Thursday, June 28, 2012

Better Than Nothing (Louise)

The final Plenary session of General Assembly 2012 was the longest, and promised to have the most "meat and potatoes" of UUA business. Even while conducting only the minimum amount of necessary business, I hoped for lively discussion on the items brought to a vote.

However, I was rather disappointed. As Sean said in his last report, the By Laws changes that we agonized over in 2010 were calmly presented without opposing words from the "Con" microphone and passed quickly and handily.

This made me a little sad. Being so isolated from other UUs means that I rarely have a sense of what is important to individuals in the movement. Without coffee hour to hear that someone was moved by the sermon, or energized by their social action witness, or passionate about a budget line item, I've come to really look forward to GA plenary hall debate to take the temperature of the group. Without that debate, I don't have any detailed sense of what the crowd thinks or what it wants. We voted in some important and necessary changes, so the Yes vote was good; however, to me, "Yes, but..." would have been so much better. 

Fortunately, the discussion around the Responsive Resolution to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery helped. It's good to see fellow religious liberals in the throes of argument. Puts a nice glow on their cheeks.

Other business items that caught my attention: UUSC President Bill Schultz, whom I admire greatly, announced a joint venture with the UUA called the College of Social Justice, starting with a single $1M donation. Wow, that really came out of left field! Obviously, there has been a lot of work done to get to this point, especially to get such a large financial backing already. How did this come about? Is the UUA Board empowered to set up this sort of thing? We were not asked to donate, yet, even though we are regular UUSC supporters.

Several times in the course of the on-line delegate chat, folks mentioned parts of the country where finding other liberals is difficult. These areas (Arizona and Alabama were mentioned specifically) were explicitly labeled "bad," which saddens me.  In our travels, we have visited each of the 50 states, and spend quite a bit of time in areas that aren't typically full of UUs. Counties with a great deal of poverty, or low levels of education, or with many conservative mainline churches. Truly, in our experience, there are good people everywhere and to label their homes so negatively struck me as deeply disrespectful.

Overall, though, the experience of attending GA via teleconference was pretty good. Not great, but okay. Not nearly as stimulating and rewarding as being there in person, but certainly much better than missing GA altogether. My ongoing commitment to attending GA is reaffirmed, and I look forward to being in Louisville, KY next year if at all possible. Thank you for trusting me with the important role of delegate; it was an honor to serve.

Final plenary and GA2012 wrap-up (Sean)

Sunday evening we wrapped up our participation in this year's General Assembly with the final plenary session, #5.  Expecting, as is so often the case, the session to run over by a few minutes, we fixed our dinner ahead of time and made plans to have a final cocktail hour with our friends and generous hosts in Des Moines around 8:15 or so, Central Time.  As it turns out, however, we finished early, and got a break in the middle to boot.

That's because the meat-and-potatoes business part of the meeting, passing amendments to the bylaws, uncharacteristically flew by without debate.  I was relieved, in particular, to read the amendments to Article XV (sorry, as I was, to have missed the debate on these changes last year), after I spent so much energy discussing the problems with that section right here in this blog three years ago.  They were spot-on, and now that these have passed, we can return to revising Article II next year.

So all three sets of bylaw amendments passed handily and, as I said, without debate.  Of course, a half hour was budgeted for debate on each of the three, and we suddenly found ourselves more than an hour ahead of schedule.  Because we had informed our partner organizations (for the Justice theme of GA) approximately when the discussion of the Responsive Resolution on the Doctrine of Discovery would transpire, the moderator felt that we could not simply proceed to that order of business so far ahead of schedule, and instead she called for a half hour stretch break before going into her report.

Unlike the bylaw amendments, the Responsive Resolution generated a good deal of debate as well as proposed amendment.  As with so many of what I like to call "mom and apple pie" resolutions that we've taken up over the years, it is hard to dispute any of the sentiments embodied in the resolution, and, unsurprisingly, several spoke in favor of it.  The voices opposed fell roughly into two camps. One argued credibly that this was not really a Responsive Resolution at all, which generally can only be proposed in situ in direct response to a report of an officer or committee delivered at the Assembly, but rather an Action of Immediate Witness in what amounts to an end-run around this year's proscription on the AIW process.

The other opposing camp felt blindsided by the resolution, arguing that congregations did not have enough (or, in some case, any) time to review it and develop an opinion on it.  The rebuttal to that argument was that a link to the resolution had been included in the pre-GA packet sent to congregations in March.

For the record, I voted against the resolution, not because I disagreed with the premise or the text, but because I firmly believe that it was out of order,  and I am nothing if not committed to rules and process.  I do remember marking my own words after the 2010 Assembly that, despite a lot of lip-service about having a minimalist GA with only a small handful of attendees and absolutely no business taken up that was not legally required by bylaws, that we would end up having a mostly full-size GA and a way would be found to include non-essential business.  That has proved to be true.

Beyond that, I could not help but be somewhat irritated about how the notion of immigrant justice and/or immigration reform somehow morphed into repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery.  While certainly there are common elements, it seems a far cry from what we came here to achieve.  Lastly, as you have heard me say in regards to many "mom and apple pie" resolutions, it appears to me that there is little to be done on this matter by a denomination such as ours, in stark contrast, for example, to immigration reform or reproductive rights, wherein our voice is an important one in the chorus.  Resolving to oppose (or support) so many things dilutes our focus and compromises our ability to be effective where we can have the most impact.

Nevertheless, the Resolution passed by a wide margin, and so it will be.  An actual responsive resolution introduced by an actual delegate in actual response to a report at GA did not fare as well.  While it was not shot down outright, it was far enough out of left field that a motion to postpone debate indefinitely passed readily; at this writing just three days later I can no longer even recall the gist of it.

The remainder of plenary comprised reports, final credentials, and the inevitable jubilant invitation to the next GA, in Louisville, Kentucky, complete with a humorous slide showing the various phonetic pronunciations of Louisville.  We hope to be there, again representing the CLF.

Before I conclude my report on this year's GA, I would like to make a couple of observations about remote participation.  First is that we need to do a better job of ensuring that remote delegates have access in real-time to the same information that on-site delegates are seeing.  For example, the real-time captioned translation of native-language speakers, while available in the hall, was not visible to us.  Along these same lines, any items that are handed out to delegates as they enter the plenary hall should be made available to remote delegates before the start of the session.  That would include any text revised by mini-assemblies, the ubiquitous Social Witness handouts, etc..  If there is time to print 1,000 copies, there is time to upload it to the web site.

On a more positive note, having the real-time chat available was great, and the support folks did a bang-up job, so kudos to them.  I am sure all this will improve as it becomes more routine.  All in all, we'd much rather be at GA in person, but this was a reasonable alternative for us, and I would encourage more congregations or other CLF delegates to use it if travel to the site is not feasible.

Lastly, before I close I will note that we also participated in the annual CLF business meeting, normally held at GA but this year held yesterday by teleconference.  Being able to join in to this made our GA virtual attendance that much more complete, and it's always good to hear other CLFers gathered together.  I'm sorry we missed in-gathering this year, but being on the call helped just a little.

Here endeth my formal report to the CLF Board on my participation as a delegate to the 2012 General Assembly of Congregations.  Thank you for allowing us to be of service and we hope to do so again in the future.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The penultimate plenary (Sean)

I did not post here covering Plenary #3 as I think Louise covered it.  I, too, voted for CSAI 3, reproductive justice, on the theory that we, as a movement, can be more effective there than on the other issues.  One of the nice things about voting on-line is that we can see the results of the on-line poll almost instantly, in graphic form.  As Louise wrote, CSAI 4, exploring class barriers, was the front runner among on-line participants.

Unsurprisingly, especially after seeing the on-line results, no single CSAI attracted more than 50% of the vote.  It turned out that CSAI 3, when all on-site votes were tallied, was actually the front runner by a fair margin.  Nevertheless, without a 50% majority our process calls for a runoff vote, and in this case, CSAI 4 came in second place.  So the only voting order of business in yesterday's Plenary #4 was to vote in the runoff, and we again voted for CSAI 3, which won handily.

I did not have the presence of mind to capture what the multiple-choice poll results looked like in Plenary #3 before they disappeared from the screen, but we did capture yesterday's result, just so you can see what it looks like after we vote:

The rest of the plenary comprised reports and testimony.  The budget report can be summed up basically as "times are tough, we need more money."  The take-away for me from the BOT report was that the Beacon Street HQ is at end-of-life and moving HQ operations to a different facility is going to be both more cost-effective and more productive than trying to revamp the existing facility.

Although I have some mixed feelings about certain concepts, the testimony was moving (you can read it for yourself here).  Unfortunately, the first speaker spoke in her native language, which was apparently translated via open captioning in real-time for those in the hall.  For whatever reason, though, we who were logged on to the streaming video did not get the captions, and so could not follow along.  My Spanish is pretty feeble, but I got the gist, yet still I had to divert my attention from the next speaker to catch up with the translation when it was posted.  Something for the streaming team to think about for next time, but let me also acknowledge that they have been otherwise doing a great job under what I know to be trying circumstances.

Today's final Plenary #5 will be late for us, 4:15-8ish.  We're fixing some dinner ahead of time -- this is the first GA where I've been able to attend morning sessions in my bathrobe, and evening sessions at the dinner table.  I hope to have my final report done tomorrow evening or perhaps Tuesday morning.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Offsite Community (Louise)

Plenary III has just closed. The main business was to hear presentations on the five proposed Congregational Study Action Issues and then to vote for one of them.

This was the first time that we were simultaneously watching the live streaming video and participating in the offsite delegate chat. The chat is a box on the computer screen next to the video window. After choosing a screen name, it was easy to type comments into the chat box. The words of each chatter showed up in a continuous flow in the chat box, recording the reactions and thoughts of the participants.

This led to a thoughtful discussion of the proposed CSAIs, and the distinct process of choosing one vs. implementing it in the congregations. As an isolated CLF member, this was a whole new facet of General Assembly for me. I've never talked about the CSAIs with other CLFers before.

And it is also not something that usually happens during Plenary. This sort of conversation would be disruptive and disrespectful in the live Plenary Hall. And with over 1,000 delegates, opening a typed chat up to the entire assembly would be chaotic.

But for the 60 to 80 of us online, it was a wonderful opportunity to listen, learn and feedback with each other. The discussion helped me clarify my own position and led to my final choice for CSAI 3: Reproductive Justice. Our on-line votes were displayed immediately, and CSAI 4: Exploring Class Barriers was the front-runner. The final tally from the entire delegate assembly won't be available until tomorrow's plenary session.

No business (Sean)

Yesterday morning we attended Plenary #2..  We had a brief moment of panic when neither the phone conference nor the web login for voting was working for us, but we finally realized that there was no actual voting business on the agenda for the 45-minute session, and reasoned that they simply did not turn the system on.  A quick email to support confirmed this.

We did watch the entire session on streaming video, and it consisted mostly of procedural details, repeated at every GA, for the conduct of business through the remainder of GA.  This year there are mini-assemblies only for the CSAIs (5 of them) and a single resolution, repudiating the doctrine of Discovery.  Again I will not repeat it all here as these can be found in the Agenda, available for download.

As long as we already had the streaming up on our large-screen TV and all was working smoothly, we remained on-line for Worship, another two hours.  This is the first time we've ever streamed any part of GA (we usually attend in person) and so it was a bit surprising to me to find some of the service blacked out due to music copyright issues.  Perhaps those of you who stream GA regularly are used to this aspect.  Louise also likes to sing along with the hymns, but the stream does not show us the lyrics so she can only do the ones she knows.  Other than that is was a nice service.

We opted not to "attend" any of the mini-assemblies.  We seldom do even when there in person, and in this case, they are not streamed on-line but rather are being teleconferenced by phone.  None was particularly moving to us in any case.

In a few minutes we will be back on-line for today's business session, Plenary #3.  We will be voting on the CSAIs, and Louise is on-line right now looking for any updated text from yesterday's mini-assemblies.  This is another first for us; in person, delegates are handed printed copies of any updates as they enter the plenary hall.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

A first impression (Louise)

General assembly is appealing to me for two big reasons. First, I love the plenaries, the governance process. I find it fascinating, and participating via video conference so far has felt very similar. I rarely want to speak at any of the microphones in person, so losing access to this part of the process should be fine.

The second opportunity I enjoy in person at GA is singing, both with the choir and with the crowd. Obviously I will not be able to join the choir this year. Sadly, the music on the livestreaming video is subpar. The fidelity is not great, and the microphones are not necessarily picking up all the participants. The sense of unity and musical fullness that comes from singing hymns with thousands of other people is completely lost.

I am also not enjoying singing the hymns in Spanish. As a trained singer, I have learned hundreds of songs in foreign languages. When the words are unknown, the power of the music itself is what carries me then. But in this setting, where the harmonies are lost and the camaraderie of the crowd is unavailable, I'm left with reading nonsense syllables on the screen while hearing many of my beloved melodies. The words that go with those melodies are now...wrong. Just wrong.

Does this make our Spanish speaking members and guests feel welcome? Or are we patronizing them by mangling their language as we dilute our love of the melodies? How do non-singers feel when they are presented with yet another barrier to participation?

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Justice GA 2012 (Sean)

Welcome, once again, to our report as voting delegates for the Church of the Larger Fellowship for this year's "Justice" General Assembly, which is being held in Phoenix, Arizona.  We, on the other hand, happen to be in Des Moines, Iowa, parked at the house of some friends so we can use their high-speed Internet connection to stream the live video of the Plenary sessions and exercise our votes on-line, in the first-ever GA to utilize such technology.

Because we are not in Phoenix, we did not attend the CLF in-gathering as is our custom (and, technically, a requirement for voting delegates, at least those arriving in person).  Our first event for this year's GA was Plenary #1, which ran from 7:30 to 9:30 MST.  That's actually 9:30-11:30 here, and because the session ran over, we were actually on-line to around 11:45, when the on-site attendees proceeded from the hall for the first witness event of the assembly.

The only voting business of Plenary #1 was the approval of the Rules of Procedure which passed handily.  This was our first opportunity to use the on-line voting system, and I am happy to report that our votes in favor were properly recorded.  I did not see any cards raised for "nay" in the hall, but one soul on the on-line system voted against, which we assumed to be a mistaken keypress.

There were actually several practice sessions for online voting leading up to GA.  Unfortunately, the nature of our on-board Internet system, which is satellite-based, precluded us from using the online voting system until we had some alternative Internet access, and our travel schedule did not permit us to have the necessary access until now.  So we were quite relieved to find we had no trouble accessing the system, all our credentials worked, and our votes would be properly recorded.  We had a brief moment of panic when it appeared that we'd each need to be dialed in on our cell phones along with the Internet access, given that we each have a limited number of cell minutes, but that turned out to be non-essential, and we hung up the phones early on in favor of watching the session stream on our large 32" monitor in the living room.

The rest of Plenary #1 consisted of the usual welcoming speeches, banner procession (including a number of "on line" banners from congregations who have only on-line, and no on-site, delegates), introductions, and briefings.  All of these are now available on the UUA web site and so I won't repeat them, other than to say that the Native American speakers were particularly moving to me, especially having just traveled through the part of the country where so much conflict played out.

Given the nature of our remote participation in this GA, we're a bit discombobulated and are scrambling to catch up.  With no hard copies of schedules, agendas, programs, and the like, we're having to download it all and try to keep it all straight, on top of the byzantine procedure for accessing the on-line voting system.  I have yet to figure out how we, as remote participants, will be able to speak on any business if we so choose.  So please bear with us as we get our bearings -- I hope, for example, to update the graphic here on the blog to the 2012 edition before closing (as I am typing, it still shows the graphic from 2010, the last year we attended).  And now, if you excuse me, it is very late here...  good night.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Parking in Charlotte (Sean)

I am posting here, uncharacteristically, outside of GA to ask for help.

We were actually not planning on attending GA this year, because we expected to be in the intermountain west right now. Readers of our other blog will know, however, that we were deployed by the Red Cross to two relief operations in Alabama and Mississippi, responding to the tornado outbreak and flooding, respectively. And so it is that we find ourselves in Jackson, Mississippi today, just a week before GA. While the relief operation here is ongoing, Louise has put in five weeks and is ready for a break; the operation that I worked in Alabama just ended.

At this writing, we are planning on driving to Charlotte and attending GA as walk-ins. However, we've done none of our usual advance planning for parking the bus during our stay. I'm hoping some of our readers here may have suggestions or connections. Perhaps one of the UU congregations in the area can accommodate us, for example, as did the First Universalist Church of Minneapolis during GA last year.

I'll be working on accommodations from now right up until our arrival or until I nail something down. Feel free to post here in the comments or email me directly at slwelsh -at- gmail -dot- com if you can help. Ideally, we are looking for someplace within an easy scooter ride of the convention center.

If we do make it to GA, I am guessing we will not be CLF delegates this year, as there are only a limited number of slots and we did not ask in advance. Nevertheless, I am sure we will share at least some of our thoughts and observations here.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

2010 Wrap-up (Sean)

I promised earlier to come back and fill in some gaps in my coverage of Friday and Saturday. Since then, Louise has posted her report, and she's covered many of those points. Louise also takes better notes than I do -- I'm a slow writer, and all my life I have had the problem that I can either pay attention and be present with what is being said, or take notes, but not both. I won't rehash the items that Louise has already covered.

I wrote on Friday that I would explain my "nay" vote on the SOC on "Creating Peace." In hindsight, when I reflect upon those reasons, I should have simply abstained. What it really came down to for me was that the "Calls to Action," while laudable in purpose, struck me as overly burdensome (as I have written elsewhere) for congregations that, in many cases, are struggling for their very existence. As I have said before, I am concerned that we are asking them to expend a great deal of energy and resources on a goal (world peace) that is largely beyond our influence.

Spending the same amount of effort on, for example, marriage equality, or more outreach to those marginalized in our society such as people of color, LGBT, or recent immigrants, would have more of an effect in the world (and, yes, I know that we are already working on those issues). That being said, if the delegates, who theoretically represent their congregations, are willing to step up and take on this challenge, who am I to suggest it is too much. (Although I must repeat my oft-stated concern that perhaps the very congregations that are already stretched too thin are the ones who are not sending delegates to GA.)

That's a good segue into one of my wrap-up points, which is that I am convinced now more than ever that the GA business process is broken and needs to be fixed. That goes hand in hand with the Association's organizational structure being byzantine and cumbersome, a fact that is now recognized by the board and is being addressed. But, as I wrote last year, I am most looking forward to a more robust democratic process as proposed by the Fifth Principle Task Force, wherein a much smaller number of delegates who are more focused and empowered will carry on the business of the association. Funding for delegates and a stronger mandate to bring with them the will of their congregations and carry back the action items will, I hope, lead to more intentional and purposed actions at GA.

On Sunday morning I wrote that I would have more to say about the Phoenix discussion Saturday afternoon. Since then, as Louise has written, we received some clarification and background from Gini during her Moderator's Report. And, not having gone to the mini-assemblies on the topic (in hindsight, a mistake on my part), it is not reasonable to be too critical of the resolution that ended up before us. What I can say, though, is that more time could have been spent sharing with the assembly how the compromised was reached, and, more importantly, what was the shared vision of how the 2012 event would look.

At one point in the debate on the floor I went to the Procedural microphone to ask just what the BOT considered the "minimum business" of the assembly, and whether the proposal implied an overall event that was much smaller, much larger, or about the same size as a "normal" GA (whatever that means). I got a dismissive answer to my first question (they defined the term, rather than enumerating the list of required business), and no answer whatsoever to my second. When I sat back down, I turned to Louise and said that I must not have been clear, and she immediately shot back that, no, my question was crystal clear and the Board and Moderator chose not to answer it. We had dinner later with three other delegates who all concurred with her assessment.

On Sunday, Gini asked for a show of hands of the assembled delegates during her report, on several questions. One was whether everyone understood that what was asked for was a much larger event than a normal GA, and it was clear to me at that point that this was the answer to my question that she was unwilling to give before the vote. This does strike me as an aberration in the democratic process; if that was the vision of the framers of the resolution (as amended in mini-assembly), then it should have been stated thus, especially under direct questioning.

I suppose I have an axe to grind in all this, because Louise and I happen to own (with about a half dozen partners) a pair of restaurants in downtown Phoenix, just a short walk from the convention center and most of the hotels. (And we do hope that you'll dine with us in Phoenix.) I was well-prepared with a 2-minute "con" speech for the original resolution (an outright boycott of Phoenix), which went something like this:
  • Neither we nor our partners support SB1070 (but most of us being out-of-state, we don't have a vote).
  • If any of the businesses around ours ever supported this bill, I can assure you they don't any longer.
  • The economy nearly put us out of business, and SB1070 is threatening to be the final nail in the coffin. We send money to Phoenix every month now just to keep the doors open.
  • We do that not only to protect our investment, but also to keep our workers employed. Many of those workers are Latino/Latina.
  • Phoenicians in general are not supportive of this legislation and that includes the Mayor and the police department.
  • As with all boycotts, businesses like ours and their employees bear the true cost, and state legislators are unlikely to "hear" any message sent by people who don't show up.
  • How much more effective would it be for us as a movement to show up in force instead, and take our message to the streets?
I never had to deliver this, of course, and in the end we are pretty satisfied with the compromise. Someone else got up to speak against boycotting local businesses that are in many (most?) cases opposed to the bill. In the end, it was a contentious and divisive issue and I am impressed with the respect and thoughtfulness of the debate, the compromise, and the ultimate charge. That has not stopped some rancor, I note, on UU World over the outcome.

I think that mostly catches me up here. I have one more item to add, which is that we both very much enjoyed marching to Loring Park on Saturday to deliver our Standing on the Side of Love message at the Pride Festival. (Although that seems a bit like, uhh, preaching to the converted.) We had not realized the Twin Cities had such a large and well-organized festival; after listening to the speech we spent what time was left wandering around, and I would say we barely made it through a third of the enormous event.

In all, we had a great GA and, as always, we are grateful to the CLF for allowing us to participate as your delegates. We are also grateful to the First Universalist Church of Minneapolis for allowing us to park Odyssey in their parking lot, which we will be departing this afternoon.

One final note, for those reading here real-time or subscribed via RSS: today is the last day to make your donation to the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) for this year's annual fund and have your gift matched by Shelter Rock. We've made our donation, have you?