In this lesson, we look at how we, as Unitarian Universalists, can express our faith through activism for social change. We discuss how to do good in the world without doing harm, with some thoughts on how to be a good ally and the difference between charity and systemic change. We then provide several ideas for how you and your household can apply your UU values through public service projects (even during a pandemic).
Share your work. Please choose one small way that you can make a difference. Don’t make it a one time thing! Make a commitment to sustain the good work you’re doing by staying involved. Get started and then let us know what you’re doing (or what you’re planning to do). If you can send in a relevant photo, please do. Send all reports and photos to email@example.com. We will share any reports we receive on this website.
How We Live Out Our Values as Unitarian Universalists
The 7 UU Principles call us to respect the inherent worth and dignity of all people (1st principle); strive for justice, equity, and compassion in human relations (2nd principle); accept others, despite their differences (3rd principle); support the right of all people to search for truth and meaning freely and responsibly (4th principle); uphold the democratic process in society at large (5th principle); work towards peace, liberty, and justice for all in our world community (6th principle); and respect the interdependent web of life of all existence (7th principle).
How do UUs take these values and act them out in the world? On the “Social Justice” section on the Unitarian Universalist Association website, there are several pages dedicated to different social justice issues that illustrate how these values manifest in the world, including supporting democracy (https://www.uuthevote.org/), economic justice (https://www.uua.org/economic), climate and environmental justice (https://www.uua.org/environment), immigrant justice (https://www.uua.org/immigration), LGBTQ justice (https://www.uua.org/lgbtq), racial justice (https://www.uua.org/multiculturalism), and reproductive justice (https://www.uua.org/reproductive).
Clicking any of the links above will show you numerous ways that Unitarian Universalists, through their worship, education, community initiatives, and activism, live out our shared values in the world. How do you live out your UU values? Are you involved in any of the initiatives linked above? If not, this lesson will offer several projects that you and your family could get involved in to help you start expressing your values in the world through service.
Before we get into our project ideas, though, let’s talk a little about how to do good without doing harm.
First, Do No Harm
The maxim “First, do no harm” is one of the most basic principles of medical ethics, and it applies just as well to social justice activism. One beneficial side effect of doing good in the world is that, so often, it feels good to do good work. But we must be careful to not let the experience of doing good work cloud our judgement and obscure the complexities of our real impacts in the world. The ultimate goal of social justice activism should not be to make us feel better about ourselves by playing the role of the helper. The ultimate goal is to make a positive difference in the world.
Volumes upon volumes have been written debating the effectiveness of various approaches to social change, and there is no way to cover all the nuances of this subject in this lesson. However, we will touch on a few key ideas that might help you begin to think critically about your own activism. First, we will look at how to be a good ally. Then we will look at the difference between charity and systemic change and explore the concept of “toxic charity.”
How to Be a Good Ally
Often social justice work takes the form of someone with privilege using their privilege to break down oppressive social systems that disadvantage others (those with less privilege). What do we mean by privilege?
“Privilege” refers to certain social advantages, benefits, or degrees of prestige and respect that an individual has by virtue of belonging to certain social identity groups. Within American and other Western societies, these privileged social identities—of people who have historically occupied positions of dominance over others—include whites, males, heterosexuals, Christians, and the wealthy, among others.García, Justin D. 2018. “Privilege (Social Inequality).” Salem Press Encyclopedia.
For further reading on privilege, visit https://www.nccj.org/what-privilege
If you are working on behalf of someone with less privilege than yourself (examples: a white person working with Black Lives Matter, a straight cis person working for LGBTQ rights, etc.), it is important that you know how to be a good ally to the people with whom you are working. The Guide to Allyship (an online open source guide to becoming an good ally) states, “To be an ally is to…”
1. Take on the struggle as your own.
2. Transfer the benefits of your privilege to those who lack it.
3. Amplify voices of the oppressed before your own.
4. Acknowledge that even though you feel pain, the conversation is not about you.
5. Stand up, even when you feel scared.
6. Own your mistakes and de-center yourself.
7. Understand that your education is up to you and no one else.
The guide includes a helpful list of “dos” and “don’ts” when it comes to being a good ally.
Do be open to listening.
Do be aware of your implicit biases.
Do your research to learn more about the history of the struggle in which you are participating.
Do the inner work to figure out a way to acknowledge how you participate in oppressive systems.
Do the outer work and figure out how to change the oppressive systems.
Do use your privilege to amplify (digitally and in-person) historically suppressed voices.
Do learn how to listen and accept criticism with grace, even if it’s uncomfortable.
Do the work every day to learn how to be a better ally.
Do not expect to be taught or shown. Take it upon yourself to use the tools around you to learn and answer your questions.
Do not participate for the gold medal in the “Oppression Olympics” (you don’t need to compare how your struggle is “just as bad as” a marginalized person’s).
Do not behave as though you know best.
Do not take credit for the labor of those who are marginalized and did the work before you stepped into the picture.
Do not assume that every member of an underinvested community feels oppressed.
Read the entire guide, including a section on how to handle times when you make a mistake, here: https://guidetoallyship.com/.
Charity vs. Systemic Change
Often, service work looks like gathering and providing resources (money, food, clothing, shelter, labor, etc.) for people with less privilege. We call this charity. While charity is sometimes necessary, charity alone can not lead to a transformation of the systemic issues that make that charity necessary in the first place.
Amber Smith, Executive Director of Raleigh, NC nonprofit Activate Good writes:
Charity is the first aid kit. Systemic change – changing the way the system operates so that we won’t need first aid kits – is the cure. Some nonprofits deal in direct services – the charity side of things – and some deal in systemic change, seeking to root out the issue and solve it at its core.
We need both, certainly. We cannot allow people to starve each day while we work on the complex issue of solving hunger. Conversely, we can’t only pour resources into feeding people each day for eternity, never considering ways to end the need entirely.https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/charity-vs-systemic-change-we-need-invest-both-heres-amber-smith
When you’re doing social justice work, it is important to know the difference between charity and systemic change and be aware of which you are engaging in. If you are doing charity work, understand the limited long-term impact of that sort of work, and be careful that the work is not reinforcing patterns of dependence (we’ll discuss this further in the section on “toxic charity” below).
The book Robin Hood Was Right, A Guide to Giving Your Money for Social Change, by Chuck Collins, Pam Rogers and Joan Garner (W.W. Norton, 2000) provides some helpful examples of charity vs. systemic change:
Charity: Donate to a food pantry to provide supplemental food for lower-income working families.
Change: Raise the minimum wage so people can afford to purchase the food they need.
Charity: Send money to a shelter for homeless families.
Change: Send money to a housing coalition working for affordable housing.
Charity: Fund a scholarship for one high school student to attend college.
Change: Fund a student association organizing to ensure that higher education is affordable for everyone.
Charity: Give to a telethon for services for people with disabilities.
Change: Give to a group of disabled people and their allies pushing for their elected officials to make public buildings accessible.
Read an excerpt from Robin Hood Was Right here: https://www.edgefund.org.uk/change_vs_charity. This webpage is also the source of the insightful image below, which illustrates the limits of charity and education when we do not also put our efforts toward organizing for systemic change.
Toxic Charity and How to Avoid It
In many cases, charity can reinforce the systems of power that make charity necessary by neglecting the more important goal of empowering the people we are trying to help and instead creating patterns of dependence. Robert Lupton, author and founder of FCS Urban Ministries calls this “toxic charity.”
In his book Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2011), Lupton suggests that those who do service work take an “Oath for Compassionate Service,” which provides six key guidelines:
The Oath for Compassionate Service
Never do for the poor what they have (or could have) the capacity to do for themselves.
Limit one-way giving to emergency situations.
Strive to empower the poor through employment, lending, and investing, using grants sparingly to reinforce achievements.
Subordinate self-interests to the needs of those being served.
Listen closely to those you seek to help, especially to what is not being said — unspoken feelings may contain essential clues to effective service.
Above all, do no harm.
Lupton stresses that we must not think of the people we serve as “the people we serve.” We must view them instead as partners, collaborators, and leaders in their own communities. Lupton writes, “There is no simple or immediate way to discern the right response without a relationship.” Charitable giving that neglects forming sustained relationships with those in need cannot hope to make meaningful change in people’s lives and can possibly do more harm than good. Learn to listen and focus on building relationships. Only then will you learn how you can truly be of service to others.
Hopefully, this discussion of how to do no harm has not discouraged you from wanting to work for change altogether, lest you do harm accidentally. There is always risk in working for social change. The important thing is that you are taking responsibility for that risk and not putting the risk on others. You might make mistakes, and that’s OK! Own your mistakes and learn from them. Build relationships. Be a good ally. Recognize your privilege. Listen, and let others lead. With any luck, working to transform the world will transform you, too!
Public Service Project Ideas
The list of service project ideas below is by no means exhaustive, but it provides a sampling of opportunities to help you start thinking of how you can get engaged in social change. If you have a great idea that you think we should include, by all means, send your idea to firstname.lastname@example.org so we can add it to this list.
Opportunities with GUUF
- Get involved with the Social Justice Committee at GUUF — To learn more about the work of the Social Justice Committee, visit https://greenvilleuu.org/about-social-justice/ and email Karen Pere-Williams at email@example.com to ask how you can get involved with current projects. The Social Justice Committee at GUUF has three advocacy groups:
- Write letters or postcards to GUUF members who live alone (This is a great project for kids!) — Many members of GUUF live alone, which can be especially isolating during a global pandemic. Try connecting with other members of our fellowship by sending a letter or postcard to someone who lives alone. To find addresses of GUUF members, see the online photo directory or contact Mary Margaret Dragoun (firstname.lastname@example.org) with the Pastoral Care Committee to find the name of a GUUF member who may be in need of some connection.
Local and Regional Opportunities
- Write and call your senators and representatives (including city and county council, state representatives, etc.) — One of the best ways to participate in the democratic process is to voice your concerns to your senators and representatives, and that means more than just your representatives in the US Congress. Don’t forget that members of your local and state governments have the most direct impact on your daily life and the life of your community. Don’t know who your local representatives are? Visit https://www.commoncause.org/find-your-representative and enter your address to find the names and contact information of all of the members of governments who are working for you.
- Be a Poll Worker — Greenville County is short more than 50% of poll workers needed for the Nov. 3rd election—with the brunt of the deficit falling on underserved communities. Paid positions are now open. 16 and 17-year-olds can apply to be a Poll Manager Assistant. They’ll earn $165 for training and working election day. They provide COVID-19 training and you’ll be equipped with PPE. Register at https://noexcusesc.com/apply-to-be-a-poll-manager/
- Upstate Black Lives Matter — Get connected with our local Black Lives Matter group to stay aware of racial justice initiatives affecting Greenville and the upstate. Visit https://www.facebook.com/upstateblacklives.matter/ to connect on Facebook.
- The Upstate Abolition Project — The recently formed Upstate Abolition Project works towards the goals of defunding the police and prison abolition in Upstate South Carolina. Connect with them to learn how to get involved on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/groups/upstateabolitionproject) or Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/upstate_abolition_project/)
- Visit detained immigrants through El Refugio — El Rufugio supports individuals and groups to visit immigrants and asylum seekers who are detained in Georgia’s Stewart Detention Center. To learn more about El Refugio and how you can get involved with working for immigrant justice, visit https://www.elrefugiostewart.org.
- Harvest Hope Food Bank — Donate or volunteer with Harvest Hope Food Bank in Greenville. Visit https://www.harvesthope.org/ to learn more.
- Upstate Food Not Bombs — Upstate Food Not Bombs provide a free fresh-cooked meal to anyone who needs it every Monday. This all-volunteer effort collects food, clothing, and other items that would otherwise be discarded and shares them with the community. Visit https://www.facebook.com/UpstateFoodNotBombs/ to learn how to get involved. Visit http://foodnotbombs.net to learn more about the Food Not Bombs movement as a whole.
- The Homeless Period Project — The Homeless Period Project works to provide menstrual hygiene products to homeless living in shelters and on the street. Visit https://www.homelessperiodproject.org/ or https://www.facebook.com/homelessperiodprojectsc to learn more and get involved.
- Volunteer with The Red Cross — The Red Cross urgently needs disaster volunteers to help staff shelter reception, registration, feeding operations, dormitory sheltering, information collection and more. Training has been condensed and is virtual. There’s also a section for youth volunteers at https://www.RedCross.org/Volunteer
- Give blood — Visit https://www.redcross.org/give-blood.html to find a blood drive near you.
National and Online Opportunities
- The Unitarian Universalist Association’s Social Justice Initiatives — Visit the Social Justice section of the UUA website to learn more about the various social change initiatives promoted by the UUA. In particular, as we come closer to the 2020 election, check out the UU the Vote initiative. You might also be interested in sharing your UU values with your community by picking up some of these wonderful yard signs.
- The Poor People’s Campaign — This nationwide movement is “uniting people across the country to challenge the evils of systemic racism, poverty, the war economy, ecological devastation and the nation’s distorted moral narrative of religious nationalism.” Visit https://www.poorpeoplescampaign.org/ to find out how you can get involved.
- The Human Rights Campaign — The Human Rights Campaign “envisions a world where every member of the LGBTQ family has the freedom to live their truth without fear, and with equality under the law.” Visit https://www.hrc.org/ to find out how you can get involved.
- The Climate Reality Project — The mission of The Climate Reality Project is to “catalyze a global solution to the climate crisis by making urgent action a necessity across every sector of society. Visit https://www.climaterealityproject.org to learn more.
- Youth Service America — Youth Service America works to connect youth with service opportunities, and has created an amazing resource for finding safe service opportunities for youth during the Covid-19 pandemic. The website provides service ideas of all types. Visit https://ysa.org/covid/ to learn more.
- Project Giving Kids — This website is a great tool for finding engaging service projects for kids and teens. Visit https://www.projectgivingkids.org/activities/ to learn more.
Don’t forget to share your work! Please choose one small way that you can make a difference. Don’t make it a one time thing! Make a commitment to sustain the good work you’re doing by staying involved. Get started and then let us know what you’re doing (or what you’re planning to do). If you can send in a relevant photo, please do. Send all reports and photos to email@example.com. We will share any reports we receive on this website.