Tracing the origins of Racism

Unitarian Universalists have a long history of engaging in racial justice advocacy individually and as congregations. As people of faith who believe in the inherent worth of every person, UUs strive for justice, equity and compassion in relationships and work for systemic change through advocacy.

At the end of May, I attended an event called “Understanding the Origins of Racism, Afrophobia & Colorism and the Movement for Reparations.” Hosted at Baha’i Center and organized by the United Nations NGO Committee for the Elimination of Racism, Afrophobia and Colorism  (CERAC), this event was part of the International Decade for People of African Descent 2015- 2024 event series.

Manbo Dowoti Desir, Chairperson of CERAC

Founded in 2000, CERAC grew from Subcommittee for the Elimination of Racism status in the NGO committee for Human Rights at the United Nations. As the standalone committee it is now, CERAC takes bold stance against the invisible respect, insufficient recognition, and grievous injustices that people of African descent face globally through advocacy, development of global policy and dissemination of educational information.  The UU-UNO’s Director Bruce Knotts once served as co-chair of the subcommittee.

There are many shared values between Unitarian Universalists’ social justice ideals and CERAC’s mission and vision. Both are dedicated to ending racial discrimination and injustice holistically: starting within ourselves and moving out into the world around them. Aware of the renewed attention and energy toward racial justice work in recent years, UUs and CERAC take steps putting faith in action, engaging at the grassroots level fostering collaboration to learn, grow and celebrate multi-ethnic and multicultural communities. Through advocacy, education and activism the Unitarian Universalist Association and CERAC are making progress in breaking down divisions, healing isolation and promoting the interconnectedness of all justice issues.

A similar deep and multidimensional approach to social justice was reflected CERAC’s event – as the origin of racial intolerance and social control in the United States was traced through economic, social and political analysis. Of course this event would not have been what it was without the intelligent and inspiring speakers: Dr. Jeffery B. Perry, Dr. Bilan Bashi Treiler and Dr. Kwasi Konadu, and the attentively engaged audience. Presenters related theoretical and objective substance on the invention of the white race and white supremacy as well as ‘the ethnic projects’ that racism survives and thrives on. They followed the footprints of racial identification based on skin color all the way back to the 8th Century CE, and the origins the reparations movement back to the Belinda petition to the Massachusetts court in 1783.

Takeaway Lessons

Dr. Jeffery Perry 

The take away from Dr. Perry’s talk was that race is beyond a social construct. It is invented for the purpose of making profit and maintaining social control against the interest of Blacks and working class Europeans. Because race and class are intertwined to sustain white supremacy, efforts taken to revive economic crisis such as the Great Depression actually set back the economic progress of blacks. For example the New Deal, which was nationwide economic relief, recovery and reform tactic, did not work in favor of People of Color.  The black to white unemployment ratio that was 1:1 in 1929 was 2:1 by the end of the New Deal. The connection between racial and economic justice is inextricably linked in all aspects of society, a relationship addressed in the UU-UNO’s 2016 Intergenerational Spring Seminar.

On the other hand, politically People of Color are “the touchstone” of all contemporary human rights struggles in the United States. Blacks’ struggle for rights and dignity led to the suffragist efforts, the labor movement, and even the LGBTQ rights advocacy. Dr. Perry’s presentation concluded insisting that white supremacy is historically a principal retardant to social change efforts, and that struggle against white supremacy should be central to efforts against racism. Racism is always an obstacle to creating fair and loving communities.

Dr. Vilna Treitler

Building off the topic of white supremacy, Dr. Treitler introduced the concept of “ethnic projects,” in which racism survives and thrives in the United States. The term “ethnic projects” refers to the racialization of new migrants – an iterative incorporation process guided by white supremacy. This phenomenon can be best understood with clothing and drawer analogy. If the racial hierarchy is bureau, the racial categories are the drawers, and ethnicities are found inside.

The history of America can be summarized by various migrants groups’ struggles to leave the bottom drawer without disrupting white supremacy, which is the top drawer. Once new groups learn the language, the practice of the race and the struggle against their own position – they exert pressure to change the paradigm in which they participate. At the bottom drawer there are large numbers of African Americans systematically barred from leaving while various immigrant groups i.e. the Italian, the Irish, and the Chinese became “white.” Racialization is legitimized by a racial paradigm that is made of categories and hierarchy, as well as racial “commonsense” and racial sanctions. The ethic projects are a racialization cycle that sustain racism and allow intolerance to thrive.

Dr. Kwasi Konadu

Getting the story on the origins of racism correct is particularly important when considering reparations. Dr. Konadu advised that reparation is an idea we have to prepare for in constructing what would satisfy and benefit people of African descent, but also build infrastructure and modes of delivering the amends. Historically, requests for reparations have been proposed at the government, courts, and civic groups in the form of economic benefit/monetary gains for blacks. The first request for reparation was granted to Belinda by the State of Massachusetts; Belinda was an eighty-year-old slave whose owner passed away. The Pension Movement led by Isaiah Dickerson and Callie House was successful in petitioning Congress and  providing tax reliefs and monetary assistance to ex-slaves. In 1969 James Forman demanded reparations from white churches and synagogues government and won three million dollars, which he put towards education.

Reparations can vary from verbal apologies or tangible benefits. Although in the past reparation was defined by monetary compensations, reparations can be done per each sector of society: health, education, housing etc. The conclusion about reparations is unclear, as the concept of reparation itself, reflecting the need for further discussion of the topic.

Attendees of the event engaged in Q&A

My main take away from this event is that as individuals, as society, and congregations we have to constantly engage ourselves in learning about the realities of racial inequality and injustice. As Unitarian Universalists define their social justice legacy as a policy of “deeds not creeds,” we have to connect with, embrace, and support social justice movements through contributions of our money, skills, time and more. I am convinced that doing so will empower and grow our love and belief in the inherent worth of every person, which are fundamental gears to harness to stop oppression against people of African decent and all others.

By Seble Alemu, UU-UNO Racial Justice Program Intern

World Refugee Day, 2016


As we celebrate World Refugee Day, let us remember that all of our peoples migrated from somewhere else.  Even indigenous peoples have migrated.  Migration is always difficult, but perhaps it is harder now than it’s been for a long time.  There are some 65 million people who are displaced.

I was the U.S. Government’s Regional Refugee Coordinator for West Africa 2000-2003.  During that time I repeatedly visited refugees in camps, cities and towns all over West Africa.  The first myth that gets exploded is that refugees are different from the rest of us.  They are students, business people, professional people, property owners, farmers, academics and people just like the rest of us.  Assistant Secretary of State for Populations, Refugees and Migration, Donald Steinberg went with me to see refugees in Conakry, Guinea.  He introduced himself to a young refugee from Sierra Leone who said, “I had a science teacher by the name of Donald Steinberg.”  That surprised the Assistant Secretary of State, who hadn’t thought about refugees as students of science.  In fact, I once met a refugee who’d studied at the Paris-Sorbonne University.  These are people just like us who never contemplated they’d lose their homes and have to move someplace else.

Like it or not, it could happen to you, and it’s more likely than you think.  Here in New York City, there are still people who are coping with the loss of their homes due to Hurricane Sandy in 2012.  Others have had to leave New York City due to the high cost of living and jobs that don’t pay the rent.

Conflict, war, climate change, economic collapse, bigotry, oppression and more cause individuals, couples and families to flee looking for a better life.  Often, adults, who might be willing to stick it out a bit longer, will leave when they see their children have no future where they are.  Many families move to ensure their children can have a better future.

These people who are just like us and could be us one day, need welcoming communities that will help them start their lives anew.  Canada, Germany, Turkey and Jordan stand out in the current crisis of Syrian refugees.  The fact of the matter is that while caring for recently arrived refugees can seem like a burden, in the long run these refugees can become the promise of the nation’s future.  Our faith and common humanity and our self-interest call on us to give refugees and the displaced the best welcome we can.

Bolder Ways of Being a Unitarian Universalist Activist

CUC_logoOn May 20th – 22nd, 2016, the Canadian Unitarian Council invited Unitarian Universalists across Canada to explore  Bolder Ways of Being in Vancouver. For their now bi-annual national conference, participants were invited to learn and discuss ways to step out of their comfort zones in their interpersonal relationships, congregational affairs, and collective social action. The Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office (UU-UNO) was glad to be part of the conference once again to shed light upon the potential for international justice action within the Canadian Unitarian community.

The idea of boldness was omnipresent throughout the duration of the conference; it initially hit home for me during Friday night’s Confluence lecture on UU community and loving relationships. Rev. Melora Lynngood spoke about the stress, emotional strain, and interpersonal conflict that can often come with congregational leadership. At the end of her sermon, she invited members of the audience to share their own speed bumps in congregational work and techniques they have used to address it. This activity brought an audience of over one hundred into a single intimate conversation. I was touched by the boldness of the audience members in sharing their ideas and vulnerabilities with the larger group, and inspired by the collective desire to improve congregational affairs and relationships.

As the weekend progressed, conference attendees delved deeper into learning about bolder ways of embracing Unitarian Universalism. On Saturday, each conference attendee selected a workshop stream on a topic of their choice.  I chose to attend a workshop stream entitled Being Bold for Climate Justice, led by Aly Tharp, Program Manager for the UU climate justice movement Commit2Respond and member of the UU Young Adults for Climate Justice staff. During this workshop stream, attendees were presented with success stories of bold climate action and called into large-group discussion of the steps and stakeholders required to successfully take action for climate justice. With increased attention placed on climate justice in the newly adopted Paris Agreement and the UN Sustainable Development Goals, there is no better time than now for Unitarian Universalists and Envoys to be devoting attention and energy toward the topic. Learning peaceful protesting techniques to act against environmental degradation, left attendees with bold ideas for enacting change to bring home to their congregations. The UU-UNO is excited to carry on this energy at the upcoming Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly where one of  our workshops will address how UUs and other people of faith can take action to support meeting and exceeding the goals set forth in the Paris Agreement.

Audrey Carleton presenting a Blue Ribbon Congregation award to the First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto
Audrey Carleton presenting a Blue Ribbon Congregation award to the First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto

Later that evening, UU-UNO Envoys and supporters gathered at a UU-UNO reception to honor the 2016 Blue Ribbon Congregations and this year’s winner of the Elaine Harvey International Justice Award, Eryl Court. The winners of these awards were recognized by the larger group for taking their own form of bold action by mobilizing their congregations in action toward the UN’s goals for peace in their home congregations. As was emphasized during the reception, the UU-UNO could not do its valuable work as an NGO without the help of our Envoys across North America. It was inspiring to meet and celebrate the efforts of these leaders who work so hard to act locally toward global change.

The following day, attendees of all ages were invited to a  multigenerational lunch. Guests were randomly assigned seating to ensure an even generational distribution at each table, and were instructed to consider and discuss our UU principles and favorite UU hymns and traditions through a group game. My past experience with multigenerational activities at my home congregation and district has typically been limited to my personal interaction with adult advisors during youth group and youth cons, and a Time for All Ages every other Sunday service. I was impressed by the CUC’s organized effort to bring together conference attendees of different generations, and by the innovation and preparation that went into planning this activity. This intergenerational approach is critical to growing our faith and expanding our social justice movements. Multigenerational UU-UNO Envoy Teams in congregations can bring an important new dimension to existing social justice work and stronger bonds in the congregations. The UU-UNO also fosters these relationships in a yearly Intergenerational Spring Seminar where youth and adults come together to tackle issues of global concern such as economic inequality, racism, criminal justice, or climate change.

One Guns or Butter team engaged in a discussion.
One Guns or Butter team engaged in a discussion.

Following lunch on Sunday, another UU-UNO representative and I led a multigenerational workshop, Guns or Butter, during which I was further inspired by the beauty of intergenerational relationships. In this international relations simulation that modeled the work of the UN, participants were split up into five separate nations and each was assigned a leadership role within their own nation. As a nation, they were instructed to establish goals related to their economic growth, human development, and relationships with other countries, and then to engage in trade and develop treaties with other nations. Each team included approximately the same proportion of youth and adults, and over the course of the game, intergenerational teams plotted and planned their route to achieving their goals. As I watched team members interact with one another, I saw youth and adults immersed in dialogue over their next ‘move.’ I was excited to see UUs engaged in the topic of international relations and by the potential for success found in intergenerational work.

By the end of the conference, I felt more connected to the Canadian UU community than ever before. As I hugged and bid farewell to my new Canadian friends after Sunday night’s closing ceremonies, I felt a familiar feeling of sadness to be leaving an environment of warmth that I had not felt since bridging into young adulthood. I left Conference 2016 in Vancouver eager to engage in bold activism for climate justice and international human rights, with new ideas about the power of intergenerational work, and a wave of optimism for the future of the Canadian UU community.

By Audrey Carleton, Envoy Outreach Intern at UU United Nations Office

Inclusive Education for Global Citizenship: UN Conference in Gyeongju, Korea

UU-UNO Director Bruce Knotts (far right) speaks at a roundtable discussion at the 66th UN DPI/NGO Conference.
UU-UNO Director Bruce Knotts (far right) speaks at a roundtable discussion at the 66th UN DPI/NGO Conference.

uuadpingoboothThe 66th Annual United Nations (UN) Department of Public Information/Non-Governmental Organization (DPI/NGO) Conference was held in Gyeongju, Republic of Korea from May 30 through June 1, 2016. This year’s conference was on Education for Global Citizenship: Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals Together. I attended as Director of the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office (UU-UNO), and as Chair of the UN DPI/NGO Executive Committee. The UU-UNO had a booth at the conference which displayed our materials and also those of both Japanese and Korean LGBTIQ groups who participated in our activism at the conference.

I spoke at several events throughout the conference, including a speech (available to watch online) at the opening of the proceedings, which was very well received.   I also spoke as part of the first roundtable discussion on inclusive education. Later in the conference, the UU-UNO hosted a workshop on inclusive education for LGBTIQ learners, looking at the issues of bullying and discrimination in learning spaces around the world and in Korea.

Workshop sponsored by the UU-UNO "Inclusive Education and SDGs"
Workshop sponsored by the UU-UNO: “Inclusive Education and SDGs”

In attendance at the conference was an organized homophobic group of advocates. While our message was very well received by the vast majority of the 5,000 attendees from all over the world (representing over 100 countries), this small core of very homophobic Christians was a challenge.  They took many of our materials (in order to destroy them), argued with us at our booth and attended our workshop.  They have a reputation of being disruptive, but as our workshop was lived streamed, they acted with civility and kept quiet.  We were glad for the support of the Rev. Steve Stearman of Metro Baptist Church in NYC and Ricky Wong of the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation, both of whom made strong statements in favor of our panelists.  Korea is a majority Buddhist nation with a strong and powerful Christian minority.  Having strong Christian and Buddhist advocates on our side was very helpful.

Workshop sponsored by the NGO Committee on Peace, Disarmament and Security.
Workshop sponsored by the NGO Committee on Disarmament, Peace, and Security.

I also moderated a workshop on global disarmament issues with two Japanese and two Korean panelists who talked about the need for nuclear disarmament and peace on the Korean peninsula.  I moderated this panel in my capacity as chair of the UN NGO Committee on Disarmament, Peace and Security.  This committee was founded in 1970 by UU minister, Rev. Homer Jack.  We continue his work for peace, and ending armed violence will the topic of the UU-UNO’s 2017 Intergenerational Spring Seminar.

The final challenge was in finalizing the conference’s outcome document, the Gyeongju Action Plan.  This document was online and over a million people viewed it and gave us input. Before even going to Korea, we debated the document at length in New York and the final discussions were during several sessions at the conference in Korea. We fought hard for inclusive language and the homophobes fought hard for exclusion. The arguments were heated, with some Korean Christians telling us to leave their country, asking why we were even in their country in the first place. We reminded them that we were at a United Nations Conference and invited guests of the Republic of Korean Government.

There was also a strong push by these same individuals for inclusion of a model of development called “Saemaul Undong” into global plans. Our LGBTQI allies opposed this on the grounds that this Korean model of development was organized by Park Chung-hee, South Korean president, dictator, and military general who led South Korea from 1961 until his assassination in 1979. While Saemaul Undong did develop rural areas, it did so under very centralized authority with little regard for human rights.

The arguments over LGBTIQ inclusion and over Saemaul Undong were the most contentious I’ve ever experienced in my decades of diplomatic work. The result was a strong statement of inclusion within the outcome document: “The importance of universal inclusion, acknowledging that the absence of a particular group or identity in text can lead to the exclusion of that group or identity in policy. We have made a conscious decision not to highlight any particular group or identity to ensure full inclusion and equal treatment of all people – especially those in positions of specific vulnerability and marginalization. It is unacceptable that diverse group memberships and identities have been used to deny the right to learn or otherwise marginalize individuals. In education, as in all things, the basis of non-discrimination is, and ought to be, our common humanity.” Our Korean LGBTIQ allies were disappointed that there was no specific mention of LGBTIQ people, but I was satisfied that this was the best we could get and that it advances the cause of inclusive education. There was also no mention of Saemaul Undong in the outcome document.

Finally, the outcome document calls for: “Support enactment by the United Nations for an International Day of Education that would serve as a means to promote education for global citizenship, learning for civic engagement, and literacy for grassroots empowerment.” We are working with the Missions of the Republic of Korea and Canada to get this enacted at the upcoming UN General Assembly.

Ethical Eating: A Solution to Climate Change

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Brent Kim describes the many benefits of a mostly plant-based diet

As climate change continues on its current course, it becomes an increasing existential threat to human civilization. The Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office’s (UU-UNO’s) Climate Justice Initiative is compelled to acknowledge this threat, and try to find solutions from a theological standpoint. As such, as Unitarian Universalists we are called to discuss the ethical dimensions of Climate Change, and we reflect on our 7th Principle, respect for the interdependent web of all existence, to frame our work.

To adequately address the ethics of climate change, it is crucial to examine issues relating to food. Although not a widely discussed topic, the consumption choices that humans make, both in food choices and in food sourcing, are an enormous contributor to climate change. The UU-UNO has begun collaboration with the Tzu Chi Buddhist Foundation around the topic of Ethical Eating. This is a topic that some Unitarian Universalists have been engaged with for many years: in 2011, the Unitarian Universalist Association adopted a Statement of Conscience about ethical eating, urging UUs to be mindful of their relationship with food as part of respecting and acting compassionately towards all life on the planet. On May 19, 2016 the UU-UNO and Tzu Chi held a joint panel discussion “Ethical Eating: A Solution to Climate Change” at the United Nations Church Center in New York City.

This panel spoke broadly on the environmental and moral impacts of food, and more pointedly on the implications of meat consumption.  As one panelist explained, “Ethical Eating is to eat to minimize adverse impacts and maximize positive impacts on the environment and yourself.”  Our four panelists delved deeply into an analysis of the scientific and ethical problems created by climate change and what individuals can do to in the journey towards living a more climate-friendly lifestyle.

The first of the four esteemed panelists was Brent Kim, who serves as the Program Officer for the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.  Kim addressed the current dogma that a shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy is paramount to solving the issue.  Noted was the Paris Agreement, so far signed by 177 countries, in which nations agreed to to keep global temperature rise to less than 2 degrees Celsius.  Kim argued that even this value, which will still contribute to over 15 feet of sea level rise, will be impossible to achieve through a switch to renewable energy unless we significantly modify our eating habits towards foods with lower GHG impact.  This means consuming largely plant based foods – a 75% reduction of meat, dairy and eggs would be the equivalent of closing 94 coal- fired plants and opening over 100, 000 wind turbines.


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Gidon Eshel presenting research

Gidon Eshel, a Research Professor at Bard College followed, and discussed the specifics of the caloric differences in food, as related to their calories in fossil fuels.  Eshel explained that approximately 31 calories of fossil fuels are needed to produce every one calorie of meat, as opposed to 1.5 calories of fossil fuels to every one calorie of plants.  He emphasized that a plant-based diet not only mitigates the progression of climate change, but can also feed more of the world’s population.  Growing vegetables takes up less land than livestock, and the land used for livestock grazing could be diverted towards other vegetable crops.  It is important to note that neither Kim nor Eshel advocated for the complete elimination of meat products from the diet, as some land is soil poor and only appropriate for grazing purposes.

To add a new dimension into this panel discussion, the theological and social justice dimensions of food were introduced by our next panelist, the Rev. Peggy Clarke. Clarke led us through a philosophical reasoning on how humans have allowed for climate change to occur, and why we have been ineffective in its mitigation.  She introduced to participants the paradigm in which we reside, in which we as humans see all other life as being in service of human life, and the earth is both the supplier and sewer for our lives. She emphasized that in order to actually address climate change, we must address this paradigm.  Humanity is experiencing a great need for reverence not just for all life, but for the earth itself.


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Ali Hard explaining food policy

A theological underpinning in hand, we then turned to food policy – what is being done and what can we do to address current food policy which influences how so many of us eat. Participants heard from Ali Hard, a Tisch Scholar at the Laurie M. Tisch Center for Food, Education & Policy at Teachers College in Columbia University. Hard emphasized the need for sustainability standards in the dietary guidelines, and how such a policy would promote more responsible sourcing in school food programs, including a reduction in meat based meals. She explained that the way to achieve healthy sustainable diets is to create policy that promotes increased access to healthy sustainably grown and sourced foods, that encourages education about the value of a plant-based diet, and that provides supportive communities that inspire sustainable eating and living.

The point is not for all humans to immediately put down their bacon burgers and cheese omelets and become vegan right away, but to be mindful of the impact their food choices have on the environment. Try changing one meal per week to be entirely plant-based. As Unitarian Universalists, we recognize that many food decisions will require us to make trade- offs between competing priorities.  Ethical Eating is a change we can each make to help the environment, and of course there is no single answer for how to mitigate climate change; food is but one factor in a multidimensional conversation.  The UU-UNO’s work collaborating with Tzu Chi on ethical eating will continue in the upcoming months, building up to Ethical Eating Day on January 11, 2017, where we ask those interested to adopt a plant based diet for the day.

By Mara Moss, UU-UNO Climate Justice Initiative Intern

Letter from a Blue Ribbon Congregation: The Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Huntington

Why and how does the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Huntington, New York, continue its support of the UU United Nations Office at the “Blue Ribbon Congregation Award” level

In June 2016, at this year’s UUA General Assembly in Columbus, Ohio, our congregation, the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Huntington, NY (UUFH), will be receiving a Blue Ribbon Congregation Award from the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office (UU-UNO). This is our 6th Blue Ribbon Award in a row, and as a congregation we would like to let our fellow UU congregations know why and how we generate this commitment to support the UU-UNO’s many activities promoting justice throughout our larger world.

Located in Huntington, within the Greater Metro New York City area, our congregation has been “Living Our Values Enthusiastically” since it was founded in 1947. As the decades have rolled by, we have faced, as all entities do, controversies and challenges. Yet, a big part of why we have continued to use these ebbs and flows as opportunities to grow both as community and a spiritual home, is our realization that we can be more than the sum of our individual parts. That, in fact, we have the ability to reach beyond our walls to encourage others to join us as we continually strive to reach our congregation’s potential. As any congregation knows, this is not very easy. Nevertheless, welcoming challenges is the force that enables us to continue our pursuit of actions based on our mantra: an “open mind, loving heart and helping hands.”

Peace Pole at UU Fellowship of Huntington
Peace Pole at UU Fellowship of Huntington

For the UU Fellowship of Huntington, this mantra has led us to have a very active social justice advocacy agenda, including the protection of our environment, promotion of affordable housing in our township, an active “Journey-Toward-Wholeness” program, shelter for the homeless, becoming one of 10 “Peace Ministry Network” congregations, and the energetic participation in internationally-oriented endeavors such as the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office (UU-UNO.)

Throughout the years, our Ministers and Boards of Trustees have stressed that our faith’s Seven Principles call for us to participate directly in good-works that reach beyond our walls.  With this leadership, our members have adopted this philosophy, and the devotion to “causes of justice” that it generates. Thus, it became natural, and remains so, to extend our influence outward, not only to our local, state and national communities, but even to the level of worldwide involvements, including a direct connection to our faith’s UU-United Nations Office as an integral part of our very being as a congregation.

It is with this interest, that one of our congregation’s social justice advocates, Mr. Dick Kopp, laid the groundwork for our congregation to appreciate the work the UU-UNO does, including enabling our faith to have a forum to foster our values at the United Nations, be it through UN General Assembly activities, or as an active participant in Non-Governmental Organization discussions.

Alley, UUFH's first Youth Envoy at UN Headquarters
Alley, UUFH’s first Youth Envoy at UN Headquarters

By 2011, our congregation welcomed the addition of a Youth Envoy to our UU-UNO endeavors at the urging of our Adult Envoy.  Ms. Alley Wolff’s tenure exemplifies what a youth emissary can do for a congregation, while also demonstrating what a positive affect such a responsibility can have upon a young person’s development into adulthood. Alley’s work and growth has also encouraged other youth from our congregation to directly participate in various UU-UNO activities. We now have two UU-UNO Youth Envoys, and two additional youth have asked to become UU-UNO Youth Envoys. The plan is to welcome these youth into our Envoy Program this September, 2016. Taking advantage of the opportunity to interact with the broader world, our congregation regularly sends our youth to participate in the Intergenerational Spring Seminar hosted by the UU-UNO each year in April. At this venue, they meet new people in the UU community and learn about ways to help the wider world as Unitarian Universalists. This impact on our congregation’s youth, alone, has been a richly rewarding result of our UU-UNO commitment.

Our congregation’s active connection with the UU-UNO, both in activities and financially, has proven to be invaluable in promoting our faith’s values. Though at one point it seemed out of reach, our congregation pulled together to help us far exceed the requirements for this year’s Blue Ribbon Award. It’s with great enthusiasm that we look forward to continuing our association and commitment.

We would like to thank the UU-UNO Envoy Coordinator, Ms. Allison Hess, and the Director of the UU-UNO, Mr. Bruce Knotts, for giving us this opportunity to let you all know a little about how important the UU-UNO can be in helping your congregation be a beacon of light. In addition, the good news is that today’s technology enables us, and you, if you so choose, to be directly connected online to live talks and discussions sponsored by the UU-UNO, the UN NGOs and various other UN entities. Thus, the roadblock of not being able to physically attend meetings, events, etc., is no longer the detriment it was only a year or so ago.

We hope this allows you to become a little more familiar with the reasons for getting your congregation to directly participate in our faith’s UU-UNO endeavor. You will find it most worthwhile. In fact, we would venture to say, how can you not? Maybe there is a Blue Ribbon Congregation Award in your future.


From the UU Fellowship of Huntington, NY:

Ben Testa, Adult Envoy

Julia Moskowitz, Youth Envoy

Ben Sussman, Youth Envoy

Ben Testa, Julia Moskowitz, and Ben Sussman at the United Nations Headquarters
Ben Testa, Julia Moskowitz, and Ben Sussman at the United Nations Headquarters

Learn more about the UU-UNO’s Envoy Program and how your congregation can be involved and become a Blue Ribbon Congregation! This year’s Blue Ribbon congregations will be honored at the UUA International Reception on June 24 at the UUA’s General Assembly in Columbus, OH.

The Colors of Inequality: 2016 UU-UNO Intergenerational Spring Seminar

This guest post on our blog is from Isabella Gavanski, one of the Youth participants in this year’s Intergenerational Spring Seminar – The Colors of Inequality: Costs and Consequences.

My name is Isabella Gavanski, I am 15 years old and I attend the Lakeshore Unitarian Universalist Church in the Montreal, Quebec area. I recently had the incredible opportunity to attend the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office (UU-UNO) Intergenerational Spring Seminar and I have to say it was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve had so far in my life.

To begin, the Seminar was highly educational. A tremendous amount of information was shared with us about the topic: The Colors of Inequality – Costs and Consequences. We learned about inequality within countries, how it affects our economic systems and politics, how it is connected to climate change, incarceration, solitary confinement and much more. It was an eye-opening experience, with many fascinating presentations and astonishing facts along the way. But that wasn’t all: the educational component was only one element of the Seminar. It was also an incredibly enriching social experience. I was also able to meet and share my thoughts with many other Unitarian Youth during our stay at the Unitarian Church of All Souls in New York. I also had the opportunity to listen and learn from the adults when we had Collaboration Group meetings in between the panels.

Five Mualimm-ak describes the physical, psychological, social, and economic consequences of solitary confinement.
Five Mualimm-ak describes the physical, psychological, social, and economic consequences of solitary confinement.

One of the presentations that was most shocking to me was about solitary confinement. The presenter, Five Mualimm-ak, gave an enlightening presentation about the justice system and his time in solitary confinement. The facts and statistics he shared with us were eye-opening and his story was tragic. Apparently, there are 80,000 – 100,000 Americans being tortured in solitary confinement right at this moment. In New York State, 5 out of 6 incarcerated people are in solitary confinement for non-violent behavior. But the statistic I found most horrific was that 48% of those in extreme isolation in NYC are children — that is, under 18 years old! The effects of solitary confinement are very serious, as it can cause brain damage, temporary blindness and other serious physical and mental health problems including insanity. To make the whole matter even worse, people in solitary confinement are routinely denied access to medical treatment and services. Those facts seemed so unbelievable. How could they possibly be true? I was shocked at how inhuman we can be toward our fellow humans.

Dr. David Kirkland presents on the consequences of inequalities in education systems.
Dr. David Kirkland presents on the consequences of inequalities in education systems.

Another presentation that I found to be particularly moving and emotional was a rap song done by David E. Kirkland. I’m sure his rap deeply touched every single person in the room. He spoke of racism in the education system and relayed some of his experiences as a child living with a single mom. He also told us of a student who just needed a push in the right direction but was instead scolded by his teacher, which damaged his will to learn. His words were so beautifully written and spoken, I was absolutely mesmerized. Through his descriptive presentation and rap, he showed us what it is like in a world where you are treated differently because of the color of your skin. I was deeply affected by his music and what I learned.


Isabella Gavanski (far right) leads her Collaboration Group in discussion at the 2016 Spring Seminar.
Isabella Gavanski (far right) leads her Collaboration Group in discussion at the 2016 Spring Seminar.

There were Collaboration group meetings in between all of the panels where I would have the chance to talk with adults and Youth alike about what we had learned and what we thought about the topics discussed. I had been chosen to lead one of the Collaboration groups, so I was able to facilitate the discussions and make sure everyone had the chance to share with the group if they wanted to. This role made the experience even more interesting and challenging for me. We had some intense conversations about our opinions on some of the panels and it was great hearing what everyone thought and seeing the vast diversity of opinions. It was always really interesting hearing a point of view that differed from my own and I was constantly reflecting upon what exactly I believed and thought about each of the presented subjects.

Another part of the Seminar that I loved was the Unitarian Universalist vibe that was all around me during the week I was there. I will try and describe it to you. There is a certain feeling of respect when you are in a room full of like-minded people. And the atmosphere in a room full of UUs is one of acceptance, friendship, respect and love. Everyone who attended had many chances to make new friends and hear opinions expressed by fellow Youth. I constantly wanted to hug the people around me and plop down on top of my new friends in a cuddle-puddle. I met many Youth at the UU-UNO Spring Seminar who I now consider family and I’m sure I will see many of them again next year.

We also had advisers showing us around New York and helping us through the complicated Metro System which was always a fun time as it was my first visit to the city. But, without a doubt, since I have an interest in UN issues and have attended Model UN conferences at Harvard University, McGill University, and John Abbot College with my high school this year, one of the highlights of my trip had to be sitting in the actual seats at the UN Headquarters!

All in all, my UU-UNO experience was a great one. I made some great friends, learned a lot about Inequality and was able to talk about it all in a meaningful way with the highly curious and intelligent people around me. I would definitely recommend going to the UU-UNO Intergenerational Spring Seminar to anyone who wants to have a fun, yet very educational experience. I will never forget my time at the Spring Seminar, and hope to be able to attend the Seminar again next year.

2016 Spring Seminar Participants at a panel in UN Headquarters.
2016 Spring Seminar Participants at a panel in UN Headquarters.

United Nations Reform: Slow, patient work to make the UN better

Bruce Knotts is Director of the Unitarian Universalist Association United Nations Office. He also serves as Chair of the NGO Committee on Disarmament, Peace, and Security and Co-Chair of the NGO Committee on Human Rights.

Bruce Knotts addresses participants at an event at UN Headquarters.
Bruce Knotts, Director of UU-UNO

As President and CEO of the NGO Committee on Disarmament, Peace and Security, I also serve on the NGO Security Council Working Group. This working group meets with the ambassadors of those nations currently serving on the UN Security Council and with high ranking officials and missions working on Security Council issues. The most interesting of these meetings are with the member state ambassadors of the Accountability, Coherence and Transparency (ACT) group. This group of small and medium sized member states meets at the Swiss mission to the UN to work on improving how the UN Security Council works and increasing transparency in the election of a new UN Secretary General.

In July 2015, the Accountability, Coherence and Transparency Group proposed a “Code of Conduct regarding Security Council action against genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes,” which calls upon all members of the Security Council (both permanent and elected) to not vote against any credible draft resolution intended to prevent or halt mass atrocities.  As of a meeting I had with the ACT Group on March 22, 2016, 111 member states of the United Nations have signed on to this code of conduct.  Canada and the United States are not among those 111 nations. (more…)

Of Trees and Sweeping

Florence Caplow is a Soto Zen priest in the Suzuki Roshi lineage, and a dharma teacher, field botanist, UU seminarian at Iliff School of Theology, essayist, and editor. She was the recipient of the UUA’s Tsubaki Grand Shrine Scholarship in 2015 and is currently on her visit with the Shrine. Tsubaki Grand Shrine is an ancient Shinto shrine in Suzuka, Japan, and an historic interfaith partner of the UUA. In this essay, Florence reflects on her powerful, moving experiences in Japan.

Day 5 at Tsubaki Grand Shrine (to read about why I’m here, read Entering Another World, my last post). Over the last few days I have been gradually transformed from my usual black-clothed Western self into “staff” at Tsubaki – first a white cotton jacket with the kanji (Chinese characters) for Tsubaki Grand Shrine over my Western clothes, then, yesterday, multi-layered full Shinto robes, all in white, that took a sweet young woman priest, Sakaka-san, about twenty minutes to put on me (today I was on my own, and no one has laughed, so I must have been successful). (more…)

Behind the scenes at COP21

This guest post is by Ahti Tolvanen. Ahti is a UU-UNO Envoy for Lakehead Unitarian Fellowship in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Here he writes about his experience as a participant in the 21st Conference of Parties (COP21) international climate change conference in Paris, which took place in December 2015. 


After the news of the deadly November terrorist attacks in Paris, I was about to cancel my travel plans. This was despite two invitations: one to join Al Gore’s Climate Reality Leadership Corps at the Climate Summit, the other from a relative who lived in the French capital. She was troubled about how to explain what had happened to her two pre-teen children. I suddenly saw myself as the awkward visitor.

The manhunt was still on for the terrorists involved and public rallies were cancelled by the authorities. The possibilities for networking with other NGOs there seemed diminished and I heard that many people were cancelling their trips.

Then came the message from Stuart Scott, director of United Planet: Faith and Science Initiative. They needed me to research and write media releases for prominent scientists and faith leaders speaking at the Summit. I decided to accept. My years as a journalist put this right up my alley. To refuse, it seemed to me, would be to give in to the terrorists – to open the gates of civilization to barbarians – at a time when it was critical to humanity to have a successful outcome in Paris.

I reconfirmed meetings I had tentatively set up with other contacts including the UUA delegation and friends at the Paris Fellowship, one of the few UUA member groups outside of North America.

Ahti Tolvanen at the le Bourget venue for the COP21 conference.

At the end of the first week of COP21, I flew into Charles de Gaulle airport and once through customs, noticed signs directing me to the trains to the le Bourget conference site. The conference venue was a set of large, prefabricated wooden buildings and an adjoining old airfield hangar. The prefab venue had a temporary appearance about it – like a large circus encampment. I hoped we’d be spared a severe cold spell or windstorm, lest the COP21 be the latest casualty of the climate crisis it was trying to address. (more…)