For me, the story of Justice GA begins like this:
We Unitarian Universalists have to reserve General Assembly sites several years in advance, and we incur financial penalties if we break a reservation. The central purpose of General Assembly is to carry out business required by our bylaws, and our bylaws require us to hold a General Assembly each year. All the other activities that take place at General Assembly — the workshops, the lectures, the conflicts and scuffles, the political maneuvering, and so on — are incidental to that central purpose.
At the 2010 General Assembly, a sentiment arose that Arizona’s newly-enacted draconian law targeting Latino and other immigrants was unjust, and that we Unitarian Universalists should observe a boycott against Arizona called by immigrants’ rights groups within the state. However, the financial penalties that we would incur if we backed out of our contracts in Arizona would mean that we could not afford to hold another General Assembly elsewhere; and we are required by our bylaws to hold an annual General Assembly. We needed a compromise. Out of this need of compromise, Justice GA emerged.
That’s the beginning of the story. Here’s how the story continues:
By June, 2012, four other states had enacted laws similar to (and in some cases worse than) Arizona’s SB 1070. And the Supreme Court was about to rule on the constitutionality of SB1070. The original impetus of Justice GA, to protest the injustice of one state’s anti-immigrant legislation, was now moot. But Justice GA has long since morphed into something else.
Volunteers and staff of the Unitarian Universalist Association, under a great deal of stress and pressure, had done amazing work in two short years to put together a program of education and direct action aimed at supporting immigrants’ rights. The most cynical among us muttered that we were trying to market ourselves to the fastest-growing ethnic group in the United States; the most idealistic among us saw this as a natural extension of the anti-racism work we have been carrying forward for some decades.
Whatever the supposed motivations for Justice GA (and I count myself among the more idealistic when determining motivation), the effects on those who attended proved to be quite good. In my observation, people left Justice GA feeling educated and empowered: we now knew more about immigrant issues and we better understood the links between racism and anti-immigrant laws on the one hand, and on the other hand actions like the “Citizenship Fair,” in which 320 Arizonans signed up to receive help in completing applications for citizenship, left volunteers feeling like they had power to make a difference on this issue.
How will the story play out in the future?
Gini Courter, outgoing moderator of the Unitarian Universalist Association, said that Justice GA has transformed General Assembly (see Michelle Deakins’ story online for more). I suspect Courter is correct: the Unitarian Universalists who tend to attend General Assembly will now expect social justice work to be a part of their experience.
This being the case, there are several things we must avoid. First, we must avoid the tendency of Unitarian Universalists to be social justice butterflies who flit from one social justice cause to the next, without making much of an impact on any of the causes; social justice butterflies are attractive, but pretty ineffectual. Because of this, I think it would be best if we spent the next five General Assemblies addressing immigration issues.
Second, we have to come to terms with the fact that a Justice GA is a form of socially-conscious tourism. There are many Unitarian Universalists who cannot afford to attend General Assembly (the only way I could afford to go this year because I could draw on my professional expenses budget). And having only five days to address a huge problem means that we can only expect limited results. I fully support socially-conscious tourism is a good thing, but we should be realistic about who can afford it, and how much good it will do.
Third, we’e already seeing slow progress to move more of General Assembly online. I hope this slow trend will accelerate, if for no other reason than that more people can participate in the democratic process once the business meetings of General Assembly are fully online. Once the business meetings are online — once the core purpose of General Assembly no longer requires a face-to-face presence — we will have to rethink General Assembly entirely, and that will mean rethinking what it means to have a Justice GA.