What It Means to Be a Leader

This month I am completing my 3-year term as Vice President of the Liberal Religious Educators Association (“LREDA”), the professional organization for UU Religious Educators. Recently, I’ve been thinking about how this experience changed and developed me as a leader.

For one, I got accustomed to leading when I am out of my comfort zone. I represented LREDA on national UU committees with people that were “famous” in the UU world. I learned to speak up even if I was inwardly intimidated. I lead worship at our professional conferences. With advice from Kim, I carried it off. I pressed the three UUA presidential candidates for answers on issues dear to religious educators that they did not want to answer. These experiences and more offered me great opportunities for growth.

But I l really learned what it means to be a leader when the way we did business in the UU world changed almost overnight sixteen months ago. The UUA was publicly accused of discriminatory hiring practices against people of color and questioned about failing to institute suggestions from a 20-year-old resolution to dismantle institutional racism.

Many white UU’s were shocked and asked, “How could this be?” But most UU’s of color were not surprised, only surprised that it had been called out. And that difference in reaction was itself a shock for a faith whose first principal espouses the worth and dignity of every person.

Shortly after the hiring controversy, religious educators and LREDA led the call for a White Supremacy Teach-In, developing curriculum and resources used by the 700 congregations that participated. What followed was a year of accelerated learning for me, my fellow Board members and many UU’s on White Supremacy, how it shows up in our systems and how it harms everyone, particularly people of color. It also meant that I was learning how white supremacy lives in me and in the formal and informal systems of LREDA at the same time that people were challenging the status quo.

LREDA has a legacy of speaking up for people on the margins and it has had a commitment to anti-racism and anti-oppression since the late nineties. But the members of the LREDA Board, including me, had a painful call to accountability at the LREDA Conference last November when the keynote speakers (chosen by the Board) embodied white supremacy and patriarchy.

It certainly was not the LREDA Board’s intention, but I learned that intention is not what counts, it’s the impact of decisions and actions that matters, and the Board’s actions led to pain for colleagues of color and others at the conference. I took the fall publicly for decisions that were tangentially made by me. That was a transformative leadership lesson. I am so thankful to the LREDA president, who modeled how to listen, accept blame, apologize publicly and take suggestions to reconcile the harm we had caused. I learned to stay in the conversation no matter how uncomfortable and what it means to be accountable as a leader.

A few weeks later, I attended a UUA Board meeting as the LREDA observer. I learned more about being a leader as I watched UUA Board members work to dismantle white supremacy within its system. The covenant they use during Board meetings states: Stay engaged, experience discomfort, speak your truth, expect and accept nonclosure. The thoughtfulness, respect and intention that I saw as Board members made tough decisions with disagreement was inspiring to witness and made me proud to be in a faith that is timely and moving forward.

On the last day of GA this year, UUA President, Susan Frederick-Gray will award The President’s Annual Award for Volunteer Service to LREDA in recognition of the leadership, ministry and vision that LREDA and all of it’s members share with this faith. In giving out the award, Rev. Frederick-Gray will say:

“Throughout its history and in this moment, LREDA and its members have been bold and fearless in challenging our faith and our systems to be more inclusive, just and ready to deal with the issues of the time with honesty and courage and in the framework of an unwavering commitment to developmental learning and growth.“

I am proud to have been LREDA’s Vice-President and am thankful to UUCWC and Rev. Kim for giving me the time to do it. Serving the Board has been full of rewards, but also challenges. Anti racism work is ongoing and messy. I know what I learned on the board stretched and changed me in ways I could not have predicted, especially in combination with my trips during sabbatical to a Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh and the borderlands of Arizona and Mexico. I am better at recognizing my part in perpetuating systems of oppression and I feel more called to speak out and do something about injustice. I also know that grounding myself in my UU faith helps me to lead out of my comfort zone and make courageous rather than comfortable choices.