UUA Presidential Candidate Alison Miller
Justice: Let’s jump in. Our Board Members will be doing a deeper introduction as we split up the questions. The questions, no one’s seen them and we’re asking the exact questions in the same order. … I’m Justice, President of the UU Women’s Federation and a member of All Souls Unitarian Church here in Tulsa. The first question is, what is your current perception of the UU Women’s Federation?
Alison: I have the benefit of having volunteered for the UU Women’s Federation over the years and so what I’ve observed … in the last decade is … a desire to shift from an organization that not only serves women in our congregations, but has a larger vision of service to women and trans identified folks, gender equity, in the world outside of congregations. So, putting our faith values into action in the world. That’s been the biggest shift. … I think there have been years where it’s been very clear, the activity of the UUWF has been very … strong and impactful and, in other years where it’s been trying to find its voice. … I’ve certainly been paying attention … as the UUWF has, very clearly, made a very intentional effort around age diversity, for example. Once again it seems to be ramping up in terms of impact around gender justice in the world.
Justice: Excellent. Thank you so much Alison.
Beth: I’m Beth. We know each other, but I serve on the Board as Vice President for Recruitment Outreach.
My question is, … the UUWF is one of only two Associate Member Organizations of the UUA, the other being the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. … This is a two part question, … How do you see the relationship between the UUA and the UUWF currently and how would you like to see that be, or how would you like to see it change if you become President of the UUA?
Alison: I’m going to answer this question in the context of something … broader. … one thing I have seen as an opportunity for the incoming President is that, the Unitarian Universalist Association has had a lot of internal priorities in the last 8 years. They’ve achieved the move, … there’s a lot more to be done with restructuring, but … have had some significant movement on some internal priorities. At the same time, I think there are opportunities … to reconnect with congregations and UU institutions outside of the UUA. There was a time, years ago, when all of the affiliated institutions were separated from the UUA and I think it remains to be seen how all of the UU institutions can actually collaborate and support one another to greater effect.
One example, in the last several years, is the collaborative campaign, where the UUA, the UUSC, the UU identity divinity schools, and the Church of the Larger Fellowship have partnered around a … fundraising campaign to strengthen Unitarian Universalism in the future. The UUA and the UUWF have done that in the past. When I worked at the Development Office, there was a partnership between UUA Development staff and the UUWF to really create a gender justice intern in the Washington office, when we were ramping up those internships in the Washington office. I actually see possibilities for the UUWF and UUA to partner, still, around how we impact gender justice issues in our nation. I feel like there’s an opportunity, right now, a sad opportunity in many ways, with the election of President number 45, and really, an urgent opportunity for us to seize this moment; to be a clear voice for women’s rights in the world at the time that so many issues that we cherish are so threatened.
Justice: Alison, what was the name of this collaborative thing that the divinity schools and CLF?
Alison: It’s called “the Collaborative Campaign.” It’s a capital campaign. … I’ll say one more thing, … to name clearly the UUA and UUWF, to my view, have actually not been collaborating in recent years and so there’s a lot of missed opportunities because of that. I’m on the UU Legislative Ministry of New Jersey’s Board and president of the Public Policy Network; we’re seeing such a need to really lean into the reproductive rights of women of color … I really do see that there’s an opportunity for us to strengthen one another’s voices.
I also think that there’s a myth that … sexism is eradicated from Unitarian Universalist institutions and that is certainly not my experience. I think there’s been great improvement and the more that I talk to people throughout the association, including a lunch I had earlier today, the impacts of sexism are still felt in our congregations and institutions. How might the UUWF and UUA actually partner, going back to some of the original work the UUWF was involved in, to really talk about what it looks like to create gender justice within our walls, within our congregations, as well as in the world? And how can we partner around those opportunities?
Justice: Fantastic. Thank you.
Gretchen: My name is Gretchen Ohmann and I’m the VP of Communications. Among the issues that UUs have been faced with, if you had to pick one, [what do you see] as the most pressing issue, for women within UUsim.
Alison: … To return to what I was just talking about. If the question is about Unitarian Universalism itself, I think so many of our institutions were created at a time when the patriarchy was really … embedded into the bedrock of so many of our congregations and institutions. … I think there’s an opportunity for a collaborative relationship between the UUWF and UUA to help congregations move to the next level.
There are many ways we see this. For example, the number of women who are in the ministry is more than 50 percent. If we were to actually … mine the data and find out what is the disparity between how we pay our women ministers and other staff. What is the disparity about what kinds of positions women are able to reach. Also, in our own congregations, I don’t want to assume, amongst the lay leadership, how … are gender justice issues rearing their heads. Even in terms of conflict that might arise in the congregations or on boards. I think that that’s core to our mission and how we seek to build the beloved community.
Outside of the congregations, I would say a really key issue in these times is going to be looking at something like reproductive rights and access and, in particular, looking at how are certain groups of women disproportionately disadvantaged, like women of color or poor women.
Claire: It’s like you’re reading our page. Claire Sexton, Vice President.
Alison: Raised by a feminist.
Claire: My question for you is, how do you define intersectionality and where does gender fit within intersectionality, within Unitarian Universalism?
Alison: How I define intersectionality, or how I understand it … is really looking at the ways that linked oppressions interact with one another. I would say that, obviously, in terms of gender justice, trans identified individuals are often the most likely to be disadvantaged by forces in our society. It would be even more so for a trans identified woman of color.
Claire: How does gender fit within … UUism?
Alison: The way that it fits within Unitarian Universalism in particular is that I think we have a commitment, especially around raising, whether they’re children or adults, raising up individuals to really honor the gender continuum and I think that that work around trans justice and women’s rights is so critical for Unitarian Universalists, again, in our congregations and outside. And, in particular, looking at who are the people who identify as women and trans, which are the other intersectional identities that are particularly threatened. It feels like “threatened” is the right word in these times.
Frankly, I live in Morris County, which is a very conservative part of the country. We traditionally have been on the forefront of gender issues, and also LGBT rights, and so I think it’s critical that we remain on the forefront in creative and powerful ways in this time when we’re seeing that there’s going to be … a backlash against these individuals.
I want to say, too, that our congregations are both of the culture and counter cultural. We’re naïve to think that we’re not going to experience that backlash within our own congregations as well. How can we equip all the new people that come and want to come and be with us to be partners in this work.
Justice: In what ways do you see the UUA currently addressing issues surrounding women and girls?
Alison: There is the Clara Barton. I wanted to ask this question. The Clara Barton Intern, I know, gets filled many years, but not all years. I did want to ask you … because I did go online. I’m trying to see whether or not there is still a Clara Barton Intern.
Justice: We currently do not have one. This will be a really significant conversation with our incoming UUA President.
Alison: So, I would make a comment about that. One of the challenges that we have is that, now a lot of thoughts have just flooded into my head because I was already thinking about what I would say if that was the case … the Unitarian Universalist Association passes resolutions at general assembly and those resolutions used to actually help guide the work of the Washington office, of which the gender justice, the Clara Barton Intern was a part. Now … that’s not certain to exist, it sounds like, at this point.
Being that I’m very engaged in the work of justice beyond our congregations and in the Legislative Ministry, there’s really a disconnect between what we say we’re for when we gather. Then, what are the opportunities for implementation? I think one of the last positions that was connected to that, in some ways, is that Clara Barton Intern. So I think we really need to think about how it is that we strengthen our voice in the world. I think we’ve been very strong on public witness in some areas. But what do we do after the tee shirts and the banners go home? How do we work for change over the long haul? I think that intern is an example of the kinds of positions that we want to be engaged in.
Again, we are the faith tradition that tends to be on the front lines around issues of gender justice and trans justice and also LGBTQ justice. I think we bridge between us and other faiths. We also create a bridge between us and the secular community. These are groups of people that have been suspicious, and rightfully so, of religious traditions. I think we back off of something that’s really a time … honored tradition for us to be out front on this because we know that our voice is so important on these issues.
Besides that, I think that the UUA … has at times offered adult education programs that have been rooted in feminist theology; womanist theology and liberation in terms of both rituals, I think about Cakes for the Queen of Heaven, many years ago, and more updated curriculum. I actually see an opportunity there.
Part of my answer to this question is, I’m not seeing a lot of emphasis around gender justice right now or gender equity in our congregations. Coming out of the UUA, outside of OWL, helping to support trans identified youth … as one example that is something that we are doing. I know that, as a Minister, we host the Gay Activist Alliance of Morris County, and because they know that we have OWL, I get calls. So transgender youth, who are wrestling with issues will need to speak to a minister who is supportive, from other traditions, will often come to my office. Again, that’s a network within my congregation. I’m not really feeling that come from the UUA itself, but OWL is definitely helpful.
Justice: Absolutely. I think you hit on it because one of our questions is, if elected President, do you see the UUA putting new resources into programming, support, and legislative work on behalf of women and girls?
Alison: Love this question and I’ll share one thing I was thinking about. … I think it’s a powerful thing to have our first elected women identified President. I think it’s an opportunity for us to really leverage the faith voice, to impact the lives of women and girls in the world and in our congregations.
I think … it’s doubly important because we don’t want to become guilty of what this country … that many of us live in, became guilty of, which was that some people felt that electing a black man was somehow the ultimate end of all of the work of Civil Rights and anti-racism. It was never about one woman or one man; it’s about a vision of the beloved community that we are still at a great distance from. I think it’s especially important, electing our first woman, to really be engaged around these issues of gender justice that affect women and girls in the world and in our congregations. It’s just natural that the [UUA] President, as a woman faith leader, will be able to help, with partners, be a voice for women’s rights in the world.
When I think about one of the most challenging issues right now, especially with a global perspective, as someone that serves the Church of the Larger Fellowship, as Chair of the Board, and thinking about global Unitarian Universalists, the situation with women and girls around the country, around the globe, access to education … the challenge of modern day slavery and sex slavery; there’s so many issues. And right here at home around reproductive rights. I think it’s a shame for us not to seize the opportunity, that having a woman President offers, to shine a light on these issues. Again, working in partnership with others. It’s not about one person, but it does make a difference. There’s an authenticity to having a woman President speaking about women’s issues and girls’ issues.
Justice: Thank you very much. Again, on the mind reading front.
Gretchen: What do you see is the UUA’s role in the future of trans women’s right and safety, and especially trans women of color, which, of course, you already touched on? Maybe you could talk about something specific.
Alison: I think that is … exactly where we should be leading, not alone, in partnership with trans organizations that are lifting up the voices and the needs of people who identify as women and people of color. Absolutely. I think when it comes to justice issues, we always have to ask ourselves, “what are our opportunities to leverage interfaith partnerships?” And really lean into some of the most pressing issues of our time; let’s say around economic justice.
Another question is, what are the things we are called to respond to? Because we know that Unitarian Universalists are a unique religious voice. Not the only, but yet still an important religious voice that if we were to step back, the religious landscape would be altered in the direction of danger. To me, the needs of trans identified women of color is precisely that place. My congregation was the first place that LGBTI identified folks were welcome to come in the whole county. So, when an issue rises up that impacts that community in particular, we have to be present. We’re called to be present. If we’re not present, a good portion, not the only portion, thank goodness, things have changed, but a good portion of the religious community disappears. We have an opportunity to effect change. We have achieved some things like marriage equality, but it wasn’t about marriage equality. It was about that vision of the beloved community where people’s whole selves were welcome to the table and where they didn’t have to fear that if someone discovered that they were trans that they’d be fired. … It’s about all of these connected issues.
Gretchen: Thank you.
Beth: I have the next question and you spoke to this a little bit, so I … invite you to be more specific in this. The question is, what do you think that the UUA and UU congregations can do to improve the health and lives of women that they employ?
Alison: Even that they serve. Number 1, … I think the UUA needs a national strategy around advocacy. Right now, it’s way too piecemeal. Looking at, let’s say reproductive rights, especially with the intersection of women of color, I would love to see the UUA actively planting justice ministries across the country.
Right now, the UUA has a strategy of waiting to see if a state wants to create something. I think that we need to have, for all of the issues that we want to be furthering which affects the work lives of women who are in our congregations, who work in our congregations, or who are volunteers, whether or not their workplaces offer family leave, … things connected to costs around reproductive rights, or supporting trans medical needs, for example; what we’re missing, right now, is a national strategy. I would be much more proactive about either something that looks like a federal voice for the UUA or a national strategy of planting those kinds of ministries across the country, or both.
In terms of directly impacting the people that work in our congregations, we have an opportunity … The convening role of the UUA and the data mining role. I think it’s time to … do a survey to find out what women, people who identify as women, people who identify as men, or trans are being paid in our association and actually reflecting back how we’re doing. Looking at different professions, like Directors of Religious Education or even the Ministry, and taking a look at … People talk a lot about how the feminization of a profession will also accompany devaluing of that profession. How are we doing with the gender justice lens? That fits right into this economic sustainability of Ministry. Moving beyond the economic sustainability of Ministry to the economic sustainability of staff working for our congregations. I think that’s a missing piece there. The same thing with benefits. How are we actually supporting the women who are actually supporting and tending our faith. Of course, in that process we would also discover how we are supporting men and things like fathers being able to have time to take care of children when they’re first born or adopted, or things like that.
I think the UUA can do more in terms of showing bench marks for our congregations. That’s just one example, but that would be a big project and I think it would be impactful.
Claire: As you may have noticed, the Declaration of Conscience, coming out of UUA, made no mention of the status of women as an oppressed group. Do you have anything to say about that, one way or the other?
Alison: So, she sighs. … I think this is part of that danger, which is that women are so many of the strong leaders in our faith and … that creates or fuels a myth that somehow the Unitarian Universalists are finished with sexism. Which on one hand, completely ignores the situation for trans identified people in our congregations and … is simply not true. I really think that, obviously, we need to own how much progress has happened and that’s a good thing. It’s an inspiring thing that my Great Great Aunt, Florence Fenwick Miller, was fighting for the rights of women to be able to vote and was the first to speak at my alma mater, Bryn Mawr, about women’s right to vote and that’s a right that I’ve been able to take for granted. … When I think about the erosion of the voting rights Act and how that affects people of color, that’s an experience I have as a white woman. …
Because of so many feminists who’ve gone before me, I have rights that I can take for granted. On the other hand, I need to pay attention to how sisters of color may not be enjoying those same rights because of the intersection with race. I need to be looking at, when we do take it for granted. What I have seen is aspects of Roe vs Wade get overturned and there’s a huge backlash. I think we just saw that … I would say sexism has reared its head here on the campaign trail, even with three women running against one another.
I think we cannot take rights for granted and that there are ways in which … women have not achieved equity. The gains of the past are a reason to continue to press on and to be a model of holding hands and bringing others alongside of us. It felt great to be at the Women’s March chanting, “black lives matter.” It felt very hard for me that, when that chant was said aloud, the volume was diminished. I think that because we are a group that’s experienced, as a white woman I’ve experienced both privilege and sexism, it, hopefully, helps me be a better leader and to pay attention to where we’re rolling back on sexism and where we haven’t gone far enough around racism, around trans issues, around immigration status, around many other pieces.
Justice: Excellent. Thank you Alison. Two more questions. One is, how do you see the UUA strengthening the spiritual growth of girls? Also boys, but part of our mission is girls and women. So, looking at our youth, our children, how do you see the UUA strengthening the spiritual lives of our girls?
Alison: This is everything and I think sometimes Unitarian Universalists forget this. I’m a lifelong Unitarian Universalist, but I’m also half Jewish. My mother’s family is Jewish. I bring an interfaith identity, I was raised in an interfaith family.
I was just talking with someone who’s a leader … nationally, around religious education for children in Reformed Judaism. They’re very clear that a priority for the entire faith is equipping their children to have strong spiritual centers and to lead lives that are grounded in the traditions, the rituals, and the sustaining theologies and stories. Stories are so important.
Unitarian Universalists, at times, seem to forget the importance of ministry with the rising generations and we do this at our own peril. We, right now, have a situation at the UUA, which I think is interesting. When you look at who has a seat at the table, the executive council does not include the highest level staff person that’s tending the lives of our children. At a time when we’re really wrestling with ministry to families and religious education and how to adapt it for today and for the future, I see that as a mistake. Not only is that a third of the number of Unitarian Universalists that have signed the book as adults, are children. It’s very strange not to privilege those children’s needs, then, at the center, where strategic planning is happening.
It also mirrors … some of the challenges that we’re having. Number 1, … we need to strengthen our programs with families and with children and really invest in that in the coming administration. That will be one of my priorities. The second thing I want to say about that is that, there are leadership development pipelines that exist when youth ministry and young adult ministry are strong. We need to strengthen those networks and, absolutely, strengthening the spiritual lives and the leadership abilities of girls and young women should be, very much, a part of that leadership development pipeline. We should have an eye to the gender balance and equity of people that are coming through so that we have, not only for its own sake, but these children, and youth, and future adults are equipped to lead lives that are whole. They’re also the future leaders of our faith who will be able to, also, equip and recruit others for whom Unitarian Universalism is the right fit for their spirits.
Claire: The last question is, we’re a funding organization, what are your personal passions or pet projects on behalf of UU women and girls? What kind of things are you interested in doing or hoping we would do?
Alison: I’m going to lift up something interesting. In the justice work that I’ve been doing in northern New Jersey, something that I do notice is that Unitarian Universalists are sometimes less felt on some of the economic justice issues that disproportionately affect women who carry intersectional identities alongside of that gender identity.
We’re, sometimes, notably absent. We are often on the front lines … of reproductive rights, which is so critical, although we haven’t been so much of late, let’s own that. That’s not been an issue Unitarians have been working on recently as much, at least through their churches. At the same time, we’ve been absent … for benefits that affect families and disproportionately affect mothers, women, and children. So I see an opportunity … for the UUWF to be funding both our front line work around gender identity and around reproductive rights, but also to interview communities of color, women of color, and to find out, what are the issues that are most affecting their ability to change the circumstance for their family in ways that they want.
What we found in northern New Jersey is that … the ability to leave to care for aging parents or for anyone who’s sick is critical. The ability to access really good early childhood learning opportunities is critical. There’s not enough early learning centers to prepare … communities of color or poor communities for public school. With Betsy DeVos coming in, there may be some need to really support schools, then, childcare vouchers. What is it that’s keeping people from work, if that’s what they want? If they want to be working outside of the home and continuing their career, so often it’s the disproportionate cost of childcare.
How might we, as Unitarian Universalists, lean into some of those economic issues that disproportionately affect women? When I’ve worked with Black Lives Matter, Morristown, that’s what the women in our community are saying would make a really big difference in their lives. So, I’m curious, on a national scale, what that might be.
Justice: It’s funny you brought that up because one of our most recent partnerships was with Standing on the Side of Love giving money to organizers in the Black Lives Matter movement for childcare. That was within the last three months. We had piloted it via Standing on the Side of Love.
Alison: That’s a great example.
Justice: I love that. That’s our last question. Alison, anything for us?
Alison: I’d love to know … out of curiosity’s sake too, outside of the UUWF’s direct work, what are the other issues that cross your work that wind up getting raised in the rest of the association?
Justice: What do you mean by end up getting raised in the rest of the association?
Alison: Like religious education, to me, is an issue that’s … outside of the UUWF, but connects with it. I’m just curious when you’re talking to each other, is it international work? What is the work that winds up getting raised that maybe crosses the work that’s … core to the UUWF? … Where you see you might have opportunities for partnership because I’m thinking about, as a future President who wants to be doing more with the institutions, I also want to be connecting institutions with one another. I would be curious if there’s another area of the UUA, or outside of the UUA and the UU universe that comes up a lot that you’d like to partner with.
Claire: We had that this morning. We had the good fortune of being in Tulsa where Arlene Johnson lives. She is the President of the International Women’s Convocation at this moment. We had a conversation with her to … talk about where we fit with each other … They raise money to do projects internationally, whereas UUWF it’s domestic and the US, primarily.
One of the things that we’re working towards in our funding programs … is more along the lines of partnerships than just rent making. So, not just, “here’s some money, give us a report in a year …” Let’s work together. How can we, as a group, connect you to resources that may help you make this project happen. … To the point of commissioning projects, more so, than just accepting proposals.
Justice: We have partner relationships. I know SisterSong [SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective].
Alison: I’ve worked with SisterSong, I’ll mention that, with the UU Legislative Ministry, our reproductive justice…
Justice: The DC [interfaith] legislative partnerships, interfaith partnerships. We just crafted our statement on the Affordable Care Act and the moral imperative of comprehensive healthcare.
Marti: I’m not sure UUA is doing that.
Alison: I think that’s where there a real opportunity for UUWF, at least, right now. This might change in the future in a good way.
Justice: I’ve been very proud of the UU Women’s Federation and Marti [Keller] as our Minister and the leadership that’s been shown by our Board and staff. In some ways, I [see] the absence of a UU voice from the UUA, as of late and I think you’ve alluded to that. That is something that … we are seeking to be and something that we hope we aren’t alone forever in. We’re definitely excited for a deeper partnership with the UUA in that way. Really appreciate your time.
Alison: I think it’s very exciting and I appreciate you making the time for the presidential candidates too.
Justice: We appreciate you and I want everyone to know that willingness to step into the ring in this type of a leadership … it’s such a huge leadership space that you’re looking to hold a position that’s so powerful and meaningful … I think we all know there’s … our struggling country, which leads to a struggling world. I think also we’ve had some struggling challenges within Unitarian Universalism, UUA itself has too. I admire, so deeply, … all of your willingness to step in and bring your talents to the table. Thank you for your leadership.
Alison: Thank you. Thank you, thank you. I’ll mention just one last thing. This is more like a teaser. I’d like people to follow the campaign and consider since I know you’re all in different congregations supporting my campaign, at least consider supporting it. One of the other things we haven’t talked about as much, but I think gets to the spiritual lives of girls and women is, I can imagine a UUA that’s supporting a much more robust amount of resources for worship. Our canons are still so … white, so male, the saints and the canons. What would it look like to really infuse resources; music by women, readings by women. What could the UUA do to really expand in partnership … with a group like the UUWF to expand what we have at our fingertips to create worship. Not just on Sunday mornings. That’s my teaser for anyone who wants to have a conversation about some of the other areas like igniting faith.