Critics see white supremacy in UUA hiring practices

Critics see white supremacy in UUA hiring practices

Latest senior hire, of a white man, highlights staff leadership that remains mostly white.

Elaine McArdle
UUA board meeting January 2017

UUA trustees Christina Rivera (center, in red) and the Rev. Andy Burnette (second from right)—shown here at the board’s January 2017 meeting in Boston—each applied to lead the UUA’s Southern Region. (© Christopher L. Walton)

© 2017 Christopher L. Walton


The hiring in March of a white male minister to a regional leadership position within the Unitarian Universalist Association, an organization in which almost all the top staff positions are held by white people, has sparked controversy over whether the UUA is living its stated racial justice values.

In early March, the UUA’s director of Congregational Life, the Rev. Scott Tayler, hired the Rev. Andy Burnette—senior minister of Valley UU Congregation in Chandler, Arizona, and a UUA trustee who is a white man—to replace the retiring leader of the Southern Region of the UUA, the Rev. Kenn Hurto, who is also white.

News of Burnette’s hiring, and his resignation from the UUA Board of Trustees, emerged as UU religious professionals of color were gathered in Baltimore for their annual Finding Our Way Home retreat on March 17. One of those religious professionals, Christina Rivera—director of administration and finance at Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church UU in Charlottesville, Virginia, and a UUA trustee who is Chicana Latina—told colleagues at the retreat that she had been a finalist for the job but had been told she was not “the right fit for the team,” Rivera told UU World.

Over the next week, charges spread on social media that the UUA had hired another white person over an unidentified woman of color who was a qualified finalist for the Southern Region job. Critics pointed out that the five regional leads, who supervise the fifty members of the UUA’s Congregational Life staff who work throughout the United States, were all white ministers, as is Tayler, their supervisor. Only two of Tayler’s ten colleagues on the UUA’s Leadership Council are people of color.

UUA Moderator Jim Key said the Board of Trustees has received a dozen emails and letters expressing unhappiness over the lack of diversity in UUA staffing; typically, the board gets two or three emails a month, said trustee Tim Atkins.

One of those emails—a letter signed by 121 UU ministers and other religious professionals—said that “the practice of hiring white people nearly to the exclusion of hiring people of color is alarming and not indicative of the communal practice to which our faith calls us.” Noting that people of color make up no more than 11 percent of any rank of UUA employees except service workers, where they are 84 percent of employees, the letter called for a change in hiring practices and a public conversation about monitoring the Association’s success in creating a multicultural staff.

The three candidates for UUA president, who are all white women, responded to the outcry. The Rev. Jeanne Pupke released a video on Facebook on March 24 about what she called “a crisis” around the hiring practices of the UUA. Pupke vowed, if elected, to replace the current system with one that included “specific outcomes for more diverse leadership.”

The Rev. Alison Miller also used the word “crisis” in a letter March 24, in which she promised, if elected, to institute widespread racial justice training, survey staff and former staff of color to “uncover patterns of resistance to transformation,” and invest in leadership pipelines for people of color.

On March 25, the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray wrote that, if elected, she would create “measurable targets for increasing the multi-racial, multicultural, feminist/womanist leadership within Unitarian Universalism, including specific targets for the diversity of senior and management staff, and hiring procedures that require people of color be interviewed in all major hiring.”

The Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism organizing collective called the controversy “a moment of crisis for our faith” in a March 27 statement. “[W]e cannot effectively respond to ‘looming threats’ of white supremacy beyond us until we tackle the white supremacy within us,” the BLUU leaders said, adding, “Specific, drastic, and swift changes are needed.”

Later on March 27 UUA President Peter Morales wrote to UUA staff about the controversy: “There are two fundamental truths I want to convey. First, we are not where we ought to be in terms of the diversity of staff, particularly at the leadership level. I don’t know of anyone at the UUA who disagrees with that. Second, and this seems to have been lost in the focus on the immediate situation, we have made significant progress. We need to hold both our shortcomings and our successes if we are to move forward together.”

Morales said that the percent of staff who are people of color has risen from 14 percent in 2008 (the year before his election as president) to 20 percent today, with a corresponding rise in the number of managers who are people of color from 5 to 9 percent. Meanwhile, he emphasized, “the staff of the UUA is far, far more diverse than the membership of our congregations.”

Morales said he would report on the UUA’s hiring practices and staff racial diversity at the meeting of the UUA Board of Trustees in Boston, April 21–22. Moderator Jim Key said he expects the board to spend significant time discussing the issue; the board meeting will be broadcast live on the internet.

‘Movement in the right direction’ or ‘white supremacy paradigm’?

Morales told UU World that there is validity to some of the criticism, but he stressed the progress the UUA has made in staff diversity in recent years. “The leadership is overwhelmingly white and we’ve made significant progress in the diversity of our staff,” Morales said. “Is the movement in the right direction? Absolutely, yes. Is it as fast as it ought to be? No, but the first part has been lost in this discussion.”

In a March 23 letter to the UUA’s Leadership Council, the Rev. Harlan Limpert, chief operating officer, wrote, “We could and should be doing much better in creating a UUA staff that better reflects the demographics of our larger society and benefit[s] from the gifts of people with different backgrounds and experiences.”

However, the UUA has made “significant progress” over the eight years of Morales’s administration, Limpert wrote. Between 2008 and 2016, the UUA staff grew from thirty to forty people of color, Limpert said. The number of managers who are people of color increased, Limpert said, from twelve to nineteen people (the increase from 5 to 9 percent Morales mentioned). In 2010, there were no people of color among Congregational Life’s fifty-one staffers; by 2016, there were eight out of fifty, which is 16 percent, according to Rob Molla, director of Human Resources.

Still, there are very few people of color in leadership positions, Morales and others concede. Among the eleven people on the Leadership Council, the only non-whites are Morales, who is Latino and whose term ends in June, and Taquiena Boston, who is black and directs the Multicultural Growth and Witness staff. Of fifty-six people with supervisory responsibilities at the UUA, eight are people of color, or just over 14 percent, said Molla.

“It’s not enough to say we believe in equality. It’s not about intention but impact, and the impact is a white supremacy paradigm with zero accountability,” said Aisha Hauser, director of religious education at East Shore Unitarian Church in Bellevue, Washington, and a member of the UUA Nominating Committee, who led the charge on social media to challenge the UUA’s hiring practices. Hauser identifies as racially black and ethnically Arab.

Morales said the tenor of the conversation on social media has been disturbing, especially since no one reached out to him for statistical information about UUA staffing. “What bothers me is the characterization of the UUA as a ‘white supremacist’ organization,” Morales said. “If you call us that, what do you call Aryan Nation?”

However, he said the conversation about hiring practices, while painful, may also be positive. “I do believe some good can come from this,” he said.

The controversy erupted on Friday, March 17, during the UUA’s annual Finding Our Way Home retreat for religious professionals of color, held this year in Baltimore, at which ninety-seven UU ministers, religious educators, congregational musicians, administrators, and others from around the country gathered for community and spiritual reflection. During a general question and answer session, Hauser asked Morales why all five regional leaders of the UUA are white. At the time, Hauser did not know that the UUA had just hired a new regional lead, she told UU World.

Morales’s answer, which referred to the need for a larger pool of qualified applicants of color so that people are placed into positions where they can succeed, upset many in the audience, including Rivera, who had applied for the job. The situation grew more heated minutes later when Rivera told Hauser that the UUA had hired Burnette but not her.

The night before, Burnette had informed UUA Moderator Jim Key that he would be resigning his position as a trustee to accept the regional lead position. Key forwarded Burnette’s email to the other trustees, including Rivera, on Friday morning.

On March 18, Hauser began posting a string of complaints about the hiring process on Facebook. Many UUs took to social media to decry the hiring practices of the UUA, an organization with a stated commitment to racial equality and multiculturalism. On March 19, for example, Leslie Mac, a member of the Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism organizing collective, wrote, “Just when I think the UU Faith has made some strides, I feel the pull the white supremacy in the faith snap the back of my neck. It feels like whiplash. It is PHYSICAL. It is SPIRITUAL. It is PAINFUL. And those in power should be ASHAMED at themselves for perpetuating and cultivating Anti-Blackness as the default setting of the UUA.”

Over the next week, the situation escalated on social media and in communications to the UUA board. The board of trustees of First UU Church of Columbus, Ohio, voted unanimously on March 22 to send an email to the UUA board voicing their concerns about the “visible lack [of] diversity within national leadership, especially paid leadership” at the UUA, and the fact that “100 percent of the leadership of Congregational Life Staff appears to be white.”

The debate intensified after Burnette announced on March 23 that he had accepted the job but would continue to live in Arizona when he takes the position on July 31. The Southern Region serves congregations in twelve southeastern states, from Texas to Virginia.

Tayler told UU World he removed the regional residency requirement for Congregational Life staff two years ago “in order to expand the diversity of our applicant pool, both in terms of race and non-clergy applications.” He said doing so has increased the pool of diverse applicants and increased the racial diversity of the Congregational Life staff without affecting service delivery.

Of the fourteen field staff he has hired since becoming director in 2013, six are people of color, Tayler said, adding that he’s working to improve on racial diversity, LGBTQ staffing, and hiring people with disabilities.

“Let me be quick to stress that, while we’ve made some progress, we deeply believe we need to do better,” Tayler said in an email to UU World, adding that “diversity of the Leadership Council, UUA department directors, and regional leads is one of the areas where work is needed.”

In her own letter to the UUA board, Hauser wrote that the most recent hiring decision “is indicative of a larger problem within the Association.” Finding Our Way Home has grown significantly over the past decade with the UUA’s support (from forty attendees in 2007 to ninety-seven this year, according to Multicultural Growth and Witness data), and the UUA also supported the Black Lives of UU Convening in March, she noted. But, she wrote, “doing so without empowering leadership means that this support is at best empty and at worst patriarchal and demoralizing.”

Hauser asked the board to review the latest hiring process for antiracist, antioppressive, and multicultural values; to create a plan to increase religious professionals of color by 20 percent by 2019; to commit to leaving positions open unless qualified candidates of color are part of the applicant pool; and to create a plan for evolving Finding Our Way Home to a “Religious Professionals of Color Collective” who can be considered for all levels of hiring.

“I see this as a healthy discussion,” said Key. “Clearly it has struck a responsive chord, and clearly we have to do something about it.” Key said Morales’s report will be posted on the UUA website by April 10. Key said the issue will probably be scheduled for UUA board discussion on Friday morning, April 21.

Does ‘looking for the right fit’ betray diversity?

After discernment with her family, Rivera—who is running unopposed for a second term on the UUA board and will become secretary of the UUA in June—decided to go public in naming herself as the person of color who did not get the regional job, she told UU World. “I’m really, really glad the story is out there,” Rivera told UU World. “From the perspective of institutional racism, that’s so important. But it’s equally important to say a real person was injured, and it’s easy to overlook that.”

On March 27, she released a statement that said, among other things:

So here is my bottom line, the UUA is happy to welcome and showcase my “diversity,” skills and talents in unpaid service to the Association but when it comes to people of color in paid positions of power and influence, they might as well change that invitation to read “need not apply.” I, and my siblings of color, will never be the “right fit” within the current paradigm. The fact that the UUA can’t see how transformational our leadership would be for our faith is what’s wrong with the UUA.

Rivera says that Tayler told her she was a finalist for the position, but after two rounds of interviews, he told her “they were looking for the right fit for the team” and did not select her. His word choice immediately concerned her, and she wrote an email that day asking to talk to him about the process, she said, but Tayler has not responded.

When you’re a person of color and you hear the word ‘fit,’ that is like a huge red flag,” said Rivera, who notes that all of the regional leads are white ministers, and three of the five are men. “It’s coded language” that signals that unless you look like the person doing the hiring, “no matter how qualified you are you will not be selected for that position, whatever it is.”

In an email, Tayler told UU World that the UUA has “an affirmative action policy through which fully qualified minority status candidates are given preference over fully qualified non-minority candidates. I can also share that I have followed that policy in all of my hires. So while I can’t speak about Christina’s interview process directly, I can say that if Christina had been one of the final candidates and if I had considered her fully qualified, I would have offered her the job.”

Tayler added that no one other than himself and his interview team—not even the job applicants—knows who the finalists were. He says that Facebook comments that there were two finalists, and that a woman of color was passed over for a white man, are based on conjecture. “Again, the important point, or so it seems to me, is that our affirmative action procedures were followed and no fully qualified person of color was ‘passed over,’” Tayler wrote.

During her interviews, Rivera asked Tayler several times what it would be like for the staff group to work with a non-minister religious professional and a woman of color, she said. “The only part of that question Scott would answer was the non-minister part,” Rivera said, adding that Tayler told her it wouldn’t be a problem.

Rivera said she “is very fond of Andy.” But Rivera was hurt to learn that Burnette got the job instead of a person of color, and finding out on the morning of Finding Our Way Home was particularly painful, she said. It got worse when Morales answered Hauser’s question.

“It was painful to hear the tenets of white supremacy come from Peter,” said Rivera. His comments revealed that UUA leaders have not thought deeply enough about the issue, she said. “Not only am I qualified in my opinion, but I’m qualified in the opinion of the hiring manager, who told me that I could step into the role tomorrow and be able to be successful in the role,” Rivera said.

Rivera’s points—that she was told by Tayler that she is qualified, that she would feel better if she’d lost the job to a person of color, and that the heated controversy is overlooking the fact that a real human being has been hurt—are legitimate, Morales said.

“If I made people think there are no qualified people, then I’m very sorry about that, and it was far from what I intended to say and far from what I believe,” Morales told UU World. “I was trying to get across that the long-term solution is to have a large pool of people from which to select, and that’s true in any field” that’s looking to diversify.

While white UUs were surprised to learn of the racial makeup of UUA leadership, religious professionals of color were not, Rivera said, and that gap in awareness is part of the problem. “But the greater issue is, we will continue to cultivate systems of white supremacy within Unitarian Universalism until we are put into so much discomfort that we change,” she said. “Until that point, it’s too easy to maintain the status quo.” It’s not enough to hire people at lower levels; they must be included in top positions, too, she said, which means changing the ways hiring is done.

“It hasn’t shaken my faith in Unitarian Universalism,” Rivera said, “but it has definitely shaken my faith in the UUA.”

Morales said that the UUA’s regionalization initiative has led to more diversity. “The irony is that eight years ago, there were no people of color in Congregational Life—zero—when the hiring was done primarily by the districts,” he said.

Most of the heads of the five regions were district executives who became leads of their regions once the system changed, Morales said. All of them were white. They had experience and were seen as leaders among their peers, he said. The new hires since then have been white men, he said. “Part of the challenge in an association like ours is that in senior positions, you look for a proven track record of leadership, people who have managed other people,” Morales said. “Maybe you shouldn’t do that, but that’s a hugely important predictor on how people will do. You want to see that they can handle responsibility.”

“A number of people below more senior positions are in an excellent position to move up,” he said. “As much as you’d like to, it’s difficult to change things overnight.”

But the UUA missed an important opportunity when it moved from a district model and hired the five regional leads, said the Rev. Jude Geiger, minister at the UU Fellowship in Huntington, New York, who was among the 121 UUs who signed a letter to the board. “There were five opportunities to hire, and [they] chose everyone to be white,” he said. “That’s what’s stunning us.”

Morales stands by the process, but agreed that additional steps could be taken. If the UUA is really committed to diversity in leadership, why not put more formal systems in place, such as hiring a diversity headhunter, for example? “That’s legitimate. That’s the kind of thing we’ll have to look at,” Morales said. The UUA may also have to consider hiring non-UU people of color for leadership positions, he said.

Some have noted that a preference for ministers for certain staff positions also means the candidates will skew white, since there aren’t many UU clergy of color. Morales said the Association would be open to a religious educator in leadership positions but said they seldom have as much management experience as ministers. “So the question is, are you willing to overlook that and train them?” he asked, adding, “you don’t want to set people up for failure” by putting them in positions they aren’t ready for.

“The real problem here that ought to concern all of us is that our faith persistently remains a whole lot whiter than the U.S.,” Morales said. “We are making progress, as Finding Our Way Home shows, and those folks are expressing impatience, and long-term, that’s probably a healthy thing.”


Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story misstated the date of a statement released by the Rev. Alison Miller, which was released on her campaign website March 24 and then publicized on Facebook on March 25.

An earlier version of this story understated the percentage of UUA employees with supervisory roles who are people of color. Eight out of fifty-six employees is just over 14 percent, not fewer than 14 percent.

4.6.17: Earlier versions of this story appeared under the headline “Critics decry ‘white supremacy’ in UUA hiring practices,” which led some readers to ask why the phrase “white supremacy” appeared in quotation marks. Some perceived the use of quotation marks as dismissing the concerns, when we had intended only to quote the direct language of critics.