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A Theology of Liberation to Inspire White Anti-Racist Organizing

Unitarian Universalist leader Ashley Horan talks about how racial justice organizers can move White communities.

Lena Gardner (pink sweater), UU justice leader and member of First Universalist Church - Minneapolis, Pastor Danny Givens, and Rev. Ruth Mackenzie (Associate Minister at First Universalist) lead the crowd in a Black Lives Matter solidarity action for the #MOA36 at the Hennepin Co. Courthouse, May 1, 2015. (Photo: Ashley Horan)

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Shortly after addressing a packed room of over 400 mostly white, faith activists from around the country at the Unitarian Universalist Selma 50th Anniversary Commemoration Conference in Alabama, Opal Tometi, one of the cofounders of Black Lives Matter and someone I worked alongside fighting the “Show Me Your Papers” anti-immigrant legislation in Arizona, gave me a quick look and said, “We need to build up the anti-racist work with white people, to meet the enormous needs in these times,” in between conversations she had with a dozen people waiting to talk with her.

It wasn’t a new message, as I’ve been in conversations with hundreds of organizers of color over the past two decades who have said something similar. The difference this time was that we are living in Black Liberation movement on the move times and racist structural violence is in the headlines and national debate in a way I’ve never experienced, as a 41-year-old Gen Xer who came of racial consciousness with the Rodney King uprising in Los Angeles in 1992.

With tens of thousands of white people coming into consciousness and thousands of experienced white anti-racists trying to figure out how to step up, this interview with Unitarian Universalist leader Ashley Horan, and this series of interviews with white racial justice leaders and organizers around the country who are engaging and moving white communities, are some of my efforts to meet the need my comrade Opal Tometi and so many others have made plain.

I first came into my own Unitarian Universalist faith when I was brought in as a member of Catalyst Project to lead anti-racist organizing trainings for hundreds of fired up, passionate UU youth from around the US and Canada.

Mostly white, with a strong crew of young people and adults of color, a strong commitment to anti-racism and social justice, and a faith based in the interconnectedness of all life and the inherent worth and dignity of all people, I was ready to sign up.

Members of White Bear UU Church of Mahtomedi, MN, stand in solidarity with BLM at same action. (Photo: Ashley Horan)Members of White Bear UU Church of Mahtomedi, MN, stand in solidarity with BLM at same action. (Photo: Ashley Horan)

The UUs met a spiritual need in my life, and as an anti-racist organizer, I also saw the tremendous potential of hundreds of thousands of mostly white people, with a small people-of-color membership, in a denomination with a formal commitment to anti-racism, as well as visionary and strong leadership for radicals of color and radical white anti-racists, even when embattled with institutional resistance and a slower pace of change than they’d like, along with a significantly feminist, queer, anti-racist, anti-capitalist youth and a young adult movement raising new generations of movement builders.

Ashley Horan is one of those young adults who is leading the Unitarian Universalist faith toward the anti-racist, multiracial, multicultural, welcoming denomination it strives to be, along with the UU church, a powerful force for collective liberation in the world. And in these Black Liberation movement on the move times, she is organizing UUs in Minnesota to show up for Black Lives Matter, and in the process is inspiring other white UUs to do the same around the country. This interview lifts up faith-based work as a lens to help all of us think about calling forward our values and beliefs in the service of justice and to move people through their congregations and spirituality.

An interview with Ashley Horan of the Minnesota Unitarian Universalist Social Justice Alliance:

Chris Crass: How are you working to move white people into racial justice movement in this time? What’s working? And what are you learning from what works?

Ashley Horan: I am a Unitarian Universalist minister, currently serving as the executive director of MUUSJA, the Minnesota Unitarian Universalist Social Justice Alliance, which is our statewide justice and advocacy network. We bring together Unitarian Universalists from around the state to both build power and serve as a public moral voice for our faith in issue-based organizing and develop the capacity of our congregations to do effective, accountable social justice work in their local areas. Historically, we have focused on issues such as LGBTQIA rights, housing/homelessness, health care, environmental justice, voting rights and racial justice.

I am visibly embodying things that are contradictory to many people’s expectations of both what a religious leader is and what a racial justice ally looks like.

These past few months, we have been supporting the groundswell of vibrant, visionary organizing being done by the leaders of Black Lives Matter Minneapolis, as a part of our ongoing commitment to racial justice. MUUSJA members – who are also almost always members and clergy of local Unitarian Universalist congregations – participated in force at the Mall of America protest in December, as well as many public protests, marches, educational events and trainings that have been put on by the BLM folks over the past number of months.

On an organizational level, as the director of a small faith-based nonprofit, I don’t have a huge number of resources – but I am doing my best to do what the mantra that hangs in my office says: “Do what you can, where you are, with what you have.” For me in my current context, that means entering into conversations with the Board of Trustees of my organization to develop a shared consensus that we support the work of Black Lives Matter Minneapolis (who are doing some seriously fierce organizing here in the Twin Cities!).

While we are still developing a shared sense of what “supporting the work” looks like, they are on board with us using the resources we have to get the message out – which means publicizing Black Lives Matter actions and opportunities for engagement, developing talking points for people of our faith tradition to talk from a theologically grounded place about why our faith calls us to this work of solidarity and uprooting white supremacy, using our social media and email lists to amplify the reach of BLM announcements to folks who might otherwise not see them, etc.

UUs at the protest are at the November BLM actions after Darren Wilson's non-indictment. (Photo: Ashley Horan)UUs at the protest are at the November BLM actions after Darren Wilson’s non-indictment. (Photo: Ashley Horan)

We have also intentionally sponsored events – like having Chris Crass here to speak! – that highlight the intersections of racial justice and other “issues” we’re working on, such as LGBTQIA rights, environmental justice, health care, voting rights, etc. For me, making sure that I/we take advantage of every opportunity we can to highlight intersectionality is essential – it helps people strengthen the muscles they have for analysis and awareness, and brings people who have been siloed in their own “issue areas” into conversation with the broader movement.

I also regularly show up myself, in a clerical collar, at all the local BLM events and identify myself by my title and organization whenever speaking to the media or folks who ask about where I serve. Showing up in “uniform,” and speaking in my role as ED of a faith-based non-profit, are intentional choices for me – not to draw focus away from anyone else, but to prompt people to think about “unexpected” people acting publicly as allies for racial justice. My appearance is often intriguing to people – young, queer, femme, fat, religious, white, often with a baby on my hip – largely because I am visibly embodying things that are contradictory to many people’s expectations of both what a religious leader is and what a racial justice ally looks like.

What I’m learning from all of this in working with white people is that curiosity is a powerful motivator of connections and that the stance we must take is an invitational one – not a strident, shaming, zealous one. When we have the latter posture, it’s too easy for white people to say, “Racial justice and anti-racism are somebody else’s issue, not mine.” But when we walk in the world in a way that allows people to enter into our personal stories, to ask us questions, to come closer, to see how they might also see racism and white supremacy as separating them from wholeness and health that they yearn for … people are willing to lean in and risk learning more.

How do you think about effectiveness and how do you measure it? Can you share an experience that helps you think about effective work in white communities for racial justice?

I think about effectiveness not so much in terms of quantifiable statistics (although I do like to think about white people’s money moving to POC-led organizing for liberation!), but in terms of the stories white people tell about their worlds opening up. I think about people waking up to the reality that whiteness is not “the norm” for everything; beginning to develop authentic relationships with people who don’t live in their neighborhoods or go to their churches; intentionally seeking out commentary and news and writing and film and art made by people of color; stepping out of their comfort zones and into action when they are called to act as allies by people to whom they have been deepening their connections.

The end goal is to get people to start conversations. To step out of their comfort zones. To begin to build relationships with people who look and live and believe differently than they do.

I think these stories ring true as successes to me because they signal a shift in the dominant paradigm – one that counts on white people both benefitting from, and being completely oblivious to, the extreme disparities and intentional, well-functioning structures that maintain white supremacy. And when white folks begin to narrate stories that reflect a growing consciousness rooted in both theoretical learning and real relationships, I believe we’ve “saved more souls” for the cause – souls who, once they awaken, begin to see themselves as servants of the movement.

What are the goals and strategies (as emergent, planned, messy, and sophisticated, basic as it is) you’re operating from?

As a religious leader of Unitarian Universalists, my goal is to get the people I serve to be able to articulate a theology of salvation by interconnection – one in which we are all born with inherent worth and dignity, from a wellspring of love that desires our interdependence and health and has endowed us with the power to be agents of that salvation right here, right now, on this earth. In organizer language, I’m trying to get people to understand collective liberation and to sense both the blessing and the responsibility of claiming a belief that none of us is free until all of us are free.

Liberal white people use bureaucracy to throw up red tape where it doesn’t need to exist.

The strategies all have to do with patient, long-term building of relationships – among individuals, congregations and communities. Whether it’s using a wide variety of communications media and tools to ensure that people of diverse ages and styles can stay connected with work that is happening, or creating worship designed to get people to turn toward one another and engage in deeper conversations, or inviting people to participate in political actions that they may never have felt bold enough to do before, the end goal is to get people to start conversations. To step out of their comfort zones. To begin to build relationships with people who look and live and believe differently than they do.

Ultimately – and again, to use traditional religious language – I want to help as many people as possible, in as many ways as possible, feel “saved” by belonging to something larger than ourselves … something that both honors the realities of our different and unequal experiences in this world because of our identities, and points to the deeper commonalities and transcendent love that unite us.

Rev. Ashley Horan and her family at the Mall of America Protest in December 2014. (Photo: Courtesy of Ashley Horan)Rev. Ashley Horan and her family at the Mall of America Protest in December 2014. (Photo: Courtesy of Ashley Horan)

I am achingly, profoundly aware that white supremacy is a metasystem that requires systemic solutions to dismantle. At the same time, though, we can never be organized enough to come up with a dismantling plan of attack if we don’t have personal relationships with one another that are strong enough to hold us accountably and fiercely when $&*t hits the fan. I’ll leave it to other people to come up with the blueprints for dismantling the system and happily follow their lead; in the meantime, I feel called to developing as many interconnected people who are deeply committed to one another and to the salvific act of dismantling white supremacy as possible.

What challenges are you facing? How are you trying to overcome them? What are you learning from these experiences?

Largely, right now, I’m working with mostly middle- to upper-middle-class, educated white liberals. This means that most people are theoretically sympathetic to the work of combatting white supremacy and creating a racially just and equitable world. So the resistance I see is more subtle, and it largely comes in two forms.

Liberal white people assert that ‘racism isn’t really the problem.’

In the first, liberal white people use bureaucracy to throw up red tape where it doesn’t need to exist. They ask whether there’s a policy in place to allow the institution to focus on racial justice, or raise concerns about safety and fiduciary responsibility, or suggest that there are more emergent and pressing responsibilities that we need to address before we move into racial justice work. Liberals tend to be both somewhat anti-authoritarian and very deeply institutionalist, and this leads to pushing back against visionary leadership that demands a rewriting of the status quo and spending a lot of energy making sure the institutions and structures in which they live and move do not undergo true transformation.

In the second, liberal white people assert that “racism isn’t really the problem.” Some say we should really be focusing on class and wealth inequality, some insist that if we don’t address climate change first and foremost, we’ll all be underwater anyway. Name your issue, and white liberals have a thousand statistics and expert studies and … arguments to back themselves up. But this tactic is a classic example of either/or thinking and of the ways white culture encourages people to privilege “empirical data” and academic theories over the real, lived experiences of people who tell stories of a different kind of reality. And, in a lot of ways, I really understand this impulse – intersectionality is really difficult to wrap your mind around, and intersectional approaches to justice work take a very long time and are always messy.

I think there’s a great deal of power in lovingly but directly naming these things when they happen. Usually, my tactic is to talk about how I’ve displayed the same kind of resistance at various moments and how I’ve come to realize that this is one of the ways that white supremacy can be so sneaky in colonizing our minds – but making us think that Something Else That Liberals Should Care About is going on, and leading us to redirect our energy away from dismantling racism. This is one of the only times I ever think it’s a good idea to triangulate: me, the person I’m talking to, and white supremacy. When I conspiratorially invite someone in by pointing out what a jerk white supremacy can be, we begin to build a relationship together and view white supremacy as our common enemy.

How are you developing your own leadership and the leadership of people around you to step up in these profound, painful and powerful Black Lives Matter movement time?

I’m reading a lot – intentionally seeking out writings about the strategies and realities being lived out by leaders of the BLM movement; looking for alternative media that believes and privileges the voices of Black people; reading the thinking of my white comrades and friends, who are deeply invested in organizing other white folks and engaging in the spiritual practice of endeavoring to be allies.

I know that learning and reading are just a small part of growing my leadership, but the image I have about this kind of learning is that every article, every interview, every infographic I read helps push back the fog of white supremacy that is always threatening to colonize my mind, widening the circle of clarity in which I can stand to look around, make connections, engage in the struggle. And, frequently, I share these readings via social media – always with a little bit of commentary or a question – in order to engage other people in dialogue. You can say what you want about Facebook, but I have found that some of the most profound learnings and breakthroughs I’ve had with people in my community have happened because of conversations sparked by a posting thread.

In addition to learning and thinking, I’m working on a few specific skills and disciplines for anti-racist leadership: in particular, 1.) being vulnerable with people in my life about ways in which I’ve made mistakes or felt caught off guard or been heartbroken by something that has happened, and 2.) actively combatting the white tendency toward competition in anti-racism work, either in terms of seeking accolades for the things we do or competing with one another to be the best anti-racist in the room at the expense of relationship and love for other white people. These practices can take a hundred different forms, but they ultimately bring me away from guilt and annoyance and burnout, and toward affection and hope and solidarity with my own people.

I think my main technique for helping to develop other white people’s leadership is to, quite simply, keep inviting people. Invite them to engage in a private dialogue when something hard happens publicly on social media. Invite them to show up for the protest or the meeting or the workshop. Invite them to read this article, or talk to me about why I think that thing. Invite them to volunteer to lead that chant or chair this group or make that policy decision.

Rev. Ashley Horan and her family at the Mall of America Protest in December 2014. (Photo: Courtsey of Ashley Horan)Rev. Ashley Horan and her family at the Mall of America Protest in December 2014. (Photo: Courtsey of Ashley Horan)Recently, I co-facilitated a curriculum called “Beloved Conversations: Dialogues About Race and Ethnicity” at one of our local congregations. Over several weeks, participants from a largely white Unitarian Universalist congregation, a largely Black nondenominational Christian congregation, and members of several community organizations gathered together to tell stories and explore the ways that race and racism have shaped our consciousnesses (in different ways) and kept us from working together for collective liberation. I and the other facilitators consistently used examples in our facilitation about what was happening in the local Black Lives Matter movement and kept pushing folks – especially white people, most of whom were Baby Boomers – to show up for these BLM events, and to be clear that this moment is a critical opening for white people to leverage our visibility and our power to uplift the agenda of Black-led movements for liberation.

I was never sure whether any of this sunk in for my fellow white people. Clearly, this was a group who was still standing in awe of the work of the civil rights era, but I wasn’t sure whether they envisioned themselves as being a part of today’s movement for racial justice; whether they were ready to answer the call. But then, several weeks after the program ended, I began seeing their faces show up at public events.

A man in his 60s showed up at the Hennepin County Courthouse on the morning of the pretrial hearing for the 36 people being charged in conjunction with the Mall of America protests. A 17-year-old (one of the few youth in the group) was a part of a group of nearly 1,000 Twin Cities area students who walked out of their schools on May Day to support Black Lives Matter and the MOA 36. When I saw them both at these events, they both commented on how, without their participation in these dialogues and without the invitation to attend, they wouldn’t have come. But, nonetheless, here they were – and my guess is it will not be the last time for either of them!

It’s incredible to me how many white people have never been invited to show up for racial justice – ever – which translates into a huge number of people who have basically tuned out to the issue. Invitations – especially personal ones – are incredibly powerful, and when the invitation is grounded in relationship and mutual respect, my experience is that people tend to say ‘yes.’ Maybe not the first time, or the second, but eventually – if you invite people often enough to come along as a partner in the work – many, many people will take you up on it.

Ashley Horan is a Unitarian Universalist minister serving as the executive director of MUUSJA: The MN Unitarian Universalist Social Justice Alliance. She feels deeply called to nurture the spiritual health of The Movement, which generally looks to her like spiritual people getting more politically grounded and political people getting more spiritually grounded. She lives with her beloved, the Rev. Karen Hutt, and their two children, Zi, 14, and Aspen Bell, 5 months, in Minneapolis.

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