Finding a Better Way

Reflection by Mary McCann, UUS Member
January 10, 2021

Finding a better way is a story about my life’s work being energized by UUS.

My mom was a fearless racial justice warrior, so I was introduced to terrible injustice at an early age. Plainsboro, New Jersey was a town with more cows than people. It was also a place where lynching was an existential threat. When life begins that way you learn to watch people carefully. 

Fast forward to my return to Iowa where, between 2008 and 2011, my Chicago marketing experience morphed into political work in Eastern Iowa. We were hired to press talking points, but I’m a listener so there were also stories heard. 

In Davenport I met my first Unitarian Universalists. Every time I attended a political rally or a protest , UUs were always there. I finally asked, “Are UU following me or am I following UU?” Of course the answer was “Yes.”

The most powerful stories I heard were told by Black mothers talking about their children feeling unwelcome in Clear Creek Amana’s elementary schools. The pain in their eyes is always with me. Their words were cautionary, because three of my grandsons had just moved into the CCA School District.

In 2017, I happily found my way to the UUS grand opening in Coralville. You led me to the people in our Social and Racial Justice Teams, notably, Diana Henry, who introduced me to the African American Museum of Iowa.

I began to attend CCA School Board meetings with materials and curriculum options from the AAMI. Over time valued relationships with the school board developed.

It challenges everyone to discuss systemic racism. White people from every generation have signed on to perpetuating the hatred and the evil around us, but we must persist with these difficult conversations or nothing will change.

Coming from an every-generation military and law enforcement family means that embedded dysfunction reigns supreme. I’m accustomed to uncomfortable atmospheres and disagreements.

Yet it still diminishes me. Over and over, UUS restored my hope. Surrounded by our congregation, you always help me regain my balance.

I always felt you with me as we established the advocacy group A Better Way Forward for the Clear Creek Amana schools. 

In January of 2020, finding a better way accelerated when – with three days’ notice – the CCA School Board decided that on Martin Luther King Day school would be opened and used as a Snow Make-Up Day. This was a crushing blow to the young Black students who had family plans for service work and for the remembrance of Dr King’s calls for justice in America.

When I asked you to make it rain, you sent emails, letters, and made phone calls. That began a new day for CCA.

This outpouring led to long conversations with Jennifer Mooney, President of the CCA School Board. Through those exchanges and the emails, phone calls, and letters she received, she became the “tip of the spear” for our racial equity work within CCA.

My block in Tiffin is multi-racial and religiously diverse. There are children of all ages who play on our block. I love watching them and talking to them.

I reached out to the Black families and the teens to apologize for the way the school district had misused Martin Luther King Day. I let them know that you had protested this decision and wanted them to know that they were not alone.

I had always talked to the young people, but our 2020 conversations became more focused on racial inequity. When I returned home one Sunday, five teens were waiting and hanging out next door. We talked about setting up a club in school where they could talk about race related concerns.

I opened conversations with the school board and the superintendent to see what we could do – and so it began.

In February, we created a guide for students to build their own high school club. When I talked to their parents I could see a reluctance, as their fears of retaliation have untold layers. 

In March, CCA prepared their Covid plan and eventually closed for the rest of the academic year. I continued to work with neighboring students, but Covid changed neighborhood encounters.

In April, we were finally hearing about the murders of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. That meant that all conversations had to include speaking to that truth and to the angst in the Black community.

It is the sole responsibility of white people to build trust. We must bring up these subjects and accept our roles in the white supremacy that riddles our systems of governance. If we look away from police brutality and murders we will never be trusted. 

I reached out to Jennifer Mooney to see where we were in the approval process for the racial equity club. We spoke about the growing fear and anger. It was clear that there was deep concern among the CCA educators.

By May 2020 we counted 84 Black citizens who had been murdered by police officers since January. That number included George Floyd who was murdered before our eyes on May 25.

Jennifer reached out to me to arrange a Zoom meeting with the CCA middle and high school administration, counselors, teachers, and librarians.

The administration rolled out programs that would potentially minimize the likelihood of discrimination occurring within CCA. It was clear that a process was beginning, but there was so very much work to do.

In June, Jennifer Mooney and a teacher, Reagan Boeset, organized an opportunity for interested counselors, teachers, librarians, and community members to meet on Zoom. CCA schools straddle towns that are 50% Democrat and 50% Republican. We knew all discussions of systemic racism were going to be difficult to navigate.

Yet we knew substantial problems needed fresh solutions. This original group decided to take a four-pronged approach to the challenges that we had identified. 

  1. Improvements to the Discrimination Policy, Reporting Procedures, and Victim Protections
  2. Continuing education for all CCA staff
  3. Curriculum changes that tell America’s actual history
  4. Student clubs for secure conversations about racial disparity and systemic racism

Everything we did was intended to create a better way forward, so we decided to take the name Better Way Forward for our gathering of CCA educators and community members. We worked tirelessly on each of these areas, but then we were challenged to prove that CCA had mismanaged issues of race and discrimination.

On July 15, Better Way Forward gathered 54 people willing to talk to the CCA School Board about the racial discrimination they have experienced. That video is still available online. The meeting lasted five hours. The stories and demands were heart wrenching. 

There are so many stories to tell about Better Way Forward as it continues to work for change. 

Covid has created roadblocks, not the least of which is the absolute exhaustion of CCA educators working every day under the constant threat of bringing Covid home to their families. We divided the work between us, and I chose two focal points for my efforts. 

First, I promised the Black teens in my neighborhood that we would create a student club with only BIPOC students. They wanted a secure setting, because they had all experienced white students seeing and ignoring painful everyday racial insults. 

It became clear that the student body response to the proposed BIPOC club would be a demand for an all-white club. So I moved the BIPOC club to an online community forum called Truth Download 2020. TD2020 is just 6 weeks old, so stay tuned for more information there!

The second promise I made was to CCA’s librarians in each of our seven schools.

Clear Creek Amana’s student body is 17% students of color. There are 330-350 students of color attending CCA. The schools cover an area from Amana to Oxford to Tiffin and on to North Liberty. Twenty-three languages are spoken in this rural District. 

Our Librarians asked for books and learning materials that represent each of their minority students’ races and religions. They also stepped up to be each building’s “safe person” who will talk to any student any time they feel isolated by discrimination.

Over the last four Months, UU members individually and three of our Racial and Social Justice Committees responded by donating funds and favorite books from Black-owned bookstores. To date, UUS donations have made it possible for CCA librarians to purchase 16 books for each of their seven libraries. 

The Library Diversity Fund has lifted the spirits of our dedicated and exhausted librarians. Because of you, Better Way Forward and Truth Download are UUS success stories. 

Thank you all – for everything you do for each other, for me, and for so many good works in our communities. Blessed, blessed be.