Picture of GA 2012 coming into focus

Picture of GA 2012 coming into focus

Planning Committee releases a schedule; design team reveals snapshots of the Justice General Assembly.
Donald E. Skinner


The first outline of what will happen at General Assembly 2012, the “Justice GA,” next June in Phoenix, Ariz., has emerged.

The GA Planning Committee met Sept. 14-18 with other Unitarian Universalist Association leaders to begin to define what GA will look like. That meeting was preceded by another meeting, of a group called the “GA Design Team,” which met Sept. 13-14 in Boston.

That first meeting, convened by the UUA Board of Trustees and Moderator Gini Courter, included representatives of the GA Planning Committee (GAPC), Arizona UU congregations, UUA staff and administration, the Board of Trustees, Arizona human rights groups, and the GA 2012 Accountability Group. The latter group, created in January by the Board of Trustees, is charged with working with all other groups in creating a General Assembly that is accountable to historically marginalized groups and to the spirit of the 2010 GA resolution calling for a Justice GA in Phoenix.

The GA Planning Committee released a schedule last week that lays out the general plan for GA 2012. It includes many opportunities for public witness, worship, and learning about immigration, racism, and economic justice.

What it will have not so much of compared to past GAs is plenary time, workshops, and topics that don’t pertain to social justice. Despite concerns by some that many people would be arrested during protests at GA 2012, Courter said there are no plans for anyone to be arrested.

Many familiar elements remain. There will be an Opening Celebration and a Banner Parade on Wednesday, June 20. Friday is the Service of the Living Tradition. Saturday is the Ware Lecture. (No speaker has been selected yet.) Sunday is the Closing Celebration, complete with the GA Choir.

Although a UU World reporter was not allowed to attend the Design Team meeting, after the meeting Courter and the Rev. Dr. Walt Wieder, chair of the GAPC, provided details of what GA 2012 will look like.

“There is no piece of GA that will be the same as it always was,” said Courter. “There will be a Service of the Living Tradition, for example, but not one like you would have seen in previous GAs. The same for a Bridging Ceremony and Synergy Worship. For every event we struggled to ask what it would look like if it were respectful of where we are.”

GA 2012 grew out of the state of Arizona’s adoption in 2010 of SB1070, a strict anti-immigration law. Phoenix had been selected as a GA 2012 site before the passage of SB1070. After extensive debate at GA 2010 whether to meet in Arizona in 2012 or boycott the state because of SB1070, delegates voted to meet in Phoenix and make GA 2012 a “Justice GA” dedicated to “witnessing on immigration, racial, and economic justice.” The resolution further specified that business at the 2012 GA would be “limited to the minimum required by our bylaws.”

The month after GA 2010, on July 29, 2010, the day SB1070 went into effect, around 150 UUs from across the country protested the measure in Phoenix. Twenty-nine were arrested, and momentum began to build for a General Assembly that would work with immigrant rights groups in Arizona on immigration and other issues.

Most GAs have one large public witness event during the week. GA 2012 will have multiple opportunities for witness, said Courter. “You might go with 100 other people and bear witness on a street corner. And we might hold some kind of citizenship fair. Another idea is to assemble kits for schoolchildren—resources to help lower-income families.”

There will be something for everyone to do, she said, noting that some people may not leave the convention center. She emphasized that the people who have the most say over what UUs will do in Phoenix are the UUA’s local partners in Arizona. “Our partners will have a lot of say in what we do when we get there. So we won’t know exactly what we’re going to do ahead of time,” Courter said. “They’ve said they want us to witness and create some pressure. At this point that does not include being arrested.”

The UUA’s partners in Arizona include the Arizona Worker Rights Center, Puente Human Rights Movement, No More Deaths, and the National Day Laborer Organizing Network.

The Rev. Leslie Takahashi Morris, co-minister of the Mt. Diablo UU Church in Walnut Creek, Calif., and a member of the 15-member Accountability Group, said that the group will act as a sounding board and provide feedback for the board, the GAPC, the UUA administration, and the Arizona Immigration Ministry as planning for GA proceeds. It will also work with the groups it represents “to help our members feel comfortable attending this General Assembly,” she said.

She noted there has been some criticism of the group because it is “unfamiliar” and because there are people “who don’t want this General Assembly to be different from any other. . . I would urge people to think about what it would mean to further discount the concerns of people of color and Latinas and Latinos; people with disabilities; the bisexual, gay, lesbian, and transgender Unitarian Universalists; our young adults and our youth. The Accountability Group represents these people and is a voice for their concerns. We hope our fellow Unitarian Universalists can hear these voices."

Wieder, co-minister of the UU Church of Surprise, Ariz., said the two vice-chairs of the GAPC, Tim Murphy and Bart Frost, will oversee the areas of GA broadly defined as “Programs and Services” and “Plenary and Worship,” respectively. Individual members of the 10-member GAPC will take on specific tasks and responsibilities in those two areas and will divide up tasks “that don’t fall neatly anywhere. The GAPC works collaboratively and teams are fluid, depending on the needs of the moment,” said Wieder, adding that the GAPC is committed to working closely with the Accountability Group.

Courter said a substantial part of GA will be about educating GA participants to go home and work on immigration and other injustice issues where they live. “We’re not going to GA to fix Arizona. You don’t have to leave your own state to find a sentiment of anti-immigrant hatred,” she said. “We’re going in the spirit of learning, of partnership. This is not about shining a light of shame on Arizona.”

She hopes that congregations will use the time before GA to make preparations that don’t involve knowing exactly what will happen at GA. “Get together and learn some Spanish, as we were directed to at GA 2011 [in a responsive resolution]. Educate yourselves about immigration and other discrimination issues. Connect with groups in your communities who are working on these issues. Check out interfaith coalitions. Make connections that you can use when you go home from GA.”

Courter added that because only a small number of the total number of UUs go to GA, thought is being given to creating a “GA without borders” on one or more days of this GA to involve people at home in witness events in their local communities. “We want something for the folks at home to do while we’re at GA.”

There’s another reason to start now in doing work at home, she noted. “If we make the difference we hope to make in Arizona, we’ll be on the front page again. There will be people across the country who come check us out. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to say ‘welcome to my church’ in more than one language?”

It’s important who congregations send to this GA, Courter said. “Send your leaders. Think about who you can send who will make a lasting difference and impact on the world. Send the people already working on justice issues.”

She said she’s making a special effort to get youth and young adults to this GA. “We want them to witness, serve, and to learn to make a difference. A lot of what we’re doing this year is future-oriented. We passed a resolution in 2011 that we’d make a special commitment to get youth and young adults to GA.”

Because of the emphasis on public witness there will be a great need for good worship at GA to sustain people, she said, and less need for business sessions. “Every day we will probably have a small slice of plenary, to update people on that day’s events. And every day there is worship,” Courter said. “We want people to have a rich enough worship experience to go out and do witness work.” She said the hope is also that everyone will be part of small ministry groups. “We want people to have someone to check in with every day.”

Jan Sneegas, director of the UUA’s GA and Conference Services office, said a budget of $1.45 million has been proposed for this GA, the highest budget ever for a GA. It compares to $1.34 million spent on GA 2011. Of the additional funds, about $50,000 is earmarked to support “witness and service projects” with our Arizona partners, $130,000 for scholarships so some members of the partner organizations can attend GA, and $35,000 for programming. At a typical GA, about $15,000 is budgeted for programming. It’s higher this year, Sneegas said, because a specific mix of people must be recruited to meet the needs of this Justice GA.

Sneegas said the budget, to be approved by the Board of Trustees in October, is based on attendance of 3,500 to 4,000 people. If more people should attend, their registration costs will pay for most of the additional costs of a larger GA.

Planning for this GA got off to a rocky start when two members of the GA Planning Committee, Chair Lynda Shannon and Vice-Chair Barbara Atlas, resigned immediately following GA 2011. In her letter of resignation Shannon objected to the Board’s appointment of an “oversight” committee, referring to the Accountability Group, calling the action “board interference.” In early July, Courter posted a letter (subscription required) on the UUA-GA email list that reflected her frustrations with the planning committee. Responding in part to concerns of a minister that planning for this Justice GA did not seem to have started, she expressed her own frustrations that more progress had not been made. She suggested that the planning committee might function more effectively as a board-appointed committee rather than an elected one.

This past week, asked if there are still issues to be resolved among people involved in planning GA, Courter indicated there may be, but added she’s feeling “really positive” about the coming GA. “We are absolutely on a good track now. Our goal at the Design [Team] meeting was to get everyone in the room who we needed to go forward with GA. We came to a place where we have a clear sense of responsibility and we have commitments as to how we are going to communicate with each other. So I’m feeling good about that.”

Wieder said he believes that whatever tensions there are “don’t apply directly to GA. We’re absolutely on the right path. I went to these meetings with some apprehension and left absolutely energized and excited about GA 2012.”

He added, “We’re going to be able to do this. We got assurances we could all work well together and do something we all feel is important. I’d say two things. There remain tensions and differences, [and] the meeting was immensely successful.”

Wieder offered some advice to those who will go to Phoenix: “Be flexible. Everything with this GA has a little asterisk. That means if something down the road makes more sense than what’s on the schedule, we’ll look at it. ” And be mindful of the big picture, he said. “This is about how we carry forth our message into the world. We don’t want to yell it once on the floor of plenary and then disappear. We want people to take what we do in Phoenix home. If we don’t we will have missed a tremendous opportunity.”

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