1 Reflection on Anti-Oppression By Rev. Ann Schranz, Interim Minister Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Santa Cruz County August 13, 2006 [Note for context: Sister Pearl Ceasar of COPA, Communities Organized for Relational Power in Action, delivered the first part of the sermon. This is the second part.] About six weeks ago, I was in St. Louis, serving as your delegate to the Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly. General Assembly is wonderful, intense, tiring, troubling, and ultimately satisfying. General Assembly is pep rally, circus, crash course, reunion, endurance test, and session at the spiritual gym. I hope you will attend General Assembly next year in Portland, Oregon. One item stands out among all the things I might share about this year’s General Assembly. It is this unusual resolution, passed near the end of the Assembly: "Resolved, that the Delegates to General Assembly are charged to work with their congregations to hold at least one program over the next year to address racism or classism, and to report on that program at next year's General Assembly." This resolution was not on the General Assembly agenda. It was written by a GA congregational delegate, offered as a so-called “responsive resolution” – a particular kind of resolution permitted according to the 2 UUA’s bylaws but not used very often. This resolution was overwhelmingly supported by the delegates from over 600 UU congregations. The resolution was moved and passed in response to several reports concerning events at more than one General Assembly affecting Unitarian Universalist communities of color, especially youth of color.1 The resolution contains a great opportunity wrapped in dry language. It is an opportunity for this congregation to be held accountable to its aspirations, and it is an opportunity for this congregation to hold other congregations accountable. Accountable for what? Accountable for taking the next step in social change and personal development, the next step in expressing anti-racist, anti-classist, anti-oppressive values in ever more skillful ways. Individual and institutional racism and classism are real and related. In the world, in the country, and in the Unitarian Universalist movement, mere conversations about race and class are often painful and polarized. The realities of racism and classism are even more painful and polarizing. The greatest danger is the temptation to walk away. More important than having any particular anti-racist perspective or doing any particular 1 See the report of the Special Review Commission appointed by the UUA President and Moderator: http://www.uua.org/TRUS/apr06/D2a-src.pdf. This is one of the reports which prompted the resolution. Resources and suggestions for anti-racism programs provided by the UUA can be found at http://www.uua.org/actions/responsive/06racism/. 3 anti-classist work in any particular anti-oppressive way is having the staying power to remain engaged in this work over a lifetime. Psychology and culture “conspire” to drain our staying power. It is easier and more rewarding in the short term to “get ahead” personally and to help our families “get ahead.” Where does staying power to do anti-oppression work come from? Where is the spring of water that refreshes? “User-friendly” opportunities for social change and personal development are the fresh water. These are opportunities for companionship, reflection, accountability, and organizing around common interests. These opportunities and more are available through COPA, Communities Organized for Relational Power in Action. In a moment, I will talk more about COPA, but first, a few words about the temptation to walk way. Fifteen years ago, the 1992 Los Angeles riots, also known as the Rodney King uprising or the Rodney King riots, were sparked on April 29, 1992 when a mostly white jury acquitted four police officers accused in the videotaped beating of black motorist Rodney King, after he fled from police. Thousands of people in Los Angeles, mainly young black and Latino males, joined in what has often been characterized as a race riot, involving mass law-breaking, including looting, arson and murder. In all 50 to 60 people were killed during the riots.2 2 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1992_Los_Angeles_riots 4 I lived in Los Angeles then. Within a year, I left. I had lived in southern California for 13 years. There were several reasons for the move, most importantly, a relationship that pulled me away. In addition, long commutes in gridlocked traffic and my skittishness about earthquakes pushed me away. One evening in the spring of 1992, as I washed up in my apartment, I glanced at my face in the bathroom mirror. Uh oh. Was something wrong with me? Some new disease? What were those black specks in my nostrils? Nothing but soot, soot from the fires -- soot blown into the apartment through the window screen. Los Angeles was burning. It is time to acknowledge this other piece – my choice to leave a racially charged environment where I had occasional worries about my physical safety and more frequent worries about my emotional authenticity and intellectual integrity to engage with issues of race and class. Could I wonder, discuss, experiment, doubt, try, fail more often than succeeding, could I live in such a polarized social environment? Where were the spaces where it was OK to honestly share feelings and perspectives about race and class? I felt squeezed, panicky, as I imagine I would feel while spelunking. Spelunking means exploring caves, wriggling through narrow, rocky places underground where there is often little head room, little shoulder room, little room to maneuver. Since I can get 5 claustrophobic in a packed elevator; spelunking is not for me. Neither, at that time, was living in that incendiary environment. In our geographic movements, as in our emotional and intellectual movements, we are pulled, and we are pushed. Our perceptions are the magnet, and our perceptions are the kick in the pants. That is exactly why we need one or more communities of mutual accountability for relying solely upon our perceptions as magnet or as kick in the pants means relying upon a very thin reed. We can too easily flip this way or flop that way. Over time, I “owned” the privilege of my movement away from Los Angeles. I could choose to leave a racially charged environment, unlike others who could not leave and who might not have left even if given the chance. Social change and personal development are not unlike spelunking. Initially, we find ourselves in confined spaces. Initially, there is not enough wiggle room, not enough head room, not enough shoulder room. We need to work together to carve out those spaces where we can all breath deeply, speak freely, and listen with an open heart. Together we create room to breath, room to reflect. This fall, we will begin a monthly discussion series based on Howard Zinn’s book People’s History of the United States: 1492 to Present. This will be one opportunity to engage racism, classism, theology, and philosophy in a 6 setting where there is room to breath, room to act, room to reflect. Please let me know if you would like to participate. I conclude this morning with my perspective on the relationship between COPA and anti-oppression work. From where I stand, COPA is about leadership development in the service of social change, using the techniques of organizing to leverage the power of those who do not start with much power. In contrast to some other approaches to anti- oppression work, COPA and other congregation-based community organizations do not tell people what to do or how to do it. COPA encourages us to listen to each other’s storries and to tell our own stories. Storytelling is not an end in itself. Storytelling is a way to reflect, to process emotions and thoughts. The late Saul Alinsky, whose philosophy guides organizations such as COPA, once said, “Humans are usually walking bags of undigested experiences.” Congregation-based community organizations such as COPA help us transform our undigested experiences into staying power. The secret to cultivating staying power is to find amiable companions. Not “anything goes” companions, but amiable companions -- companions who care, who are curious, who come from various religious traditions, who come from various racial and ethnic groups, who come from various economic or class backgrounds. Building relationships with these amiable 7 companions makes it easier to go to meetings, makes it more fun to learn and to teach, makes it more fun to raise consciousness. May we learn and grow together. May we work together and play together to carve out space for everyone to breath deeply, speak freely, listen with an open heart, and act justly. May it be so.
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