June 10, 2011

Plenary session of Northern Yearly Meeting 2011

Over the years, I'd lost interest in going to yearly meeting sessions, largely because I was enamored instead by the discipline and approach to Meeting for Worship for Business that I had experienced at Iowa Yearly Meeting Conservative.*

This year, Way isn't open for me to attend IYMC sessions, but I would say Way was very open for me to attend Northern Yearly Meeting. The writing was on the wall--and more literally, on the flyer: the theme was "Beyond Othering...To Loving."

Over the years, NYM has had plenaries and workshops dedicated to understanding racism, oppression, and inclusion. And over those same years, there's been a lot of talking and worshiping and listening to one another, but little outward change. As Friends, we sure do know a lot of stuff, but we don't seem to act on it too often--a sentiment recently raised up by another blogger, about how we Quakers engage in a bumper-sticker or banner-at-the-meetinghouse sort of activism.

Bit by bit, I wondered if the presence of so many Friends at the recent White Privilege Conference (WPC), which was held in NYM territory, would somehow lend itself to a different sort of experience this year.

And then I was invited to be part of the plenary that would be offered at NYM, working in collaboration with three others who had also attended the WPC this year. To add to Way opening, in case I had missed the earlier cues, I had a nudge to propose a workshop, Moving Through White Guilt. For the first time in a number of years, it was pretty easy to say Yes to the plenary and Yes to going to the yearly meeting.

During a conference call just a few weeks before the session, the four of us plenary planners/facilitators realized that we didn't have a feel or idea of how to frame the whole-gathering session. We had the theme to work with, and we had the guidance that the plenary not be a panel discussion about the WPC, since "Othering" occurs in many arenas: gay/straight; middle class/working class; able-bodied/disabled, etc.

So during the conference call, unsure what to do, we simply fell into worship... and we began to articulate how we were being led.

In the end, here's how the plenary unfolded:

1. We asked Friends to enter the large room in a worshipful manner, and the room had been arranged in large concentric circles, with a long table in the middle and a big aisle that led from the table to the hallway. We also asked for two visiting Friends to hold in the Light the group, the plenary facilitators, and the process for the evening.

2. On the table were many small pieces of tape and a number of pairs of name tags. Each pair of nametags represented an element of social power or privilege that a person either had or lacked.

For example, one pair was MALE/FEMALE (for the purpose of the plenary, we intentionally used a binary for each pairing); another pair was CHRISTIAN/NON-CHRISTIAN; a third pair was WHITE/PERSON OF COLOR. The items that had social power (in the U.S.) were on one color paper; those without power were on a different color.

3. After Friends were seated--there were about 100-120 adults--we asked them to come up to the table and take ONE nametag that represented some social power or privilege that they had in their life; and ONE nametag that represented some power or privileged that they didn't have. We asked them to tape the two tags onto their shirt and sit back down, paying attention to how they felt as they attached the tags while waiting for everyone else to do the same.

4. After everyone had taken their tags and was seated, we then moved the center table out to the hall (hence the large aisle leading to the hallway!). We went over some guidelines for the evening. We were careful not to say that we wanted to create a "safe space" because we made it clear that we wanted Friends to take risks, to "lean into your discomfort, because that's usually where the learning and growth are." Then we asked people to get into pairs and talk with each other briefly about why they picked the tags that they did and what it was like to do so. After just four or five minutes, we gathered back into a large group again for the next piece.

5. The biggest chunk of time for the evening, we explained, was dedicated to having individuals acknowledge, one at a time and in front of the whole group, one of three different experiences. In the large, central empty space in the room, on the right we placed a sign on the floor that said "Experience of having privilege." In the middle we placed "Experience of having less privilege." And on the left was "A request or something learned." We explained that, as in worship sharing, one Friend at a time would speak for a short time and then we'd return to silence before another person was to speak.

In addition, as Friends were ready, when someone wanted to share, she or he would come to the place on the floor (if able) that represented the "position" from which she or he was speaking: If it was to admit a time when she or he misused social power, the person would stand at the right. If it was to acknowledge a time when something was hurtful as a result of being in a place of less or no privilege, the person would stand in the center. And if it was to share something that was learned from either having privilege or from not having privilege; or it if was to make a specific, concrete request, the person would stand on the left: "As a person with a disability, ask me if I want help before you jump to help me..."

And we gave one last bit of guidance: We weren't asking people to share their most horrific moment, or their most shameful experience. After all, this wasn't intended to be a group therapy session or a cathartic experience. So we asked people to find an experience or memory that had a bit of a zing to it, a bit of energy attached to it, so that it wouldn't be an empty experience for them but neither would they be overwhelmed once they started to speak.

Then we waited.

The sharing was deep and rich, insightful and pained. Friends were attentive and moved. Some cried as the person in the central space shared an experience through tears.

It was powerful. And the Living Presence was with us.

6. As we had planned the evening, we had considered how to move from one part of the plenary to the next, especially how to close this particular piece, not knowing how tender the group might be. We had agreed that at each transition, we would insert a song that would be familiar to most Friends there. After all, NYM is the yearly meeting that is known for its fellowship-through-singing group, Nightingales.

Earlier in the plenary we had sung a verse from "Holy Ground," and two verses from "We Are A Gentle Loving People" (We are whole and we are broken...). At this point, we sang "Peace I Ask of Thee O River." It was so sweet, so perfect...

7. We quietly explained that before we'd move into closing worship, we wanted folks to get together with one other person and take a few minutes to talk about the experience: what was surprising, what was new; and to consider how what was shared that night might apply to either the person's own worship community or to the yearly meeting as a whole.

WoW, the room became all abuzz and it was hard to bring us back together! But we had another song in mind to do just that, and it took about three or four times to sing through "Woyaya" before we were ready to join in worship for the last 20-30 minutes.

The whole evening was such a gift... The worship was rich and built on themes and experiences that resonated for many that night.

When we four debriefed with the two Friends who had been holding the space, we each acknowledged how well-used we felt; how we never could have come up with this plenary if we had actually tried to plan it; how open we were to being led and how trusted we each felt as the different pieces emerged and fell into place.

During the four-hour drive home, I found myself wondering if I'd be back in 2012. After all, I'm curious to see if there is any fruit of the Spirit that may have been seeded as a result of that two-hour session.


*I've written quite a bit about my experiences at IYMC annual sessions. This link takes you to every post that has the tag "IYMC."

No comments: