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Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Assorted observations about G.A.

A few thoughts about the business portions of the UUA's General Assembly, which concluded last night:

'General Assembly for Dummies'? A delegate at the procedural microphone observed that it's hard to learn how the business at the General Assembly really works and joked that many delegates would appreciate something like an "Idiot's Guide to General Assembly." A good idea! Let's face it: The orientation sessions don't really prepare most new delegates for the complexities of what they're about to experience, and the bylaws and rules of procedure are hard to make sense of in the heat (or even the warm tedium) of plenary business. A humorous illustrated guidebook, however, would be fun and useful in a pinch. I'm thinking something more along the lines of Schoolhouse Rock's "I'm Just a Bill" and less like a parliamentary handbook, if such a hybrid could be imagined.

RealVideo or reports? It would be very nice to have the online video recordings of plenary sessions broken down to allow direct access to the, um, more content-rich portions of the sessions. I'm sure we'd each define "content rich" differently, but the reports of officers and some major presentations (such as the Commission on Appraisal's triennial report) also deserve much wider audiences than, say, the candidates' forum with its brief shelf-life. Some reports, however, no matter how vital the announcements embedded in them, would be more usefully disseminated in written form as press releases or simply the texts of the reports themselves. I'm grateful for the videos, but after they've been broadcast, wouldn't more users be more likely to access specific portions than to download the whole three and a half hours?

An aside about Saturday's candidates' forum, which preceded Sunday's election of denominational officers and board and commission members: Although Gini Courter and Bill Sinkford were running for reelection as moderator and president, neither made a statement in the forum. Sinkford's presidential report, which concluded the Saturday plenary, could be construed as his campaign statement, but Courter didn't deliver her report until Monday afternoon — the day after her reelection. Everyone involved in leading a congregation really must hear her speech, by the way — an outstanding call to good manners in the interests of congregational growth and flourishing. Here, incidentally, are the unsurprising election results.

Unwitnessed public witness? Buy super-wide black markers for your protest posters. I know, you have to use them in well-ventilated rooms or you'll get high, but effectiveness matters. A Sharpie just doesn't make letters that a citizen out for a stroll can read from ten yards. And wouldn't it make more sense to put the more professionally prepared banner right out on the street rather than letting it get lost in the crowd? Or, perhaps, make two so one shows up in photographs of the speakers while the other is apparent to passers-by. If we're going to go to the trouble of "witnessing," I'd think we'd want people to grasp what we're doing. (Why, look at that! Three hundred people are standing outside the convention center in the midday sun. Must be waiting to buy tickets to see Pete Seeger!) On the other hand, Ninth Street in Fort Worth is not a busy pedestrian thoroughfare at noon on Saturday. We could have been much more visible and still have been unwitnessed.

An aside: We were protesting the death penalty — which Texas practices in appallingly unjust ways — and the event included clergy from Fort Worth-area churches from several other denominations. I saw no one who wasn't a G.A.-goer or a guest speaker, however. And anyone passing by across the street would have had no idea what was going on. Happily, the Star-Telegram covered the event anyway (reg req'd).

Uh oh: Widespread agreement! Here's something: The first five Actions of Immediate Witness passed overwhelmingly. (Actions of Immediate Witness are social-justice resolutions prepared at the General Assembly by delegates; they have often been the most contentious resolutions at G.A.) Three — opposing torture, supporting a boycott of Gallo Wines, and supporting the Millennium Development Goal One in seeking to end extreme poverty — passed without verbal opposition, amendments, or more than a handful of dissenting votes. Only one person spoke against the resolution calling for intervention against genocide in Darfur. And delegates debated three amendments to a resolution in support of public-interest broadcasting, including federal funding for public radio and television, and eventually passed the resolution as originally written without significant opposition.

Only one resolution — calling for a fair trial for Sami Al-Arian, the University of South Florida computer science professor who was arrested, fired, and placed in solitary confinement on charges of supporting Palestinian terrorist groups two years ago — provoked much conversation. The resolution passed, unamended, with slightly more than the two-thirds necessary vote.

As a result of the rapid adoption of the resolutions, Monday's plenary session ended a full hour earlier than scheduled.

Announcements as liturgy! Wayne Arnason, the secretary of the Association who completed his term on the Board at the end of this Assembly, amused us by offering announcements as liturgical elements — drawing on the Commission on Appraisal's discovery that more UU congregations include announcements in their orders of service than any other element. Best example: He told us where to find the lost-and-found by chanting the directions as a Buddhist chant.

Copyright © 2005 by Philocrites | Posted 28 June 2005 at 9:15 PM

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Dan Harper:

June 29, 2005 10:30 PM | Permalink for this comment

Chris writes that it would be great to have written versions of key reports at General Assembly. As one of the reporters who covered the opening and closing celebrations, and the last plenary, I agree wholeheartedly. If only there were a way to get those making reports to give Web staff written copies of their reports, prayers, sermons, and presentations, it sure would make my life easier!!

Sometimes I manage to grab a presenter at a workshop and ask for a written copy of what they've said, but at plenary sessions and openings and closings, I don't have time because I have to keep typing away as the next part begins. Once in a great while, people will give Web staff copies of what they're going to say in advance -- but that's not enough, we also need their permission to put the text of what they say online.

((And dear readers of this blog, before you start complaining that Web staff are the ones who should be chasing down these written texts, do remember that most Web staff covering GA are volunteers, and we are stretched very thin -- I wrote over ten thousand words of GA coverage in five days, and I'm exhausted right now. So please, no complaints about the Web staff, OK?))

Gini Courter seems to understand the importance of the Web -- so Chris, maybe you can ask her to be a pace-setter. If she starts giving the texts of her presentations to Web staff, other people might get the idea and do the same. I wish she had already started -- her oral report at the Monday Plenary was great, and I just could not type fast enough to get it all.


June 30, 2005 07:58 AM | Permalink for this comment

Two thoughts about reports, plus a thank-you: The Board, as a matter of policy, ought to require a written report from every board or commission that would be linked to from the General Assembly section of the website. (After all, the reports are presented to the General Assembly in its legislative, business role. The General Assembly is the Association in its gathered form.) Figuring out a system by which all that text (or all those pdfs) would be managed is complex, sure, but it shouldn't be the web team's job to beg people for the courtesy of a written report. (I'm only talking about plenary reports.)

The other thing I'm suggesting is that, whenever possible, the video of major presentations be made available separately from and in addition to the full-length plenary videos. I don't know how the technology works, but I imagine it's merely a bit time-consuming to chop out the President's Report, the Moderator's Report, the Financial Advisor's Report, the Executive Vice President's Report, and a few select commission reports from the plenary videos.

And now the thank-you: Dan and the other volunteers who assist the small professional crew on the web team do terrific amounts of work. They are also amazingly good-humored all week long. I visit their hive a few times every G.A., and depend on their work in ways they may not fully appreciate. G.A. happens because an unbelievable number of volunteers make it happen, and I salute them!

Liz Schwartz:

July 1, 2005 03:26 AM | Permalink for this comment

Reports: I agree that it should be up to UUA or GA board (whichever is in charge of business) to be accountable to the entire UUA by getting reports, especially vote results, to the web team. While I love being able to watch soooo much of it online (yay!), I'm still not sure which SAI won. The UUA bord has the responsibility of accountability. Therefore, they should value the web team enough to both get material to them and make sure they have enough volunteers.


July 1, 2005 07:52 AM | Permalink for this comment

I forgot to mention the new Study/Action Issue (SAI), which was adopted with a small bit of drama: Delegates selected "Moral Values for a Pluralistic Society" in a runoff with "Women's Rights Worldwide." Intriguingly, the congregation that had first proposed "Moral Values for a Pluralistic Society" withdrew its support from the text as revised by the Commission on Social Witness for the General Assembly, so it was introduced without a pro statement.

I think the social-justice statements haven't shown up on the Web until the CSW and the UUA's legal adviser have reviewed the language, and this seems always to take at least a week.


December 6, 2005 05:09 PM | Permalink for this comment

An update on Sami Al-Arian, the fired University of South Florida professor who was held in solitary confinement by the U.S. for alleged conspiracy with Palestinian terrorists, and for whom the UUA General Assembly demanded a fair trial:

Al-Arian was acquitted today of 8 of the 17 charges the U.S. brought against him, and the jury deadlocked on the other charges (AP, 12.6.05).

Speaking of General Assembly resolutions: The boycott against Gallo, which the General Assembly endorsed this summer, concluded earlier this fall. Drink up!

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