Unitarian Universalists strive to go deeper at pre-GA racial justice training

Unitarian Universalists strive to go deeper at pre-GA racial justice training

‘What I observed in my group . . . is just how hungry people are for this work.’

From left: workshop leaders Leslie Runnels, Aubry Jeanjacques, and Tyrone Edwards.

From left: workshop leaders Leslie Runnels, Aubry Jeanjacques, and Tyrone Edwards. (© 2017 Nancy Pierce/UUA)

© Nancy Pierce


Preparing to embrace the Resist and Rejoice! theme of this year’s UUA General Assembly and deeply engage in antiracist work, 124 UUs gathered Tuesday and Wednesday for a special pre-GA racial justice training. The UUA, the GA Planning Committee, and the Center for Ethical Living and Social Justice Renewal partnered to provide the Undoing Racism workshop, which was presented by the People’s Institute, a national group based in New Orleans dedicated to ending racism and other forms of institutional oppression.

Participants broke into three groups for the duration of the two-day trainings, with several facilitators leading each group. During the sessions they identified the historical roots of racism and examined racial identity and intersecting issues including poverty, economic systems, and other forms of discrimination. The goal was for everybody to leave with a better understanding of racism—how, when, and why it started, and what we all do that keeps it going—to enable them to have genuine conversations about race and more deeply and intentionally engage with antiracism work in their faith and beyond.

Kelly Greene, membership coordinator at the UU Church of Charlotte, said of the two-day training, “at first, it seemed like we weren't taking race head on, but after awhile, we gently got to a place where we really got into difficult topics.” Greene especially appreciated the way her group’s lead facilitator, the Rev. Tyrone Edwards, explained “internalized racial oppression,” described by Edwards as the ways systems of racism and white supremacy operate in the hearts and minds of people of color, to see themselves and others as “less than.”

“Internalized racial oppression is something I really need to sit with how it shows up in my life.”

Also lifting up internalized racial oppression was Thornell T. Jones, a 79-year-old black man. “It can be so hard on the person sharing about their own pain and challenges like that, so it’s rare and good to see,” Jones said.

Jones found Unitarian Universalism in Storrs, Connecticut, in 1967, a year in which many black Americans were struggling with and in some cases leaving the faith. Jones, now a worship associate at the UU Church of Annapolis, Maryland, said he has long appreciated Unitarian Universalism’s willingness to grapple, however imperfectly, with the important issues.

Though many ministers, religious educators, and UUA staff members were otherwise occupied during the pre-GA training, others participated, including the Rev. Michael J. Crumpler, LGBTQ and Intercultural Programs Manager in the UUA Multicultural Growth and Witness office. Crumpler, who was in a different sub-group from Greene and Jones, mentioned his facilitators’ detailed exploration of whiteness as a racial identity as a strength of the training. “It reinforced the responsibility that white people have in actively challenging racism,” Crumpler said.

On the first afternoon of the training, participants were asked to define racism in the best way they knew how. Cassie Withey-Rila, a Texas-born white young adult now living in New Zealand, offered in their group a definition of racism as “a fabricated, synthetic system of power and privilege.”

Crumpler, who is black, immediately followed, offering, simply, “racism is violence.” “That moment where Michael defined it so simply made me ask: why do we who are white need to find such complex and exacting jargon?” Withey-Rila wondered, “Is it an attempt to distance oneself from the horrible, visceral way it manifests?”

“What I observed in my group,” said convener Carrie Stewart, “even just when we went around in the introductions, is how hungry people are for this work. To a person, in my workshop room, they were already involved in this work in one way or another, either through their church, through their profession, or through their families. They are looking for places to learn more; I think they’re looking for tools and resources and community of other folks who are doing this. I know from my own work, it can be very isolating doing this work alone.”

Stewart, a coordinator for Allies for Racial Equity and a member of the Journey Toward Wholeness Transformation Committee, said that, as is typical in organizing and movements, the participants in this week’s training are the early adopters. As for motivating people who are not yet committed to the work, she said she already has her eye on next GA. “I’m hoping to make this a more regular if not permanent part of General Assembly.”

She noted that this year’s GA offered a unique opportunity because of its framing as a justice GA and because it is in New Orleans, where both the People’s Institute and the Center for Ethical Living and Social Justice Renewal are based. “When we go to other locations, it will be a different question, so that’s part of what we’ll need to figure out. But just like in the greater movement, with all of the events of this last spring at the UUA and in the larger Unitarian Universalist world, it’s more important than ever to build a critical mass of folks who are taking this on as a central part of our faith,” she said. “If not us, who?”