MUUSJA’s Visionary Leadership Award honors an individual who is living out their Unitarian Universalist faith in an embodied way through bold, accountable, spiritually-rooted work for justice in Minnesota. This year, we are so pleased to honor the work of Denise Konen of First Universalist Church of Minneapolis.
Denise is an educator, who has designed and taught racial justice and equity curricula to students as diverse as University of Minnesota Undergraduates, Phi Beta Kappa members, and parents of young children. Her acclaimed five-part series, “Talking About Race and Racism With Kids,” has been used in several school districts and has received ubiquitous praise from parents, teachers, and administrators alike. But although she has been doing this work for many years, it was only when she found her place in the emerging racial justice work at First Universalist several years ago that she finally felt like, as she says, she had found her people.
Denise was a founding member of First Universalist’s Racial Justice Task Force, and has supported her congregation’s commitment to dismantling white supremacy in a myriad of ways, ranging from strategic planning to shutting down interstates. At the call and challenge of Lena K. Gardner, Denise organized and led two direct actions in solidarity with Black Lives Matter – Minneapolis — one, a clergy action at the Mall of America in the wake of Eric Garner’s murder, and the other, a group of white protesters at the Galleria in Edina at Christmastime, under the banner “white silence = violence.”
After the 2016 Election, Denise spearheaded First Universalist’s creation of their Sanctuary & Resistance program – a group of nearly 300 people who committed to creating safety for, and solidarity with, all people being targeted by the policies of the new Administration. Under Denise’s uncompromising leadership, Sanctuary & Resistance has had a clear insistence that Immigration is absolutely a white supremacy issue, and has helped First Universalist become an official Sanctuary congregation, in relationship with organizations like ISAIAH and the South Minneapolis Sanctuary Coalition. With Denise’s guidance and entrepreneurial spirit, her congregation has seeded a fund of quickly-movable money, available to any person who is in need of assistance because of racist, xenophobic public policies that target Black, brown, and immigrant communities. Denise has helped members of First Universalist mobilize to be present frequently at ICE deportation hearings, and develop relationships of deep trust and accountability with community organizers and organizations like MIRAC, Asamblea de Derechos Civiles, and the Interfaith Committee on Migration.
She is also in the process of working with community leaders like Nekima Levy-Pounds to build on the model of First Universalist’s rapid response immigration fund, and create a Reparations fund for people of color in Minneapolis. Again, because of Denise’s leadership, First Universalist is currently serving as the fiscal sponsor of these funds, using their institutional resources and infrastructure to engage in deep work to dismantle white supremacy both within and beyond their walls.
Denise is a living example of living one’s faith in public. When she shows up–whether it’s at a committee meeting at church or in front of the Governor’s Mansion or in mobilizing support for families facing deportation–she shows up as a Unitarian Universalist, connected to her own congregation and a wide network of other people of faith committed to justice. She grounded in her deep beliefs in the belovedness of all humans and our radical interdependence, and she embodies a “posture of yes.” Hers is a spirit of both genuine humility and deep willingness to push herself beyond her comfort zone, with an absolute commitment to doing what she can, where she is, with what she has–and to never doing it alone.
Denise, we are so grateful for your work, your life, and your spirit. Congratulations.