The Privilege of Working for Black Lives Matter

Emily DeTar, Traces of Privilege, 4

It was a privilege to attend the UUMA and LREDA chapter Professional Days this past Thu-Fri May 5-6. Not only was it a privilege in the sense of it being a true gift, and a training that I believe truly added to my professional and ministerial formation, it was a privilege in the fact that I had the means and ability to attend this gathering.

Colleagues from across the Metro New York district created a space to be open, experiment, and reflect on racial justice and privilege. We nuanced congregational relationships to Black Lives Matter, and discussed case studies of moments that grew complicated. We spoke with one another about how to center the racial justice work we do on the experiences of members of color, while not trying to tokenize people. Finally, we got right into the work, talking about going Beyond the Banner, and all the ways we can participate.

This was true soul work. People dedicated to justice, all sharing in the task of digging deeper. Therefore, the benefit and pleasure of the gathering were truly a privilege.

However, I was also privileged to be able to attend, because I had jobs that gave me professional expenses. For many in the center of activism, and usually those most affected, such as poor working class Black and Latino families, they do not have the positions or means to get them to organized training or to be equipped and given access to resources that they might truly need. For example, all government offices, including welfare and benefits offices are open during work hours, so all poor families have to take off work and possibly risk their jobs just to get the benefits they desperately need. Those at the center of their own activist work can’t attend large organizational meetings during the day. Even within our chapter meeting, we recognized that many chaplains and community ministers didn’t have the time or resources to attend our training. Therefore, it was a privilege of my work and the jobs I hold that I was able to.

This is why professional expenses matter in the work of ministry and activism.  These expenses make possible the ability for ministers to train even better, develop professionally, and truly move our congregations toward justice. It is my hope that while I may use the privilege of the training I have received, to fight for the racial injustice that makes this training so necessary.

Therefore, I would like to share with you a few key takeaways from my training:

Empowerment vs tokenism. We talk about how easily it is to assume that visitors of color want to jump into diversity or leadership roles, and how alienating it can be to people of color in our communities. Instead, we focused on ways we can create inviting spaces for our members of color to feel empowered to join leadership if they wish.

Beyond the Banner. While it is great that congregations are hoisting banners, and while they can create fierce conversations, they are not enough to sustain true engagement and activism. If we are to commit to real justice work, we must go “Beyond the Banner”, and find ways we can engage with racial justice across our congregation.

There is no one right way to do racial justice.  People tend to think of activism as only being protest movements. However, so much more is needed then simply marching. During a protest, there needs to be medical assistance to protesters, jail assistance to those arrested, safe houses for protesters, and money organized to bail protesters out. When people aren’t protesting, there are legal actions, canvasing, and court cases that are being addressed. There are organizing meetings for protests and political actions, food outreach to those who are in need, people who help others access healthcare and government assistance, and people who help create art and awareness. There are limitless ways to engage.

There are limitless resources you can offer.  Think about the specific resources that you can give. As unappealing as it may sound, the most effective gift you can give for change is money. Allocating money to help bail out wrongfully imprisoned persons or to help provide healthy water to those in Flint Michigan and to organizations who need it is incredibly powerful.  More than money, think about your congregation’s resources and skills. Do you have someone who is willing to donate their musical talents for a fundraising concert? Do you have a building that you’d be willing to rent out to racial justice organization for free? What about a photocopier you can let them use? There is so much we can give, if we truly assess what we have.

Follower-ship. When it comes to racial justice, we may want to barge right in and get some stuff done. But usually when institutions try to just do something around racial justice, we overshadow, interrupt, or even undo the work that racial justice movements and Black Lives Matter activists have been working on for years. Therefore, when it comes to racial justice, it’s incredibly important to ask organizations, leaders, and communities already doing the work what we can do. Most of the time people might say, “We don’t want your help right now.” That’s okay. They are not being rude by not accepting help, and we are doing something right by listening and not doing anything. By keeping in communication and simply being present to the organizations we support, we are showing our solidarity. And when our help is needed we will be all that more effective and purposeful. Being a good follower matters in the work for racial justice.

So much more came out of this conversation. I greatly look forward to the ways our fellow ministers and religious educators across Metro New York will engage in Black Lives Matter in the unfolding year. May we all learn from one another, and celebrate the privilege we have of being able to do this work in our UU communities together. 

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This is part 4 of an ongoing series, "Traces of Privilege," which explores privileges I possess, and what my faith as a Unitarian Universalist calls me to do about them.
See also
Traces of Privilege, 1: The UU Privileges and Purposes
Traces of Privilege, 2: Unitarian Universalism Has Class -- Meaning Economic Privilege
Traces of Privilege, 3: A Memory of Privilege and The Importance of Personhood

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