An Interview with Dick Scobie

Dick Scobie was executive director of UUSC from 1972 to 1998. The following are edited excerpts from an interview with Scobie about UUSC’s history.

Leveraging UUSC’s work for maximum impact

How do you leverage? How do you focus? How do you have real impact in terms of social justice outcomes? These are key questions that UUSC started to look at during my tenure. On one hand, if you want to have any lasting impact on institutional oppression, you have to pick specific leverage points very carefully and be very focused. You need staff who are very good, very expert, sometimes very courageous people, and who are able to work with very small budgets. At the same time, since you are an organization that is trying to serve as an instrument for Unitarian Universalist individuals and congregations to engage in some of these issues on a more general level, you’re looking at a very different set of actions.

One important accomplishment related to this was the establishment of UUSC’s new mission with its focus on human rights. Another was to reorganize our program so that there would be synergy between three major components: (1) local projects and partnerships in the United States and internationally, (2) educating and mobilizing our members for action, and (3) lobbying for our policy objectives in Washington. Times when I would be most happy around the office was when I saw these pieces working together — when I saw a staffer in Washington lobbying with information that we had only because of projects at the local level and having with them people who were UUs active in the congressperson’s district able to speak knowledgeably about those issues.

Focusing on justice

Another example of leverage is when it came to disaster relief, we needed to ask how we could appropriately get involved, given our small size and our focused on advancing justice rather than simply serving human need. So we tried to work with communities that were, even before the disaster, precarious, maybe for reasons of race or class or gender. And to do empowerment work, not just simply relief work. I think we first began using that approach in Eritrea and Ethiopia during the mid-‘80s when there was a horrific famine throughout the Horn of Africa, made 100 times worse by the fact that there were civil wars going on.

I feel very gratified that the motivating ideology of the organization remains focused on human rights and social justice, and I think UUSC is also constantly looking for opportunities in which a small organization can really bring about change to a degree that is disproportionate for its size. I see this in the water justice work UUSC is involved with. It’s a vital issue that opens up all kinds of questions about power and distribution and allows people to empower themselves.  

Empowering women

The work we did on women’s rights and reproductive rights was very important, and I see the international women’s movement as one of the most vital international movements that is happening. A lot of what we did provided opportunities for people in local nongovernmental and human rights organizations to get together in conference and workshop settings to learn from one another. They would tell us, “We appreciate the grant you were able to give us, but what really was most important was that it connected us to the broader movement and we learned from other people in other countries who were facing the same problems and who shared ways that they have approached it.” Thanks to significant funding from the MacArthur Foundation, we were able to support grassroots reproductive health projects in India, Africa, and the Caribbean.  

Working in Central America in the ‘70s and ‘80s

This program involved some risky, dangerous work by staff and our partners in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. We started with some programs in Guatemala and El Salvador that were empowering local campesinos [farmers] who had been subject to decades of political and economic oppression. Around this time, the repressive government and military started using death squads to eliminate anyone who was courageous enough to challenge the establishment. Some of the people who we had been working with were getting killed.

At a particularly grim moment in the late ‘70s, there was a protest in San Salvador that was crushed by the army. John McAward, who was the international programs director, and I went down and met with Oscar Romero, who was country’s Catholic archbishop. We sat in a little room with this very small, gentle man, and said, “What can we do?” And he said, “Tell the world — particularly tell the United States — what’s happening here. Because we really need help badly, and no one knows what’s happening.”

So John and I talked about what we could do as a small organization. We interviewed people who had been witness to the massacre. There was a young Peace Corps couple who saw trucks of bodies going by. We talked to doctors who had been at the hospital when the flood of wounded protesters and bodies came in. We wrote this all up and gave the report to a member of Congress, who was convening hearings about the situation in Central America.

John said, “What if we could get a member of Congress to come down and see with their own eyes what’s happening?” We thought they could talk to people who had been victims, to the press, to the priests, to the labor unions, to the farmers. We got Father Drinan, a congressman from Massachusetts, to go with us. John took him down, and it was an electrifying visit. Drinan then helped us identify other members of Congress and over the next decade, we took more than 30 from both the House and the Senate. I’m convinced that our work with Congress accelerated the shift away from seeking a military solution to seeking political solutions to each of the civil wars there. I’m convinced that this work hastened the end of the wars in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua.

Keeping the flame alive

I think one of UUSC’s roles is to keep the flame alive, even in dark times. That may be more important than the particulars of any given program — to keep reminding people of what we’re all about and what values have led us to create and maintain and strengthen an organization like UUSC. Keeping the flame alive, knowing it’s an endless road and that the job is never going to be done. Hasta la victoria.