“Dismantling a social structure, even reducing it to rubble, does not obliterate its effects. Nor do diversity policies. Direct institutional discrimination produces predictable effects - a variety of social defects, deficits, disabilities and disadvantages that can be manipulated indirectly to conserve and preserve historic oppression. This indirect connection between past and continuing discrimination is easily established by selecting a variable other than race that remains casually and institutionally linked to racism.”
Jones, William R. "Toward a New Paradigm for Uncovering Neo-Racism." Soul Work; Anti-racist Theologies in Dialogue.
Dr. William R. Jones passed way on Friday, July 13, 2012.
I first met Bill Jones in the early1990‘s when he was conducting training for the UUA's Racial and Cultural Diversity Task Force. He presented oppression as something complex and insidious, easily disguised and self perpetuating.
At that time, I was a couple years out of college. In addition to my volunteer work with the UUA, I was consulting with many Fortune 500 companies, custom designing and implementing training programs to make management practices more inclusive and supportive of historically marginalized groups.
Dr. Jones’ teachings were both sobering and frustrating.
I feared that, while my work might make the workplace more tolerable for some, it was likely to have little or no institutional impact. I sought out Dr. Jones after the training in hopes that he would sooth my mini crisis of career and faith.
But, Bill Jones was not one to ease concerns or sooth nerves. He did point out, however, that there might be more value in what I could LEARN doing consulting, than what I could teach.
From that day forward, even though my business card said “Principal Consultant”, my mindset said “Student”. I set out to learn everything I could about oppression and how it operated in some of the most powerful corporate institutions in the country.
Eight years later, I was appointed by the UUA Board to fill the At-Large Trustee vacancy created when Dr. Jones left prior to the end of his term.
I was subsequently elected by the General Assembly delegates, and served two full terms as an At-Large Trustee. However, I never lost the sense that I was in some way still sitting in Bill Jones’ “seat” on the Board. Using what I had learned about oppression in institutions, I asked tough questions and pressed the Board to continue on its journey to provide counter oppressive leadership and stewardship. As Chair of the Board's Anti-racism Anti-oppression Multiculturalism Assessment and Monitoring Team, I developed process observation tools and systems theory training for the Board. And, I never forgot that my most valuable role, even as a leader, was as "student".
William R. Jones was born in the summer of 1933 in Louisville, Kentucky. General Assembly 2013 will be held in Louisville, Kentucky. Eighty years after his birth, we will hear the name of Reverend Dr. William R. Jones read at the Service of the Living Tradition in the city where he was born.
Most folks agree that Justice GA was a resounding success. I heard from more than one veteran GA attendee that this was the best GA they had been to. They reported that this GA seemed more focused and purposeful. Workshops and worship were aligned and we were able to go deeper with each experience and event. One attendee stated they felt less overwhelmed than they usually did at the end of GA. Another said they were energized to go home and make a difference in their own community.
I am exhilarated by the sense of possibility that was cultivated by our time together in Phoenix. I am looking forward with great anticipation to hearing how we take back our learnings and experiences from Justice GA.
I am also intrigued by what we learned about creating community, working for justice as religious people, and build capacity for action. These process lessons may be as important as any content we learned.
Among what I take back to my own congregation are these three things:
Our folks on the ground worked for years to nurture relationships and arrange the logistics for our service work. Thought was also given to the communication provided to attendees prior to GA. I poured over the pre GA information and was full of anticipation for events to begin. What type of preparation would better prepare members and friends to show up ready and engaged for each justice, fellowship, and worship event in our congregations? Our experience in Phoenix would suggest we need a longer trajectory than our church year.
Our tolerance and encouragement for folks having their own paths can mean that we struggle to focus collectively on a singular purpose. Yet, when we gather with a clear and focused purpose we feel the strength and power of our love magnified, we experience connection and community, and we are transformed. What spiritual work needs to be done for us to do this better and more often?
Well trained leaders in purple shirts provided spiritual focus, comfort, attention. They were visible. They called us to our best selves. There was a Purple Shirt on every bus. Who are the Purple Shirts in our congregations? Can we ensure that there is a Purple Shirt on every “bus” or at every event to attend to our spirits and call us to our best selves?
Preparation, focused purpose, and visible and attentive leadership helped ensure that Justice GA was religious, effective and meaningful. These are things we can take home to build community, commitment and capacity in our own congregations.
I was born into a multiracial African-American and European-American family. I have wonderful memories of spending time with both sides of my family.
After my father left the Air Force, my family lived in New England towns that were almost exclusively Caucasian and European-American. There were many times when being multiracial created confusing and painful dynamics. Growing up Unitarian Universalist offered a moral and theological basis on which to challenge some of linked oppression around me. However, as a youth, I did not witness examples of successful dialogues about race at church. As a result I did not have the support or skill to leverage my faith as a catalyst for exploring my identity and the dynamics of race and oppression. I suspect this is the case for many of our multiracial youth today who attend primarily white UU churches.
I am a light skinned, multi-racial person. Often persons in the majority culture do not immediately identify me as a person of color. This fact, coupled with my academic, middle class, African-American affect, can create misunderstandings and tension when I interact with some African American communities. This was a painful aspect of my emerging racial identity as a young adult. However, I understood the basis of the resentment and suspicion. It mirrored some of my own internal struggle with the concepts of community, identity, power and privilege.
These experiences set the foundation for my capacity to recognize racial and cultural oppression dynamics in interactions and systems. My college education became a vehicle for me to name the shadows and resolve some of the dissonance within my own experience. I took every class on identity, race and culture that I could find.
Following college, I was taken under the wing of a diverse community of mentors who had come of age in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland and New York City in the late 60’s. Wise, worldly and fiercely loving, they cajoled and confronted me until I was strong enough and clear enough to understand who I was, how I represented both the oppressed and the oppressor, and how to use this insight to both create safety and to challenge others. These lessons were the springboard for my subsequent 15 years as a consultant.
My later preparation for working in early childhood education required courses that address oppression and culture. Two courses directly address culture, inequities and power dynamics in the classroom, with families and in communities. Other human development and education classes embed concepts of multiculturalism and issues of oppression into psychological and cognitive development, family culture and dynamics, learning paradigms, curriculum, and assessment.
I have participated in more ARAOMC (Antiracism, Anti-oppression, Multiculturalism) trainings with the UUA than I can hope to remember. I attended trainings with Bill Jones, Crossroads, the Equity Institute, the People’s Institute and many trainings created and conducted by UUA organizations and consultants such as Beyond Categorical Thinking, trainings for newly elected leaders following GA, and trainings specifically designed for the MFC and UUA focused on sexual orientation, gender identity and ARAOMC. I have lead or co-led many UUA ARAOMC trainings. I served as Chair of the UUA Board of Trustee's ARAOMC Monitoring Team.
I currently attend First Unitarian Church of San Jose, CA. As a congregation, we continue to wrestle with what it means to be a liberal urban church in a community with a high percentage of Spanish speaking immigrants, low-income families and people who are homeless. Our successes, learnings and “stuck” places are part of my daily and weekly backdrop.
For the past dozen years, I have worked in my community at the local school and district levels to advocate for African-American students and their families. This volunteer work has been very rewarding.
I traveled to Hungary and Romania this summer with the youth from my congregation. During my trip, I felt a profound shift in my understanding of the culture of Unitarianism. Unitarian history in Transylvania is immeshed with ethnicity, culture, oppression and resistance in a very different way than the history of Unitarian and Universalism in the United States. As a person of color, this new understanding has opened possibilities for resolving the ways in which the Unitarian Universalist culture of privilege places me as an outsider - even though I am a lifelong UU. I am still processing and integrating this exciting new aspect of my faith journey.
Working to understand and counter oppression is a lifelong journey. It is a rich journey of ups and downs, stumbles, false starts and progress. When I view the journey as a deepening and an unfolding, rather than a journey with a linear path, I am better grounded and more resilient.
I am grateful for the awakening of spirit, compassion and hope that grows in me when I engage with this work. I am also grateful for the companionship of frustration, impatience and anger. They are the enemies of complacency.
With an abiding faith in the power of love to transform and a willingness to be transformed, I continue my journey.
What inspiration and insight have you found on your journey?