Many people who do not live in Detroit perceive the city as an example of the nation’s despair and the demise of “The American Dream.” Yet, Detroit proved a perfect setting for what later may be seen as a watershed event in UU history.

Thirty UU leaders from around the nation recently came away from a strategic gathering there energized and inspired by local activists and committed to an ambitious action plan for congregational organizing and ministry which weaves together racial, economic, and environmental justice. Pictured in the photo – First row (planning team): Frances Sink, Mike Hogue, Pam Sparr, Mark Hicks, Kurt Kuhwald; Second row: Beth Johnson, Peggy Clarke, Jessica Halperin, Mel Hoover, Rose Edington, Leisa Huyck, Karen Brammer, Meck Groot, Paula Cole Jones, Jan Taddeo; Third row: Manish Mishra-Marzetti, Evan Junker, Nancy King-Smith, Barbara Ford, Christopher Sims, Evan Seitz, Sue Karlson, Irene Keim, Kat Liu. Not pictured: Jennifer Nordstrom, Patricia Jones, Matt Friedrichs, Mary Lou Malone, Roger Mohr.

“We are thrilled by the outcome of our time together. It exceeded our expectations,” notes Irene Keim, chair of the board of UU Ministry for Earth (UUMFE), which organized and hosted the event. “I think we all felt this was a big leap forward for our denomination in terms of our understanding and practice of building a sustainable, Beloved Community.”

The “Environmental Justice Collaboratory” was held on March 10-13. Many UU-related groups, both UU seminaries (Starr King and Meadville Lombard), as well as UUA headquarters staff and district staff and consultants related to justice ministries sent representatives. Groups sending leaders included Diverse & Revolutionary UU Multicultural Ministries (DRUUMM), Allies for Racial Equity, UU State Advocacy Networks, UU Service Committee (UUSC), UU College of Social Justice, President’s Advisory Committee on Ethical Eating, UU Trauma Response Ministry, and UU Animal Ministry.

The conference was called a “collaboratory” because of its collaborative and laboratory-style format informed by the teaching methodologies of Dr. Mark Hicks. The Collaboratory brought together a small, diverse set of key UU leaders to explore together how UUs might transform the culture, institutions, and practices of our denomination so that clergy and laity are better equipped and more effective in meeting the multi-dimensional challenges of the 21st century – including climate change and its consequences. Our central question was, “How can UUs help to bring about a more just, sustainable, and spirit-filled society and economy?”

Some highlights in the agenda included:

  • A private meeting and conversation with noted local civil rights icon, 98-year-old Grace Lee Boggs about the nature of “visionary organizing.” Mrs. Boggs challenged the group to “‘grow our souls, not just our economy,” which is based on her analysis that our current economic troubles are really   a “crisis of our humanity.” She noted that the question whether Detroit would make a “comeback” was the wrong one to ask. That presumes a failed model of development. Rather, she challenged the Collaboratory participants sitting in her living room about how they might contribute to a new “American Revolution” where we move forward in creating more diverse and healthy communities founded on non-materialistic values and collaboration.
  • Meeting with the staff and dining at Colors – the local Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) training restaurant. The UUA common read for 2014 is “Behind the Kitchen Door,” authored by one of the founders of ROC.
  • Meeting with organizers from the United Food and Commercial Workers’ Union and a local Iraqi-American businessman who are forging an unprecedented partnership to create worker-owned grocery stores in Detroit to address both employment and food security needs in the city.
  • Exploring the lessons and opportunities involved in local water rights organizing with local leaders and the UUSC’s Environmental Justice Program Manager Patricia Jones and UU Justice Ministries of California Executive Director Evan Junker.
  • Exploring industrial sites that contribute to the labeling of 48217 as the most toxic zip code in Michigan with an organizer who grew up in that neighborhood. UUMFE is in dialogue with UUA staff about participating in shareholder action related to two of the companies – Marathon Oil and DTE, the local coal-fired power plant.

Planning team chair Pamela Sparr explained, “We developed the environmental justice journeys with the close consultation of two very knowledgeable local UUs – Mary Lou Malone and Matt Friedrichs from First UU Church in Detroit. Matt and Mary Lou are terrific examples of what engaged UUs are doing locally to make a big difference in their communities. I am very grateful that Rev. Roger Mohr has been so supportive of this endeavor and found us these two fantastic volunteers from his congregation. We couldn’t have had the impact we did without them! The journeys provided several powerful examples of what our UU congregations could be doing – from urban gardening, to organizing around recycling, waste incineration, urban planning, and municipal budgets, to guaranteeing access to water, to using the financial muscle of their investments to promote employment and worker-owned enterprises, as well as environmental justice.”

Background information will be made available through the UUMFE website, social media, and various publications. UUMFE and the taskforce created to steer implementation of the work plan welcome the involvement of more UUs. “We have the ball rolling now, and hope many more UUs will join us as we provide more educational and action opportunities going forward,” said Rev. Dr. Frances Sink.

The Collaboratory was organized by UUMFE and funded in part by a grant from the UUA Funding Program. Faculty from Starr King (Rev. Kurt Kuhwald) and Meadville Lombard (Dr. Mark A. Hicks and Dr. Michael Hogue) served on the planning team along with UUMFE board representative Rev. Dr. Frances Sink. Pamela Sparr, an environmental justice consultant to UUMFE, served as chair.

Unitarian Universalist Ministry for Earth was established in 1991 with the purpose of connecting and inspiring an active community of Unitarian Universalists for environmental justice, spiritual renewal, and shared reverence for our Earth home. UUMFE is a related non-profit organization serving the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. UUMFE gifted its signature creation, The Green Sanctuary Program, to the UUA in 2008.