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Lessons on activism from the Unitarian Universalists

Earlier this month, over at Religion Dispatches, Kim Bobo, the executive director of Interfaith Worker Justice – a great organization that I visited with earlier this summer – had a nice article about why and how the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) have stepped up as leaders in the campaign against SB 1070 in Arizona. She boils down seven lessons that the faith community can learn from the Unitarian experience about how to mobilize people around immigration reform or any other social justice issue:

1) Engage leadership.

The UUA president made a personal commitment on the issue. He offered to go to Arizona. He issued an invitation to others. He agreed to get arrested. Denominational leaders are often overwhelmed with their responsibilities and commitments. And yet, their personal involvement in economic and social justice issues, on the ground, particularly in the midst of tough situations, can support and embolden local leadership and draw others into the work. Leading through action is always stronger than through words.

Equally important was the leadership of the local pastors in Phoenix, especially the terrific work of Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray and of the UUA’s moderator, Gini Courter, who came to Phoenix with members of the UUA Board.

2) Link to principles and history.

The UUs consistently linked the struggle in Arizona to their longstanding commitment to civil rights and their core principles. The UUs also linked the campaign to the denomination’s anti-racism initiative.

3) Assign staff and resources for planning.

The UU committed money and staff to the planning and preparation in Arizona. Presumably, the UUs are as cash-strapped as other denominations, and yet they committed resources to action and witness. As a result of the denomination’s commitment, contributions flowed to help with bail, legal defense, and additional outreach work.

4) Coordinate with local coalitions.

Often, the planning for large social action events, particularly ones involving planned civil disobedience, is a bit complicated, requiring lots of time, patience, and flexibility. The UUs developed their plans in collaboration and coordination with others on the ground. The UUs were particularly grateful for the work of Puente and the interfaith folks in Somos. This respectful approach is not always easy but leads to deep relationships long-term.

5) Be visual.

The UUs were very visual. Their yellow T-shirts could be seen blocks away. Their giant banner was a good media visual. And they chose a smart downtown street location that attracted attention.

6) Use social media.

The UU media team took advantage of the latest in social media. Participants posted on Facebook and YouTube. They tweeted. They took photos and videos. The mass text alerts told people where to go and kept folks abreast of breaking news.

7) Ask for personal engagement and sacrifice.

The UUA made a courageous and bold ask of supporters. People were asked to get to Phoenix in July and consider getting arrested. Approximately one-third of those arrested in Phoenix were UUs. Participants were blessed by the experience. Rev. David Miller from Solana Beach, California wrote in a blog post:

This week I have wept with sadness but also with great hope and joy. I feel this is a turning point for Unitarian Universalism. There we were, in our orange-ish yellow shirts, in mass, with the giant word “love” on our chests. Excuse the old marketing guy in me, but there it was, our brand, we were being called “the love people.” It was phenomenal to be a part of a coordinated effort of civil disobedience with Unitarian Universalists from every corner of this country. Lay people, ministers, administrators, association staff, all coming together. People from all over the association, linked arm in arm with brothers and sisters in the struggle and with our president leading the way, I was so proud. I was proud of our joint effort, our cooperation with local organizations and the visible power we had being there together. We were supporting each other as members of a faith, a faith steeped in the power of love to change hearts.