‘Sometimes it takes a shock to a system to get it unstuck,’ says UUA Interim Co-President William G. Sinkford.
The Rev. Sofía Betancourt and the Rev. William G. Sinkford (© 2017 Christopher L. Walton).
Though they haven’t even had time yet to meet together in person, the three interim co-presidents of the Unitarian Universalist Association say they are moving quickly on a plan for addressing systemic racism and white supremacy within the association that will guide the next UUA president, who will be elected June 24.
“The first goal that I think all three of us share is we want to find ways to treat this period as an opportunity rather than as a series of problems,” said the Rev. William G. Sinkford, one of the three co-presidents appointed by the Board of Trustees on April 10. “And that means we will be attempting both to respond to this very sad situation but also begin putting in place conversations and processes to help Unitarian Universalism take its next step forward on issues of race and privilege.
“Sometimes it takes a shock to a system to get it unstuck, and if nothing else, we’ve gotten that shock,” Sinkford said, “and my commitment and the commitment of my co-president colleagues is not to miss the opportunity that this shock represents.”
The board appointed Sinkford, the Rev. Sofía Betancourt, and Leon Spencer as co-presidents after the unexpected resignation of UUA President Peter Morales on April 1. Morales resigned in the face of growing controversy over UUA hiring practices, which critics say systematically favor white ministers.
Although they are co-equals with overlapping duties, Sinkford will take on the role of president as outlined in the UUA Bylaws, including leading the UUA staff. Betancourt will lead the Commission for Institutional Change as outlined in the board’s Interim Presidency Transition Plan. Spencer will take the lead on constituent outreach, focusing on people who have been involved in or affected by UU antiracism work. Each of them is also providing pastoral support to the UUA staff, especially to staff people of color and the Leadership Council. (Spencer and UU World exchanged several phone messages but were unable to connect before deadline for this article.)
The board appointed the three by consensus, said UUA Moderator Jim Key. He called the co-president model “a different leadership model than we’ve ever seen, that I think appropriately challenges the Eurocentric, New England town hall structure of a board chair, president, et cetera. And it’s been liberating, frankly.” The board developed its transition plan first—which includes the call for a racism audit and creation of the Commission for Institutional Change—before deciding on the three-person team, Key said.
“While we know, come June, we’ll have an elected president, during this period we wanted to model shared leadership that frankly was different from the dominant culture and the power mapping and still be consistent with our bylaws,” Key said.
It is unclear yet how much the transition team and plan will cost, according to both Key and Tim Brennan, the UUA’s treasurer and chief financial officer. The salary the UUA would have paid to Morales in the last three months of his presidency will instead go toward compensating the three co-presidents, Key said. Brennan said there are also some contingency funds in the budget that could be directed toward some of the costs of the team and the transition plan.
In this week’s board meeting in Boston, April 21–23, the co-presidents will flesh out the transition plan with the trustees, Key and others said. To keep the focus on the plan and related issues, the board will postpone its global monitoring reports for this meeting, said the Rev. Sarah Lammert, who stepped in as interim chief operating officer on April 20, after the resignation of the Rev. Harlan Limpert. (See the agenda and reports prepared for the April board meeting, which will be broadcast live.)
The co-presidents have about ten weeks to begin the racism audit and form the commission before the General Assembly elects a new UUA president in New Orleans. While they begin their work, the co-presidents and the board will keep the three candidates for UUA President—the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, the Rev. Alison Miller, and the Rev. Jeanne Pupke—informed, said Key.
The board’s transition plan calls for a racism audit to examine the operation of white privilege within Unitarian Universalism. The plan also calls for the creation of the commission, which has several charges, including to make concrete progress toward expanding the number of people of color serving as religious professionals within Unitarian Universalism, with “a particular and measurable emphasis on senior staff positions” at the UUA. The commission will also analyze patterns and structures “that foster racism, oppression, and white supremacy,” and provide the incoming president with guidelines to help guarantee that antiracist efforts will be central to the work of her administration. The board will require quarterly progress reports from the administration.
“It feels like an opportunity to re-center ourselves, to look at our core values, and to take a hard look at the difference between who we most want to be in the world and how we are acting on our values,” said Betancourt. “What I love about that language [of the charge to the interim co-presidents] is that it is hope-centered” and focuses “on how we are re-centering the good work we do in our association on our core values as UUs.”
The conversations among the co-presidents and others have only just begun, she noted. “So while I can’t give details yet on what shape the commission will take, we take the mandate of the board very seriously,” she said. “Ten weeks is not a lot of time but we have this moment where we can offer our next elected president some real tools for work I hope will be central for the next six years.” (UUA presidents serve six-year terms.)
Betancourt emphasized that while the work of addressing systemic racism is a focus right now, the association will continue with its other important work including in other areas of social justice. “I have a lot of faith in who we are as UUs,” Betancourt said. “That doesn’t mean we are perfect but just as we teach in any anti-oppression training, there’s no expectation of perfection. For me, the expectation lies in what we do in our relationships with each other after something has gone wrong. It is how we give and receive feedback, and how we respond even when it’s hard, that allow us to come back to who we most want to be.”
“For me, the movement toward a multicultural and antiracist future for our faith has been a long time in process, decades,” said Sinkford, “so to imagine we’ll get to reach the promised land in ten weeks would be idiocy. But the sad circumstances of recent days and weeks point to the need for us to gather ourselves so we can take the next step,” which means “we need to address systems of privilege, not individual attitudes. And there’s a blessing in that because systems can be changed.”
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Elaine McArdle is a UU World senior editor and a member of First Unitarian Church in Portland, Oregon. An award-winning journalist with more than 20 years of experience, she has also written for the Boston Globe, Harvard Law Bulletin, and others.
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