UUs for Social Justice in the Capital Region: Thirteen Years of Collaboration

“In 1998, UUA President Rev. John Buehrens, initiated an exploratory effort to engage congregations in the Washington, D.C. area to consider a regional social justice organization possibly similar to the historic UU Urban Ministry in Boston. President Buehrens hired Bob Johnsen, community organizer, to discern interest in a regional social justice organization and if there was adequate interest, was to convene a meeting of religious and lay leaders to initiate the establishment of such an organization.  After conducting over 30 one-on-one meetings with ministers and UU leaders Bob convened an organizing meeting in April, 1999 at Beacon House to choose among three options that summarized what he heard from his interviews.  The meeting involved 30 leaders from 20 congregations and UU organizations, including Beacon House, the UU Affordable Housing Corporation (now OpenDoor Housing Fund) and the UUA Washington Advocacy Office (closed in 2010), and they decided to support the “big vision” option — that the interests of both the urban-based organizations and congregations, joined with the suburban congregations, would be better served if UUSJ would support members’ social justice efforts through technical assistance, networking, education and training. Rev. Roger Fritts, then Senior Minister at Cedar Lane, agreed to convene the organizing committee to implement this important decision with Bob who continued as consultant. UUSJ was incorporated in April, 2000.

Over its thirteen year history, UUSJ adjusted its focus and collaborative efforts with the more than twenty area congregations. In the early years UUSJ only had a single issue focus but gradually expanded to multiple priority areas reflecting the interests of member congregations. Building on its strengths providing opportunities to network with area social justice community members, UUSJ provided educational programs and disseminate “best practices.” In addition, for the past six years, UUSJ recognizes outstanding social justice efforts through its annual awards gala banquet, the proceeds of which support grants for collaborative efforts.

Board structure, issue focus, and relationship with UU organizations grew and changed over time. In 2005 many UUSJ members from Maryland, attending a training session, desired to advocate more directly with state legislators. Soon after, the UU Legislative Ministry – Maryland was formed.

Building on these early collaboration efforts, UUSJ will focus on doing more advocacy and witness to amplify UU voices and speak out for liberal religious values. Following a strategic planning process in early 2013, UUSJ’s Board voted to accept a plan to move more intentionally into advocacy and witnessing of our values. The intention is to select areas of focus and legislative issues using a lens that takes advantage of legislative opportunities that are grounded in our liberal religious faith are a good fit for UUSJ, can be supported by our available resources, and where we can have a positive impact, being flexible and opportunistic as current events develop.

Presenters are founders and early and recent Co-Chairs, bringing a wealth of knowledge of lessons learned. Joining them will be Bob Johnson, the community organizer responsible for discerning the formation of UUSJ.”