UUA, UUSC collaborate on social justice 'college'

UUA, UUSC collaborate on social justice 'college'

Group will offer international service trips and social justice education.

Donald E. Skinner


Finding the right social justice service trip has always been a matter of knowing where to look. Over the years the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee has sponsored many. The Unitarian Universalist Association has had others. And groups such as New Orleans’ Center for Ethical Living have created other opportunities.

Now, for the first time these and other service trips are all in one place, thanks to the creation of the UU College of Social Justice. Announced at General Assembly in June, the college, which is based at the UUSC in Cambridge, Mass., brings most UU-connected social justice learning trips into one agency.

Want to go to Haiti? To India? To New Orleans? The Mexican border or Burundi? The college can make it happen. Currently it has trips planned through the spring of 2013 to seven locations, some of them multiple times. In the coming year the college hopes to sponsor 22 trips.

The Rev. Kathleen McTigue began July 16 as director of the college. She said at General Assembly, “I’ve been waiting for 25 years for this collaboration to happen. We anticipate that the college will take both institutions’ knowledge around social justice and put it in one place.”

Beyond service trips, the college will take a lead in educating people about social justice, by facilitating justice forums and other non-trip learning opportunities. For example, it will help expand opportunities such as UU Legislative Ministry California’s Spiritual Activist Leadership Training. That program trains UU young adults in specific social justice skills while deepening them spiritually.

Similarly, it will sponsor an annual National Youth Justice Summit in Boston, a week of service combined with learning about economic justice. The college will also help place interns with some UUSC and UUA social justice partners around the world, and facilitate overseas sabbatical opportunities for ministers and seminarians. Two interns were placed with partners in Haiti this summer: a videographer and an English instructor.

The college will also coordinate involvement in the Civil Rights Journey, an annual trip to sites of significance in the U.S. civil rights movement, for youth ages 15 to 20.

“We’re embarking on serious social justice education,” said the Rev. Brock Leach at GA. Leach is the UUSC’s vice president for mission, strategy, and innovation and one of the people at the UUSC and UUA who helped get the college up and running. “The idea is a simple one,” he said. “We can talk about justice, and think about justice, but to do justice we need to experience the world from the perspective of others. We want to create a group of passionate activists who will help us realize our collective power.” He noted that congregations that have 10 or more people wanting to do a justice trip may be able to pick their own dates.

Leach said the college will have three parts—a broad portfolio of programs and trips; a focus on justice education programs for youth and young adults; and a separate focus on justice programs for ministers and seminarians.

In her GA remarks, McTigue noted that the UUA and the UUSC have not always worked closely around social justice issues. “Sometimes we’ve kind of ignored each other. But these are two organizations that are now deeply committed to collaboration.”

In an interview after GA, she said, “Since we announced this, there has been a tremendous sense of excitement about this vision and a feeling of relief that such a deep collaboration is actually happening. This is the right time and the right way to strengthen and broaden the social justice work we all do.”

Participants will pay typical costs for most trips, but scholarship funds are available for some trips to assist religious professionals, lay justice leaders, students, and seminarians. In addition to McTigue, the college will have one half-time and two full-time employees. Evan Seitz is senior associate for service learning programs. Sam Jones is the college’s associate for marketing and enrollment. Wendy Flick, Haiti program manager, will be responsible for Haiti service learning programs and trip leader training. Plans are to add an additional staff member within a year.

The college is being funded by designated gifts from donors rather than from the operating budgets of the UUA or UUSC. At the GA presentation announcing the college, Morales and Schulz thanked Julie and Arnold "Brad" Bradburd for their $1 million gift to the college. Contributions can be made at the UUCSJ’s website. McTigue said the creation of the college has been part of a UUSC strategic plan dating back at least two years. “I think the idea has been blossoming at both the UUSC and the UUA for at least that long.” It has an initial annual budget of $625,000.

“We got an amazing response at GA,” said Jones. “A lot of people are looking for trips for youth groups. They told us about having to organize trips themselves, putting in a huge amount of effort. We hope that we can take on some of that logistical load so they can spend more time preparing their groups for trips and could maybe even take more trips.”

He said trips will be to places where there are partners “who won’t be burdened by us coming.”

The college expects to work closely with other UU groups, including the Coalition of UU International Organizations, UU seminaries, UU Legislative Ministry California and other UU advocacy networks in various states, and the Washington, D.C. offices of the UUA and UUSC. In addition, several current programs will be led by UU-affiliated organizations doing grassroots justice work like The Sienna Project in Guatemala and the Center for Ethical Living & Social Justice Renewal in New Orleans.

In a year or so the college also hopes to provide programs at the congregational level to help congregations determine their own justice priorities, and help them develop local social justice alliances and partnerships.

McTigue was parish minister for 21 years at The Unitarian Society of New Haven in Hamden, Ct., until taking this position. “When this opportunity came up my husband said, ‘I think this sounds exactly like you.’ It’s perfect for my twin passions—commitment to effective social justice and to the work of spiritual maturity. Faith-based justice work is a way to take seriously the idea we are grounded in something larger than our political commitments.”

She said justice trips through the college won’t ever just be “trips.” McTigue said, “They’ll be grounded beforehand in theological reflection and social change theory, as well as education about the places we’re going. We will also help people think about their particular place in the world, about race, class, and privilege. And then after the trip we want to develop really strong ways for people to use what they learned on the trip to work for justice more effectively in the places where they live.”

She added, “Our purpose is to transform people by engaging them in social justice opportunities. We don’t change the world without changing ourselves.”

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Correction 7.27.12: An earlier version of this story included outdated information about the annual budget and funding for the college. The story has been updated with current information, including acknowledgment of a $1 million donation from Julie and Arnold "Brad" Bradburd.