Saturday, January 4, 2014

UU Social Activism: A Proposal For Your Consideration …

The Internet has revolutionized our world, including how many people work to change it. The process by which social-justice groups make decisions has become radically decentralized. The tools available to activists have gone from printed paper to electronic documents, from finding physical meeting space to setting up an online forum. The scope of e-communication has allowed us to truly "think globally and act locally." And the speed at which discussion and action takes place has accelerated to the speed at which one can type and click a mouse.

Now compare that to what we Unitarian Universalists have set up. A five-person Commission on Social Witness screens who-knows-how-many proposals down to ten or less. These are then brought to the congregations, and they have a couple of months to pick five from that list. Assuming that twenty-five percent or more of UUA congregations submit their choices, these are tallied and the results presented to that year’s General Assembly to pick one for congregations to study and act upon over the course of three years – assuming, of course, that every congregation has someone with the knowledge and passion to take the lead on that. Then reports, a draft statement of conscience, a poll of congregations on the draft statement, a revision based on comments, a two-thirds vote at the next General Assembly, and finally after four or more years, the UUA makes an official statement on the issue.

Meanwhile … How many other issues have gone by the wayside because they didn’t "make the cut" to become an official Congregational Study/Action Issue past the CSW, the first congregational poll, or the General Assembly? How many CSAIs died with a whimper because there weren’t "enough" congregations with people willing and able to take part in the process for that issue? And how many issues were given a boost because the President of the UUA used their “point of privilege” to call on people to take a stand?

Seriously, I have to wonder … Imagine if this process had been in place in the early 1970’s, given how many congregations resisted even talking about homosexuality, and given that the UUA’s President at the time responded to the proposal for an Office of Gay Concerns by asking: "What’s next, bestiality?" Would we have taken such a leadership role on GLBT issues, especially marriage equality, if this process had been in place back then?

I admit that, whatever the arguments in favor of this process, I’ve yet to hear them. But aside from the fact that it promotes competition over cooperation, perpetuates a scarcity mentality, and ultimately relies more on top-down rather than bottom-up decision-making and influence, this process is years if not decades behind how the vast majority of social-justice activists do things today. And if we are to be "the religion for our time," if we are to catch up with and even take the lead with this new approach, then we need a new "open source" method of witnessing to important issues that is more effective, inclusive and responsive.

Borrowing from both biblical and technical terminology, let me propose a "UU Cloud of Witnesses," or UU-CloWt for short. The hub for this could be a wiki site, providing a platform for people to present and organize on various issues. Each issue would have a portal under which people could find various pages, from an introductory summary of facts, to links for more information and resources, a forum for people to exchange ideas and opinions, a calendar for events (both real-time and online), and a proposed resolution with a form for individuals and congregations to record their endorsement. Such a UU-CloWt wiki site would provide a way for individuals and groups to connect and cooperate from the grassroots up – and, more importantly, to link up with activists outside UU circles and affect change both quickly and effectively.

And what of the current system? Well, what of it? If people still want to pursue that process, they are welcome to do so. But there’s also the chance that both congregations and individual activists decide otherwise, perhaps even declining to participate in the CSAI polling system, and gauging interest by activity on this open-source platform. And if that shift were to happen, I guess the UUA’s leadership and bureaucracy will have to do some serious thinking.


  1. I think this could be wonderful! When I was still attending a bricks-and-mortar UU fellowship, another social justice worker explained the CSAI process and it sounded like something that the little fellowship could never have managed. In many ways, I think what you suggest is far more egalitarian and welcoming

  2. I am going to say this with some humor and some seriousness: we should propose this idea as a CSAI... (A few years back when they shifted from a two year CSAI to a three year CSAI process (and I would point out that the two year process goes way way back), there was also a suggestion to eliminate the immediate witness type that could be proposed at GA. These are statements that get proposed by a delegate and voted on every year at General Assembly.... there was a concern that they were too quick - little thought went into them, they also had little power, and only the delegates there often heard about them... on the other side of it - they have all the power of immediacy that you describe above. And, I was very much opposed to eliminating Immediate Action for all the problems - it allows immediate concerns to be addressed. I would suggest that the cloud idea is a great one for the Immediate Witness type action - the CSAIs are intended to be ones that are supposed to require greater commitment and wider action on a long-term basis - not just whatever the most pressing issue is at any moment) This is going to come up as Anonymous - but I am Heather Cleland-Host

    1. Heather, thanks for your comment. And permit me to answer "Jeopardy-style" in the form of a question: Why do activists need the CSAI process to approve an alternative to the CSAI process?? As I said before, prophetic witness has never required hierarchical sanction before, so why start? Assuming the idea proposed here takes off, it could either run parallel to CSAI and Actions of Immediate Witness, or it could render them obsolete -- but it doesn't need their sanction, only committed people willing to get it off the ground and keep it going.

    2. As I said - it was half in humor and half in seriousness. The biggest reason is that it bypasses needing to make the bureaucracy bring the issue to the assembly. If it gets proposed by a congregation - it gets heard, even if it is not selected. I was really taking it from a standpoint of you seriously wanting the UUA to take it up. (You could also suggest it to the President - Sinkford at least used to actually answer parishioner emails, don't know about Morales; suggest it directly to the Commission etc - of course they would get tied up in the restrictions on them under the Bylaws... but who knows?)

      As to whether or not anyone would stop someone? Of course, anyone can do anything they want. You for instance could go start a cloud project yourself. No one is going to stop you. And, frankly, it is already out there. People are out there speaking out. However, you would not be speaking for the UU association of congregations. You would be speaking for you. Which is cool if that is your objective.

      If you are talking about uniting UUs together to create one voice of action on any issue - you do kind of have to engage in some kind of democratic process and have some conversation about it. Hence the CSAIs and Immediate Witness stuff... Why is "one voice of action" important? Because when a group stand together, it has greater chance of being something that brings change and progress. It's the little matter of making a difference. (which I agree is a problem with the CSAIs and all of it - how do we REALLY make a difference)?

      My opinion is that Congregational Actions are really cool because you act on something that your congregation is passionate about... but when something requires some serious global reflection and ethical thinking - for instance what if we were to really really have a conversation about patenting human DNA... CSAIs have their place. I think a Cloud would supplement that... and I think that for immediate witness actions... it would be really neat to see those make it outside the doors of General Assembly... most people don't even know about them. I think a Cloud would do that.... (PS: there are a lot of UU Facebook pages and list servs that have attempted to do similar non-endorsed stuff - and I think they have done great in terms of mutual support... I have only limited experience with those though. I was possibly reading more into what you were suggesting - I thought maybe you were thinking of something more powerful?) - Heather

    3. Heather -- As I said before, if such a platform were started, the question remains whether the result would be two parallel systems, or one system supplanting another.

      I've heard constantly about us becoming "a religion for our time" that embraces technology. So why don't we use those same technologies to improve the level of communication necessary to foster democratic decision-making? A growing number of organizations do so, yet the UUA's leadership seems to resist.

      In order for such a platform to get off the ground, it would take more than one person (and even so, that person would need a certain level of technical know-how). At least one individual I know has messaged others about networking to try to start something like this. So let's see how they respond, and what happens from there ...

  3. Desmond - the UUA Congregational Study/Action Issue process and the Action of Immediate Witness are both part of the UUA Bylaws:

    If one wanted to change the CSAI or AIW process, it would be handled as a bylaws revision.

    In 2006, the UUA General Assembly delegates representing congregations voted to change the 2 year CSAI process to a 4 year process:

    The minutes for this GA also talk about other changes to the CSAI process and how congregational inputs to CSAIs are submitted.

    The reasoning behind moving from a 2 year cycle to a 4 year cycle was to allow for greater depth in the congregational studying of the CSAIs.

    Proposed CSAIs come from UUA member congregation, district, and sponsored organization (as designated by the Board of Trustees). This part of the process appears to be very grass-roots and provides for local congregational inputs.

    The UUA Commission on Social Witness has 5 members who sift through the proposed CSAIs and pick 10 for consideration by UUA congregations through the annual congregational poll every February (this is also the poll where your congregation gives the official membership numbers that determine how many GA delegates each congregation gets).

    The CSW has three members who are elected by GA delegates (another source of congregational input). and two members who are selected by the UUA Board (and the UUA Board is also elected by the GA delegates).

    During the 2nd year of the 4 year process, the UUA congregations provide feedback on the first year's work on the CSAI in congregations.

    During the 3nd year of the 4 year process, the UUA congregations provide feedback on the second year's work on the CSAI in congregations. The draft statement of conscience is put online for UUA congregations to comment on this. The CSW uses these grass-roots inputs to revise the draft SOC.

    At the 4th year in the cycle, the GA delegates representing congregations vote on the SOC. It requires a two-thirds vote of all delegates to be approved. There is an option for a 5th year if needed.

    A recent change allows for off-site GA delegate voting -- a useful option for congregations who cannot afford to send delegates.

    I would talk to the members of your congregation who attend GA regularly and who participate in the business meeting plenary sessions.

    If you are interested in reforming the current process or creating a parallel social justice process, there is one topic that someone will bring up and you should be ready for it.

    The current CSAI and AIW systems -- even with their flaws -- are connected to our congregational polity through the opportunities for congregational voices to speak throughout the process and congregational delegates speaking and voting at GA. How would a revised social justice process include congregational inputs and stay connected to our polity?

    1. Steve, I've talked to a number of people from my congregation who have attended GAs over the years, and all of them have expressed misgivings over the changes in both the AIW and CSAI process. From what they've told me, it seems that these processes were more about responding to a perception of "chaos" at GA more than the "pursuing issues in depth" reasoning you've put forward.

      But whatever the reason, the whole process seems based on pre-Internet expectations of communication and social change. Meanwhile, other organizations devoted to progressive change have been able to harness Internet platforms and technology to address various issues with greater depth, breadth and speed than ever before. Look at the growing movement to address the increase in wealth inequality, which is now inspiring new ideas from progressive candidates and activists -- all fueled by use of various cybermedia from email blasts to animated videos.

      Using such technologies would actually increase the ability of congregations to communicate directly with one another (versus a more "vertical" system of relying on the CSW or other hierarchical structures) as well as share informational resources and connections with other activists. And while the UUA Bylaws address how Association-level resolutions are passed, there's also nothing to prevent individual congregations from ratifying resolutions on their own.

      And if they do ... well, imagine an increasing number of UU congregations endorsing a particular resolution via something like this, without waiting for a GA. While it may not be the same as an "official" UUA resolution, it can still have considerable impact in the wider world.

      Again, let's assume this parallel system is created and sustained, and attracts the attention and support of UU congregations. That would leave two options for the UUA: maintain the present CSAI and AIW protocols in tandem with this alternative, or shift to embrace and include the alternative. The only way we'll know which happens is if the alternative is at least tried. But time and again, whenever new ideas are put forward, I've heard people respond with: "But that's not the way the UUA does things." And that in turn raises the question: Why keep assuming that the current way the UUA does things is the only way to do things?

  4. Morn'n Desmond. I like your proposal, but at some point there needs to be a raising up of specific issues, so folks who don't want to review every issue can survey and study the top 5 or 20 issues.

    If there isn't a process to raise up an issue, then we're saying that every issue matters the same and doesn't matter. (Ex. Inequality and Involuntary Male Circumcision should not currently be on the same level of concerns.)

  5. Nick, the suggested platform would provide the means for individuals to propose issues for discussion, and from there to help mobilize for action, much as similar platforms do so for other activists.

    Let's say someone proposes an issue that only attracts five people, with others raising important questions both about the relative importance of the issue and the suggested course(s) of action Now contrast that with an issue attracting scores of people, then whole congregations, joining with outside groups to engage in concerted action.

    The question I'd raise is whether we need a lengthy process regulated by a handful of people, or a means that provides effective and timely communication by a broad range of passionate and experienced grassroots activists.

    1. So Desmond, what do I get on this site? A chronological list of proposed issues? An alphabetical list of proposed issues? One that has had the most people join the issue? What if they join the issue but don't actually do anything, does that count?

      I'm asking these questions because how the site is designed some issues will be prioritized in some way, either by the sponsor naming the item with an A word as the first word, suggesting something frequently so it occurs nearer to the top of a chronological list, etc.

      I'm pushing this since in some way shape or form these rules will affect how issues develop and get around.

  6. Nick - Wiki sites can organize information in various ways. Typically they have search functions, so you can type in a keyword and find an issue portal. That portal could show how much and what kind of activity has gone on.

    The wiki site for constructed languages also has a function where you could bring up lists of the most frequently updated pages, most recently updated pages, pages updated by the most individuals, et cetera. I'm sure a similar function could be employed here, if set up by someone savvy enough.

    1. Desmond, I get how those things can be organized.

      My point was by choosing how it is organized you are explicitly making choices on how things are being valued, given that you're criticizing the UUA's process for thoughtfully making decisions. (Which I agree, needs to be faster.) I'd like to hear your thoughts on how to organize a site to be fair, not to be gamed, and encourage thoughtful discussion.

      Developing good user contributed content sites isn't easy, as they're gamed quickly in ways their creators weren't intending. Look at the removal of comments at Popular Science's website, the rough YouTube transition to a Google+ commenting system, and many newspaper websites.

      Even on wikipedia, one of the currently most edited articles is Miss Universe 2008, but most of its edits are a result of vandalism and the reversions there.

      I'll make this more specific to you. Why do you moderate comments? (I'm sure you have a good reason.) I'll take a guess and say that it may be related to folks such as UUAvenger, etc.

      What I'm getting down to, is it is easy to say "Make a website!" it is hard to get into the nitty grity of making it work well, especially when it is user driven.

  7. Nick, it sounds like you want a committee of people to decide for everyone else which topics get priority and why. Which is part of the question about the current system, with a five-person Commission making the initial choices and drafting statements.

    Wiki sites are what are technically called "relational databases." They're not like printed books where you have to organize them in a linear fashion. That IMHO is a big part of the problem with the current system -- it's stuck in that mode of thinking, rather than seeing a more fluid, multifaceted and user-driven approach.

    Wiki sites also have administrators and/or editors to oversee content input, deal with vandalism, and guide the people who start their own pages or portals. But they don't decide which pages/portals "get priority"; they leave that to the users, and guide the process more gently. Call it "free marketplace of ideas" or "grassroots democracy in action" -- it's a process that's been working on the 'Net for years, especially wiki sites that are managed by small groups of people.