Commission completes review of hiring controversy, prepares for racism audit

Commission completes review of hiring controversy, prepares for racism audit

Commission on Institutional Change issues report on tumultuous spring of 2017, prepares for broader audit of white supremacy culture within UUA.

Thirty leaders and stakeholders gathered for a "collaboratory" with the Commission on Institutional Change October 1–3, 2018.

Thirty leaders and stakeholders gathered for a “collaboratory” with the Commission on Institutional Change, October 1–3, 2018. (© 2018 Melvin Bray)

© 2018 Melvin Bray


In the first year of its work, a team the Board of Trustees commissioned to analyze structural racism in the Unitarian Universalist Association and make recommendations for systemic change has completed its report on the hiring practices controversy that rocked the UUA in 2017. This fall, the Commission on Institutional Change convened a “collaboratory” to discuss ten priority areas for future work and to identify benchmarks that can be used in conducting a racism audit, another of the tasks the board assigned it. And the commission continues to seek out data and stories about the experiences of UU religious leaders of color.

UUA President Susan Frederick-Gray, who was elected as the commission was being appointed, has emphasized her support for the commission and her commitment to ending white supremacy culture, including within the UUA. Her administration has rewritten hiring policies so they are clearer and more fair, is investing in the success of religious professionals of color, and is building a better relationship with the board, according to UUA Executive Vice President Carey McDonald.

The board appointed the Commission on Institutional Change in June 2017 to assess structural racism and white supremacy culture within the UUA, after groups of religious professionals complained that UUA hiring practices favored white ministers over other job applicants, especially for senior positions. Those complaints—which led to the resignations of UUA President Peter Morales, Chief Operating Officer Harlan Limpert, and the Rev. Scott Tayler, director of Congregational Life—focused on Tayler’s decision to hire one of two members of the Board of Trustees who had applied to lead the Southern Region staff. The trustee Tayler hired, the Rev. Andy Burnette, is a white male minister; the trustee he did not hire, Christina Rivera, is a Latinx woman who has worked as a religious educator and a congregational administrator.

After Limpert and Tayler announced their resignations, Burnette, who had resigned from the Board of Trustees, chose not to take the Southern Regional Lead position. He continues to serve Valley UU Congregation in Chandler, Arizona, as senior minister.

Rivera continues to serve as director of administration and finance at Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church–UU in Charlottesville, Virginia, and was named UUA secretary by the board in June.

Morales and Limpert have retired. Tayler has not found a position since resigning. All three assert that hiring qualified people of color was a priority for them.

Related resource

Read the full report of the Commission on Institutional Change and watch a video of commissioners discussing its key findings and recommendations.

Findings Related to the Southern Regional Lead Hiring Decision, Spring 2017

Commission on Institutional Change

The commission’s first charge was to examine the controversial hiring decision, and in April 2018, after months of study and fifteen interviews, it issued its report.

“What is clear is that no one problem in the system led to the events of the spring of 2017,” the report found. “When the Southern Regional Lead hiring process took place, racial tensions were already at a breaking point in the system, especially for religious professionals of color who endure countless insults and aggressions as part of their work.”

The report identified a number of factors that contributed to the crisis:

  • The board ignored best governance practices when two trustees did not secure formal board approval before applying for the job.
  • The hiring process wasn’t clear, and Tayler, a white male minister, made the hiring decision by himself.
  • Failure to give direct feedback to candidates meant that Rivera was not the only applicant—or the only woman or person of color—who mistakenly believed they were a finalist.
  • When concerns about the hiring process arose, the lack of a grievance mechanism meant the controversy played out on social media.
  • Longstanding tensions between the board and president were made worse by the resignations, which cut off opportunities for open discussion, leading to more speculation on social media.
  • Severance packages were provided to some of those who resigned, contrary to standard practice. The commission’s report revealed that the largest severance package was given to avoid legal action against the UUA. Even though the board has a fiduciary duty to the Association, the commission reported that trustees knew nothing about the possibility of legal action or about the severance packages when they were negotiated.

The Rev. Leslie Takahashi, chair of the commission, said its work is important if Unitarian Universalism is going to live into its values, including that of racial justice and ending white supremacy culture.

“Some people have asked why we are relitigating this old controversy,” said Takahashi. “What this controversy did was blow the top off of something that had been simmering for decades. I do think what’s important is that it’s clear that despite a 1981 audit report that showed many of the same things, and our Journey Toward Wholeness years with endless GA resolutions, we failed to put in concrete steps that would make this happen. So the pot was simmering and the lid blew off.”

Among its ten recommendations, the commission said: “The President and the Board should make policies and set practices which allow for best hiring practices to promote a diverse workforce. They should also acknowledge the critical role that religious professionals of color play in moving Unitarian Universalism to reflect the multiracial dynamics which are rapidly spreading across our nation.”

When Frederick-Gray was elected in June 2017, she made rooting out white supremacy culture and supporting the success of religious professionals of color cornerstones of her administration. Among other things, she appointed Taquiena Boston, director of Multicultural Growth and Witness, as her special advisor for Inclusion, Equity, and Change; created an organizational design change team to examine and make recommendations for shifting the staff culture; and implemented new policies around promotion, training, and tenure to create a more equitable workplace.

On October 1, the UUA named Jessica York the new director of Congregational Life. A religious educator who has served as co-director of the Ministries and Faith Development staff group, York, who identifies as African American, is the first layperson to lead the UUA’s regional staff. The position had remained vacant since Tayler’s resignation in April 2017.

In the first six months of Frederick-Gray’s presidency, the UUA added four people of color to the staff in executive, managerial, and professional roles, according to an Equal Employment Opportunity report the UUA files annually, bringing the percentage of staff in those roles up from 14.6 percent in 2016 to 17 percent in 2017. The interim co-presidents the board appointed after President Morales resigned set a target of 40 percent.

Since Morales’s resignation, the administration has “done a lot of work” in following consistent hiring practices, Takahashi said.

McDonald, the executive vice president, expressed gratitude for the commission’s report and its ongoing work. “The commission’s thoughtful and helpful report confirmed many of the dynamics and problems that we had already identified and begun to try to address within the UUA,” he said.

“These specifically included creating new hiring procedures and a commitment to diversifying our staff; much more systematic support for religious professionals of color and those from other marginalized communities, who are working at every level; transparent and accountable processes for our workplace, rather than informal and personality-based processes; skilling-up our staff to be agents for dismantling oppressive systems in every community; building trust and overcoming avoidance and defensiveness to hard conversations; and a new commitment to collaboration between the administration and the Board of Trustees to advance these priorities. These are some of the key things we’re working on to undo the white supremacy culture norms that are at the foundation of our institutions.”

McDonald added, “We understood the need to make these changes as a core part of our work as UUA staff, and the commission’s analysis affirmed those directions and will anchor the UUA’s commitment to these areas for years to come. It was a key inflection point in the long-term journey of our faith towards an antiracist, anti-oppressive, and multicultural beloved community.”

The Board of Trustees also made important changes in the wake of the crisis. It now requires that critical decisions be made by the entire board, preferably in person but at least via teleconference, and not by the moderator alone, by the executive committee, or via email, according to Co-Moderators Elandria Williams and Mr. Barb Greve. (The board named Williams and Greve co-moderators after Moderator Jim Key resigned due to ill health in May 2017; Key died from cancer two weeks later.) The board also voted to limit the president’s ability to grant severance packages or spend more than about $75,000 without board approval, and committed to avoid unproductive tension between the board and administration.

At the board’s September 10, 2018, meeting, held by teleconference, Takahashi updated the trustees on the next phase of the commission’s work. She said it is focused on a racism audit of the UUA but has been hampered in its efforts by the lack of good data on religious professionals of color within the faith. The commission will be issuing a report on that issue soon, she said.

Frederick-Gray thanked the commission for its work and said the UUA is working toward collecting better data about religious professionals of color.

Two commissioners, DeReau Farrar and Caitlin Breedlove, stepped down after serving for a year. The commission has hired a consultant, Melvin Bray, and welcomed a new commissioner, Cir L’Bert Jr., a member of the UU Church of Akron, Ohio.

On September 19, the Commission issued a statement identifying ten priority areas for its work going forward. They are:

  1. articulating a theology of liberation, experimentation, and innovation grounded in UU Principles and Sources;
  2. ensuring quality of livelihood for religious professionals of color;
  3. ensuring opportunities for full involvement for UUs of color in the various settings of our faith;
  4. enacting mechanisms of accountability and integrity towards shared goals of equity, inclusion, and diversity;
  5. identifying and spreading examples of innovation of equity, inclusion, and diversity and establishing channels of innovation and risk-taking;
  6. designing credentialing, hiring and firing practices, and data collection across the Association;
  7. valuing the knowledge of people of color and other oppressed and undervalued groups;
  8. prioritizing and enabling leadership from young adults and working-age people;
  9. promoting healthy and sustainable models of leadership and community life; and
  10. ensuring that benchmark goals towards inclusion, equity, and diversity are reflected through budgets, planning, hiring and promotions, and professional development opportunities.

 As a faith, “we have failed to make a full commitment” to the Principles and values of Unitarian Universalism, Takahashi said. “It’s really been halfhearted. So the purpose of the commission is to say, ‘What does it actually mean to do this right, to make a true commitment?’”

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