For many small social justice organizations, the pandemic has been an existential challenge. The Tomaquag Museum in Exeter, Rhode Island, which educates the public on Indigenous history and culture, has not only survived the pandemic but thrived—due to a small but dedicated and creative staff, and with help from last year’s special collection of the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly 2020.
Each year, General Assembly takes up a special collection for a social justice organization that shares UU values and is located in the GA host city. GA 2020 was to be held in Providence, Rhode Island, and the Tomaquag Museum was designated as the recipient of GA’s special collection. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, GA shifted to an online platform, but that didn’t dim UU support for the museum. Indeed, the special collection garnered a whopping $92,000 for the museum, more than three times what Lorén Spears, executive director of the museum, was expecting. While the Unitarian Universalist Association’s official tally is $77,668 for the museum, Spears says the final number was about $15,000 more because donations continued to stream in from individual UUs after GA.
“How would we have known in January  when we were selected by UUA [as the collection’s recipient] that there would be a pandemic—and that you would help us survive?” says Spears.
The Tomaquag Museum, whose mission is education and the promotion of thoughtful dialogue regarding not just the history of Indigenous peoples but the Native issues of today, has a close relationship with a number of New England UU congregations, especially in Rhode Island. Spears has participated in UU worship services, and the museum has offered programming on Indigenous rights to UU youth and other groups. Its annual budget is about $300,000, and when the pandemic precluded in-person gatherings, in just three months the Tomaquag lost more than $170,000 in revenue from admission fees. But its small staff quickly pivoted to an online environment. It offered free workshops and programs that were especially in demand by schools, held a weekly book group and a monthly cultural conversation featuring authors writing about Indigenous-related topics, and more. It wasn’t making money, but it was making its relevance more obvious than ever.
‘Becoming sustainable and giving us that real boost—that was huge, huge!’ —Lorén Spears, Tomaquag Museum executive director
When the GA gift came in, Spears and her staff were thrilled. “It gave us something we never had before, which was actual savings,” says Spears. “When you talk about sustainability of organizations, when COVID hit we had literally [enough money for] two payrolls, that’s it! So becoming sustainable and giving us that real boost—that was huge, huge!”
Now, as the museum reopens for in-person visitors (albeit with a mask requirement, in recognition of how hard the pandemic has hit Native communities), it is on firm financial footing thanks to the support of many partners and donors, including UUs. It is increasing its staff from six people to ten and building an expansive new facility that will include classrooms, an exhibit gallery of contemporary Native art, a research center, and a café featuring traditional Native foods.
For Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children (FFLIC), a Black- and woman-led grassroots organization, the funding it received from GA 2017 in New Orleans has sustained its work trying to keep children out of prison and to end racist policies, especially in the juvenile justice system. Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the country, including about 230 youth in state prisons. More than 90 percent of them are Black or brown, most are poor, and more than 40 percent are being held for nonviolent offenses.
FFLIC, which this year celebrates twenty years of working to end mass incarceration of children, received $105,214 from GA 2017, which included a $35,000 matching grant from the Youth Funding Justice Collaborative. Since then, FFLIC has continued its mission on a variety of fronts: campaigning to stop the building of new prisons, to reduce school expulsions and suspensions, and to narrow the pipeline of children entering the criminal justice system. Its efforts are falling on receptive ears. In March 2021, Youth First Initiative and FFLIC released a poll showing that 73 percent of Louisiana residents support a youth justice system that focuses on prevention and rehabilitation rather than punishment.
‘I got here by happenstance. I stay because it’s my duty.’ —Gina Womack, FFLIC executive director
Yet there’s so much work to be done. During the pandemic, when the Louisiana governor put the state on lockdown, imprisoned children were isolated in their cells and unable to see their families, an inhumane and cruel treatment, as FFLIC’s executive director Gina Womack wrote in a May 2021 article in The Nation, “I Don’t Want to Die Here.” Over the past year, FFLIC has led the Louisiana HOOP (Harvesting Opportunities Outside of Prison) Coalition, committed to dismantling systems of white supremacy culture and abolishing youth incarceration in the state.
FFLIC’s work “is not for the faint of heart,” says Womack, who co-founded the organization in 2000. “Sometimes you feel so, like, why am I still here? It’s because God gave me this mission. I got here by happenstance. I stay because it’s my duty.” To the New Orleans-area UU congregations that support FFLIC and UUs who gave to the 2017 special collection, she adds, “Make sure to say how much we appreciate and thank everyone for their continued prayers and support.”
General Assembly 2021 was to be held in Milwaukee but was once again all-virtual due to the pandemic, and the special collection supported MICAH: Milwaukee Inner-city Congregations Allied for Hope, a coalition of faith-based groups founded over thirty years ago to fight for racial justice and equity. As of July 12, the special collection had raised $59,000 for MICAH’s work, which focuses on such core issues as jobs and economics, prison reform, education reform, and issues of local and statewide transportation.
“Overall, we use funds to address the systemic issues of justice and equity and equality across the board,” says the Rev. Joseph Jackson Jr., pastor at Friendship Missionary Baptist in Milwaukee and president of MICAH. After some lean years following the 2008 recession, MICAH is now adding staff, including a second organizer to build capacity. Unitarian Church North of Mequon, Wisconsin, and UU Church-West in Brookfield are members of MICAH, says Jackson, who notes that the organization is “unique” among Milwaukee social justice organizations in that it comprises faith-based groups. “We are very grateful and thankful for the funds you are providing this year,” he says.
How can UUs continue to be good allies to these organizations? Jackson suggests “having the uncomfortable conversations around racism at your own dinner tables and your own circles. That’s where the conversation needs to start and expand.” Allies should also align themselves and be in coalition with “folks and organizations that are dealing with” the issue of systemic racism, and Jackson urges allies to participate in ongoing trainings around racial injustice.
Spears says that “the most important thing is learning a lot” about Indigenous issues, which is where the Tomaquag Museum offers critical educational opportunities. “The second thing is then taking what you’re learning and sharing it with others and getting them to see that our people are still here, and we are a vibrant part of community, and we give to this country just like every other” ethnic and racial group, she says. “We want people to understand there is no such thing as American history or Rhode Island history without the Narragansett and other First Peoples.”
Publicly acknowledging the Indigenous people whose land you are on is “only a first step,” she adds. “Now that you’ve acknowledged, what are you going to do for Indigenous people?” Spears encourages UUs to support the Native American Rights Fund as well as other Native-led initiatives around the country. She also urges support for educational scholarships for Native youth. “In Rhode Island, we are five times below white people and three times below every ethnicity in terms of financial achievement,” she says. Higher education and vocational training are essential to bridge that gap, and contributing to educational scholarships “creates equity.”
Womack urges allies to support FFLIC’s work by “lifting up the work and the stories” of incarcerated children. “Children are children, and they are also victims of this horrific racist system,” she says. “The system needs to be fixed.”