What Does Progress Look Like?

On this MLK weekend, where can we see progress on racial justice? Where do the struggles continue? What new is emerging in the move toward equity? Join Rev. Sue Browning as we consider all are called to work together in the name of Love.

This will be a joint Zoom service of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship at Easton and the Unitarian Universalists of the Chester River.


Sermon, January 16, 2022, Rev. Sue Browning

What Does Progress Look Like?

MLK Day always feels like a milestone holiday. The day is a reminder to do an annual check in on the core issues of equity and inclusion. We ask, ‘Are we making progress?’ Not an incremental progress, but is real, meaningful change happening? Are we, and here a “we” that includes all of us – are we moving in notable ways toward the right destination?

In our reading (Margaret Wheatley, ‘Faith’), we heard Moses, Abraham and Martin Luther King each carried clear visions kept them focused. Dr. King identified Beloved Community as the vision – the destination. ‘Beloved Community’ is a vision of community where all are valued and respected; where everyone has enough; where no one is outside the circle. ‘Beloved Community’ is a bold vision of what could be in the world.

Our question for today: Are we collectively addressing and changing that which will move us toward Beloved Community?

As we think of moving toward Beloved Community, all around us there are deep challenges. Racism and inequity prevail; the gap between rich and poor grows; there is persistent violence across the economic spectrum. So many serious and overwhelming concerns.

And too, we see positive changes.

—-More and more are aware of the scope and nature of racism. More can describe systemic inequity than could just a decade ago. While this is not change itself, greater awareness is a part of building the foundation that help lead to dynamic change. We are looking at how we tell an accurate history; a history which includes patterns of repeated harm. We’re debating what should be taught, and to whom. These are debates that weren’t centered before.

—- There are spots where policies and practice improvements are happening. I think of the classroom teacher experimenting with new message and media. I think of healthcare offices striving to improve access to services – training staff, changing forms, listening in new ways. When we see good, we need to offer encouragement, support, and learn. We need to share and expand what is working.

—-The workforce, and the leadership in the workforce, looks different than did 50 years ago. Representation and power are absolutely still skewed, yet, there is change.

—-And young progressive leaders, many of them from the BIPOC communities, are changing not just what is done, but how it is done. They challenge all of us to create decision processes which are more inclusive, and to lead with values that center family and individual wellbeing as a part of measurements of success.

All examples of moving in the right direction.

What effective changes have you noted? What might we all learn from? It’s good to note these shifts, often local efforts. Changes to the foundation give us hope; they help keep up momentum when the challenges feel beyond hope.

There is no explicit roadmap for our journey to the Beloved Community. There is no perfect plan to define and implement. Instead, we map out what we can, the segments.

In part, we work on issues by topic. We consider practices in housing, finance, education, healthcare, the legal system (and more) and work for systemic change.

We examine behaviors. We struggle with the human propensity for bias and discrimination, and the harm done by macro and micro aggressions. We look to change interactions.

And we track data. We grasp at ways to measure change. We know we need to be accountable for changes. How are we checking on the impact of our decisions and actions?

For society to change, we’ll need ‘all of the above’ and so much more.

At each step, change meets resistance, some intentional and unconscious. Resistance most often comes from those acting to maintain the status quo. For those for whom things are pretty much ‘ok’ the comfortable default is to continue as is. In the work for change there are also blatant efforts exclude and harm anyone who is ‘other’ – and these efforts have had success. A painful reminder of what is at risk.

I offer this long intro as a reminder that the systems and behaviors we need to change to realize Beloved Community are all intricately intertwined. We often head down wrong paths. We ‘yell’ at the TV and national and local leaders. Sometimes we ‘freeze’ – we stall. And we check in this MLK Day closing in on the second year of a pandemic – a reality that impacts everyone and the very systems needing change.

Much in play. Yes, these are challenging times, and still we are called to stay on the journey toward an equitable society. We are called to not lose sight of the vision.

For the rest of today, we’ll simplify a bit and focus on one issue: Voting. The King family asked us to focus voting this MLK Day. As I noted in my newsletter column this past week, the request from the family was to not celebrate MLK day this year until there was progress on federal voting legislation.

Voting determines who has a voice in governance and who sets establish priorities. It’s about who sets and implements the rules. Fair voting is an overarching tool needed on the journey toward the Beloved Community.

I’m guessing these broad principles of democracy and voting are familiar to us all.

Once I selected voting as a focus for the sermon today, I realized my own knowledge on voting was not that thorough. I’ve been concerned about voter suppression, but did I have clarity on what specifically is needed? The insurrection January 6 disturbed me deeply, but could I pinpoint which election laws were in play when 121 members voted not to accept results in Arizona? While I supported the current federal bills, I couldn’t succinctly explain them.

Could I convincingly describe how fair voting moves us toward Beloved Community?

If I am to advocate for change, I needed talking points on voting.

When it comes to resources on voting and electoral reform, Stacey Abrams has a powerful command of the details and the big picture. Ms. Abrams was the Ware Lecture speaker at the UU General Assembly in 2021, served as Democratic Leader of the Georgia House of Representatives and ran for governor of Georgia in 2018. She has announced she will run again in 2022.

In her book ‘Our Time is Now’ (June 2020), she discusses the layers of the challenges present in our electoral process. She offers,

“In a democracy, if we do not hear from everyone, the complexity of our communities goes unaddressed and our national ambition is incomplete. When citizens feel unrepresented, or, worse, are exorcised from the process, disengagement follows. Often those potential voters who sit out elections are decried as apathetic, and too many of them would agree with the description. I recently saw a Youtube video by a hip-hop artist named Yellopain. The opening sequence broke my heart as he tours his neighborhood and bitterly describes how useless voting seems. He invokes the promise of the Obama presidency, then laments the ways life failed to improve. His damning indictment of the act of voting seems at once logical and tragic. But with his next verse he rips into the fiction of voter apathy, and in his rapid-fire poetry, you come to understand that his reaction is more aptly treated as despair and disillusionment…Like him, eligible, silent voters tend to come from communities that have traditionally been ignored by politicians and by policy. He details the travesties of a system that fails to connect the dots between voting and change.”

Can we connect those dots between voting and change? Are you convinced there is a path? A good question to consider this MLK Day.

Abrams offers examples of what voter suppression looks like today. She describes how getting a provisional vote counted in one location can be become virtually impossible, where for the same situation in an adjacent community (e.g. misspelling on one document) the questions about the provisional ballot are often easily resolved and the vote is counted. And yes, it is often in predominantly white, more affluent communities where issues are more easily resolved. Abrams tells too of debacles on Native American reservations where an address formal required by government for one purpose is then rejected during voting.

The proposed voting laws at the federal level are an attempt to address this patchwork. While the constitution holds overarching principles on who can vote, in the US we design and implement voting practices at local and state levels. Having a federal baseline set of rules should help increase participation and help restore confidence in the process.

If we are to help with the change, it helps to understand the proposed remedy.

1- The Freedom to Vote Act is about the voting processes. It includes standards for two-week early voting, requires there be ways to vote nights and weekends, and sets specifics on places to submit (‘drop’) ballots. It would make Election Day a holiday, and have uniform standards for voter ID in in states that require them. The bill includes penalties for voter intimidation the spreading of misinformation. It restores federal voting rights for people who have served time in jail, creating a uniform system out of the current patchwork one.  The act also prevents attempts to overturn elections by requiring audits after elections, making sure those audits have clearly defined rules and procedures.

2- The companion bill, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act (VRAA), takes on issues of discrimination in voting. It updates and restores the essence of the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA) that the Supreme Court gutted in 2013 and 2021. The 1965 law had pre-clearance rules for voting changes in some states. The John Lewis provides a new, modern formula for determining which states need pre-approval to make changes. (Note: Bill summaries above based on summary from Heather Cox Richardson’s post on Jan. 12, 2022)

This week I talked with a few local advocates for fair voting. These folks, older white community members, helped in the recent elections to assure registration was prominently available in high schools and community events, and worked on rides to polls. One lesson learned is that motivating voters to show up and vote is key. Skepticism in some corners is high, with reason. Being registered is a start. And listening and making the case on why to go vote needs to be a part of advocacy.

Another local leader, an African American man, reminded me that the efforts for reform, equity and inclusion will only come about through a unified effort. He stresses we need coalitions that of work together in trust with one another.

How will we improve the voting process so all have access to the ballot and so that results will be honored? Author Michael Harriot [January 11 in Grio] notes:

“Speeches won’t transform this country. Protests won’t stop white supremacy. Neither will legislation, Supreme Court rulings, voter registration drives or changing the procedural rules of the Senate. Applying pressure to Sinema and Manchin won’t stop their colleagues who feel the same way but are too afraid to say it. It will take all of that.”

To have a trusted electoral process, we need this ‘all of that’ mindset.

Passing bills (a bill) to establish federal standards for voting will be difficult, possibly insurmountable over the next weeks. To this reality, Rev. William Barber (from the Poor People’s Campaign) noted as the King Center Beloved Community Awards last night (Jan. 15), “Political deadlines don’t govern how long we do what is right.” A reminder to press now, and if something doesn’t pass, to stay focused on the issue.

We work in segments. We can take the time to understand an issue and engage. Today we used voting as an example.

Our faith calls us into action. We can’t do it all, but we can offer our focus. We can bring our gifts to the needs. We can experiment. We need to follow new and emerging leaders. We can lead, when helpful. It’s about remembering the ‘we’ is all of us.

And through it all – from Moses, Abraham, and Martin Luther King, to Wheatley, Barber, and Abrams, the advice is common: Keep the vision central.

This MLK day in 2022 may we keep the vision of Beloved Community central in all we do.

May It Be So


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