Personal Infrastructure: Building the Post Ferguson Beloved Community

Barney RubbleOften when the expression “Personal Infrastructure” is used, it is in reference to either technology or specific systems and ways of being in the business world. But I believe there is a much more important way to apply this concept. What about those systems that we use to choose friends or create partnerships? All of these kinds of interactions are based on ways that we have learned to be in the world and together they create a framework, an infrastructure that supports us. Simply put, real Personal Infrastructure is the set of systems we use to support the decisions we make that determine how we live in community.

This week, I read my friend Kenny Wiley’s blog post on Unitarian Universalists in the aftermath of Ferguson and in the run up to the 50th Anniversary of Selma, Alabama. Like me, he continues to struggle with the ignorance and “Barney Rubble” eyes of blank though well meaning confusion that he is met with as a black man in a predominantly white denomination. Like me, he feels both Ferguson and Selma in ways that cannot be understood unless you are wearing brown skin.  And like me, he is left wanting at Unitarian Universalism’s response to today’s race wars.  The questions and the isolation make one genuinely wonder why pursue this faith at all; yet we persevere. His post is very timely for me in that I am working on a longer piece about race in Unitarian Universalism where I raise some very challenging questions about “why” the racial divide continues to persist in a faith tradition that touts its ability to be multi-cultural and welcoming.

This awareness (persistent Unitarian Universalist whiteness) made me think that there is an underlying element of Personal Infrastructure that may be worth exploring more deeply. Before diving in here, I want to be clear that when I speak of Personal Infrastructure, I do not intend to place a value judgment on that structure.  Instead, the intent is to simply and objectively highlight the underlying structures that people create that result in certain outcomes. This is different than in technology and business where, when Personal Infrastructure is raised, there is always a “good” or a “better”, or an “effective and ineffective”…or worse a “failure.” The attempt here is more arithmetic than algebraic…more empirical than it is philosophical. I am looking at the “x + y = z” not the “x if/then y = z2” of how we relate to one another.

Personal Infrastructure as a way to look at community came to me when reflecting on some of the planning issues facing San Diego, my current city. In the world of public policy and urban planning, infrastructure will most often refer to sidewalks, utilities, roads, and sometimes schools and even healthcare. These are the tangible systems that are in place that allow people to live in a modern Western society. I thought then, what about applying this same concept to how people are in social community with one another. What are the “roads” and “utilities” that must be in place for people to be able to thrive and relate to one another and share values and a way of life together?  Even more pointedly for my ministry, what are the systems in place that result in the continued racial segregation within Unitarian Universalism?

Unitarian Universalists

Unitarian Universalist churches are predominantly white. They desperately explore ways to find deeper connection with people of color and ways to attract more people of color, but they continue to miss the mark. Despite some prominent people of color being present in the broader movement and despite Unitarian Universalist presence in several political discourses that center around people of color, on Sunday morning, Unitarian Universalist churches are almost entirely white. Here is where we can look at the question of Personal Infrastructure. The systems in place that bring people into the church relate to location and community. More specifically, these are the same systems whereby members bring people to church. The personal infrastructure of most Unitarian Universalist congregants includes a social circle that is entirely white on an immediate level, between family and intimate friends.  Significantly, this is also true for people of color who are already within Unitarian Universalist congregations (a point also brought up by Kenny.)  Again, without value judgment, it is clear that people come to church because of people they know or people they want to know. If no one in the church knows any people of color, people of color will not spontaneously appear.  Therefore, whiteness as a Personal Infrastructure keeps Unitarian Universalist churches white.

Cautionary Tale

The danger here would be slipping into value judgments and by default simply labeling the situation outlined above as “racist.” But it is not. Again, Personal Infrastructure is not about motivation or even intention, it is about observation and about the system. It is the same with gun violence.  A gun is a system and therefore a gun never killed anyone; people use guns to kill. The system (congregants bringing people they know into the church) is not racist, but the system can be used for racially biased outcomes. The subjective choice to be surrounded socially by one demographic is based entirely on social location and it is not a system in itself. So the solution exists in using the system differently or creating a new one. By understanding this system, the effort can then be applied to where it will make the most difference.  For instance, using the system differently could look like asking Unitarian Universalists to explore who they are in relationship with and how that translates into congregational diversity. Creating a new system could mean intentionally planting churches in communities of color with local residents after doing outreach to community leaders.  No matter what, the system that must change is in the Personal Infrastructure of existing Unitarian Universalists.

By looking at real Personal Infrastructure, I believe we can take an objective view of highly problematic systems and come up with realistic and well thought out solutions. When I was a personal trainer, I often said that it is crucial to let go of punishment narratives and negative influences in order to make real progress.  Constantly dwelling on white guilt and slapping down oppressive behaviors will not fix Unitarian Universalism’s race problem.  Instead, because the goal is objective and non judgmental, the exploration of Personal Infrastructure has the potential to dive deeper into actual problem solving. For instance, by looking at a congregation and assessing the level of actual engagement of congregants with people of color outside of the church, one can create a plan and awareness. One can then ask congregants to look for times when they may have missed opportunities to develop relationships with people of color, then and only then should they ask “why?” Is this a cultural choice that has been passed on or learned? Is this motivated by fear or discomfort or some other way of being in the world? Looking at Personal Infrastructure paves the way toward asking these tougher questions.

Infrastructure supports the way we live in our society. Knowing our real Personal Infrastructure supports the way we choose to live both in our society and within ourselves.  And if Unitarian Universalists are willing to really explore their Personal Infrastructure as it relates to race, it could potentially change the dialogue within the denomination and give us a voice outside of the denomination when it is most needed.

What community will you build on your Personal Infrastructure?

Check it out!: Kenny Wiley – Who Are My People

3 thoughts on “Personal Infrastructure: Building the Post Ferguson Beloved Community

  1. Hello Adam, Your sermons have been stimulating for me — and I have heard friends say the same. In your quest for relevant ministry, I would like to leave two questions that your may be thinking about:
    First, I have brought a few people to different services and they have not been interested in continuing. Also, I have mentioned UU to people of various colors/ethnicities who have not been interested in attending. What if the problem is that these others have not found the reasons to attend UU?
    Second, regarding your introductory sermon, I believe that the terms Black and White have divisive connotations that serve to polarize perceptions going back to slavery ideology. And we all have color unless albinos — rarely in our community do we see people who have complexions actually appear black or white. What to do: categorize by drops of African blood, not label by superficial and often vague characteristics, or use use other attributions?
    All the best in your work as well as life,
    ~El

    • I think you raise a few very tough questions here. First, regarding people of color attending UU churches: I think this has to do with the cultural appeal. Although race and “color” are both entirely social constructs (European colonial ones at that) cultural needs are not. Many of the reasons people of color in the US attend church is in search of ways to sustain themselves through oppression. There is nothing in UU liturgy that speaks directly to this as a lived experience. That is a challenge. Another challenge is that for many people of color there is a closer connection to the ancient and the natural as part of the worship experience…again UUs don’t have this built in, we are always having to lay it on top.

      As far s the second point, this is a much longer discussion. Yes, Black and White have divisive and polarizing connotations. But black people and other people of color didn’t write laws into the Constitution that limit the rights of “non-whites.” Our entire government and legal system is built upon the assumption of whiteness. Until we are willing to change this, I believe we are unfortunately stuck with those terms. Looking forward to continuing this conversation!

  2. more than 17 years ago, at the first unitarian church (not yet universalist) was a small group teaching uu members (and others) to sing gospel. the conductor was terry mason (sp?). ken herman (former uu music director) was an active member. we performed in several churches. later a guy in a local folk group asked where he could learn more about gospel music so i asked a female tenor who belonged to terry’s choir. she said she was now with mlkccsd–martin luther king, jr. community choir of san diego, so i went to a rehearsal to check it out. i greeted her (white) and another woman (black) i knew from the ymca. when i told the guy interested in gospel music where the rehearsals were, he said they were too far from his place. i joined anyway and was a member for at least 15 years. in the beginning i was one of 4 caucasian members–a minority. i was accepted even though different. the “code meanings” of some pieces were explained and the “correct pronunciation” of words were taught. most relationships were warm. the conductor, ken anderson, an excellent professor, relates well. i’m glad i’m not just white any more. it can be a little lonely when people who don’t know me think i’m only white. i try to relate to others the best i can. mlkccsd people say i’ll always be a member. i don’t know if being a minority is a good way to value and understand other cultures. i’m hoping to attend mlk’s performance in balboa park at 1:00 p.m. on 12/6/14. there are now other uu members who sing w/ mlkccsd–i try to be tolerant of so many white people.

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