For the past two years, the Children’s Religious Education Committee has quietly been discussing the topic of systemic racism. As a church located in the heart of Milwaukee, it was hard to ignore the fact that our city is now the worst in the nation among major metro areas for Black/White segregation in residential areas.* Police violence directed at black communities (and young African American men in particular) was getting nationwide attention, and right here in Milwaukee in April 2014 an unarmed black man, Dontre Hamilton, was shot fourteen times by a police officer. First Church’s CRE committee members became concerned that by avoiding discussions about institutional racism and oppression with our young people, we were doing a disservice to the very values and principles for which our faith stands.
In September 2014, we held our first open discussion with congregational members about fears and hopes in regards to bringing this topic to Children’s RE programming. The next month, a task force was formed to help guide our actions. In February, 2015, we brought in twelve members of the greater Milwaukee community to participate in a fishbowl discussion with our task force to help us learn what it means to be a person of color in the metro Milwaukee area. By the end of the 2014-2015 church year we had a recommendation to move forward in not only providing an explicit introductory program for children and youth, focusing on generating awareness of systemic racism and how that is relevant in their lives, but also offering parent and adult education and resources.
Here at First Church, we have a long tradition of offering “Winterim” programming for our children and youth, generally during the month of January. These short explorations have taken different forms over the years (most frequently “Lessons of Loss” which focused on the topic of death and dying) but always were a short diversion from the prescribed class curriculum that helped young people understand what it means to live out our Unitarian Universalist faith. This year, our Winterim focus will be Black People Matter. We recognize that racism exists towards other groups, and we are aware of the concept of intersectionality of oppressions, which describe the ways in which oppressive institutions (racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, classism, etc.) are interconnected and should not be examined separately from one another. But we have to start somewhere, and quite honestly, the reason we haven’t done this before is because so many of us are overwhelmed by the big picture. We are choosing to call this program “Black People Matter” rather than “Black Lives Matter” in deference to the specificity of that movement, and a desire not to misappropriate it for our own use. This program just begins to scratch the surface of a viable introduction to the cause of anti-racism, but I believe it is a good beginning.
Here is what you can expect from our Black People Matters program in January 2016:
- Parent/Guardian education and resources for talking to children about race and racism: See our church website for tips and articles, and plan to attend the Adult RE class offering, “Understanding Dimensions in Diversity” on January 13, presented by Lisa Geis.
- Awareness training to all RE Teachers and Class Assistants: RE Volunteer Brunch/ Meeting And Info Session on Sunday, January 3, from 12:15 p.m. – 3:00 p.m., all K5-12th Grade RE Teachers and Assistants are strongly encouraged to attend! More information elsewhere in this newsletter.
- “Black People Matter” introductory Children’s RE Program: for K5-twelfth grade children and youth. January 24 and 31 during Religious Education Programs. Relevant and complementary stories, and/or guest artists will be included during the time young people are in our services those days.
- Teacher Training for Black People Matter CRE Program:
- Additional Adult Religious Education Classes:
Members of the congregation and community are also invited to take part in programs presented by Reggie Jackson, and Kevin Gibson. More information is available in a separate article.
Racism and oppression are not “easy” topics for most of us. Your child’s experience in our program may bring up your own questions and feelings. Allow yourself some time to sit with those. Share your own experiences and perspectives with your children. Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions or concerns about your child’s participation, or any information that you would like passed along to their teachers.
May you find this blessed community a support for you as we struggle through some of these big questions together.
In Faith, with Love,
Beryl Aschenberg is First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee’s Director of Religious Education.
First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee is a home for spiritual community, social justice, and intellectual freedom, active in Milwaukee since 1842. Unitarian Universalism is an inclusive denomination; core principles include recognition of the worth and dignity of every person; respect for the interdependent web of existence; and the goal of world peace, liberty and justice.