In Texas, Unitarian Universalist congregations are working in partnership with the Industrial Areas Foundation to make lasting change. Not only are they adopting actions and focusing on key issues; members of First UU Church of Houston, Emerson UU Church, and the Texas UU Justice Ministry speak to how they are fusing their theory of organizing with their Unitarian Universalist values and their UU the Vote philosophy.
First UU Houston and Emerson UU are the largest Unitarian Universalist congregations located in Houston, the most populous city in Texas. Both congregations are members of the State Action Network, the Texas UU Justice Ministry (TXUUJM), and they are committed to social justice work in their own right. But this commitment has also led them to reach beyond the walls of their congregations and search for ways to amplify their impact. This is why they are collaborating with the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) Houston chapter through their UU the Vote campaign.
The IAF is a national network of local faith and community-based organizations. The prominent activist Saul Alinksy founded IAF in Chicago in 1940, and since then it has grown to work with thousands of community-based organizations and religious congregations across the world. In Texas there are ten IAF organizations creating a powerful interfaith presence working for justice.
“As a state-wide strategy, we are actively encouraging our congregations who are not already engaged with their local IAF groups to join in,” said Rev. Chuck Freeman, the executive director of TXUUJM. “We don’t have the infrastructure. We don’t have the breadth of experience that the IAF can offer with their 30 years of organizing work in Texas. What we do offer is people who are willing and ready to engage in the work for justice.”
Ellen Norton, the chairperson of the Social Action Council at Emerson UU, agrees. “We cannot do alone what we can accomplish by collaborating with a large partner organization with all the processes in place. We amplify the impact of our values and what we accomplish — and we also amplify public recognition of Unitarian Universalism as part of a larger movement. It’s a win-win.”
“We cannot do alone what we can accomplish by collaborating with a large partner organization with all the processes in place. We amplify the impact of our values and what we accomplish,” said Ellen Norton.
TXUUJM and the IAF are invested in a relational model of organizing based in creating meaningful, personal relationships with the community and then harnessing these relationships to affect change.
For example, 1,500 Texas IAF leaders recently pledged to deliver 200,000 voters to the polls — a powerful and impactful goal. What this looks like on the ground, however, is these leaders having established trust and connection with their communities. This enables the massive numbers necessary to create grassroots movements.
One way that Texas UU’s are using the relational model is through their efforts in the Sign Up and Take Charge campaign spearheaded by the Houston IAF chapter. The campaign is simple; it is a straightforward but necessary agenda seeking 50,000 people to sign onto issues supporting their communities. The agenda ranges from increasing police accountability to expanding Medicaid to comprehensive immigration reform, including issuing driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants.
UU’s are asking anyone who signs the agenda to pledge to connect five others to the Sign Up and Take Charge campaign. When people follow through with that promise, a strong grassroots web has the potential to form — powered by the fact that friends, family, and neighbors are buying into the platform.
When people follow through with the promise to connect others, a strong grassroots web has the potential to form — powered by the fact that friends, family, and neighbors are buying into the platform.
Working in their large capacity, Texas organizations have managed to leverage tremendous amounts of funds for COVID-19 recovery efforts. They have secured over 250 million dollars in rental and utility assistance and 100 million dollars in job development at local levels, as well as achieving moratoriums for evictions and utility cutoffs due to COVID-19.
“In Houston, over 200,000 people are facing rental eviction. Working with the Houston IAF chapter and local churches, we brought the issue forward and managed to get 130 million dollars available to help people pay their rent in a three county area,” said Ron Cookston, a member of First UU Houston and a member of the advisory board for TXUUJM. “A Unitarian Universalist church was involved in all of those efforts somewhere in the background. For us, much of this stems back to UU the Vote. It is very important to keep coming back to the role that UU the Vote has played in creating the process for connections.”
Creating and maintaining interfaith connections is a crucial part of upholding Unitarian Universalist values. In the pursuit of justice, we are not alone — nor should we be. Get involved with UU the Vote to learn more about how to connect your congregation with partner organizations and UU’s across the country.
The First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston is currently searching for a Voting Justice Organizer leading up to November’s election. If you are interested in working with a UU congregation to increase voter engagement, see their job posting here.
Written by Aidan Wertz, UU the Vote blogger. Aidan is a college student in Middlebury, Vermont and a lifelong UU.