms, so we’re diversifying the range of authors,” Bethea says, and illustrations are being updated to include trans bodies, people with disabilities, and others. Lifespan Faith Engagement is also looking to offer Black, Indigenous, and people of color caucus spaces for the UUA’s Common Read and is shifting toward having more accountability readers for all its programs and resources, says Bethea.

The Side With Love Organizing Strategy Team—strengthening the capacity of UUs to organize and mobilize for liberation

The Side With Love Organizing Strategy Team (OST) was formed by President Susan Frederick-Gray in 2018, “in the middle of the Trump presidency, several years into the Black Lives Matter Movement, and during the internal struggles at the UUA around white supremacy culture. So the story of our team, in a lot of ways, is the story of the UUA saying, ‘We’ll put our money where our mouth is,’” says the Rev. Ashley Horan, Organizing Strategy director.

An outgrowth of the UUA’s longstanding Side With Love social justice program, OST was formed to de-silo the many justice campaigns and issues the UUA was involved in and to move from a public witness model “to doing impactful organizing that was both coordinated at a national level but also really responding locally to what was happening.”

“We are very clear that we are doing all of this with a racial justice and anti-white supremacy lens,” emphasizes Horan. “We can’t deal with any issues that are core priorities without having a racial justice lens and intentionally trying to dismantle white supremacy.”

OST’s first major project was to launch UU the Vote to activate and mobilize UUs on a mass scale for voting rights, election reform, and democracy as an expression of the faith. Nicole Pressley was national organizer for UU the Vote and was then hired permanently as Field and Programs director. Under Pressley’s leadership, along with political consultant B. Loewe, UU the Vote was a huge success, with more than 5,000 volunteers participating across the country, setting a foundation for other campaigns.

“Our goal was to build infrastructure to welcome people in and help them feel bigger than just themselves and their congregations, to connect with meaningful work that was also joyful and felt like an expression of our shared faith, and to engage folks more and more deeply over time,” Horan says.

The idea is to help UUs develop organizing skills and relationships locally and nationally in a “spiral of engagement,” Horan says, and to give people the resiliency required in the long-term fight against white supremacy culture. “That is a culture change.”

All of the UUA’s justice work falls under the Side With Love umbrella, thus fostering “cross-pollination,” Horan explains. Side With Love and the sub-campaigns under that umbrella are guided by the UUA's four intersectional justice priorities. Each priority corresponds to a related campaign: LGBTQ+, Gender, and Reproductive Justice (Uplift Ministries); Democracy, Voting Rights, and Electoral Justice (UU the Vote); Decriminalization (Love Resists); and Climate Justice (Create Climate Justice). More than 170 people and organizations participated in Side With Love’s organizing school, which ran August to November. Recently launched is the Side With Love Action Center, where people can connect to the UUA’s justice priorities.

“Instead of sitting in a cloistered room in a UU church trying to figure who to connect with, the work is bringing people together,” Horan says.