How attending WPC 2012 affected a Quaker living in Kansas

Quakers talking with each other after afternoon speaker

Challenging Racism

July 20, 2012

Dear Fellow Meeting Members and Attenders in Berkeley and Manhattan, and to Vanessa Julye FGC,

When I attended the FGC conference in Grinnell, I learned that FGC was encouraging Quakers to participate in the White Privilege Conference. So I attended the 13th White Privilege Conference in spring, 2012. It was like going into a lively, open city where everyone was talking about all aspects of privilege.

We Quakers gathered at lunch and in the evening. Quakers who went to the White Privilege Conference were asked to talk to meetings in their areas about what they learned. We were encouraged to help our meetings become more diverse and to reach out to others, partly by exploring how our racial, class, and other privileges have been maintained and addressed. I’ve talked about this topic with the Manhattan Friends and the Topeka Friends. During silent worship at the Berkeley meeting last month, I told a story about overcoming hurt in the past and opening ourselves to our sisters and brothers. A number of people gave moving testimony on this topic.

Since the FGC gathering Iowa, I’ve pushed myself to examine why—when I was so uncomfortable for 22 years with the lack of diversity in my meeting—that I was able to accept it on First Days and not in the rest of my life. I think one answer is that I saw my participation as an individual and family experience, and not as a community experience. This is disturbing to me because it shows how much I accepted subtle definitions and parameters set by of the meeting, even though I personally did not live that way. In fact, I lived quite the opposite way and I had since I was an independent teenager.

In the 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s, I did voice my discomfort in meetings, but I let the majority of members set the tone. In the early 1990s, I wasn’t the only one who noticed that something was missing. At that time two of us from the Berkeley meeting started a small study and discussion group where we read about and discussed racism. One question that came up

was: why can’t the members of the Berkeley meeting talk about racism, and why do whites drop their eyes and try to avoid the subject when it comes up?

I thought maybe it was because of guilt and because they hadn’t figured out how to see themselves as part of the solution.

This might have been part of the answer, but I think it’s more complicated.

Lately I’ve been wondering if there’s something about the way FGC meetings—and maybe other Quaker meetings—work in terms of their processes and operational guidelines that serves to keep our meetings closed, limiting our diversity and spiritual richness. In addition, it’s important to remember that people from dominant groups shape what happens. Without questioning how our practices impact the meeting in relation to the larger community, we could be perpetuating exclusion instead of inclusion. In other words, the ways we carry out particular practices, which are shaped by long-established Quaker traditions, could keep us from becoming a fully alive, holistic community.

It’s important to ask ourselves if–as a constellation of groups and meetings —we can identify ways that have limited our ability to become more diverse. I’ve been asking myself: does our reluctance to even look like we could be “converting” keep us from building diversity in our spiritual body?

Do our practices of being moved together and of reaching consensus–and of waiting for unity–keep our meetings from building diversity? And how does the over-representation of white and economically secure individuals affect testimony and the reaching of consensus? I’ve always accepted general rules of Quaker interaction and the reasons for them. Now I wonder if these reasons for practicing in the ways we do can turn into barriers that limit our growth, and if the idea that “we need to practice in the way we do” can turn into an unexamined reason or “excuse” for not struggling to become more diverse, and for not working toward change What else can we do? I hope everyone in the meetings and in FGC puts their ideas together and tries to do things differently. We all see a lot and know a lot, and we’re all creative. We can come up with better ways of relating to everyone.

There are a number of levels of change. They include change in the meetings, in the Yearly Meetings, and in FGC, as well as at the individual level. More attention needs to be given to organizational change, and not just to individual change and individual responsibility. In addition, organizational change can help address how different kinds of privilege and feelings of entitlement can shape or even stop race-, class-, and sexuality-related dialogue in meetings.

Making new friends and having fun together is a way to extend and develop community. One way is to attend diverse religious meetings and councils, once it’s known that guests are welcome. Quaker meetings could participate in the city’s culturally diverse activities and organize gardening or other projects on their own. Intense interaction and sharing in neighborhoods is helpful. Cooking and eating together is a way to create new relationships.

Inviting people to share food at the meetinghouse and joining neighborhood picnics, fairs, celebrations, and events are ways to reach out. Buying products made in culturally diverse neighborhoods and from cooperative fair-trade groups is helpful. Supporting local farmers and farm coops is another way of saying, “we’re with you.” I always think that animals can bring people together and help us show the personal side of ourselves, so maybe have a dog walking, dog parade or a dog-bathing event! Connecting organizing to communities involves making new friends and establishing strong, reciprocal friendships.

It helps to remember our positive and often exemplary collective efforts.

Many good relationships have been established. Sometimes we focus too much on the negative things. We get stuck on what didn’t happen and what ended up hurting us emotionally, or on what didn’t go in the direction that we hoped. This memory of the not-so-positive things can make us forget all the ways that we have reached out. If we concentrate on past “failures” or on “what can’t happen,” we may stop imagining what can happen and how we can make it happen. Seeing our way forward and leaping with confidence into this better future is what we need to do.

We can build on some of our activities and projects and use our connections and knowledge to work with new people on related projects.

It would help meetings to read and discuss Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship by Donna McDaniel and Vanessa Julye. That would give meetings a 300+-year historical overview of how Quakers have related to racial divisions. Having facts can help everyone see new things and come up with ways to go forward.

Quakers of all ages would benefit from attending the annual White Privilege Conference, where they would learn about many ways to address privilege and to create new ways of relating. This would build connections between Quakers and others who attend the conference.

As I look back to the start of the Gulf War, which is when I started attending meeting, I realize how conflicted I’ve been about who attends meetings for worship. I saw that there wasn’t much racial or class diversity, and this bothered me.  But, at the same time that this unintended exclusion disturbed me, I liked the fact that my family and I benefitted from the wonderful things Quakerism offered us. I was willing to accept this contradictory situation, and to accept that I could only mention the apparent social inequality every now and again because most members didn’t want to discuss it, let alone to work to change it. I tried to comfort myself with the thought that “this will take time.”

When I went to California last month, I was very aware of what non-attending community people–who hadn’t felt welcomed into meetings–had missed out on.

I saw this summer that I had mothered my own kids, but I had failed to mother others. I am taking responsibility for this.

People make change all the time. And we can do it in our spiritual homes, building community as we do it. Twenty years ago it was considered paganism by some Quakers to talk about getting into nature (a big issue back then!).

Now FGC talks about environmentalism without these concerns. Maybe we can create a turn when it comes to diversity in our meetings?

Thank you for opening your hearts to us, and may we open our hearts to everyone, Torry Dickinson

Member, Berkeley Society of Friends

Attending member, Manhattan Friends Meeting

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