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April 30, 2017

On the Actions of UUMA Executive Director Don Southworth

We, the members of the Unitarian Universalist Allies for Racial Equity Steering Committee, have been closely following the communication that has transpired since The Rev. Don Southworth’s letter to the UUA Board of Trustees on Sunday, April 16. The mission of Allies for Racial Equity is to confront racism in ways that are accountable to communities of color, to understand whiteness and privilege, and to unlearn and challenge white supremacy. Acting on this mission, we are compelled to challenge the white supremacy woven throughout Rev. Southworth’s Easter letter to the UUA Board, and in subsequent comments and posts he has made in the public space of Facebook.

Rev. Southworth’s public letters and comments have created deep hurt and harm to the People of Color and Indigenous (PoCI) communities among Unitarian Universalists, as well as to the reputation of the UUMA and the perceptions of our professional ministry. Over the last two weeks, we have heard from numerous ARE members, white allies, and more than a few People of Color about their outrage, their embarrassment, and their deep hurt over these events; that someone in such a powerful position could repeatedly make offensive and racist statements with impunity. Many are clergy. It is difficult to see how Rev. Southworth will be able to repair the damage as more time goes by with no public acknowledgment of the harm he has caused.

For Rev. Southworth’s benefit and for those who may be wondering in what ways his letter, postings, comments, and subsequent actions (or lack thereof) were hurtful and steeped in white supremacy culture, we offer a few observations, though they are by no means exhaustive:

Throughout his letter to the UUA Board of Trustees, Rev. Southworth inserted himself (a white, cisgender, male in a position of power and influence) and his views during a time of emotional upheaval in our faith. He centered his power and privilege in these social locations at a time when UU people of color have expressed the challenges they experience in having their voices heard, and at a time when people who are white and committed to effective allied behavior are working to center voices of color in our movement.

At a time when the UUA Board of Trustees is already engaged in managing several difficult situations regarding hiring practices in our association, and focused on bringing stability to the organization after the resignation of the UUA President, Rev. Southworth chose to put forward that he is “feeling angry and disillusioned by the actions of the UUA board over several years culminating in the last few weeks.” Was it truly necessary for Rev. Southworth to center his voice and feelings at this time? Why not a year ago or two years ago? Doing so now centers his white voice of power on two key issues addressed by the Board of Trustees just this year, both issues involving race: Christina Rivera’s blog post about her experience in the hiring process, and the funding of BLUU. Clearly these are not issues that have been evolving concerns for him “over several years.” This is a form of  “Channel Changing” behavior that persists in white supremacist systems … focusing the attention away from the real issues that need attention.

It was troubling to see so much misleading content coupled with such an accusatory and dictatorial tone in Rev. Southworth’s letter to the UUA Board. His accusations that the Board of Trustees acted too hastily in approving the funding for BLUU, and that there was a conflict of interest with Rev. Rob Eller-Isaacs putting forward the motion, was based on inaccurate assumptions and neglected to honor the depth of preparation our Trustees engage in prior to the start of a meeting. Further, by not conducting a thorough fact-checking prior to sending his letter, Rev. Southworth has introduced doubt and confusion among members of our congregations.

The lack of clarity in Rev. Southworth’s initial letter as to whether this represented the position of the UUMA, or if these were solely his own views, or if this also reflected the general sentiments of UUMA leadership, was glaring and seemed surprisingly irresponsible. Clearly Rev. Southworth’s position provided him with the access on which his observations and criticisms were based; it is not possible to separate Rev. Southworth’s position and power from his words when speaking on matters that are relevant to his position. As the Executive Director of the UUMA, Rev. Southworth’s words and actions reflected poorly on the professionals he represents. 

Rev. Southworth acknowledges his social location, and his position of power, and then uses them to center his voice, another hallmark of unexamined white privilege. Much of his letter revealed his white privilege and encouraged the perpetuation of white supremacist systems disguised in declarations of policy violations and conflicts of interest under the guise of “speaking his truth.” Many of our members also expressed their concerns that, while leveling blatant criticisms of Christina Rivera’s actions, there was no mention of violations perpetrated by Rev. Andy Burnette. Rev. Southworth is critical of Ms. Rivera for taking the risk as a person of color to express her concerns and perceptions about UUA hiring practices, thereby moving her voice to the margins and, again, centering his own voice. 

Rev. Southworth’s criticism of the funding of BLUU is masked in concerns that we will not be able or willing to meet this commitment, and will repeat the sins of our past. He states no basis for this except the inference that the Board’s endorsement of the White Supremacy Teach-In and the funding of BLUU will somehow discourage gifts to the UUA. Is this based on an assumption that only racist, rich, white people support our faith? We suggest that these actions actually have great potential to increase funding to the UUA, as people committed to our vision of an anti-racist, anti-oppressive faith begin to see true progress toward this vision.

Rev. Southworth’s letter to the UUA Board was soon followed by a Facebook post quoting Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi:

[POST: My first two religious teachers were Dr. King and Mahatma Gandhi. Two small books of their words have challenged me, strengthened me and comforted me over the 35+ years I have owned them. This morning two of their quotes have resonated most deeply.

Gandhi—"When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they can seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall. Think of it—always." 

Is Rev. Southworth suggesting those who criticize him are equivalent to tyrants and murderers, or that he has a greater handle on the Truth?

King—“There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.” 

Is Rev. Southworth suggesting that his risks as a white, cisgender male in an authority position are equivalent or greater than the risks taken by people of color/indigenous who have chosen this faith, or that his conscience is of greater authority than theirs?]

Having no stated context for this post, it was assumed to be relevant to the push-back he’d received for his letter. It was interpreted by many that Rev. Southworth sees himself as a victim: a martyr for "the cause,” rather than being guided by the words of these human rights leaders in the context of supporting the voices of PoCI. 

Despite considerable outrage, Rev. Southworth has neither publicly acknowledged, nor apologized for having acted poorly. In fact, he later posted that he would not respond directly to Facebook posts and would only communicate privately via e-mail—a move designed to control the conversation and avoid accountability for his public words. This is inexcusable.

All together, this messaging demonstrates either a profound ignorance of power, or a willful disregard of the impact of these actions. Neither is desirable for those with power and authority. From our conversations with leaders of DRUUMM, BLUU, and many members of ARE, it has become clear to us that great hurt has been caused and harm has been done to the reputation of the professional clergy in our movement, breaking covenant, as a result of his initial letter and subsequent FB posts.

Some of us sign this statement with some degree of professional risk. We recognize that membership in the UUMA is not required, but it is certainly strongly advised. It is also the primary formal mechanism for collegial support. Quitting in protest could have serious consequences. Speaking out could also have serious consequences. Even talking to colleagues in a certain way about this situation might be regarded as a breach of covenant, again, yielding serious consequences. This creates a situation where anti-racist voices are, by coercion, forced into silence. Similarly, lay leadership run the risk of alienating clergy with whom they work, and jeopardizing shared ministry.

Though we understand that signing this letter may carry potential risks, such risks cannot compare to those already taken by Christina Rivera, Aisha Hauser, and others in calling our faith to account.

Unitarian Universalism is at a pivotal moment. From the White Entitlement Controversy of the 1969 General Assembly in Boston, to the Journey Toward Wholeness resolution of the Calgary General Assembly in 1992, calling ours to be an anti-racist, anti-oppressive, multicultural association, this current call to eradicate white supremacy in our organizations, our culture, and ourselves has been 50 years in the making. This requires leadership from those who already have a sophisticated enough power-analysis to understand the broad-reaching impact of their actions, who consistently demonstrate anti-racist and counter oppressive practices, and who put accountability first. It also demands that those who impede hard-won progress must step aside.

While we understand that the UUMA has begun a process for reconciliation, and we hope for the best in that endeavor, we have grave concerns that it will not be enough. Too much damage has already been done, and too many UUMA members no longer trust their leadership.

With all that has transpired, it is difficult for us to see how Rev. Southworth can continue to be effective in his role as Executive Director of the UUMA going forward. We hope that the process of reconciliation outlined by the UUMA Board of Trustees will be a good start and that Rev. Southworth may own the depth of pain that he has caused.  We are hopeful he will enter into a process of reconciliation and right relationship with DRUUMM, BLUU, and the UUA Board of Trustees, in addition to the UUMA Board, staff, and membership with hope that he enters this process with humility, grace, and contrition, seeking to grow in his analysis of white privilege, to develop his understanding of how his position of power in our movement has been used to cause harm, and that he more fully grasp the system of white supremacy in which he is immersed within the UUMA and the UUA, that provided the access for the harm he generated.

We are hopeful that the UUMA Board of Trustees and the Staff of UUMA will encourage members of the UUMA to attend the Pre-GA Racial Justice Training “Resist and Rejoice”, and encourage them to bring such trainings to their clusters and chapters.

In our shared faith...

The UU Allies for Racial Equity Steering Committee:

Ken Wagner, President

Rev. Jan Taddeo, Past President

Rev. Donna Renfro, Secretary

Lori Stone Sirtosky, Treasurer

Rev. Chris Jimmerson, At-Large

Rev. Elizabeth Carrier-Ladd, At-Large

Carolina Krawarik-Graham, At-Large

Rev. Karen Quinlan, At-Large

Carrie Stewart, At-Large

We are building an anti-racist movement of white Unitarian Universalists to dismantle white supremacy in ourselves, our congregations, and communities.

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