Systemic Change: Congregation-Based Community Organizing

“Being in a diverse community is essential to making broad-based change in the United States. To enjoy the privilege and responsibility of being in diverse community, people are called to recognize that we share both a common humanity and particular social identities, which accord power in unbalanced ways. Bridging this power divide is at the heart of healing divisions …”
~ Spirit in Action: Facilitating Circles of Change Curriculum Guide, 2005

Many of our congregations belong to congregation-based community organizations (CBCOs), also called faith-based, broad-based, or sometimes institution-based organizations. These CBCOs seek to establish interfaith, cross-class, multiethnic and multiracial grassroots organizations in order to increase community, build a more powerful civil society, and make civic, regional, and statewide changes for justice.

Congregation-based community organizing offers a means to be part of the restorative work to which people of faith are called. It also deepens and expands the possibility for us to be in right relationship with people outside our own congregations — to form, through citizen politics, a covenant that makes the many one and heals the us-versus-them polarization of people.

A CBCO Congregational Story

First Unitarian Church of Oakland Partners with the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights

The First Unitarian Church of Oakland has begun exploring a new and dynamic model of social justice ministry by partnering with the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. Working together with members of the community, their partnership seeks to address pressing local concerns, including high rates of teen incarceration, increasing urban violence and the need for green jobs that support low income families and people of color. The growing success of this partnership results from strong congregational leadership at First Unitarian, which sought support from the whole congregation, not simply a few members. By gaining a church-wide commitment to the Ella Baker Center and its work, First Unitarian has emerged as a leading voice for justice in Oakland.

Read the complete story and see the Action Steps for Forming a Congregational Community Partnership here.

Check with your congregation to find out if they are involved with a CBCO or consult this list.


Over the last several decades, the UUAUUSC, and many of our individual congregations have explored what it means for us to act in ways that are anti-oppressive, support multicultural competence, and are accountable to historically marginalized people.

Accountability means a willingness to be held responsible for one’s behavior and commitments. It’s a critically important concept, especially when relatively privileged people are working with people and groups representing more marginalized communities. In an accountable relationship, we take on a commitment to listen with deep care to the stories told by those struggling against oppression, and we monitor our own actions and tendencies so that we follow their leadership rather than impose our own solutions.

In your journal, take some time to reflect on and respond to these questions:

  • Consider organizations in your own community that are composed of people directly impacted by the injustice they address (e.g., an immigration justice group comprised largely of immigrants or a prison-rights group that is led by current or former prisoners). What might it mean for you to work with this group in a position of accountability?
  • Are there things that make you uncomfortable or hesitant about taking on
  • such a role? Things that make you feel eager or excited? What are the possibilities you can imagine in such work and in such a relationship?
  • If your congregation engages in service work (as in a soup kitchen or shelter) or advocacy (as for better immigration laws or prison reform), how would you describe the relationships you’ve observed with marginalized people?

Roberta Ray is a long-time justice activist and a member of University Unitarian Church in Seattle, which has become a member congregation of a CBCO. In this video, she reflects on the challenges that sometimes people of privilege face as we strive to become effective, respectful allies.

Take A Break!

Listen to musician and social activist Michael Franti sing about the way that our belief in one another is a way forward to heal our world.


Engaging in the work of justice at the same time that we’re trying to cross boundaries of race, class, privilege, and power can be daunting – but also hugely rewarding! Remember the basic notion of accountability as you move into unfamiliar territory:

  • Support communities by responding to the needs they express as you are able
  • Listen to, invite direction from, and remain accountable to those directly impacted by injustice
  • Remember that being a good ally often means stepping back
  • Listen, listen, listen!

Keep in mind these elements from the UUA’s Social Justice Empowerment Program Handbook (PDF):

  • Accountability requires partnership with and taking leadership from the communities most affected by the issue being worked on.
  • When considering a particular project, find out what is already happening in the community and talk to the individuals and group(s) most affected before taking action. Be conscious of the safety of those most at risk.
  • Be willing to take a supporting role on issues that do not directly affect us.
  • Receive leadership from affected groups.
  • Be conscious of how much “space” we take up. Are we listening to or dominating the conversation? Are we showing respect for the work others have been doing, or barraging them with our solutions? Are we believing their stories and perspectives, or asking critical questions to make them prove themselves?
  • Partner with organizations recognized as legitimate representatives of the community we are working with, not self-appointed groups.
  • Foster awareness of your own and the congregation’s power, privilege, and history both as complicit with the status quo and as resisters and transformative agents.
  • Structure meetings and events in a manner that is inclusive and accessible to many different people, including those with special needs.

Get information on becoming a good ally.

Get information on the UUA’s JUUST Change Anti-Oppression Consultancy.

 Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.
~ Pema Chodron, The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times

Print Friendly, PDF & Email