When the new College for Social Justice (CSJ) was announced, a collaboration between the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) and the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC), I was wary but hopeful. Wary because the “Just Works” program, which sent UUs to do short-term volunteer work, had already dwindled to “Just Journeys,” which sounded like tourism with some education and a bit of charitable hammer work thrown in, and the prospectus made the CSJ sound likely to be more of the same. Hopeful because new initiatives sound, well, new, and I was even more hopeful when the Rev. Kathleen McTigue became its first director. I have a lot of respect for her, as well as an affection and gratitude that will be with me always because of her compassionate care for me one time when I was a stranger and in great distress.

(Note: I have written a private letter to Kathleen telling her the same concerns I share here. We’re all part of one small faith and we can talk directly to each other, not just send our missives out onto the internet as if there were no real people concerned. I sent it a little over a year ago; she wrote back within two days and was gracious and thoughtful in her response. I’ve written to one of the program leaders of the least expensive youth justice trainings to ask how many youth get financial aid and what percentage does it cover, so I will edit this entry if I am being too pessimistic. I’m also a big supporter of the UUSC and urge every UU to join and give generously; I am speaking here of a particular program.)

The College of Social Justice has now been in place for a year and a half, and I am really disappointed. One of the slogans is “Don’t just learn about justice–do justice!” but the people being addressed are only the wealthy, because the least expensive learning opportunity being offered costs $525 plus airfare to the location. I had hoped that UUSC was finally getting away from its justice-tourism model, and Kathleen urged me to be patient. I do hope that things will change. However, along with “organizations have to begin somewhere, and can branch off from there,” a sound principle, there’s also the principle “begin as you mean to go on,” and things look pretty much the same as they did a year ago. The College of Social Justice appears under “Take Action” on the UUSC’s website, but in what way is it action? There’s some, sure, but that’s a lot of money to spend on something that is a tiny part action, a big part education, an even bigger part tourism. After all, isn’t that why people sign up for a program in Seattle or New Orleans instead of staying home where there are plenty of places to do and learn justice?

When I heard of a college of social justice, other than cringing slightly at the privilege suggested by “college” (“school” would be preferable), I liked the sound of a program that would teach me and other UUs what we really need to know about organizing and advocacy if we are to turn the world around. I understand that one can learn a lot in a week of service and listening. I’m not dismissing it; it’s better than going to Cancun for a week on the beach or staying home for a week in front of the telly, and I applaud those who do it. But I also know that those experiences are easy to come by for America’s wealthy, who already get all, every single one, of the unpaid internships and justice-tourism experiences on offer, because only the rich can take off for a summer and work for free, or travel at their own expense. Most people have to work.

There are things I need to learn, but I’m not seeing them at the CSJ. Is this the organizing model we want to teach to another generation of UUs, in the 21st century: noblesse oblige? I am here in wealthy Palo Alto, slowly helping my mostly-upper-class, mostly-white congregation to organize with poor communities, communities of recent immigrants and undocumented immigrants, communities of people of color. I could use some help. We are trying to learn to follow the lead of our less privileged partners, such as only happens when a variety of people is in the room. How is a young person to learn that lesson when everyone in her program can afford a $1000+ summer program, and most, who are not on scholarship, can afford much more, and not a single one has to earn some money that summer?

Here’s what we offer in the way of internships. Emphasis is mine.

Internships are unpaid, but interns are eligible to apply for a cost-of-living stipend from UUCSJ, intended to cover basic living expenses and local public transit. However, availability may be limited. Housing is also available, subsidized by UUCSJ and/or the partner organizations. Interns must cover the cost of travel to and from their internship location, and in some cases are asked to share in the cost of room and board.

Prospective interns are strongly encouraged to explore funding opportunities from other sources, such as their colleges and faith communities. Many colleges offer grants for summer internship placements, or the opportunity to receive academic credit. UUCSJ will work with applicants to accommodate outside guidelines for funding.

For most locations, interns will be scheduled to work no more than 25 hours per week, to allow the option of seeking an additional part-time job. (from the page Global Justice Summer Internships)

Contrast the Changemaker Fellowships offered by the Pacific School of Religion, which I probably couldn’t even receive because at least 2/3 of the spots are to be taken by people of color. We white people are, after all, well under 1/3 of the world’s population. So this program and its membership sound exactly right.

This Fellowship provides a full-tuition scholarship for the new Certificate of Spirituality and Social Change, an immersive course of study, integrating theological reflection and spiritual formation with leadership for social change.  It also covers expenses for exciting immersion opportunities, leadership retreats, spiritual formation, and faculty mentoring.  Changemaker Fellows are talented individuals who have demonstrated their skills to lead justice-driven change in churches, organizations, communities, and individual lives.

In this year-long program, Changemaker Fellows will:

  • Integrate formative theological study with a deeper understanding of their vocations as social change leaders or Changemakers;
  • Develop a greater understanding of transformative leadership practices and how to integrate these practices into their own social change work;
  • Take part in a variety of offerings including cohort and immersion learning experiences, faculty mentorship, and regular group meetings for engaged theological reflection and spiritual formation;
  • Enjoy a richly diverse learning experience while enriching the entire PSR community with their unique perspectives, skills, and gifts;
  • Earn the new Certificate in Spirituality and Social Change.  (The Fellowship covers the cost of tuition for this exciting new course of study!

This is an apples-to-oranges comparison, obviously; the goal of the Changemaker Fellowship program is quite different from the CSJ’s. But despite a heavily academic emphasis, it sees the diversity of the group as absolutely essential. It sees its work as so important that it must not be directed only toward those who can pay.

I don’t expect or want the College of Social Justice to create a certificate in social change; I just wish it would put its resources into trainings that are accessible to most people instead of a wealthy few. In the past year and a half, under Kathleen’s leadership, the CSJ has taken some steps in that direction. When she wrote to me, she spoke of instituting domestic programs in Boston and New Orleans, and they have; there are others in the US as well, and they are less expensive than a trip to Haiti or India.

There are ways to reduce the costs by a couple of orders of magnitude, however, that are being neglected, perhaps because they just aren’t as much fun for those among us who can afford a $1000 vacation. Flying trainers from Boston to our own communities, for example, would open the door to hundreds of interested activists; the cost per person could easily be lowered to $20-50, making the job of finding sufficient scholarship money easier. Mark Hicks is involved in the creation of the curricula, I understand, and that’s wonderful news–but why not bring his teachings to us where we are, instead of reserving them for those who can afford a flight across the country or the ocean? (And consider the carbon savings!) Technology has enabled us to meet faraway people for the price of an internet connection and a computer, and such meetings could be very inspiring and educational. In the meantime, the activists themselves might be encouraged to put their money into justice-making, rather than a fun, albeit challenging, trip for themselves.

I know the hope is that when the participants come home, they’ll bring what they learned to their local community. The question is, what will they have learned?