Wednesday, July 11, 2012

This is what democracy looks like

The morning after we adjourned our 51st General Assembly (our first Justice GA), the United States Supreme Court delivered a mixed ruling on Arizona SB 1070. While the UUA Board was moving quickly through its meeting, members of the GA Right Relations Team were maintaining a peaceful presence at the morning press conference held by our partners.  After the board meeting a number of trustees were able to answer Puente’s request for volunteers to help mobilize the community. We made phone calls and sent emails in Spanish and English.

We helped load water on the trucks then joined the convoy to the ICE office protest, to stand with Puente and other local groups to call attention to the portion of SB 1070 that the court did not strike down: the poisonous “show me your papers” provisions.

At the protest, organizers warmed up the community with a familiar call and response chant:
Show me what the people look like
This is what the people look like
Show me what community looks like
This is what community looks like
Show me what democracy looks like
This is what democracy looks like

Oh yeah. Justice GA. This is what community looks like. This is what commitment looks like. Most of all, this is what democracy looks like.
I think it’s a good sign whenever we begin chanting in plenary. Two years ago when the delegates were asked “Will you come to Arizona and help create the Justice GA you voted for?” a couple of thousand Unitarian Universalists chanted ¡Si, se puede! until the hall echoed with their conviction. Si se puede is often translated as “Yes, we can”, but the literal translation of this rallying cry of the United Farm Workers is “Yes, it can be” or “Yes, it can be done” -- not “Look at us – we’re doing this” or “Yes, we can do this right now” but “With faithful attention, this, too can be accomplished.”
Unlike some of my colleagues, I was not surprised that thousands of Unitarian Universalists came to Phoenix last month. I knew that despite the heat and the cost of travel, despite the uncertainty about almost every detail, you would be in Phoenix because this was your Justice General Assembly and you committed to be there and to bring others from your congregation. I believe that years from now, Justice GA will be seen as a turning point for Unitarian Universalism – but the direction of our turning is not yet clear. What or what are we turning from? Who are what are we turning toward?

Flashback to April 2010. The UUA Board has just finished its final meeting before the Minneapolis General Assembly. The GA Agenda has been finished and proofed and is ready to print when the governor of Arizona signs SB 1070. The UUA Bylaws give the Board sole authority to select sites for General Assemblies, and we have already approved the recommendation to meet in Arizona in 2012, but La Raza and other groups are calling for a boycott.
As Moderator, I call an emergency meeting of the UUA Board to discuss our commitments for the GA that is only two years away. The Board could have simply voted to follow the boycott and move GA elsewhere, but instead they make an interesting and empowering choice: they put the issue on the agenda of the GA (just ten weeks away) so that those responsible for setting the direction for our Association – our congregations – could be in the driver’s seat.  
So what happened then? The GA lists and UU blogs lit up. There were sides: Boycott, Don’t Boycott, “Why do always have GA where it’s hot?”, and others. There was so much nuance that it deserves a separate blog post some time later this summer. Then things got really complicated. During the next few weeks, Unitarian Universalists in the hundreds answered Rev. Susan Frederick Gray’s call to come to Phoenix to protest SB 1070. Puente leader Sal Reza invited Unitarian Universalists to come to Arizona in 2012 to hold a human rights gathering rather than a General Assembly, a “convergence in cooperation with us and that together we design the best ways that UUs can witness, learn from, take action, and serve the movement here.”  UUA President Peter Morales urged delegates to vote down the board’s boycott resolution. Going into GA 2010, the outcome was not clear.  

Every business item that is debated and voted in a plenary (business) session is first discussed and amended, if necessary, in a smaller mini-assembly business session. Delegates at the first mini-assembly to discuss the GA 2012 resolution approved two different and contradictory statements and the mini-assembly moderator encouraged representatives of those opposing groups to meet and return with something different. After many hours of meetings, a consensus resolution emerged and was brought to the second mini-assembly. The resolution described a new type of annual meeting: a Justice General Assembly. And that was just the start. 

The 2010 GA called for a 2012 General Assembly that was both radical and accountable then directed the Board, GA Planning Committee, and Administration to make it happen. You resolved that the 2012 GA would include a broader group of voices in planning and oversight, voices that are often marginalized within our faith community. You directed the UUA Administration to set up an immigration ministry in Arizona to build and strengthen relationships with partners. You cautioned all UU leaders to keep the boycott in our hearts and try to direct our local spending toward partners and away from our partners’ oppressors. And on a Sunday afternoon late in General Assembly, when you were asked “But will you come?” you said “Yes we meant it….Yes we’ll come….Si se puede.”
The resolution passed in 2010 is a values-based and lengthy statement of our congregations’ expectations for Justice GA, and I initially questioned the specificity of the resolution. But those many details, lovingly hammered out in hard conversations, in mini-assemblies and on the floor of plenary were exactly what was needed. How did you know? Following GA 2010, months passed with little activity toward Justice GA. At the January 2011 UUA Board meeting held in Phoenix, Arizona, and at a pre-meeting border visit with our Tucson congregation, board members heard questions and concerns voiced by local clergy and lay leaders about the lack of Justice GA preparation. I cannot speak for the whole board, but I was personally uncomfortable with the answers our local leaders were given, and I did not have better answers.

It was the clear direction provided in your 2010 resolution that forced the Board to ask uncomfortable questions and press for answers then pass appropriate motions and policies to move Justice GA forward including:
  • requiring start-up funding for the Arizona Immigration Ministry in 2010-2011;
  • clarifying the Accountability Group’s role as the key internal advisory partner for the Board, GA Planning Committee, and Administration;
  • allowing a loss for GA 2012  (if necessary) equivalent to the loss that would have been sustained if we had boycotted; and
  • convening the Design Meeting for Justice GA in the fall of 2011 – the first meeting with representatives of all the groups working to implement your Justice GA resolution: the GA Planning Committee and GA Office staff, Administration, Arizona Immigration Ministry, Accountability Group, Board and others.    
For the past two years, whenever anyone asserted that the GA 2010 delegates didn’t know what they were doing, someone would remind them to watch the videos of the Saturday and Sunday 2010 plenary sessions. And when any of us were uncertain what was required or how inclusive we were charged to be, we read your 2010 resolution once again.

Thank you for your clarity. Thank you for daring to imagine the possibility of a more inclusive, more loving, more justice-seeking Unitarian Universalist gathering. Thank you for using your power to direct your leaders to make it so. Si, se puede.
Justice General Assembly was an amazing, transformational, spirit-filled, faith-driven, experiential, multi-generational, multi-cultural convergence for human rights. (As a perfectly imperfect community we also fell short of the accountability and inclusivity called for in the 2010 resolution, including some areas where we are annual offenders. I’ll write about this in another post.) Justice GA was also unpredictable and inconvenient and strained traditional lines of authority. Justice GA planning crossed borders even self-proclaimed border-crossers have found useful to maintain. Justice GA required Unitarian Universalists to articulate new accountabilities that we should have articulated long ago.

Our own history tells us that when the General Assembly does something amazing, the next chapter will likely be an institutional response designed to insure that this will never happen again. Next step: deconstruct this powerfully marvelous but powerfully inconvenient mechanism for change we call our democracy. We will work to make sure that future General Assemblies will never again have the power and a platform to take our faith this far out of the box.
Perhaps in this moment, we can easily be welcomed into an inappropriate fiesta of self-congratulation. In that space we may tolerate or even applaud a flurry of activity designed to leverage the Justice GA experience for more limited, less noble purpose. But how would this happen? Well, we might change the bylaws – as we did after the Black Empowerment Controversy – to limit the powers of the delegates to set priorities. We might reduce or redesign plenary so there won’t be space for deep business to emerge and mature. Or we’ll fail to schedule the business withheld from the 2012 agenda including topics like the 5th Principle Task Force’s reimagining of General Assembly. Perhaps we will decide that we’ve done enough work on immigration and that something else merits our full attention. Our past disempowerment has taken many different forms.

Disempowerment, if it comes, will likely be marketed as preserving “the best” of Justice GA because the goal is not to remove the power of Justice GA, but to reassign it, to reuse it. But if congregational direction is removed, all that will remain will be a sanitized, pasteurized, homogenized General Assembly. This more predictable GA may even be focused on a specific topic like justice or compassion, but focus is a poor substitute for purpose. The bait and switch will be based on an easy-to-understand story of who UUs are today and what Justice GA was all about. The story will, of necessity, highlight individual leaders and disregard the power that called Justice GA into being and rode it all the way to Tent City: the power of the people.
I saw that challenging power in the eyes of the young adults from Valley UU in Chandler (AZ): Rob, Carolina, Ryan, Jim, and their colleagues wore matching t-shirts to plenary -- a different shirt with custom slogan each day. They moved in a purposeful pack, passionate about protesting SB 1070, certain that if other Unitarian Universalists came to witness in the summer of 2010 and to GA in 2012 it would make a huge difference to their community and their state. They were willing to engage with anyone who wanted an authentic conversation.  
I saw that same galvanizing power shining calmly but firmly in the eyes of Tiffany and Geraldine Mendez when they testified in plenary this year about how the immigration policies in our country are shredding their family -- and if you were there I know you not only saw it, you felt it. It burned in Daniel's eyes as TIffany voiced her concerns about their future, their family. (If you missed this part of plenary, you can watch it online or read Don Skinner's article.)    
Our religious history is replete with episodes of clarity and communal action followed by disempowerment of the community. This is our history, but it need not be our next chapter in this moment. We can choose to follow this historic Justice GA with a non-historic response: we can continue to deepen and broaden our democracy. We can encourage Unitarian Universalists to make communal choices of meaning everywhere they gather and especially at General Assembly. We can have a powerful, broadly owned, less knowable, more audacious future -- a future worthy of our commitment and passion. I trust us to find the spiritual depth to go boldly into that future as members of a strong faith answering fear with love, able to say with conviction "With faithful attention this, too, can be accomplished."  
Justice GA wasn’t imagined into being by a policy of the UUA Board. Justice GA was not a new program of the UUA President or the staff. Justice GA wasn’t a new outreach of the GA Planning Committee. Justice GA was something none of your leaders had imagined, something that only the power of our congregations -- your power -- could call into being.  
Justice GA was the result of a deep engagement with the theology that underpins our fifth principle: using the democratic process opens a space for the intimate, the sacred, the formerly impossible.

On one remarkable Saturday afternoon in Minneapolis two years ago “we the people” summoned courage to match our compassion and used our collective power to place our faith boldly on the side of a more humane, more loving future. Our Association of Congregations and the world are better for our having done so.  This is what democracy looks like -- and can look like, over and over again. Si, se puede!

Next post: An abundance of possibilities


  1. I certainly appreciate this post. This year I didn't go to GA - didn't work out with my schedule - but a couple thoughts/questions bubbled up when I read this. They aren't necessarily related. And these aren't as refined as your post :D Just off the cuff. With those disclaimers, here we go.

    There’s about 1-2 percent of Unitarian Universalists who went to GA. How will such a small percentage manage to change congregations’ institutional inertia? There are some congregations that had a substantial number of people go, and I can easily see that group of attendees taking the fire back to and changing their congregations. But how many congregations didn’t send either the right people or enough people to get that congregational inertia to change. From what I’ve seen, Justice GA changed the folks who went. But, aren’t the folks that went most likely the ones who would have been incredibly moved/changed anyways by such a justice event? Did it just change the super small percentage of UUs who are even interested in greater denominationalism/the greater movement outside their congregations, or will it change all of Unitarian Universalism? I certainly can hope for the latter, but I’m not convinced we’ll look back in x years and say that this was a/the turning point.

    I’m also wondering if those who went to Justice GA be inclusive or be a clique? Will those of us who couldn’t go this year hear “remember that time at Justice GA when x, y, or z happened?” I hear you in the post where you’re worried that the Justice GA community will be disempowered, but I’m worried that the reverse might be more likely to happen, especially at future GAs and national gatherings.

    Is social justice the ends or the means? Some UUs out there see social justice as THE reason that they’re a UU. Some people see social justice as the means to which their personal spirituality is deepened. I’m worried that we’ll march towards social justice being the ends of our religion, and, as a result, it becomes the end of our religion.

    If this is a deepening of our democracy, but future ga’s choose democratically to never do something like it again, is it truly disempowerment or the democratic process at it’s finest?

    1. What a great comment. It deserves a thoughtful reply, so I will look after my work day. Gracias!