Equity cohorts across the GNW begin the work of eliminating racism

By Kristina Gonzalez
Executive Director for Innovation and Vitality

On Nov. 30, 60 leaders from across the Greater Northwest Area gathered at Fairwood UMC in Renton, Wash., to intentionally address equity in our institutional life. The excitement was palpable. This was the launch of a major initiative to address the “E” – eliminating racism –  in our call to go the M.I.L.E.

Equity is a precursor to justice. Wesleyan theology invites us to a transformative relationship with Jesus Christ that bears fruit as just action in the world. That said, the church has been both active and complicit in centering white-dominant culture as the standard for much of our institutional and congregational life. The work we enter now is about uprooting those standards, evaluating them through different lenses, and determining the most inclusive path forward.

This area-wide initiative includes three cohorts involving approximately 130 people over a nine-month period. The work started with lay and clergy leaders representing some of the most influential boards and agencies of our annual conferences. Their task is to explore how our institutional policies and practices advantage some and disadvantage others. This cohort will address the biases that are built into our system and every system that has not undertaken this intentional work.

Clergy and lay leaders from across the GNW Area gather in Renton, Wash., recently to begin the work of understanding equity.

A similar process will begin in January and February to address equity in our local churches. Congregations from the Oregon-Idaho and Pacific Northwest Conferences applied to be a part of this cohort. Lay and clergy teams from 19 congregations have been selected to participate, with the obligation to learn during the cohort process; take their learnings back into the local churches; and influence and support congregations in their districts to do this work in the future. Congregations in Alaska will gather in February for an intensive learning process to save on the travel and make the process more accessible to this vast geographic region.

In addition to the institutional and congregational cohorts, 14 lay and clergy leaders from across the GNW Area have entered the Colleagues in Training process. These individuals will participate in the institutional cohort and observe the congregational cohort as training to facilitate this process in our congregations, and with our boards and agencies in the future.

We do this work with the leadership, coaching and support of Beth Zemsky & Associates. I met Beth in Portland, Oregon, when she supported Reconciling Ministries Network in preparing for the 2016 General Conference. Zemsky was on the forefront of the long, but ultimately successful struggle for marriage equality. She has consulted with major foundations, non-profit organizations, and faith communities to move institutions from diversity and inclusion aspirations to action. With 35 years of experience in this field, Zemsky has developed tools and processes that have tangible results.

As Zemsky identified in our first gathering, we use the terms diversity, equity, and inclusion as if we have shared understanding of their meanings. Often, we do not. She defined diversity as “counting the people.” How prevalent is our hope that having a diverse group of people at the table will make for more equitable decisions? In our UM context, we often legislate the demographic composition of committees for this purpose.

“Diversity is necessary, but not enough,” Zemsky said.

If diversity is about counting the people, then inclusion according to Zemsky, is about “the people counting.” Do we listen deeply to one another? Do we invite the authentic voices of those whose life experiences are different from the majority to influence decisions? Do we include?

One of the equity cohorts met recently in Renton, Wash., for a full-day training.

If diversity is about counting the people and inclusion is about the people counting, then equity, according to Zemsky, is about “outcomes.” Do diversity and inclusion make a difference in our actions? Can we analyze our policies and practices to determine who is advantaged and disadvantaged, and reconstruct our systems for equity? Can we sit with the discomfort of uncovering biases to create just systems that reflect our deeply held beliefs that all people are of sacred worth and made in God’s image?

This is long work. It is culture-changing work. This is the good work that we embark on together as we approach the imperative to eliminate racism – voiced by Bishop Cedrick Bridgeforth – but surely owned by us all. This is more than training. It is capacity building for the GNW Area of the UMC to increase relationship with all God’s people in a manner that is liberative for all.

I am grateful for the commitment of the GNW Area to this good work, and to the more than 130 people who have made themselves available to move us closer to a just and sustainable world.

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  1. Congratulations, are due to the UMC for getting rid of offensive language in the Book of Discipline…Simply this was long over due!

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