I am very introverted which becomes clear once you begin to know me. This means I am more comfortable socializing in small groups with people that I know in than with a roomful of strangers. My nickname is Spiderman which is appropriate because I am often in a corner reserving my energy. I am also facing the reality that many people I see are younger than me. This was especially true at the General Assembly, our annual meeting of the Unitarian Universalist Association. A lot of efforts were made to bring teens and young adults who were active as speakers and presenters. So it made for a much different conference than a lot of people were used to seeing.
The General Assembly is where we vote for the president, who serves a 6 year term. We also have elections for the board and several other positions. The plenary sessions include many statements of public witness where we state our values about issues. Unitarian Universalists tend to be highly educated and opinionated. And we like to study issues. We commemorated an earlier public witness by reading in unison a resolution that had passed 25 or 30 years ago. I dropped out after about 5 minutes of this. The entire thing took about 15 minutes. I guess we have a lot of people who go swimming to build up their energy before the convention.
At the plenary sessions there were seats reserved for the youth which surprised some adults who were used to sitting wherever they chose. In addition there were discussions and meeting spaces set aside for people of color and some of my friends were assigned to tell their white brethren that they needed to respect the boundary.
As for my boundaries I often sat near the back of the hall during sessions. Some of my Milwaukee friends chose to sit with me which was helpful. I took pictures of friends and sometimes went to restaurants by myself or with a friend. One veteran of General Assembly said we should pace ourselves because we will be exhausted by the effort of attempting to attend as many meetings as possible. The convention center layout contributed to this exhaustion because there were rooms hidden away at the end of long hallways. At first I enjoyed the high step counts I was getting on my phone but I learned to sit down and sometimes invite a friend over to talk with me.
I enjoyed the small group discussions where I was able to ask a few questions about some of the controversies that had arisen. One issue was the fact a couple of people retired from the jobs with the Unitarian Universalist Association and received large sums of money before the interim presidents were appointed. I asked about what changes had been made to ensure nothing like that would ever happen again. I also paid close attention when the Black Lives Matter group was talking about their plans and accomplishments. I felt it was a could time to absorb and understand as much as possible.
I was amazed by the variety of African-Americans I saw because I had never seen more than a handful of us at the First Unitarian Society. Even the videos of the Black Lives Matter event this spring had not really prepared me for this. I was excited and also wished I had been at the earlier event. There might be regional discussions and there is a retreat scheduled for this fall. My next step will be to open up and begin suggesting some activities for our Black Lives Matter Collaborative.
The Unitarian Universalist Association was rocked this spring by revelations about their hiring practices and how few people of color it employs. It is a system which favors white ministers. Suddenly the liberal religion was turned upside down. The President, Peter Morales, quit and was replaced by three people of color who served on an interim basis. The Black Lives Matter to Unitarian Universalists became an increasingly important force for change. There was the news that the Board of Directors made a commitment of financial support to the Black Lives Matter group which surprised many white people. And the denomination began a self-examination to understand the ways in which white supremacy governed how it operated. There was a series of white supremacy services in churches across the country, including the First Unitarian Society. It was in the midst of this change that the leader of the Black Lives Matter at the church, Mary Devitt, decided it no longer made sense for her as a white woman to be in charge of the group and asked me if I would become the chair. Mary had been very active building relationships with all sorts of groups. I attended some events and was not involved in marching. I wrote a humorous blog post about the transition called Welcome Back which hearkened back to an old television show about a white teacher who returned to the school he used to attend.
The Black Lives Matter to Unitarian Universalists were very active in helping to raise money, which I learned about at the GA. I spent time watching videos from the Church of the Larger Fellowship which is an organization of Unitarian Universalists who are not affiliated with any congregation. I engaged on-line with the Black Lives Matter to Unitarian Universalists and saw some of their videos from a gathering they held in New Orleans. I wondered what was going on and how could I fit in. It soon developed that there was one delegate credential left and there was a movement to reach out and make it possible to help cover the costs of people of color like me. I wondered how this GA would be different from those in the past. My long time friends at First Church encouraged me to go. And the outgoing development director sent an email about the fundraising and encouraged me to apply for a scholarship. I was sending emails and text messages and posting on Facebook up until a couple of days before I was supposed to leave. Despite the fact I had worries that things were not going to work out, a group called Standing on the Side of Love, handled arrangements getting us to New Orleans, providing spending money and finding a room in a hotel right across from the General Assembly.
The other part of how I got to GA is much more mundane. I have a full-time job with benefits including vacation. I discovered that the GA would coincide with our annual employee retreat but that was not a problem. My vacation was granted without a hassle. So, if you have understanding and compassion surrounding you, it is possible to do things. You can have support from the congregation. You can get the funds that you need to go. And you can rest assured that your job will be there when you return. In a lot of ways, it helped me feel that my life mattered.
In June, I went to my first General Assembly, which is the annual membership meeting o the Unitarian Universalist Association. It was a electric experience. I thought to myself, after so many years of identifying as an atheist, I really am part of a religion. A very particular type of religion with certain basic tenets and and a wide amount of choice. This revelation comes after meeting with a dear friend recently who discovered the very same thing. The Unitarian Universalists lack a lot of things tat hold churches together. There is no fear of going to hell. In fact that was one of the things that drew the Universalists together. If there is no fear of eternal damnation, how do you hold people together?
I found in this gathering a lot of what holds us together. It is love. We have people who pray. We have people who are recovering from traditional Christianity. My friend is healing herself after having been part of a very strict cult similar to the Seventh Day Adventists and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. And, as the joke goes, “there are a lot of atheists who haven’t kicked the religion habit.”
One of my favorite hymns includes a line “even to question, truly, is an answer.” Going to General Assembly exposed me to a wide variety of African-Americans. I saw people who were part of a walkout many years ago when the church lost thousands of African-American members over its failure to follow through on a commitment it had made to them. I saw people the the Black Lives Matter to Unitarian Universalists and the Diverse Revolutionary Unitarian Universalist Ministries. In my upcoming blogs I will describe some of these experiences in great detail. There is always more to the story.
On July 18, 2017, I had a proud moment when I walked into a public meeting and introduced myself as the chair of black lives matter at the First Unitarian Society. Years of preparation had led me to that moment at the meeting to close the Milwaukee secure detention facility. Since I took over as chair almost 3 months ago I have been quietly, in consultation with the the black lives matter cabal, been searching for an issue where we could help to fill in the gaps and have a meaningful impact.
At the meeting of our black lives matter collaborative in June I had recommended that we join and announce our support for the coalition. But that was different from standing before this room of family members and ex prisoners and saying that I was with them. I had decided that this was the cause. We had listened to a heart felt presentation this spring about the lives of thousands of people locked away for crimeless revocations and I was moved to action.
This was a start for me and I felt welcome pronouncing my name and finding, to my surprise, some of the people in the meeting were also with our black lives matter collaborative. I am always say that you can start anywhere so we did. I am hoping that the people in the room will begin to recognize as we begin to make changes together. We have a role we can play in ending mass incarceration. I need your support.
I just returned home from an appointment at the Veterans Administration where I was able to reflect on my much improved life. Years ago, when I turned my life over the the VA, I was down on my luck. Today things are much better. I am feeling optimistic about life. I might be able to go to New Orleans next month for a conference. MC3, the mental health quality improvement board, sent me an email asking whether I would like to be a part of their steering committee. The Department of Health and Human Services for Milwaukee County is asking me to participate in an environmental scan to help them understand what is going on. And I am finishing a book Americanah about Nigerian refugees in America and Great Britain.
I am uncertain whether any of these things are related. I am a regular at the MC3 events and I am reasonably articulate. I participate in the small group discussions. MC3 is the group that recently nominated me for the Mental Health Board. It is possible that there is some connection between being on this steering committee and being on the board. My sister Chris would say that I am marketing myself. Let’s get this guy out there in the community.
There have been a few people who were marketed, awarded, publicized in the newspaper and magazines as knowing what there is to know about living with a mental illness and or helping those who have a mental illness. Suddenly, there might be an awareness that they need to have black men as part of these discussions. Too often, black men are the victims of the mental health system. There was a memorial recently regarding Dontre Hamilton a young black man with a mental illness who had fallen asleep in a downtown park and was killed by police. The first thing I would tell this Mental Health Board is to stop killing young black men.
When you check the staffs of agencies that are providing services such as case management you don’t find a lot of black men and yet the people who we have the most difficulty understanding are black men. Is that a surprise? So, hire some of them.
I asked a Milwaukee County worker, ask yourself, what can I do to help? She called my supervisor and told her she thought I was telling her how to do her job. Eventually, the county worker did what I was asking her to do.
The book Americanah tells about the differences between Africans in American and Britain and African-Americans. I have told my facebook friends about this and invited them to comment on the book. It was a very big seller not so long ago. The main character was a Nigerian woman who became a successful blogger. Maybe people will offer to sponsor my blog and I will not be working with people who are living with a mental illness? I seriously doubt that but perhaps something more interesting will happen. Stay tuned.
Nor was I cooked and eaten by hungry people. What I was asked how our Black lives matter meeting went, that was my response. One and one half days have passed and I am still alive. We have begun the trip and are fairly civilized. The group includes people who are fairly active in matters of racial justice and me. For me, racial justice lately has been the ability to earn a living without fear of eviction and having the same benefits as my co-workers. For people who don’t know, being a peer support specialist is my fourth or fifth career and it is the one the has lasted the longest. I have been a librarian, a cooperative developer, a grant writer and a day care worker. Since those other careers faded away, one can conclude that either I was not especially skilled or I am better suited for what I am doing now. These jobs sometimes paid decent money but unfortunately did not last more than a few years.
Peer support has often been a low paying career in which I had to fight to earn a living wage. I am wearing the first pair of glasses ever bought with company provided vision benefits. Either my previous jobs didn’t have vision benefits or I didn’t use them. Making my life matter meant a lot of pain and struggle to survive. There was also a lot of acting out and fairly embarrassing behavior that ruined relationships. My current life is the most stable I have felt for a long time.
I now feel as though I have something to offer such as the value of my experience. I know what it means to feel ashamed that you need to depend on your family for support well into adulthood. I know about having your payroll check bounce. I know what bad and good employers are like. These are all things I bring to the struggle to making black lives matter in Milwaukee. I was the only African-American at the table for our first meeting at the First Unitarian Society, a situation I hope to change. I hope to venture out and become a part of some of the struggles my fellow members have been involved with and make a difference. I will share my vision, now that it is clear what I can see.
In another step towards changing over from being an ad hoc “cabal” to a formal committee I asked for and received the names and contact information of the people who have been a part of the group. I was pleasantly surprised that there were about a dozen people. This is a testimony to Mary’s organizational skills. While she may seem like one of those flaky white liberals just running around doing thins, the fact is she helped create some pretty impressive events. The question is, what to do with all of the energy that she has helped create? Where does it go?
I will be busy sending out an email informing people of the changeover and and finding a date for our first meeting. Next week I will be attending the my first meeting of the social justice council as the chair of the new black lives committee. Once more into the breach.