Resignations raise flags around planning for Justice GA

Resignations raise flags around planning for Justice GA

As board increases oversight on UUA's 2012 General Assembly in Phoenix, two members of GA Planning Committee resign.


What will the 2012 “Justice GA” in Phoenix look like?

That question was on the tip of people’s tongues at the Unitarian Universalist Association’s 2011 General Assembly in Charlotte, N.C., where at several workshops people were invited to share their questions and concerns about an unprecedented change in the UUA’s annual meeting next year.

Since GA ended, another question has emerged: Who will plan the 2012 GA?

In some respects, more people than ever are coming together to plan the Justice GA, including members of the UUA Board of Trustees, the Arizona Immigration Ministry, an accountability group formed specifically for the 2012 meeting, district executives, and immigrant justice groups. At the same time, however, two veteran members of the General Assembly Planning Committee (GAPC), including the chair of the 2011 GA, will not be serving out their terms, having resigned at the close of the Charlotte meeting.

Immediately following the Charlotte GA, Lynda Shannon, chair, and Barbara Atlas, vice-chair, of the GAPC, abruptly resigned. In her letter of resignation, Shannon cited her concerns over “diffuse accountability” and “shifting expectations.”

Over the past six months, the UUA Board of Trustees has increased its oversight of the GAPC and its planning of the Justice GA, which has rankled some Planning Committee members, eight of whom are elected by the General Assembly.

In January, the board appointed a GA 2012 Accountability Group, charged with fulfilling the vision of a Justice GA, ensuring the participation of historically marginalized groups of people, and forming alliances with local groups working on immigration issues. At its meeting on June 22, just prior to the Charlotte GA, the board announced that it would convene a task force—made up of members of the board, the GAPC, the GA 2012 Accountability Group, and the UUA administration—to ensure “desired outcomes for Justice GA 2012.” That group will meet in Phoenix this August and make a report to the full board at its October 2011 meeting.

“I, personally, cannot continue to lead in the planning of the GA 2012 in this environment of board interference with the work of the GAPC,” Shannon wrote.

UUA Moderator Gini Courter has defended the board’s involvement in the oversight of the Justice GA.

Courter addressed the creation of the GA 2012 Accountability Group in her Moderator’s Report during the last plenary session on the final day of the Charlotte GA. UUs listened intently as Courter talked about the complexity of creating a new kind of GA. “From my point of view as a leader,” Courter said, “it seems unfair not to provide more help, more assistance, more resources, more guidance to the folks we want to do this work.”

Courter brought the Accountability Group onto the stage during her report. The group is chaired by the Rev. Leslie Takahashi Morris, co-minister of the Mt. Diablo UU Church in Walnut Creek, Calif. The group’s 15 members include representatives from historically marginalized groups within the UUA, which include racial minorities, LGBT individuals, young adults, and people with disabilities. “You have to plan with the diversity that you want to see, because that’s how you’re accountable from the beginning,” Courter said.

The Justice GA was born at the 2010 General Assembly held in Minneapolis, Minn. GA had been scheduled to meet in Phoenix, Ariz., in 2012 before that state’s legislature passed SB 1070, a controversial law that empowers local police to check the immigration status of anyone they suspect of living in the United States illegally. Fearing that the law encourages racial profiling and increases the risk of unjust deportations, many called for a boycott of Arizona. The UUA Board of Trustees called for the UUA to boycott Arizona as well. At the 2010 Minneapolis GA, however, delegates fashioned and passed a business resolution dedicating the 2012 GA 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.”

Exactly what that meeting will look like remains an open question.

Two workshops at the Charlotte GA invited people to share their questions and concerns on the subject. One meeting was held by the Board of Trustees. The other was hosted by Shannon, of the GAPC, and the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, minister of the UU Congregation of Phoenix and leader of the Arizona Immigration Ministry.

At the sessions, attendees posed a wide range of questions, including: What will the role of youth be? How will the Planning Committee balance witness, civil disobedience, and service activities? What provisions are being made for the extreme heat in Arizona in June? How will they avoid cultural appropriation? How will the large numbers of youth and young adults afford to go? How will they select which organizations to partner with?

One man asked: “What can an old, fat, white person with a bad back do in the Arizona desert?”

Frederick-Gray said that planning GA 2012 is an ongoing process, and that they are taking a “faithful step.” “It’s a spiritual exercise going into something that is not completely known,” she said.

“It is going to be grounded more than previous GAs in our religious faith,” Frederick-Gray said. “There will be lots of worship and singing and spirituality. Only through grounding ourselves that way will we be able to have the courage and strength needed to put ourselves on the line and be willing to be changed by what we see.”

(See UU World’s General Assembly blog for more on conversations at the Charlotte GA about next summer’s “Justice GA”: In Charlotte, Board Looks Ahead to Phoenix GA; 2012 ‘Justice General Assembly’ Begins To Take Shape.)

At the board meeting held the morning after GA, Courter expressed frustration that planning for the Justice GA was not further along, and she stressed the importance of the work of the Accountability Group. She acknowledged the frustration that had been expressed by members of the GAPC, but told the board: “We need to ensure there are so many levels of intentionality from planning all the way through how we will go to Arizona—how non-Spanish-speaking, mostly white people engage with new partners without scapegoating the historically marginalized groups in Unitarian Universalism. It is my experience that every attempt the board has made to provide clear policy has not pleased the Planning Committee. We need a new effort. A new way of reaching out.”

UUA President Peter Morales expressed concerns with the board’s direction, too. He stressed to the board that both UUA staff and ministers in Arizona were “going full tilt ahead,” yet there was concern that some of their work might be undone by either the board or the Accountability Group. After the board meeting, Morales told UU World that he was satisfied with the planning that has been done so far and with the work that will be done in the coming months to plan the Phoenix GA. “I have complete confidence in our ability to do this with the Arizona Immigration Ministry, headed by Susan Frederick-Gray, and with our partners. They have a track record of working well together and bringing together enormous public witness events on much shorter notice.”

Morales also questioned the necessity of a meeting the board has called for in Phoenix in August, which would include members of the board, the GAPC, the Accountability Group, and the administration. He is concerned about the expense and effectiveness of a meeting that could include as many as 50 people. “My clear preference is to have something that is smaller and more manageable. There’s a real question of resources here,” Morales said.

His concerns echo those expressed by Shannon in her resignation letter and in comments she emailed to UU World. “I was very much looking forward to working out how to do this upcoming GA,” she wrote. “But when other groups, committees, and yes, the UUA board, got involved, my enthusiasm and willingness to serve began to unravel.”

Shannon also wrote that she recognized that some of the board’s actions “are part of their effort to strictly implement Carver Policy Governance as the governance system of the UUA. But whatever the recognized merits of a policy governance system, we on the Planning Committee believed strongly that this transition needed to be made in deep, broad, and covenantal consultation with all the affected parties, involving wide communication and discussion of the board’s overall vision and plan.”

(Carver Policy Governance is a form of nonprofit governance that the UUA began to adopt in 2006. The UUA board uses a modified form of the governance model, because the Carver model specifies that the board of a nonprofit hire its chief executive officer. However, the UUA president is elected by the GA, rather than appointed by the board.)

In the wake of Shannon’s resignation, email discussion lists have buzzed with conversation about the GAPC and whether the board’s oversight of the Justice GA reflected a shift toward a consolidation of power by the board.

Courter responded directly to one email critique of the board with a 1,600-word post (subscription required). In one section, in all-capital letters, she wrote: “Unitarian Universalist congregations are going to Phoenix for a Justice GA in 2012. On our borders human[s] are being treated inhumanely. People are dying. Children are dying. Families are being torn apart. We go to Phoenix because we believe that [we] may be able to help end this tragedy. Therefore, we should choose very carefully the issues that we allow to distract us from that purpose. We have an entire future where we can argue about governance, starting in July 2012.”

The chair of the 2012 GA Planning Committee is the Rev. Dr. Walt Wieder, co-minister of the UU Church of Surprise, Ariz., who was out of the country and unavailable for comment. The Committee on Committees of the board is accepting applications to fill the vacancies created by the two resignations. The deadline to apply is Aug. 1, 2011.

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Correction 7.22.11: An earlier version of this article stated that youth are represented in the GA 2012 Accountability Group.