Reflection on White Supremacy in Our UUA
From the staff of the Office of Youth and Young Adult Ministries
UPDATED 3/31/17. [Since the publication of this post from our office, the President of the UUA has resigned (read the reporting of this event on UU World here), and the Leadership Council of the UUA released this statement.] – ed.
A very important conversation has been happening about the insidious white supremacy in our Unitarian Universalist Association, centering currently around our hiring practices. We encourage you to do some digging and read multiple perspectives in this conversation. A good place to start is the 3/27 UUWorld article, statement from Black Lives of UU and this Compilation of Responses.
With gratitude to those reminding us to do this work, we in the Office of Youth and Young Adult Ministries (YaYA Office) have been thinking about how white supremacy manifests in our corner of this institution. In this country and within Unitarian Universalism, white supremacy is one of our collective sins. As Unitarian Universalists and a Buddhist, we recognize that our interdependence means that none of us are free until we are all free. We practice our value of interdependence by struggling together for collective liberation.
The YaYA office has six staff members: five white people, Rev. Annie Gonzalez Milliken, Bart Frost, Deborah Neisel-Sanders, Jennica Davis-Hockett, and Ted Resnikoff, and one person of color, Rev. Elizabeth Nguyen. Rev. Nguyen is the only person of color on our team and was hired specifically to support youth and young adults of color. She does amazing work with limited resources and continually pushes our office toward more accountability and dismantling white supremacy in all our work. But supporting youth and young adults of color and committing to anti-racist and anti-oppressive work is not only Elizabeth’s work, it’s all of ours. At the same time, there is currently no portfolio dedicated to providing white youth and young adults with anti-racist and anti-oppressive identity development and organizing skills. While each of us integrates anti-racism into our work, we acknowledge that for those of us whose portfolio doesn’t focus primarily on youth and young adults of color, we could be doing a lot more to support the spiritual and leadership development of young people of color and to dismantle supremacy of all kinds in our office, our UUA and the world.
The first step in healing from the damage white supremacy does to our spirit is to face our reality, process our defensiveness as it arises, so that we can be truly honest about our starting place. As James Baldwin said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Many are finding his words useful in this moment, and are grateful for this reflection from Kimberly R. Hampton M.Div that also uses these words.
So here’s the reality of white supremacy in the YaYA Office as we can currently see it. We recognize that some of these things are within our control, some of these things are part of our institutional history which we did not determine, but which is still ours to own.
- Five out of six staff members are currently white and the one person of color on staff supports youth and young adults of color specifically. This position is part time. This staff configuration sends a message that ministering to Unitarian Universalist young folks, generally, means ministering to young white folks and that ministering to young people of color should only be handled by people of color and that it’s ok to devote fewer resources to this ministry than others we serve.
- Our supervisor is a white male, replacing a person of color in 2014, and he supervises a team which is 80% women. White supremacy and patriarchy support each other, so it is necessary to name both the racial and gender dynamics around power in our office.
- On UUA.org we have resource pages for identity development for young people of color but haven’t yet created identity development resources for young white people, which sends the message that young white people don’t have work to do regarding their racial identity.
- We have not prioritized ensuring the voices of people of color are equitably represented in leadership in YA@GA panels, Youth Caucus Staff or Youth Observer candidates and do not prioritize removing barriers for youth and young adults of color to participate in leadership. We have also failed to publicly acknowledge the absence of people of color, which again erases the white supremacy at play.
- White staff members benefit from the relational capital of staff and volunteer leaders of color by asking them to identify other people of color to participate in our programs, speak on workshop panels and serve in leadership positions, which are often volunteer. These asks can feel like we want token people of color, or can feel risky to leaders of color who are not sure if they can trust white staff to treat people of color well.
- White staff generally default to centering whiteness, are not proactive in calling colleagues in when they center whiteness in our resources and ministries and need reminding from colleagues of color to include voices of people of color.
- White staff rely on reminders from colleagues of color to include ancestors of color in our stories about Unitarians, Universalists and UUs.
- We prioritize the visibility of people of color in the images on UUA.org and Blue Boat Blog, but do not prioritize giving power to people of color.
- We put the burden on people who experience oppression to advocate for changes, name microaggressions and push for resource redistribution.
That’s a long and incomplete list of where our office has fallen short. We name these instances in order to face them; we face them in order to change. Together we must forge a culture of care for all, which includes reparations and reallocation of resources. We need a culture of risk and vulnerability, of speaking truth to power, of paying attention to who is not at the table, and of celebration that also acknowledges our work is not done. As we forge this new way, we lean on our ancestors for guidance and walk with our young people, the inheritors of our faith.
We have the power to resist white supremacy from wherever we are. As UUA employees in the Youth and Young Adult office we struggle against our wider culture that rewards us for going along with the status quo, pushes us to look out for ourselves more than our kindred, and seduces us to believing that business as usual is neutral. It’s easy to say “not us,” “we’re not the ones who are the decision-makers.”
This response is an attempt to model, however imperfectly, looking in the mirror ourselves and taking responsibility for what is ours – where we have missed the mark and let the violence of white supremacy harm ourselves and the youth and young adults we serve. We invite others to join us in reflecting on how you and the organizations in which you have power are complicit in white supremacy and what your sites of resistance are.
Gratitude is one of our spiritual practices so we want to share gratitude to Christina Rivera, the Black Lives of UU organizing collective, DRUUMM, UU leaders of color – lay, youth and young adult, ministers, religious educators, musicians and music directors, and UUA staff who have put their often unpaid labor, heart, spirit, attention to the work of liberation.
With gratitude and ongoing commitment,
Annie, Bart, Deborah, Elizabeth, Jennica, and Ted