Collective Action: Beyond Light Bulbs

The Proxy Battle of ’67

Rochester communities of color were struggling. They formed a community based organization and leaders appealed to Eastman Kodak, who ran the economics and politics of the city. They called in Saul Alinsky to help. Normal tactics like boycotts and protests wouldn’t work, so they came up with other ideas like using shareholder proxies to get into Eastman Kodak’s annual meeting.

Alinsky spoke at GA and the delegates agreed to give all the UUA’s proxies to the communities of Rochester. Individuals, congregations, and other denominations followed suit.  Eastman Kodak agreed to hire more people of color, provide job training, and pressure the local municipalities to improve neighborhood conditions.

I’m inspired by this story of a time when UU’s came together to take unified, collective action for justice. We actually agreed on an issue and set to work on it.

Today we hear all about the problems that face our communities and they are not so different from the story of Rochester 30 something years ago. Companies all over the country continue to privilege white people with more promotions and bigger paychecks. Similarly, the immigration laws recently passed in Arizona that where planned to go into affect this week, necessitate some collective conversation among people of faith. There are deep questions beneath the shallow headlines. What does it mean to really love my neighbor? More importantly perhaps, who is my neighbor?

(who is my neighbor?)

Race is not only an issue of corporations perpetuating inequalities. It is not only a question of white decedents of immigrants treating their new neighbors with unkindness and threats. But it is people of color and the poor who are being hit first and worst, by the dangers of climate change, a problem of a scale and complexity without precedent. The solutions to these problems will not come one individual at a time. They will require a change not just in the small habits of our lives, but in the institutions and systems that we’re a part of. Luckily, as UU’s the kind of collective action required of us, is built into our theology and the heart of our religious community.

There’s a lot we can learn from that struggle of 40 years ago, when the collective power of the UUA, joined with the organized resistance of the communities of Rochester.
What actions will we need take together, to democratize our economy or our legislative process, or to turn climate change around?

I’m reminded of a small quote by Bill McKibben in his book, Deep Economy. McKibben is the founder of and I was inspired to read his broad vision of local communities creating change. What stuck with me most of all though, was when he talked about light bulbs. Commenting on individuals moving to fluorescent light bulbs in their home, he said, “Our climate problem…is past the point where we can make the math work one light bulb at a time.”

That seems a little pessimistic, but it reminds of a time when I was working on a campaign against victoria’s secret, who was sending out a million catalogs a day using endangered forest for their paper. We were trying to get them to use recycled and sustainably logged paper instead, but they were confused at first.

“What you mean we need to become more sustainable? We changed all the light bulbs in our headquarters to long lasting fluorescent!” well, that’s great. But, the idea that it’s ok to turn ancient forests into junk mail as long you use better light bulbs at home, is obviously ridiculous.

But it’s also no surprise when a multinational corporation says something like that. They’re only following the trend of a wider culture that says small individual actions are enough. Individual actions are necessary, but not sufficient.

For Victoria’s Secret, it took thousands of activists, including countless UU’s, protesting outside and inside their stores to bring about the pressure that ended their policy of cutting down forests for junk mail. Victoria’s Secret’s parent company now works for us, to lobby governments and industry leaders to change their logging policies as well.

Unitarian Universalists sometimes struggle to articulate what defines us. It can feel easier to list the things we don’t believe in, rather than the things we do believe.

In the end, what sets us apart is our way of creating and living in covenant. A covenant is an agreement of how we will be together. It defines our relationships on our terms, as an ever-evolving process, without an outside mediators or rule-makers. Ours is a faith of interdependence. Covenant is how we do interdependence.

Covenantal religion goes deeper than declarations of beliefs. It goes deeper even than liturgy. Putting our faith in a covenantal religion is not the easy path. It’s the road less traveled.

It means that at the heart of our faith is relationship. If living religiously meant following gods rule book, well that’s not hard to do on your own. Almost all of the ten commandments can be followed pretty well in isolation. Some of them in fact, might be easier to do that way.

Unitarian Universalism demands a community. We believe that some things are better accomplished together and a spiritual life is one of those. Social Justice work is another. In the words of former UUA president Bill Sinkford, “We are better together”
(we are better together)

We have envisioned in our hearts and articulated in our principles a goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all. By and large though, we have not reached our potential to make it happen.

I worry that might be because of our tendency to do try and do things alone. Some of us have thought we could do our part just with lightbulbs, alone in our house. But changing the laws in Arizona takes more than that. Changing the culture of fear that lead to those laws, takes more than the replacing lightbulbs. Changing light bulbs and the other personal habits are certainly necessary, but they are not sufficient. We are past the point where we can make the math work that way.

-It is not enough to have friends from a different background, or denounce racism on Fox news by yelling at the tv. Covenantal religion calls us to take collective action within and beyond our denomination to change the way the media portrays immigrants.

-It is necessary but not sufficient to turn down the thermostat in winter. Covenantal religion calls us to take collective action within and beyond our denomination to retrofit our housing.

-It is not enough to quietly observe segregation in our cities. Covenantal religion calls us to work hand in hand to transform our systems of banking, and transit, and public school funding so that the balance of access to resources reflects the balance of our moral standards.

-It is necessary, but not sufficient to give a portion of income to charity. Covenantal religion calls us to democratize our economy, so charity isn’t so desperately needed.
(Democratize our economy)

By deciding at this year’s GA to step away from business as usual, to create a “Justice GA” that are focused on education and action,
We are once again standing in solidarity with the most vulnerable among us. For Unitarian Universalism to come of age, we will need to take the kind of collective, organized action that turns the systems of our society towards justice.
Covenantal religion is the ends and the means of living in right relationship. The ends of democratic institutions will only come from the means of collective action. Covenant must happen in action as well as in words.

UU Mass Action, with their incredible legislative work, inspires me with their slogan, “from cacophony to Choir” The choir, my friends, doesn’t need to be preached to, it needs to be organized. And that’s exactly what they’re doing.

When Eastman Kodak and Victoria’s Secret mocked democracy with their corporate structures and inhumane policies, UU’s stepped up hand in hand with a unified voice to change the rules of the game.

Those struggles grew out of a faith that is grounded in covenant. In the relationships we grow together. In the work we do together. Our collective strategy for social change is guided by our covenantal theology of right relationship.

I invite you to join you in the efforts, in this expanding movement to deepen our faith in relationship with each other and with the marginalized among us.

To covenant in action as well as words. “covenant”
To step away from business as usual.
To organize the choir. “organize”
To stand on the side of love. “love”

I invite you to join me in recommitting to a covenantal faith of interdependence and social change.

“may it be so”

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