The Journal of the Unitarian Universalist Association

Valora Washington and the UUSC: A Lifetime of Service
By Susanne Skubik Intriligator

January/February 2000

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UUSC: A Proud History

It’s been nearly 40 years since a little girl named Valora Washington first picked up a tin can and went out collecting for the March of Dimes, but her mission, at its core, hasn’t changed that much. She’s still an activist, a fund-raiser, and an advocate for folks in need. It’s just that today, her “can” holds several million dollars, she has a national reputation as a political organizer, and the door she’s knocking on is yours.

Since February 1999, the dynamic and personable Washington has served as executive director of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, succeeding Richard Scobie, who retired after a remarkable 27 years. She takes the helm of an international organization that in fiscal 1999 counted 25,000 members and supporters; handled $4.4 million; administered 35 weeks of work camps where volunteers tackle projects in poor communities around the US; and helped support 44 grass-roots partner groups in countries around the world. The service committee also advocates for poor children and families through its welfare monitoring project.

Washington comes to the UUSC already expert in nonprofit management, children’s advocacy, and political organizing, having worked as a program director for the Michigan-based W.K. Kellogg Foundation, where she managed more than $86 million in grants and created programs to support children, youth, and families nationwide. One such program, Families for Kids, changed both state and federal legislation and increased adoptions. Before Kellogg, Washington, who has a doctorate in childhood development, held faculty and administrative posts at Antioch College, American University, and Howard University.

For Washington, the political is also deeply personal and spiritual. For example, she spends her limited spare time chairing the National Commission on Head Start, the policy-setting board for the nation’s only comprehensive program for poor children. And she lives out her adoption advocacy: she’s the single adoptive mother of two children, son Omari, 15, and daughter Kamilah, 8.

By September, when this interview took place, Washington had spent a few months observing UUSC functions and getting to know staff and members. Then she held several group dialogues for the board and staff, directed at coming to consensus about the group’s goals and ideals. The teams were just beginning their last step, developing detailed action plans to accomplish these goals, when Washington sat down, in her bright Cambridge office, to talk with World reporter the Rev. Susanne Skubik Intriligator.

World: Why did you take this job? What is it that attracted you?

Valora Washington: My whole life has been about working for social justice, and the service committee represents a tremendous opportunity to bring together my strong spiritual foundation and my professional expertise. This job brings together a lot of the pieces of who I am. 

World: Say more about your “spiritual foundation.”

VW: I grew up in a family and a community where religion was seen not as a set of rituals and speeches but as a way of life. My models were people who tried to live out their values on a daily basis. My grandparents and many of the people I knew were part of the great migration from the South. They and their friends all moved from the same small town up north to Columbus, and the experience bonded them as an extended family. Every Sunday, 25 to 35 people ate dinner at our house. That’s how tight our sense of community was. I grew up thinking of all of these folks as aunts, uncles, and cousins. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I found out that some of them weren’t actually blood relations.

And so many of them were hard-working, religious people who acted out their values. No one had to tell me, “It’s important to share what you have with others.” That sharing was just who we were, as faithful people. From a young age, I have just breathed the idea of being an activist.

World: When did you decide to become an advocate for children?

VW: When I was in the fifth grade, I knew a boy in the neighborhood, a sixth-grader, who watched his younger sisters and brothers while his parents worked. The family lived over a bar, and one day, the bar caught fire. My friend and all his siblings died. The whole community, including the children, banded together to help the parents through it. But I remember thinking, “What’s wrong with a system that would let innocent children die this way?” I think it was then, when I myself was a child, that I resolved to help children.

You know, it’s sort of funny that you should be asking me to talk about my own history and roots when, because of the UUSC’s 60th anniversary this year, the staff and I have spent months and months thinking and talking about its history and its roots in the UU movement. And that’s what I’d rather you and I focus on now—the UUSC and how we’re going to take wisdom from our historical situation with us into a future that is going to be very different from what we’ve known before.

World: How so?

VW: We—the board and staff—have spent this past year developing a strategic plan to make UUSC an even more powerful voice for human rights. We’ve set out for ourselves a pathway through which we can have a stronger public voice, be better able to influence public policy, and have a strong membership that is going to enable us to act decisively and influentially.

To have a greater impact in the world, we need to focus our energy more strategically. We’ve chosen four main program areas:

1. The empowerment of women to build civic societies and strengthen their own lot in life, whether through welfare reform in our own country or through protecting the rights of girls and women in places like Cuba or India.

2. Protecting the rights of indigenous people and oppressed racial and ethnic groups, particularly around their civil and political rights and issues of environmental justice.

3. We’re going to make the protection of children central to everything we do as a service committee. 

4. And we’re going to continue to respond strategically to wars and natural disasters, focusing especially on helping victims further affected by human rights violations, like the people of Kosovo, or by racial and economic injustice, like some of the small, poverty-stricken African American towns recently devastated by flooding in North Carolina.

Of course, when we come to this vision about what we want to become and the areas in which we’re going to focus, we do that very mindful of our history. For example, the service committee has played a courageous role in combating racism and injustice related to race and ethnicity. The service committee was taking stands in the 1940s and 1950s—ahead of the curve—for desegregation and to protect the rights of oppressed minority groups.

Today, when we set out on new projects in communities of color, we can build on our former strategies and ideas, and our history helps us build credibility and trust. People respect that we’ve been doing this kind of work for more than 50 years.

World: Why did you decide to refocus the program areas?

VW: Well, simply put, there are more things we care about than things we can make a difference doing. Of course, as religious people, we need to take positions on issues that reflect our values. But we believe it is not sufficient that we express those positions if we don’t have the appropriate capacity to actually create change. I believe that by picking a few strategic targets, we will strengthen both our public voice and our actual impact on public policy and community change.

How are we going to do this? By building our membership and involving more people to get the work done. Working with our members and the congregations and communities is going to become even more central to the service committee—getting people involved, providing them with opportunities to talk to others about these issues, providing hands-on experiences through our work camps. 

World: Will refocusing the program areas entail cutting some programs? Which ones? How was that decision made and how did people react to it?

VW: Well, as I’ve said, these decisions were part of a months-long revisioning process that involved all board and staff members, so there was plenty of discussion about this transition. We certainly won’t be “cutting” any programs right away, but we will be phasing out a few programs that are country-specific and not aligned with our four themes. For example, we’re going to be phasing out work on women’s reproductive health, because, let’s face it, there are other groups better suited to treat health issues, such as the World Health Organization or Physicians Without Borders. Instead, we’ll be working with partner groups focused specifically on women’s economic and political empowerment, because that’s an area where we can have greater efficiency and impact. Another example is our work with the group PUEBLO, which serves black, Latino, and Asion youth in Oakland, California. Previously, we’ve worked with them on a number of different issues, including violence in the community. Now we’re still working with them, but we’re focusing our collaboration on one of our theme issues: environmental justice.

You see, this transition isn’t so much about “dumping” some programs and picking up others. It’s about focusing our current work so we can be most effective. If we go into our projects and collaborations with more specific goals, we’re going to get to more specific, quantifiable outcomes, and we’ll become a more effective organization overall.

World: You’ve said that you’d really like the UUSC to do a better job of reaching out to young people in order to build the next generation of activists. How will you do that?

VW: Building that next generation is a key priority of the service committee. Just in the last few years, hundreds of young people have participated in our work camps. They are very eager for opportunities to serve, to learn, to get involved. We are going to respond to them by dramatically increasing the opportunities we have for youth. In addition to work camps, we’ll provide trainings that empower and support young people in doing social action at home in their own communities. Because, yes, it’s a great thing to help rebuild black churches with colleagues and friends that you've never known before. But it’s also a great thing to take the lessons you’ve learned from that experience back home and make change in your own neighborhood, in your own community.

World: Can you give an example of how that might work?

VW: Sure. There are plenty. Last year, some UU youth in the Pacific Northwest District contacted the UUSC about organizing a work camp to learn about the lives of migrant farm workers in the region. Ten youth, between ages 15 and 18, then gathered in Yakima, Washington, for two weeks in July to meet and work with farmers, farm workers, unionists, journalists, and activists. They spent several days interviewing farm workers in their houses and volunteering in the local food bank, Head Start program, and housing program. After the work camp, the youth then presented a workshop on their experience at the district youth conference. In addition, they’re now creating an information program for local churches, a Sunday worship service on the topic, and an e-mail advocacy network, all of which are focused on improving housing and education for the farm workers.

World: As you know, UUs have been doing that kind of local activism for many years, encouraged and supported by the UUA. How do you see the future of relations between the UUSC and the UUA?

VW: I see a future where the UUSC and the UUA are working very synergistically to express UU values by building a movement of people engaged in social action. [UUA President the Rev.] John Buehrens and I often talk about how to create this synergy. Right now, he and I are engaged in a series of dialogues about how to translate our UU values into a real public policy agenda. For example, how do we work together to raise awareness about economic injustice, especially as it affects children?

Still, I think it’s important for people to understand that, while the service committee was built from the UU movement, because it needs to be able to take independent public policy and advocacy stands, the UUSC is an independent organization. We do not receive government funds nor any financial support from the UUA. Many people are surprised to find out that the UUSC is not a department of the UUA. 

World: I’ve heard that in the past there’s been some tension between the groups because of a feeling they were competing for the same donations. Can the two exist separately and both flourish financially?

VW: That question confuses me. I see our relationship as so compatible and having so much potential. I think a strong, large, engaged the UUA is the best possible thing for UUSC, and I know that John Buehrens feels the same way about our organization. There’s such a huge world out there, and our common goal is to influence the larger world, to serve the people and the communities affected by injustices and to make the world a better place. We need to keep focused on that.

World: You’re one of the few people of color—and one of the very few women of color—in a leadership position in the UU movement. Have you felt isolated or supported? 

VW: I feel supported because I receive so many supportive calls and letters. When I travel around the country to congregations and communities, I feel very warmly welcomed. I think people are excited by the possibility that the service committee is going to play an even more active role. People are saying to me, “How can I get involved? How can I get active? I want to participate in this work.”

World: Your predecessor, Richard Scobie, was executive director for 27 years. Is it difficult to succeed someone who was in charge for so long? And is it hard to change an organization that has followed the same patterns for so long?

VW: Our 60th birthday celebration this year has given us a lot of occasion to acknowledge and celebrate what Dick Scobie did for this movement. There aren’t a lot of organizations of this kind that have stood the test of time the way the service committee has. We’re enormously proud of that. At the same time, even before I was hired, the UUSC board had begun meeting to create a new strategic plan for the organization, a framework for creating a larger, stronger UUSC by 2010. So there were changes underway when I arrived, and I think that made it possible for us to make this transition well.

I’ll also say that the service committee staff has been phenomenal. Because we are clarifying our strategy, they’ve been called to hold forums, to listen to our members with greater depth, to synthesize our legacy, and to create pathways that are going to actually accomplish what we set out to do. For example, our Public Policy Implementation Team has been focusing on strategic ways to strengthen our impact. One concrete idea they’ve come up with is to do a “policy-makers audit”: to create a central list of all the policy-makers our members, friends, and staff have contact with, in order to better coordinate our efforts.

Together, through this long visioning process, the board, staff and I have created a common compass. We’ve agreed together on where we’re going and what it’s going to look like when we get there. That’s a huge amount of work that we have done together.

World: Most of your experience up till now has been in early childhood development and children’s advocacy. That’s a part of what the UUSC does, but only part. How will your previous experience inform your work here? Do you feel prepared to broaden your focus so dramatically?

VW: One of the requirements of the position was that the new executive director have expertise in one of the areas in which the service committee does business. In my case, it was the focus on children’s rights and children’s issues. Actually, although I started my career as a teacher and researcher, I’ve had a wide range of administrative roles and leadership opportunities. I serve on a large number of national boards and commissions and so forth. What I really bring is a background of working very specifically on local, state, and national policy arenas and having achieved some very specific results in the public policy arena that have influenced the quality of life of children.

World: Before UUSC, what was your proudest achievement? The Kellogg Foundation’s Families for Kids Initiative?

VW: Yes, among the recent things, that’s something I’m enormously proud of. In that project, we listened to 14,000 people in 19 communities, including children as young as four years old. Through that process, we were able to articulate and then bring about some specific policy changes, which on a local, state, and federal level, could make a difference in the lives of children. Then we gathered leaders from all the major black and Latino organizations to raise awareness of the foster care system, because it disproportionately affects children of color. We know that if these children are not served well by the foster care system, they can easily become homeless or simply graduate from foster care into the criminal justice system. Finally, I testified before committees of both the US House and Senate, briefing both Republicans and Democrats and helping to create the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997, the most comprehensive child welfare legislation in 15 years. It set up major reforms to help keep kids from drifting endlessly in foster care; now there are timelines to get them either reunited with their families or settled into permanent adoptive situations. In addition to all the legislation, as a result of our work on the ground in communities, evaluation data show that over 7,000 children were actually adopted who would not have been adopted were it not for this law.

World: Do you prefer working domestically rather than internationally?

VW: No, people aren’t articulating it in that way to us. We’ve had a very active presence domestically in recent years, through our welfare human rights monitoring project and things like that. One of the very impressive things about our members and friends is that people affiliated with the UUSC are very knowledgeable about the issues and very articulate. They’re a tremendous resource to the service committee. And as you know, UUs will never miss an opportunity to express their views. [Laughs.]

World:  True. To work well with UUs, you have to do a lot of listening.

VW: Exactly. They are a very knowledgeable, informed group.

World: In UU circles, it often seems that everyone has an opinion, so our dialogues can be endless, and our energy can get dissipated. Do you find us more difficult in dialogues than other folks? How do you get to clarity?

VW: You know, what I have found is that there comes a point in well-facilitated circumstances where consensus emerges. Even here among our staff, from the many wonderful activities in which we’re engaged, you can imagine the kind of conversations that take place. What the leadership has to do is to tolerate ambiguity but be very clear that an outcome is going to be achieved. We may have an opinion about 25 things, but let’s focus on something we can actually change. And people are energized by that. Because at the end of the day, we want to be able to say that the service committee made an incredible difference, for women, for children, for indigenous people, for oppressed groups. That’s what we want to say. We made a difference.

The Rev. Susanne Skubik Intriligator was ordained in November 1999. She is a member of New York’s Unitarian Church of All Souls and a former associate editor of Ms.

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