February 27, 2018

Thoughts on activism

A long Facebook thread started by a friend of mine focuses on people’s jusgement and (mis)understanding of activism. This post is based on my reply.

When I’m asked what I do, I often answer “I help motivate and inspire Quakers to get involved in justice work.” That’s my way of avoiding people’s judgment about “activists,” as well as their lack of understanding about being a “community organizer.” I have been hurt so many times by Quakers who say to me, “But I’m not an activist like you are.”

One person shared their perception that it seems like people who are activists must have privilege. In fact, among liberal groups, it’s often the least privileged/most oppressed groups who are the most activist.  Look up CTUL, a group of predominantly poor/working class custodians of color... Standing Rock and indigenous rights is another example. And of course there’s the whole Black Lives Mattee movement.  The media might sway our view of who the activists are by what protests they cover and who gets air time, etc.

I want to address protests.  I’ll say upfront: protests and marches and rallies are only one tool among many types of actions that bring people into justice work. It’s among the most visible because of how it grabs media attention; it’s among the easist to get involved in because it’s low risk, hard to be singled out as an individual, and seldom if ever requires a long-term commitment.

Other traditional actions for activists: phone banking, door-knocking, petitions, letter writing, and visits with elected officials. If you’ve ever done any of these, I would say that what separates you from activists is that maybe you don’t have a long-standing concern that you are tracking and doing regular work on. I do: racial justice, racism, and whiteness, especially among Quakers.

Another missing piece from many conversations about what activism is or isn’t: grassroots and building capacity for meaningful change. Writing letters and signing petitions seldom build capacity of a community. That’s because these activities seldom create new relationships and instead keep us isolated from one another. And if we’re isolated, then I won’t show up for your issue and you won’t show up for my issue because we don’t know each other well enough. My faith community turned out for over a year to push against the proposed marriage amendment because they personally knew most of the GLBTQ folks among us who were targeted. Yes, find a single cause (at first) that matters to you and then get involved *in an organization* that addresses it and take note of the relationships that are created.

I’m feeling some kind of way as I write this.  But I’m glad that here’s a space where I can say “I’m an activist. I’m a community organizer, with some training and some experience. Ask me questions.”

Or read about community organizing, like Rinku Sen’s book Stir It Up or Adrienne Marie Brown’s book Emergent Strategy.

Most important, perhaps: when you find yourself dissing activism, consider that maybe you are supporting the status quo unintentionally. And if that makes you uncomfortable, I hope you’ll sit in that discomfort and see if it teaches you anything.


February 13, 2018

You say you aren't a racist but...

I am finding a way to respond to white people who tell me, "I'm not a racist but..."  I am preparing myself to ask them, "Oh? How are you engaging in anti-racism work then?"

Even the most sincere racial justice workers among us who are white realize that we have an unhealed dose of racially implicit bias that we need to address.

I've started thinking about what a true commitment to being anti-racist and doing racial justice work would look like.  In some ways, this list and its general sequence of items reflects my own journey--where I started and what challenges I was invited into.

Ideally, this list wouldn't be a list at all.  It would be an image of a central circle with many spokes coming off of it, like a bike wheel.* Each item on each spoke would have as much weight or importance as every other one.  At least, in theory.  In my own journey, though, what I give weight to has changed, depending on my growing edge, where I fail the most often, etc.

  • It must be everyday. Every day. 
  • It must be a conscious choice.
  • It must be more than belief, attitude, words, or self-education.
  • It must be demonstrated and made visible to others at some point. It is at times public--outer work--as well as private, inner work.
  • It often occurs in connection with others who are also working for racial justice. 
  • It will demonstrate a consistency of involvement with a variety of people of color and indigenous people over time.
  • It will likely build on previous anti-racist actions. If we only go to vigils and marches, or only write letters to elected officials, or only study the history of racism; and if we aren't building new relationships or developing new skills or taking additional risks, we may have become complacent in our anti-racism work. 
  • It must decenter white comfort and decenter white-led groups. It must center the lived experiences of indigenous people and people of color; it must center groups led by indigenous people and people of color.
  • It must align with the wishes of a community, group, or organization that has a majority of indigenous people and/or people of color in its leadership.
  • It will likely challenge the norms and explicitly stated values of white-led or white-majority groups that we are participating in, especially if the group is committed to engaging in anti-racism work. 


*The image is from an online slideshow.

  1. Film I Am Not A Racist, Am I? (I haven't seen it yet.)
  2. White supremacist culture (a PDF)
  3. Annual White Privilege Conference
  4. Facing Race conference (every other year)
  5. Materials from World Trust

February 12, 2018

Advice and Query on Education

Elsewhere on The Good Raised Up, I've mentioned the Advices and Queries from Iowa Yearly Meeting Conservative (IYMC).  Recently, Bear Creek Meeting--which holds my membership--asked its members and attenders to consider the Advice and Query on education.

For a number of years, Bear Creek Meeting has had a practice of including its distant members in the corporate practice of responding to queries by using email. Distant members reply to the query in writing and then the meeting reads those responses at the time it considers the query face-to-face.  What's unusual is that in general, IYMC resists the temptation to conduct business via electronic communication.  I'm not sure of the history, but it seems as though these Friends considered what would be lost by excluding a long-time member who had moved out of state had they not experimented with the use of email when that technology became common.  And now that I'm a member of Bear Creek, living 5 hours from the meeting, I participate in their query process by email as well. 

Below is the original advice and query on education; and then my submitted response to that query.

"Friends seek an education which integrates our intellectual, emotional and spiritual dimensions and enables us to face difficult moral issues with courage.  Friends promote learning throughout life and encourage freedom of thought and inquiry in all educational pursuits. Our complex and changing world demands that we learn to think and act creatively to meet its challenges.

"We learn from our direct experience of situations that surprise us and on which we later reflect; often from interacting with people from backgrounds that are quite different from our own; and from turning to nontraditional literature, media, and other sources of information. The Light shows us parts of humanity that we normally cannot see or seldom consider.

"Friends should be mindful that we rely a great deal on implicit education. Our children and others learn from the examples of how we live our lives, and hearing what we say during meeting for worship and meeting for business.  It would be helpful to newcomers if we were more explicit about our faith and practice with them. 

"While the religious education of our children is primarily the concern of parents, everyone benefits when the entire meeting is concerned with nurturing them. If a spirit of common concern is present, children will gain a sense of belonging to the larger community, and, knowing they are loved and respected, will be able to face the mysteries of life with trust. We encourage the participation of children in the life and work of the meeting."


  • How can we most effectively foster a spirit of inquiry and a loving and understanding attitude toward life? 
  • In what ways can we encourage an educational process that is consistent with the values Friends cherish? How do gender, race and class based expectations affect the goals we set and the way we learn? 
  • In learning about diverse communities, do we look for material that they themselves have written, filmed, or otherwise created and distributed? Do we stretch ourselves to break away from white-centered resources that may unknowingly, or intentionally, reinforce racial or middle-class bias?
  • What are people of color, especially women of color, saying about the way forward? Do we give them as much weight as we do older Friends, white Friends, or long-time Friends?
  • Do we take an active and supportive interest in schools, libraries and other educational resources in our communities and elsewhere? 
  • How do we prepare ourselves and our children to play active roles in a changing world?  What are younger people saying about their educational needs and desires?
  • What effort are we making to become better acquainted with the Bible, the teachings of Jesus, our Judeo‑Christian heritage, the history and principles of Friends, and the contributions of other religions and philosophies to our spiritual heritage? 


My experience among Friends in general and IYMC Friends in particular is that a large part of our education actually doesn’t come from book learning, libraries, and other conventional educational resources.

Rather, we learn from our direct experience of situations that surprise us and on which we later reflect; from interacting with people from backgrounds that are quite different from our own; and from turning to nontraditional literature, media, and other sources of information. The Light shows us parts of humanity that we normally cannot see or seldom consider.

For example, when I think about questions that would draw me out around what I have learned from the movement for Black lives; the nonviolent protests at Standing Rock; the solidarity work in support of undocumented immigrants… Well, this query doesn’t invite that sort of reflection.

Without personal, direct relationship with people who participated in these significant historic actions, my “education“ would be limited to whatever the mainstream media might convey. But my friends of color, and my contacts within the indigenous community, teach me and educate me not just about what happened but also what a just, inclusive community could be like.

A more useful query for myself has been, “What *non-white* sources of information am I drawing on regarding racial tension, social class oppression, etc.? When I worry about an entire group of people’s circumstances, do I look for material that they themselves have written, filmed, or otherwise created and distributed? Do I stretch myself to break away from white-centered resources that may unknowingly (or intentionally!) reinforce racial or middle-class bias? What are younger people saying about the situation? What are people of color, especially women of color, saying about the way forward? Do I give them as much weight as I do older Friends, white Friends, or long-time Friends?”

These questions are not what first comes to my mind! They rise up when people of color insist that their lives matter, their experiences are valid, and we should believe them and support them and learn from them.