But Have You Cried Together?

But Have You Cried Together?

Mara Iverson is a young adult from the Unitarian Church of Montpelier, VT who recently participated in UUCSJ and the UUA’s GROW Racial Justice 2017 in New Orleans. Mara is a member of Central Vermont SURJ (Standing Up for Racial Justice) and is the co-chair of the diversity and inclusion working group on the university campus where she works.

“Yeah, but have you cried together? Because we have,” a Thrive participant stressed.

I, a Shift participant, responded, “Well, we teared up at one point. So, I guess we white-people-cried.”

I have spent the weeks since our time in New Orleans this June thinking hard about the importance of the question “but have you cried together.”

For context, Grow Racial Justice is a program intended to “equip UU young adults of color (Thrive) and white UU young adults (Shift) with the skills, spiritual grounding, and community to engage in racial justice work within and beyond our Unitarian Universalist faith.” In the Shift cohort we dove into understanding the culture of white supremacy that is part of us and that we contribute to.

We started by writing a covenant that was meant to guide us and also acknowledge that we would break our promises. And it was intended to give us the means to come back together in love when that happens. The covenant helped us as we considered hard realities about white supremacy culture. We recognized how we strive for perfection and fear mistakes. We thought about how white supremacy culture lets us make excuses.

I want to draw your attention to words I used: considered, recognized, thought. We spent most of our time together thinking. We dwelled in our heads trying to memorize and practice. That, friends, is so white. It is so white to try to memorize our way to perfect understanding. Sure, we have to have information, but injustice is not just about facts and figures. It is about deep feelings

During an activity from the Beloved Conversations curriculum we explored the values that drive us toward our justice-seeking goals and the values that stop us from reaching those goals. We ended up wading into what secretly terrifies and freezes us. Suddenly we realized our racism is bound up in our own weakest places. From that time on we were differently bonded and open. But we had still only scratched the surface.

There was a painful moment just before the program ended when we had to face that even with our best intentions we sometimes still do harm. So we started again. We read our covenant again and recommitted to it. We shared feelings. Some of us cried. Some of us held hands or leaned against each other. Then with hearts laid open we brought our broken voices together to sing Spirit of Life.

I cannot do the work of racial justice with my mind alone. I cannot just watch documentaries or even just call legislators. I have to grieve that I contain and must unlearn white supremacy. I have to show up with vulnerability. I have to let love crack me open so that when I cry it will not be to weaponize my guilt. It will be to create bonds that hold me accountable to people of color and other allies as I teach my spirit to shift.

Shift With Us at Grow Racial Justice

Shift With Us at Grow Racial Justice

by Chris Casuccio

“White supremacy is an overwhelming crisis for humanity, one that is making it impossible for any human to evolve in right relationship with the planet and the species. It has not, and will not, be resolved merely by Black and other non-white people fighting for a change – it must be unlearned, relinquished by those who walk with the privileges of whiteness.”  adrienne maree brown

“We need you defecting from White supremacy and changing the narrative of White supremacy by breaking White silence.” – Alicia Garza

“White people will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this — which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never — the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.” – James Baldwin

At a time when everything feels like it is shifting around us, in rapid, terrifying and unpredictable ways, the words of James Baldwin, attracting new prominence with the powerful film “I Am Not Your Negro”, remind us that these shifts are not new, that the crisis of intersecting injustices we currently confront are the continuation of a long and painful history. As this crisis continues to unfold, and as the threats to our humanity (and most especially to communities of color) become more and more violent, how do we respond? How are we called to act now, in this moment?

Since I am white, I will speak for myself, and to other white folks:

adrienne maree brown and Alicia Garza clearly call upon us to unlearn, relinquish, defect from, change the narrative, and break the silence of White supremacy. As the world shifts, we need to shift along with it, and we are urgently called to shift away from White supremacy culture.

What does that look like?

For a start, we must admit that White supremacy culture is deeply embedded in our society. It insidiously finds its way into our hearts, our minds, our relationships, our institutions, into our very ways of being. So the shifts must start with ourselves, with deep introspection and reflection on our very sense of who we are.

We must make shifts within the institutions that structure our lives and perpetuate harmful imbalances of power, and within the organizations through which we work for change. It is only with honest and critical evaluation of how they operate that we can begin to do this. We must shift the distribution of leadership, power, and resources; shifting resources away from white and wealthy communities towards those from whom oppression has stolen so much. We must shift who and what is centered in racial justice work and in broader movements for social change. To do this, we must make shifts in the very ways in which we think about and carry out racial justice and anti-racist education.

Racial justice education, especially among white folks, has long been hampered by an inability to create spaces in which we can bravely be with and work through the emotional responses that often lead to defensiveness and paralysis: guilt, blame, shame. Once we open space for our emotional reactions, we can also get stuck in a place of endless processing that never leads to meaningful action. We can’t make shifts within ourselves when we’re clinging to our shame. Shifts occur when we are honest, when we name and accept our emotions, when we support one another, when we lovingly challenge one another, and are challenged, to be real, to be accountable, to be compassionate, and to heal from these toxic emotions and behaviors.

This healing can begin to occur when we acknowledge that we are all harmed, to differing extents, by White supremacy, when we acknowledge that our collective liberation is intimately bound together, when we acknowledge that none of us can be free and loving and fully thriving until we dismantle White supremacy.

These are the kinds of questions we’ll explore together as white folks in the Shift cohort at Grow Racial Justice.

“What is Grow Racial Justice?”, you may be asking, “and is there a cohort for people of color?”

Grow Racial Justice is a partnership between the UUA’s Thrive Leadership Program for Youth & Young Adults of Color, the UU College of Social Justice, Standing on the Side of Love and the Center for Ethical Living and Social Justice Renewal. From June 17th-20th, in New Orleans, in the days leading up to UU General Assembly, we’ll gather in two companion programs, Thrive for young adults of color and Shift for white young adults, to explore our racial and ethnic identities, worship, and build transformative relationships. The cohorts will come together to learn community organizing skills from bold, grounded leaders, and to craft a strategic vision for our anti-racism work in the coming year. To get a sense of what we did together last year, click here for reflections from a participant in the Thrive cohort, and here for an article by UUCSJ.


We invite ALL young adults of faith and conscience to join us in this crucial work of shifting and thriving. Click here to register now and join us this summer! The deadline to register is April 1, 2017.

Losing Our Chains

Losing Our Chains

Losing Our Chains has been reposted with permission from Blue Boat. You can find the original posting here.

Aisha Ansano is a candidate for Unitarian Universalist ministry, and serves as a ministerial intern at First Church in BostonMA. Aisha is passionate about food as ministry, singing, and ways of building community.

Aisha participated in this summer’s Thrive Young Adult leadership school for Unitarian Universalistyoung adults of color. – ed.


Altar with ancestor objects in our chapel.

The five days I spent with my Thrive Young Adult cohort were vibrant and life-giving. So many parts of it stand out, moments that were uplifting, and challenging, and heart-breaking. New friends who I knew would be beside me every step of the way as I moved forward in my life. And new practices that I could engage with to deepen my own life. Every morning, a different member of our cohort led us in a short spiritual practice. It was the best way to start the day: all gathered in the chapel, bellies full of breakfast, sharing a sacred moment together before diving deep into our training and sharing.

One morning, Sara gathered us in a circle and told us that she would lead us in the Assata chant. I didn’t know what that meant, but when she recited it to us, I recognized it. “It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love and support one another. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”

I couldn’t remember where I had heard it before. I knew that Assata was Assata Shakur, but I didn’t know anything about her. But I was open to trying something new.

Sara asked us to repeat the chant after her, line by line. We did. She asked us to do it again. We did. Again, and again, and again, and again, louder and louder each time, until the chapel rang out with the sounds of us all shouting at the top of our lungs: “IT IS OUR DUTY TO FIGHT FOR OUR FREEDOM! IT IS OUR DUTY TO WIN! WE MUST LOVE AND SUPPORT ONE ANOTHER! WE HAVE NOTHING TO LOSE BUT OUR CHAINS.” I had goosebumps all over my body, tears gathering in my eyes. I looked around the room at our cohort as we chanted over and over and over again. I wasn’t just saying those words any more. I believed them with every fiber of my being, and believed that the people in that room were going to be flanking me every step of the way to freedom. It was not just my duty to fight for freedom and to win. It was OUR duty, together.

Sara stopped, suddenly, and we all stopped with her. The chapel filled with silence as our echoes faded away. We stood in that silence, looking at one another, soaking up what had just happened. I felt blessed, not in the hashtag-y way, but in the way that made my whole self feel alive and loved.


Aisha shares at Thrive Young Adult.

This was only 15 minutes in the midst of 5 full days, during which I felt blessed again and again. I left Thrive feeling the presence of my cohort alongside me as I began to work on the sermon I was giving that week, entitled “Leaning to Build Community.” As a minister in formation, I had guest preached a lot, but usually shied away from talk about race. As a minister of color in this predominantly white denomination, I struggled with how to talk about race from the pulpit as a way that felt authentic to my life experiences. I wanted to challenge people, but not stir the pot too much—what if people were angered by what I had to say? But after participating in the Assata chant, and after all the other experiences I had at Thrive, I wasn’t scared to speak up.

In my sermon that Sunday, I told the congregation about Thrive, and how formative my experience there had been, how amazing that community had been despite only spending 5 days together. I talked about being at a rally where a Black Boston city councilor claimed her right to be angry in the face of what is happening in the world, her responsibility to be angry, and how striking that was to me. I reminded them so many people, especially people of color, are silenced when it comes to having particular emotions. I told them about how a former coworker had told me he was scared of me, because I showed my anger and frustration about our difficult job, and I told them how self-conscious that made me, to be cast as an angry Black woman who should be feared.

I talked about race in that sermon, and I talked about it personally, not quoting books and articles, but telling them my own experiences. I stood in the pulpit in front of a group of mostly white people and I told them what my life was like as a young woman of color. It was liberating. I don’t think it would have happened without Thrive.

In September, I was invited to guest preach in Kennebunk, ME. I chose the topic of darkness, once that I had given short reflections on before. The last time I had given a homily on darkness, I had touched a bit on the question of how our metaphors of darkness and light reflect and inform our societal ideas about race, using excerpts from a beautiful sermon by Jacqui James, a UU religious educator. I used it again, this time not just to the small group of 20 who had gathered at the service where I had last reflected on darkness. This was to a whole congregation, one I didn’t know, in a place I assumed might be even less diverse than churches in the Boston area (which may or may not actually be true). In the week leading up to my sermon, we learned about the murders of Keith Lamont Scott and Terence Crutcher. My sermon talked about race even more than it previously had.

I spent the days before my drive up to Maine pretty anxious. What was the receiving line going to look like? Were congregants going to be angered by my discussion of implicit bias, and my calling out of the much-used and often well-loved metaphors of dark and light? I was worried that I might actually feel unsafe after giving that sermon.


The women and non binary folks of color at Thrive Young Adult take a selfie!

But through all this anxiety, I never once questioned whether I should give that sermon. My anxieties about people’s reactions never even changed the words I was writing. Despite my very intense stress about what my words might provoke, it honestly never occurred to me that I could just write something else. Because really, I couldn’t. That was the sermon I needed to give.

In the midst of my anxiety, I reached out to my Thrive cohort to let them know how I was feeling. They responded with such love. I carried them with me that morning, envisioning them sitting in the pews and standing next to me in the pulpit

I might have preached a sermon like that one before Thrive. Earlier in the summer, in the wake of the murders of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, I had preached at my home church about my own self-care in the wake of that news. But that was my home church. People I knew, and who I knew would be on my side, were physically present in the room, and I could look them in the eye as I spoke, seeing their encouragement and love radiating outward. In Kennebunk, it was just me. But I felt love and encouragement radiating towards me anyway, from my cohort around the country, and from myself.

Thrive gave me a cohort of new friends who I could talk to about race and racial justice. Beyond that, it gave me more confidence in myself, confidence to trust my own experiences and that they needed to be heard. I have nothing to lose but my chains. Our denomination has nothing to lose but its chains. Thrive gave me the strength to learn to fight for freedom, and people to do it with.

To learn more about GROW Racial Justice and to apply for the June 2017 iteration, visit https://uucsj.org/grow-racial-justice/

Creating Space to Grow Racial Justice

It had happened again. Another black man had been shot dead by police, another life lost to the brutality of racism, another painful reminder of the urgency of the Movement for Black Lives. News of Philando Castile’s death in Minnesota came less than a day after the police shot Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge. They weren’t the last to die; in recent weeks, other men, women, and transgender people of color have been killed just for being themselves – and not just by police. These tragedies, and the long-standing systems of oppression behind them, weigh heavily on all who seek to defy hate.

A few days later, 30 young adults gathered in the sanctuary of the First UU Church of New Orleans for the opening worship of Grow Racial Justice. They sat in a circle around the steady flame of a chalice, and to the rhythm of a beating drum, spoke their intentions in turn: Healing. Courage. Compassion. Humility. Rigor. Accountability. Resistance. Community. Clarity. Love.

For the next five days, Grow Racial Justice offered participants the tools, resources, and relationships to support their racial justice leadership. The UU College of Social Justice and the UUA’s Thrive Program for Youth & Young Adults of Color organized the retreat and training, in in collaboration with two other groups: Standing on the Side of Love, and the Center for Ethical Living and Social Justice Renewal. As the struggle for racial justice lives on in our streets and courtrooms, congregations and communities, it was a timely opportunity for young activists to deepen their faith, lift their spirits, build community, and develop skills for organizing within and beyond Unitarian Universalism.

In two uniquely tailored, parallel programs, young adults of color and white young adults explored their racial and ethnic identities, reflected on the effects of internalized racism, and considered how their own experiences compel them to action. They shared stories, struggles, songs, and practices of resistance and resilience. The two groups then came together to learn skills in anti-racist facilitation and grassroots organizing from long-time movement leaders Aesha Rasheed and Caitlin Breedlove. They left with a shared commitment to lead the work required to advance racial justice in their home communities and within themselves.

Participants echoed one another in reflecting on the value of the program. One young adult of color shared, “My time at Grow helped me form a deep, action-oriented commitment to racial justice. I’ve been inspired to preach sermons that speak the truth about racial (in)justice and my own experiences, to volunteer with my local Black Lives Matter chapter, and to be public with my own actions, thoughts, and struggles in the fight for racial justice. I can do all of this because I know there is a community of support, helping me move forward.”

Grow Racial JusticeAnother participant from the white cohort added, “I believe Grow transformed my work from ‘facebook activism’ into true action. I better understand how organizing for change means matching commitment with a plan for how to do it… If we truly want to show up for the world in the ways our principles commit us to, we need to do white-on-white work to dismantle white supremacy.”

A third, who participated in the Thrive cohort, said, “This was a life-changing experience – physically, mentally, and most important, spiritually. I can’t wait to create movements with these people.”

Shortly after Grow Racial Justice concluded, the UU College of Social Justice brought together 15 teenagers for Activate New Orleans: Racial Justice and the Beloved Community, also hosted by the Center for Ethical Living and Social Justice Renewal. Like the participants in Grow, the youth left this training with new bonds of friendship, a deeper understanding of systemic racism, and a stronger commitment to taking the next steps in their social justice journeys.

Too much hateful rhetoric has filled the airwaves this year. Unrelenting acts of racist aggression continue to distress and dishearten us. Still, the voices of the young leaders who joined us at Grow and Activate Racial Justice offer hope. They remind us that joining together to defy hate through personal transformation and strengthened activism can help us undo racism and foster our collective liberation.

This article initially appeared in the Fall 2016 edition of Rights Now, published by UUSC.

Whiteness and Apocalypse

This post was written by Amelia Diehl and originally posted on Blue Boat.

I am so grateful to have been able to attend the Unitarian Universalist College of Social Justice‘s Grounded and Resilient Organizer’s Workshop Climate Justice Training in Chicago, IL and feel connected again to a community and to a movement. I think I might have learned more about myself and climate change in that weekend at the GROW training than my few years or so of calling myself an environmentalist, and in ways I could never have predicted. The space created for group reflection allowed me to learn a lot about what it means for me to be involved in the movement, and also to forget about myself at times.

Earlier this summer, I interviewed a local climate activist who told me that according to one study, by 2030 we would know if we hit the two degree celsius temperature change, a crucial tipping point. That in fifteen years we would pretty much know how much we were screwed. While these types of doomsday scientific reports circulate regularly and the exact numbers are debatable, somehow hearing it in the context of his personal investment hit me deeper than before. Since that conversation, I’ve felt desperate, frantic and apocalyptic – but also revolutionary, that something big would have to change. I felt a renewed purpose and urgency in my climate work, which until then had felt distanced; I paid attention to news, read Naomi Klein and went to major protests, but didn’t really feel like I could commit as much to the movement as I’d wanted.

About a month later, one of my friends, a woman of color, said she didn’t like the environmental movement. When I asked why, she laughed and said because it’s so white. I agreed, but was frustrated, because even though I was white, I resented the reputation of whiteness in a movement that I know to be more intersectional and that I want to be more explicitly intersectional because it needs to be. I tried to argue that it’s more than protecting trees and water, and that climate change affects us all.

For now, it seems likphoto1[5]e my front-line is my campus. The brand of environmentalism at our campus – a small liberal arts college in the mid-west – is as white as a blizzard. Our environmental club, though popular, mainly goes on week-long backpacking trips during semester breaks, and lacks a divestment movement. The administration touts sustainability efforts just like the next college, but there is an overall lack of discourse around climate change, and especially around justice. People care about it, sure, but most people get too overwhelmed and feel like we couldn’t do anything about it, or that it isn’t relevant, and often get stuck in “save the Earth” thinking.

Looking back at when I started to care about environmentalism and climate change about ten years ago, I recognize that my early investment lacked a critical analysis of power systems. Like many Unitarian Universalists in climate work, I resonate deeply with the seventh principle, the interconnectedness of all things. I often envision our planet in space, and think about all of us sharing this home. In a social justice context, this also means that my liberation is tied up into yours. But I don’t think we – as a movement – are there yet, as someone at the training expressed.

One example, among many: a reasonable critique of vegans and vegetarians, many of whom are white (including me), is that they seem to care more about the health and safety of animals than for other people. Changing consumer choices in the context of capitalism is relatively easy compared to critically looking at how I am implicated in a white supremacist (capitalist, patriarchal) society.

I realized that my values of caring about climate change led me to critically look at systems of power and societal inequalities. In other words, I admit that while I cared about social justice in a very white middle class liberal way, it was climate change that got me to understand the complexity and depth of power systems, and my own privilege. To care about climate justice is to care about anti-racism, feminism, anti-capitalism, anti-injustice and anti-oppression, and to fight for liberation. Climate change is only the latest symptom of these oppressive systems. Of course, it is still a choice to engage in anti-oppressive work, and not all climate work means climate justice, and climate justice does not mean simply adding “justice” to the end of it.

It is important to remember and understand each of these anti-oppression movements have different histories and are not the same. Anti-racist work cannot always be lumped with climate justice work. Yet it is crucial to make the connections between the movements.

One of the most impactful parts of the training came after looking at different definitions of climate justice, and one of our facilitators asked us to reflect on how, or if, our goals dismantle the master’s house, and how, or if, our tactics are accountable to the environmental justice principles. I know that this question needs to be considered continuously throughout any work, and I know that the work being done on my campus is not there yet. After the GROW training, I understand more than ever the urgency to challenge this white, privileged environmentalism and bring in a climate justice framework, and, importantly, I feel more prepared to do so.

I am determined to bring this awareness and analysis back to my campus. We’ll still go backpacking, and I will make sure we talk about the master’s house in the context of climate justice principles. I suspect many a college campus are stuck in white environmentalism, though many have been struggling for divestment from fossil fuels. I also want to start a divestment campaign, though this feels like a lofty goal at this point for where my campus’s values lie.

I know that this awareness is not enough, that there must be action. Yet it is a concrete step forward, and I know I will keep learning. As a participant said, we are responsible for collective learning.

Along with organizing skills, the GROW training gave me a space to truly examine and express my despair over climate change, the deep kind I felt at the beginning of the summer. It is easy to become fixated on the dystopian projections of extinction – of other species and possibly our own – destruction, and loss of the life we are used to, and to focus on climate change as an urgent crisis. Yet the problem with this is that this apocalypse has been real and remains urgent for so many for centuries. It is not about oppression olympics, or a hierarchy of despair, but it is about urgency.

The face of the climate movement may still be very white. Yet the crucial part is making sure front-line communities take the lead, and that those with privilege take the time to critically examine their positionality, and remain accountable to climate justice principles. As a facilitator said, we need to struggle together and resist collapses, and it’s up to us if there’s to be justice on the other side.

Amelia studies Environmental Communication and Arts at Beloit College in Wisconsin. Originally Quaker, she joined her local UU congregation in high school. She’s interested in how art is used in social movements, and in particular writing and photography. In addition to her environmental activism, she leads an interfaith student group organized for incarceration justice.