Interview with Author Vanessa Julye
By Angelina Conti
AC: How did you first become involved with work on Fit for Freedom?
Vanessa JulyeVJ: The project originally was a revision of Kenneth Ives’ Black Quakers. Donna McDaniel had been approached by a subcommittee of the Religious Education Committee on redoing the book for FGC and had gotten a grant to go to Pendle Hill to work on the book. What became clear from that subcommittee is that they wanted to have a co-author that was a person of African descent. Information had circulated through different FGC committees, including the Committee for Ministry on Racism (CMR), which at that time I was serving on as a member. I was clear in telling them that my life was very full, with my full-time job working with the Green Circle Program, my committee work, and my ministry which at that time was part-time. I told them that I didn’t have time to work on the book.
But it was clear that I was to work on this book, because after I had been very clear about that decision with CMR, FGC’s Religious Education Committee, and some individual Friends, the organization I was working with was closed and staff were laid off. That’s when I got the phone call wondering, now that my issue of not having enough time had gone away, if I’d be willing to work on the project.
AC: At what point did it become clear to you, or clear to you and Donna, that the project needed to be expanded from just a re-editing of Black Quakers?
VJ: For me, pretty quickly. Because of my experience as an African American in the Religious Society of Friends and from my work within my ministry, I had been doing some searching on my own already and asking “Why are we where we are?”
Yes, it is interesting to know about African American Quakers. But I still ask why I experience the racism that I do within the Religious Society of Friends when Quakers were abolitionists, very involved in the Civil Rights Movement, ran schools for African Americans, and all of the things that I had been taught that lead me to believe that Quakers of European descent were very open to African Americans. To then be experiencing racism — which is subtle, not blatant like “Whites Only” and “Blacks Only” — [caused me to wonder] where it was coming from. So I was asking that question, and then Donna and I started talking and I expressed that I was really disappointed with the Kenneth Ives book and would have loved for there to be a better book out there. We wondered if we could, as a part of the book project, look at the question of “Why are we where we are?” and “What has happened to the relationship [between Quakers and African Americans]? What caused it to disintegrate?”
AC: How is your involvement as co-author of Fit for Freedom related to your ministry in the Religious Society of Friends?
VJ: They’ve very much gone hand in hand. What has been important for me in doing this work is finding out that [Quakers of European descent and African Americans] didn’t have this wonderful relationship that we lost. And that what has been raised and put forward as a wonderful relationships were on an individual basis but not widespread. Because they were good examples they’ve been elevated, and they were usually exceptions. What was happening within the Society as a whole was not really talked about. [This realization] balanced things out, and for me also provided what I feel is good news;”¦it’s not like we had this wonderful relationship and it’s deteriorated, we never had it. Now with that information we can move forward and see that we have an opportunity to create the relationship that we want. And to really understand what has happened in the past, similar to this country, we need to look at what all of our roles were in our relationship in the past. [We need to] look at relationships honestly and accept them for what they were and then move forward. Revenge and retaliation are not important in this, and are not going to get us anywhere. We want to have a different relationship, so what is it that we need to do to move forward?
AC: Can you tell me about what you understand your ministry to be?
VJ: My ministry has several different components to it; the main component”¦is to help the Religious Society of Friends be whole. Whole in that all of us acknowledge that we are human beings and that we are equal human beings, regardless of our race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation. So I do that in several ways. One is to work with Friends of European descent in looking at white privilege and the different ways in which subtle racism is felt from their behaviors by people of color. Another aspect of my ministry is to nurture Friends of color who are within the Religious Society of Friends. That nurturing happens in several different ways. Sometimes there are Friends of color who are isolated, and I [try to meet them] so that they know there are resources out there like the Fellowship of Friends of African Descent Annual Gathering and the Friends of Color Listserv. There are activities at FGC Gathering for Friends of color, opportunities to come together, so that they have a chance to be around other Friends of color and share their experiences. When I travel to different yearly or monthly meetings I generally request to have an opportunity to bring Friends of color together, for me to get a chance to meet with them and for them to get a chance to meet each other, and to talk and share our stories.
Another aspect is taking photographs of Friends of color at different events within the Religious Society of Friends, to leave a photographic record of our presence. I haven’t gone to all the archives and looked, but I know the process of looking for a photograph of Sarah Mapps Douglass for the publication of her journal produced no photograph. I don’t think there are many photographs of Friends of color within North America prior to 1930 or 1940. So that’s another part of it for me, and giving presentations and facilitating workshops, listening to Friends who are struggling with working on the issues of racism and inclusion.
There are many other Friends out there who also feel isolated within their meetings, regardless of their race or ethnicity, who are working on the issue of racism and feel like sometimes they get pegged into a category that anything out of their mouth is going to deal with issues of race. They end up feeling marginalized and isolated within their meeting. We brought together Friends from throughout the United States and one Friend from England, who are working on this issue, at a conference in Burlington, New Jersey last March and the beginning of April. Friends found that it was really a wonderful weekend, and was too short.
AC: What are your hopes for the book, both among Quakers and in society at large?
VJ: I hope it will give a more realistic picture of the Religious Society of Friends and the relationship of European American and African American Quakers and non-Quakers. That it will support Friends of color in having some parts of their experiences be lifted and put in print in a way that is not being done now. That it will also support European American Friends who have been allies of Friends of color. I hope that Friends will also be able to see that there is something wrong here and there is work that needs to be done, that it will validate Friends who are already doing this work. And that it will also be a tool to be used in First Day Schools, meetings and gatherings, where Friends can use it as a way to better understand the history of our relationship, seeing some of the good things as well as the bad things. There were Friends in North Carolina Yearly Meeting who [were a] part of that small group of Friends who were ahead of their time in what they did, in advocating and fighting in the South against the enslavement of people of African descent. There are the good stories as well as some of the frustrating stories, but for me what’s important is to get as full a picture as we can of both kinds of stories. Historically, it’s been the positive stories that have been lifted up, and not necessarily the negatives.
AC: What other paradigms do you think the book is dismantling, in addition to lifting up the complicated history that Friends have with African Americans?
VJ: I think there are some things just as simple and basic as that, when I heard about John Woolman and the work that he was doing in going around and talking to people who enslaved people of African descent, it didn’t occur to me until much later that he was talking to Quakers”¦.That meant that Quakers enslaved Africans and people of African descent.
Sometimes you hear information and you only take in a piece of it. There’s a lot of information [in this book], and one of the benefits of having it written is you can read it, take in what you’re able to at that moment, and then come back to it if you need to, if there’s some piece that you’ve missed. One of the things that we talk about is that if George Fox and William Penn and the first Friends that settled here had been more of the mind of Germantown Friends who sent their petition in 1688 asking how Quakers could enslave Africans, then it would have been a whole different relationship from the beginning.
George Fox was ahead of his time, but [not] in this area. Friends had been persecuted in England and then came here only to end up persecuting other people. Why weren’t we able to step ahead? What is it that we’re doing today that is going to cause Friends a hundred years from now to look back and wonder why racism was such an issue for us? I want to take those questions and put them forward. To me it’s about bringing out the full story, looking at ways in the past that Friends were exceptions and ahead of everyone else, and applying those lessons today.
More about Vanessa Julye
Vanessa Julye is Coordinator for the Friends General Conference Committee for Ministry on Racism.
She leads workshops and speaks on issues regarding racism, focusing on its eradication and the healing of racism’s wounds. Vanessa has established several organizations to empower people of Color. She worked for a couple of years with the Green Circle Program, a human relations program that helps children and adults understand and appreciate difference. Prior to that she was the Associate Secretary of Friends World Committee for Consultation, Section of the Americas for many years. Vanessa is the author of The Seed Cracked Open: Growing Beyond Racism (Quaker Press of FGC, 2006). She has written several articles, as well as the Foreword for Margaret Hope Bacon’s pamphlet, Sarah Mapps Douglass, Faithful Attender of Quaker Meeting: View from the Back Bench (Quaker Press of FGC, 2003).
Vanessa is a member of Central Philadelphia Monthly Meeting, where she serves on the meeting’s Membership Care Committee and Ad Hoc Committee on Race and Racism. She travels under a concern for addressing Racism in the Religious Society of Friends with a minute to travel in the ministry from her meeting. Central Philadelphia Monthly Meeting also provides a support committee that meets with Vanessa on a monthly basis. She has a website for her ministry: http://www.quaker.org/vanessajulye/index.htm
Vanessa lives in South Philadelphia with her husband, Barry Scott. They have three adult children, two daughters and a son, Ellen, Maggie and Kai who all live in Philadelphia. She enjoys quilting, needlepoint, cross stitch and photography.