Advancing justice for women and girls and promoting their spiritual growth

UUA Presidential Candidate Susan Frederick-Gray

Justice: My name is Justice and I am the president of the UU Women’s Federation. Our questions are specifically related to both the spiritual lives and justice-seeking for women and girls and how that’s connected to Unitarian Universalism. So, that said, I’m starting with the first question. And our Board members will introduce themselves as they ask the questions.
What is your current perception of the UUWF?

GA2012 – Plenary V UU minister from Phoenix who will organize Phoenix events. Photo/Nancy Pierce

Susan: I was thinking back to meeting with Marti Keller. We were both at Pickett & Eliot House back in 2011. I was working on justice and GA and she was there for a Women’s Federation Meeting. And was telling me about the energy and how UUWF was going and new energy and young leaders coming in, but that has been my perception – that conversation with Marti in 2011 or 2012.

Justice: Marti is our Minister. She is on staff with UUWF.

Susan: … it really has been through knowing Marti and her work that I’ve known the UUWF.

Justice: Excellent. Thank you.

Beth: I’m Beth Dana. I serve on the board as Vice President for Recruitment and Outreach and I am also one of the ministers at the First Unitarian in Dallas. As you know, the UUWF is an associate member organization of the UUA. How do you see the relationship between the UUA and the UUWF currently? And how would you like it to change if you become president?

Susan: I think the UUWF as a source of growing women’s leadership for the larger movement is really important. You all are already leaders. Justice, I’m familiar with your leadership on behalf of Unitarian Universalism for many years now. I think that one of the ways that the Associate organizations can be in a stronger relationship with the UUA is both through collaborative conversations about the future of our faith and I think the UUWF has an important role in that. How we imagine the next 25 years of Unitarian Universalism and that visioning needs to be collaborative. It needs to be informed by women’s voices. It needs to be informed by people of color. I think that’s a key thing. And then I think the other piece of it is growing leadership for the larger movement. I see a number of our associate organizations around the country as being sources of leadership development for the faith overall. Whether than happens through UUWF or people are a part of UUWF and then also in larger staff or lay leadership roles for the association.

Justice: It’s interesting that the Associate Member category — we’re actually one of only two organizations that have it. The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee is the other. That’s been part of our history. It’s a fascinating category and one of our goals is to clarify what that looks like as well. So, I appreciate that, absolutely.

Gretchen: I’m Gretchen. I’m the VP of Communications on the board and I’m from Michigan. What do you feel is the most pressing issue for women within our denomination?

Susan: I think we still have a lot of work to do in overcoming patriarchal structures. Overcoming patriarchy even in our own faith. You know, probably one of the challenges is feeling like maybe a perception which has truth in it — I want to be clear on that, truth in it — that half our ministry currently is women. That we have a long history of women’s leadership in our faith. But we haven’t really overcome all the obstacles to women and women’s voices shaping how we run our association. How we lead as a spiritual and moral faith community. And so probably one of the challenges is figuring out how to continue to move forward, to continue to encourage and push our association forward in collaborative and non-oppressive ways of being and leading.

In a context where we can sometimes feel like we’ve made a lot of progress, and we have made a lot of progress. I don’t know if that makes sense. It’s sort of the… I want to celebrate the progress and you don’t wanna just pat yourself on the back. And that’s the challenge. I think it’s really a challenge for women in the United States as well. We haven’t arrived fully, sufficiently enough. And we’re facing more and more challenges. It’s interesting being one of three women candidates — all women candidates — for the UUA presidency but we still see the ways in which… I mean it’s something we brought up when we were first shaping our covenant. That we may all be women but we didn’t write this game. We didn’t make the rules. This is a system that we wouldn’t have designed. But we’re playing in that system and so I think that’s a challenge for UU women across the association.

Claire: Hi, I’m Claire Sexton. I’m Vice President for Funding Programs for UUWF. I currently live in Waco, Texas. My question for you, and these are standard questions for everybody, is:
How do you define intersectionality? And where does gender fit within intersectionality within Unitarian Universalism?

Susan: I define intersectionality as mindfulness of the ways that oppressions can intersect, that people can experience multiple levels of oppression. White women experience patriarchy. Women of color experience patriarchy and racism. And the ways that those can compound one’s experience of oppression, the obstacles to one’s liberation. The other way I define intersectionality is around an analysis of power and an analysis of how we move forward in bold justice movements, making sure that we are working at the intersections of change so that we are trying to push change that is both anti-racist, anti-patriarchal, anti-oppressive for immigrants. That we’re trying to find places to push forward injustice and take into account a variety of marginalized identities and experiences.

Susan: Could you repeat the second part of the question?

Claire: Where does gender fit within intersectionality within Unitarian Universalism?

Susan: I would say that even as a white woman I have a significant amount of privilege because of my skin color, because of my education, because of being middle class, growing up middle class. I think that there’s way in which — because of that privilege — it’s hard to be explicit about sexism and trying to understand that intersectional oppression, racial oppression is an issue that we can’t put… (laughs) This will be a fun transcript! What I want to say is that I think it is important to be mindful of the ways that women’s oppression is real, that we have to push for the greater liberation around that. And that as a white woman I’m mindful of the privilege that I have and of not just cutting issues along gender oppression.

Justice: In what way do you see the UUA currently addressing issues surrounding women and girls?

Susan: The thing that comes to mind about the UUA’s current work is around the Congregation Study Action Issue for reproductive justice that was in 2012. That is the example that sticks out in my mind. Passing that CSAI and as well as being mindful of intersectional oppression with that CSAI. However, what I believe the Unitarian Universalist Association needs more than anything is a clear and compelling vision for our faith and how we need to articulate and move forward our values in this time. I do not see the work around women’s liberation at the forefront of what the UUA does, nor necessarily reflected in the strategic ends. And I also identify that one of the ways that we are organized as an association is that we have CSAIs that come out of the General Assemblies and strategic ends that are set by the board that the President is accountable for. And those two things don’t necessarily relate. And when they don’t relate it’s hard for us to move forward with real impact.

One of the things that I think is an obstacle to our full effectiveness as a faith movement is that we disperse power in such a way that it’s really hard for us to mobilize our full resources towards making a clear and measurable difference in the world. I would love to see a real mindfulness about women’s liberation, the liberation of women and girls articulated in our strategic values and our strategic ends and bring together, galvanizing all our resources to work on that. Not at the exclusion of our anti-racism, anti-oppressive agenda as well. But I think there needs to be a mindfulness about empowering young UU women and girls, leadership development for women and girls, and having those commitments be a part of how we see the future for our faith.

Justice: That really speaks to the next piece of the question. But if there’s anything more you would want to say, the second piece is: Do you see the UUA putting new resources into legislative work on behalf of women and girls?

Susan: I don’t know that that kind of change will happen right away. I think it has to be led by a clear vision, setting strategic goals that we’re gonna measure over the long term. And that the work for the president, initially, is helping to clarify the strategic ends of the association. What I see is we could be in a transformative moment for our faith. Again, going back to our power analysis, and some of this is deeply rooted in the issues of trust that live in our tradition since the merger of the Unitarians and the Universalists. They live in our bylaws. I see this as a transformational moment. A time to really move our faith forward to be vision- and mission-focused and supporting our organization to be focused collaboratively and collectively around a common mission/vision. And that that will allow long-term change over many, many years. Going back to the power analysis — that we disperse power so much it’s hard to get anything done. It’s hard for people to figure out how to make change in the association. And one of the things that happens when we disperse power so much… I think we call it democratic but it actually supports the status quo. Because it’s really hard to get accountability, it’s really hard to figure out how to move things when there’s not a real clear structure. I would love to see us embrace a way of being a more effective faith movement for our country, for our planet, for our people. And I think if we can embrace those kind of changes, that we will make system changes that launch us into a lot more effectiveness for the future.

Justice: I’m fascinated by the language around dispersing power, and our power structure. It’s so deeply ingrained in how we are structured. Do you have thoughts about how you’d be able to change the power structure of the organization?

Susan: It will take the commitment of Unitarian Universalists around the country to make it happen. Because so much of it is in our bylaws and the president can’t change the bylaws. Only the general assembly can change the bylaws. It’s another reason why I think the vision is so important. Because I think we have to be clear about why we want to make change and that’s always about mission and vision. That’s always about impact. I think there needs to be a really strong team that’s diverse and representative of the diversity of our faith, and the diversity we hope to see in our faith, that thinks about how would we structure a religious organization for the 21st century. It’ll take several years because we have to organize the buy-in, the understanding, the communication. It’s not something simple. But I think it will allow us to be more effective for the future. (laughing) And if any people love bylaws, as I go around I want to know who loves that sort of stuff, because it’s not for everyone.

Justice: Marti just raised her hand.

Susan: I’m writing your name down, Marti. (laughter)

Gretchen: Here’s a diversity-related question for you. What do you see as the UUA’s role in the future of trans women’s rights and safety, especially trans women of color?

Susan: I was in New Orleans. I was preaching there at the First UU Church when that brick came through the window Sunday, last weekend. And I was really struck by their call. I was struck by how committed they are to mission and how… they’ve been under attack for their work already, for supporting Planned Parenthood. One of the leaders said, “It could be our work for Planned Parenthood, that someone threw the brick. It could be the transgender forum for the police that we held. It could be our Black Lives Matter banner. We don’t know.” So it’s nice to have communities that are so bold and are living in our values and mission. But they have a whole host of things that they feel like people might be upset with them for their leadership and witness.
One of the things that I think is important when we think about strategic planning — and this is one of the things I have done a lot of in Phoenix and it’s something I feel can be really effective for us as a faith —  when we identify where we are uniquely positioned to make a difference in the world. Where our voice is uniquely needed and then we put our resources there. Transgender rights is a place where Unitarian Universalists have already been doing work. Not sufficient work; there’s always more to be done. But it’s a place where other faith communities are not as ready, are not as educated, as not as committed. So I think when we decide where we can make a difference, we have to think about where other faith communities are not necessarily standing strong. Where our voice is really needed. When it comes to transgender rights, I think that’s a place where our voice is needed. We should think collaboratively and intersectionally with communities of color and with transgender communities of color about how we can be in partnership for the safety and the protection and the dignity and the rights of our transgender siblings.

Beth:  What do you think the UUA and UU congregations can do to improve the health and lives of women they employ?

Susan: Oooohhh! Fair compensation, benefits, flexibility for child care. I think those things are absolutely critical. On the day of the Women’s Strike, women on our staff (not involving me) talked about whether they wanted to strike… what they wanted to do. They decided to come to work and one of the things we did at staff meeting is women shared why they wanted to come to UUCP as a workplace. And one of the things lifted up… one of our staff members who is a woman said, “I am confident that if I were a man I would not be getting paid more than I’m getting paid.” Like, I am confident I’m getting paid the value of my work. Another person lifted up that there was flexibility for families and children when kids are sick, when we have family issues we have to deal with, there’s a flexibility and a mindfulness about that. And then the other thing we’re doing this year in our staff team, is we are actually setting aside time in our staff meeting every week, inviting women on the staff to share how experiences in the world are impacting their female-identified gender. Because we also have people who identify as genderqueer on staff.

What we’re trying to do is centralize the voices of women. We’re trying to lift up the reality that sexism does still exist in our congregations as well as in the larger world. We want to build more allies among the whole staff for the work and the conversation that needs to happen. You know, it’s been really powerful to do that. As I said, I think it’s a challenging thing because, in so many ways, women have made tremendous strides. And I think sometimes it interferes with our ability to name the way sexism still operates… silences our voices sometimes. We’re trying to create this little bit of space to be naming those things.

Claire:  As you know, the Declaration of Conscience made no mention of the status of women as an oppressed group. Please comment.

Susan: (sighs) I think that your voices as the UUWF are critical. And our voices as women are critical in our association. So that those oversights don’t happen.
You know there are so many ways in which we’re looking at this national budget being proposed and how it violates and threatens the lives, and health, and safety of women, is frightening. There’s two things — there’s the budget for the federal government being proposed and the changes to the Affordable Care Act — removing the mandates that women have to be covered for maternity — because maybe women don’t want that — but yet we’re also not gonna fund contraception. We’re not gonna fund any of the things that would help women be in control of their bodies and their reproductive decisions. And yet, we’re also not going to mandate that all women… and that that is just a cost of healthcare for our humanity… is that, people have children. And those children need healthcare. And families and mothers need healthcare when they’re pregnant. The attacks on women are going to grow under the Trump administration. There’s no doubt about that. We need the voices of women at the top of our faith tradition to articulate a different way forward for women, for families, for children, for girls, for men, for boys. All of us, a different way forward.

Justice: This, I think, ties into what you just said about girls and boys and everyone. How do you see the UUA strengthening the spiritual growth of girls?

Susan: I grew up a Unitarian Universalist. I’m a lifelong UU. My parents found the UU church because my mother was working on the Equal Rights Amendment in St. Louis and she had left organized religion at like 12 years old. She did not agree with what she was hearing in her southern Methodist Church. And the Eliot Chapel in St. Louis invited her to speak and gather signatures for the ERA. And she thought, “What type of church is inviting a woman to come get signatures for the ERA.” And that was her entry into Unitarian Universalism. And then my being born in the faith and being raised in the faith. One of the things about my mom and her feminism is that she named me after Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. So, I’m Susan Elizabeth. Susan B. Anthony is a first cousin of mine, fifth generation. I grew up being told about women leaders and how they changed the world. And how they worked for greater justice and liberation. When I was in middle school, high school different things… when I would come home at the beginning of the year my mom would look through the textbooks to see who was in the index and who was not in the index, and supplement my education. So that’s the story.

Here’s the thing. We need to talk about how are we educating our girls and boys to be liberating, revolutionary voices. You know, in Arizona they have outlawed Mexican studies. They’ve outlawed ethnic studies in the state. There is increasing calls for banning books. So, I think as faith communities we have to think about how do we morally, spiritually, politically educate our kids to know the power that they have, the leadership skills inside of them and how to unlock them. I feel like that was a part of my training and my upbringing. It was supported by the church but a lot of it came from my mom and from my parents. But I think in this time we need to be thinking about how are our children’s ministry programs places where our young people are being educated about the things that they may not be taught in school. About how people have worked for liberation. We’ve seen it in Arizona. Cutting off education, cutting off girls and boys from the history of how humanity has moved forward is going to be a huge loss. I think we could be a place where we are nurturing that kind of education. To me, political liberation is also spiritual liberation. They’re not separated; they are connected. We have to teach the prayer practices and helping people articulate their connection to creation and to life. Political liberation is important for nurturing one’s ongoing spiritual liberation. And vice versa.

Claire: The UUWF is a funding organization. What are your pet projects or personal passions on behalf of UU women and girls?

Susan: Hmmmm… healthcare. Healthcare for women and girls. Healthcare for mothers. Again, this is an issue where, across the board, whether it’s cuts to childcare stipends, cuts to food stamps, cuts to women’s health and reproductive care. These are all going to be incredibly damaging to families, to women, to their children.

Claire: The next thing on our agenda is develop a statement around the Affordable Care Act coming from the UUWF.

Justice: One of our most recent funding projects was providing stipends for childcare through Standing on the Side of Love for Black Lives Matter activists.

Susan: Ohhh, very nice.

Justice: Thank you so very much for your time.

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