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Report examines racism, youth at 2005 General Assembly

Commission offers timeline and recommendations after tense interactions at UUA annual meeting in Fort Worth, Texas.
By Tom Stites And Christopher L. Walton
2.6.06

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After conducting more than 80 interviews to probe events distressing to Unitarian Universalist youth of color and others during the 2005 General Assembly, a special review commission has made public an interim report and preliminary recommendations. The commission is seeking feedback to the report through February 28.

The centerpiece of the 17-page report, presented to the January meeting of the board of trustees of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, is an exhaustive timeline of events at the denomination’s annual meeting in Fort Worth, Texas. The interim report also offers “The Elevator Story,” an account of an emotionally charged incident on the last night of GA viewed from two very different perspectives [see link to "One event, two perspectives" in sidebar], and nine preliminary recommendations.

Separately, General Assembly planners said they are working on ways to make the 2006 gathering more hospitable for the youth.

The timeline reports “miscommunications and misunderstandings” at a Leadership Development Conference in Dallas for youth of color the week preceding the General Assembly; a failure to reserve hotels for youth near the convention center; incidents in which GA participants mistook UU youth of color for hotel staff and others in which hotel staff ignored the needs of youth of color; a conflicted GA workshop on transracial adoption; harassment by Fort Worth police; and a confrontation between three youth of color and a white UU minister at the assembly’s closing ceremony, leading to cancellation of an intergenerational dance scheduled later than night.

“What we have learned is that none of these events happened in a vacuum,” the commission wrote.

Before the commission presented its report, competing narratives about tensions at the June 2005 General Assembly had circulated by email and on websites, but most delegates to GA returned home unaware of the conflicts. The board first heard from a group of young people about allegations of racially insensitive behavior the day after the assembly adjourned.

In response in early July, the board published a letter expressing “deep sadness and regret that these incidents took place.” News reports--including UU World’s General Assembly coverage and a Religion News Service article--quoted the board’s letter and mentioned a heated exchange between a white UU minister and several youth of color outside the plenary hall during the assembly’s closing ceremony.

The review commission, charged with “reviewing the trajectory of events” at the 2005 assembly and identifying “learnings about the structures of racism and ageism both within and outside our faith community,” was appointed by the Rev. William G. Sinkford, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, and Gini Courter, the association’s moderator. It promised a final report at the board’s next meeting, in April.

The interim report says the three youth involved in the dispute at the closing ceremony “were not visibly wearing nametags.” The first of the report’s nine preliminary recommendations is that “all General Assembly participants be asked to wear and display nametags at General Assembly events, regardless of identity and (assumed) status.”

Janiece Sneegas, the UUA’s director of General Assembly and conference services, said the board-appointed General Assembly Planning Committee has adopted this suggestion for the 2006 assembly, which will be held June 21 through 25 in St. Louis. Another step, she said, is that local UU ministers will meet with the St. Louis police to alert them about who they should expect to see when General Assembly gathers and the values that UUs care about.

Other recommendations: Publish guidelines to help GA participants and youth seek help when a problem arises; provide more chaplains for youth; highlight “successful youth activism” in UU history; urge participants to see each other as “members of a religious community”; encourage program planners to consult with others about “potentially stressful events”; show sensitivity to the time and energy commitments of youth leaders and help youth set limits; and involve youth in all levels of General Assembly programming.

“Youth of color themselves are still confused about the roles and groups they’re part of,” Rachel Davis, a youth member of the review commission, told the January meeting of the board, where she and another member, the Rev. José Ballester, presented the interim report.

In a followup email to uuworld.org, Davis explained: “In doing antiracism work, youth of color are often forced into painful situations in order to teach others about oppression. Their feelings, comfort, and sense of belonging are considered expendable. While white youth have the distinct title ‘ally’ that can be worked for and hopefully used responsibly, youth of color are always ‘youth of color’--a vaguely defined title that is rarely associated with tangible forward motion. Youth of color caucuses often spend most of their time talking about white people, or their relation to whiteness, and healthy identity development is dangerously lacking.”

The report’s timeline also explores decades of adult engagement with UU youth and finds gaps that troubled Ballester, minister of the First Unitarian Church of Houston and an at-large trustee on the board. “One learning that keeps coming up,” he said, “is if our goal is youth empowerment, but our method is adult abandonment, the result is entitlement.”

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