Candidates for UUA President answer questions from Food Justice Ministry, Part 3: Rev. Alison Miller
Food Justice Ministry has invited each candidate for UUA President to respond to the following set of questions:
It is FJM's view that each of the candidates should have the ability to amend their answers based on reflection and, if it seems apt, in reaction to what the others are sharing— in other words, these can be living documents that are foundations for conversation if the candidates want to use them that way.
Here are Rev. Miller's responses.
1. Please describe any obstacles to UU involvement in ethical eating and related environmental justice issues that the president of the UU can and should address.
We are living at a pivotal moment in time when scientists have developed a clear understanding of the connection between human behavior and our impact on the environment. On one hand, this knowledge is powerful. We know that by changing our behavior, specifically taking actions to reduce our carbon footprint and eating mindfully and lower on the food chain – we can have a notable and positive effect on climate change and biodiversity. On the other hand, this knowledge alone has not been enough to motivate the wide sweeping behavioral change among individuals, communities, and corporations that will be necessary to turn the tide. Many people are living in cities and suburbs where they have been somewhat isolated and protected from gradual changes, until the moment when a crisis or a big problem hits. Some examples are a drought, endangerment of a species, toxic substances leaking into the water supply, or a documentary highlighting a food business’ cruelty to animals or their workers. Unitarian Universalists are very much a part of the culture and of this paradox between our clear impact and obstacles to the will to change. The good news is that religion, including Unitarian Universalism, also contains in it the force for creating collective communities of change that model and advocate for a new way.
When I reflect on the Statement of Conscience passed at the 2011 General Assembly, “Ethical Eating: Food and Environmental Justice,” E.O. Wilson’s work comes to mind. He writes, “The great challenge of the twenty-first century is to raise people everywhere to a decent standard of living while preserving as much of the rest of life as possible.” Our responsibility as ethical eaters is to mindfully select foods and support institutions which promote healthy soil and ecosystems, clean water, humane treatment of animals, fair wages, healthy work environments, and equitable dealings with diverse peoples. That is a lot to think about when choosing what to purchase in terms of your personal meal table, the congregations’ tables, the UUA’s tables, and socially responsible investing. There is a danger of becoming overwhelmed, but in my experience our individual and collective choices can become wiser and more holistic with practice. Changes add up over time, and we can rise to the challenge knowing we are part of a larger community that encourages deepening practice and a grounding in our faith.
As a religious tradition, our desire to shift towards greater ethical eating comes from our cherished values. This is what creates a galvanizing momentum for us to be able to make the sacrifices that Food Justice entails as we move towards greater balance and wholeness in our choices. We have a need/opportunity to deepen our theological reflection and philosophical grounding around this issue. The President is one of the spiritual leaders and public voices of our faith, and there is an opportunity for leadership here. Currently, the theological reflection and actions of public witness that has captured our greatest attention are connected to episodes of crisis and political division. Food Justice – a matter connected to every meal – requires consistent covenantal commitment and asks us to pay attention in the big battle moments and on ordinary days when no one is watching.
This Statement of Conscience offers inspiration, challenge, and invitational directives towards individuals and congregations, but the UUA itself is notably absent. This is something to think about for future SOCs as inviting a Food Justice lens across the whole association would make for a stronger resolution with implications for the UUA’s advocacy and its operations. In all three cases, there is an opportunity to reflect and act upon stewardship of our finances and stewardship of the Earth as inextricably linked. Examining how the UUA’s budget and investments reflects a commitment to the environment, to anti-oppression, and to sustainable food practices is relevant here, especially in terms of purchasing power (staff time connected to these issues, caterers, hotels, conference centers, stocks, bonds, etc.) The president in policy governance plays a key role in the creation of the overall budget and sets associated priorities for stewardship & fundraising. As someone who has worked in the fundraising and development department of the UUA, I also know how important it is when a President is actively engaged in funding justice oriented priorities.
The more the UUA is a leader in terms of green facilities management and sustainable food practices, the greater its ability to ask and inspire UUs across the association to do the same. This is not unidirectional – the UUA is and will be inspired by congregations and UU institutions who are also living into green and sustainable choices at all levels – these are models that can be highlighted and shared through UUA publications and communications.
2. What role would you assume as President of the UUA in helping UU's "walk the talk" of Statements of Conscience once they are passed (this in not restricted to the SOC on which we focus)?
As I wrote above, the President of the UUA is a leader in advancing spiritual/theological reflection that grounds our values and the social justice and environmental justice issues that we are called to promote. This work is not the President’s alone. Just as congregations engage in reflection and action over time connected to the SOCs, as the President I would convene a gathering(s) of diverse leaders, theologians, and activists from across the association to share what “Ethical Eating and Environmental Justice” (or another SOC issue) means to a wide cross-section of Unitarian Universalists. Soul Work: Anti-racist Theologies in Dialogue edited by Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley and Nancy Palmer Jones provides an example of one such convening from our past.
One challenge with the Statement of Conscience is that the bulk of the activities planned happen in advance of the Statement being produced and voted upon. Many of our Statements of Conscience are connected to comprehensive and complex matters of justice that involve culture transformation that will take years to realize. While the newer SOC process deepened and broadened the involvement of congregations compared to the older General Resolution process, we still have room for more meaningful, sustained, and further developments after a resolution is passed. As the President, I would work with the UUA staff, the UUA Board, the Commission on Social Witness, and other relevant parties to look at further reforming the process.
According to Rule G-4.12.3*, the UUA is required to report on the implementation of UUA Statements of Conscience at each regular General Assembly with particular reference to the most recently adopted Statement. Frequently, older SOCs fall out of focus, which doesn’t serve our goals when it comes to big issues that will take years to realize. As President, I would work with staff and volunteers to continue to develop vision, strategy, and goals that build upon our learnings, new challenges and opportunities. What would we hope to hear reported at a benchmark of 1 year, 2 years, 5 years, and 10 years for example? The opportunities for implementing Food Justice practices have increased in the six years since the Ethical Eating Statement was passed on individual, congregational, and at the UUA levels. It makes sense that we monitor our continuing implementation over time. There is also an opportunity to invite the congregations who were the champions of the SOC to hold a continuing role as inspiration and model – the end goal is not a statement, but rather a sustained and deepening commitment, advocacy, and practice over time. Other congregations may join in the efforts after the Statement is passed, particularly with long-term engagement.
As a current Board Member of the UU Legislative Ministry of NJ, I am also interested in examining the relationship between our Statements of Conscience and the Legislative Advocacy work Unitarian Universalists engage with around the country. In the past, Resolutions passed at the GA were connected to the work of the Washington Office. Now, there is a disconnect or at least a weak connection between the Statewide Legislative/Action Networks and the SOCs. We need to better coordinate a national strategy for the issues that we believe to be a priority.
*Note: Rule G-4.12.3 Report on Implementation of the UUA Statements of Conscience states, “The UUA Administration shall report at each regular General Assembly regarding implementation of UUA Statements of Conscience with particular reference to the most recently adopted Statement of Conscience. Such report shall summarize implementation by member congregations, UUA staff and other Unitarian Universalist groups.”
3. What can you share about how your personal perspective has evolved on food as a social justice and climate justice issue?
I am a lifelong Unitarian Universalist and my family of origin is interfaith, Jewish and Christian. These two forces have played a key role in the evolution of my understanding of food justice. When I was a young adult involved in the leadership & planning of continental conferences, our awareness of offering meals consistent with our Seven Principles was an essential ingredient to our time together. The community at our conferences often included numerous vegans, vegetarians, and omnivores. We were also intentional to do what we could to offer foods from local sources, where people were paid fair wages in the growing, distribution, and production of our foods. There were always vibrant discussions at these conferences about our individual food choices throughout the year, working within the leaner budgets of early adulthood, and the consequences of our consumption on animals, people, and the environment. These experiences influenced me a great deal to begin a journey of increasing my ethical commitments over time.
I was raised in New York City where my grandfather was a kosher butcher, and I have always been surrounded by family members and friends who choose to keep kosher homes. While I was not raised in a kosher home, this is a second personal influence that has caused me to develop in my thinking around how our religious and ethical commitments intertwine with our food choices. Some of the reasons that people keep kosher are the same reasons that I make certain choices around the foods I eat. The meal table is like an altar table in Judaism; it provides us with an opportunity to give thanks, to offer blessings, and to celebrate our connection to creation through what we serve and eat. In Judaism, there is a lifting up of vegetarian options and of dietary laws that require the ethical treatment of animals. Ultimately, there is a commitment to practice a degree of self-sacrifice and that human beings can’t just take everything we desire without negative consequences. In my family, we pay attention to these principles. When we shop, we aim to purchase foods that reflect our connection to the wellbeing of the land, water & air and the wellbeing of the people who grow, distribute and prepare our foods. When we eat, we say a blessing and offer expressions of gratitude with our meal. Our choices have improved with time, learning, and practice, and we have a commitment to keep working on it.
Over the last twelve years, I have been blessed to serve in a congregation that was one of our earliest Green Sanctuaries. Our community is filled with people who have a longstanding commitment to climate justice, environmental justice, and food justice. Their examples have been an inspiration to me and to my family as we have moved towards more sustainable practices around food and lifestyle over time. This has stirred spiritual reflection that has resulted in my preaching sermons connected to these issues, which have inspired others to join in the struggle. We offer several opportunities for people to move from wherever they are to more ethical eating choices, including programs led by our Green Earth Ministry, Adult Education classes, a Vegetarian Dinner Group, and hosting a local CSA called School Lunch Organic Farm that serves the wider community. We are also beginning to engage with other Houses of Worship with similar commitments, so that we inspire one another to become greener faiths.
It has become increasingly clear to me as a Unitarian Universalist minister, an interfaith leader in Morris County, and as a mother that future generations will ask us what we did in these times to support wildlife, human life, natural habitats, clean water, and the overall health of our planet. As someone who is deeply engaged in racial justice in Northern New Jersey, I am also keenly aware of how unevenly distributed are the impacts of environmental degradation and food justice issues.
Indigenous people, people of color, and poor people bear the brunt of the consequences. This truth has been embedded in the justice work I have engaged in throughout my ministry here with people of color, immigrants, and the working poor. There is a clear difference in the ability to access certain food choices due to a dearth of affordable, healthy, varied food stores near their homes and unfair wages and unhealthy exposure in labor intensive food production jobs.
Justice efforts that touch life at the intersection of racism and environmental justice are a powerful place for Unitarian Universalists to act. To me, it is the opportunity to respond “Yes!” to our First and Seventh Principle together. It is why I responded “Yes” to the call from Chief Arvol Looking Horse in Standing Rock for people of faith to show up and traveled to North Dakota to stand with the water protectors. It is also why I joined the UUSC’s effort to support the Immokalee farm workers in their efforts to gain fair wages and healthy work environments. One of the challenges we face is how many worthy social justice causes from which there are to choose. If I am elected President, I will be looking for opportunities where racial justice and environmental justice intersect as a place for us to say “Yes.”