A Recent History of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting: from the perspective of a humble insider

To Wade in Esoterica

The stories contained here are parochial and esoteric; they are fully understandable to a very few people. What I have learned about spiritual grounding and witness, about God’s love and about myself potentially resonates beyond the particularities. There are several sections, and I encourage readers to skip to those that are most relevant to their own interests. The first section, The Undoing Racism Group, is the story of their formation and interaction with Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (PYM) from my own perspective. The second section, To be Broken, encapsulates some of my experience in the aftermath of PYM not making the Undoing Racism Group a formal part of our community and governance. The third section, About the Youth and Young Adult Staffing Changes, recounts the story of the changes to staffing structure that supports children, families, youth and young adults. The final section, Dearest Chuck Fager, is a response to Fager’s two blog posts regarding the 2016 Annual Sessions of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. Then I end with a story about the man who lived by the river.

My role in our community is to serve as a bridge, seeing and knowing many things and translating them to be palatable. Someone in my role almost never reveals his full set of observations and analyses, and, indeed, in this history, there are still stories that will remain untold. Yet there are times when those who serve as bridges need to stand up and name what they see, simply, in order to aid the healing and progress of community. This meandering compendium is an attempt at this. I do my best to capture the narrative in my own words and my own perspective, yet it does involve others. I invite anyone who believes something should be corrected or reworked to accurately reflect a story that is theirs and not really mine to let me know; I can update this post at any time.

The Undoing Racism Group

The experience of most at the 2015 Called Meeting of PYM on Addressing Racism when we approved the below minute was emotive. I felt elated and apprehensive. The called meeting had in large measure been a response to what rose up at the end of the July 2014 Annual Sessions regarding the fact that ending racism (or any other “ism”) hadn’t made it into any part of our strategic plan. In the wake of the murders of Michael Brown and Tamir Rice, we were responding to a profound, historical need by committing not merely our words but our hands and feet:

Friends tested and affirmed the work of our clerks and our elders, since being tasked during Annual Sessions in July 2014, to help discern a way forward in addressing many ‘-isms’ including racism, sexism, genderism and classism. Friends also heartily affirmed that as a yearly meeting we:

  • Commit to increase our consciousness as Friends about the intersection of privilege and race in our culture and spiritual community. We know our knowledge is often limited by our own experiences and that we have much to learn from each other and from outside resources.
  • Commit to move forward with our entire community. The yearly meeting is the community of all our individual Friends and monthly meetings and this work needs to be done with the involvement of all of us.
  • Commit to integrate this work into what we do in an ongoing way at the yearly meeting level. We want this work to become part of the fabric of what we do whenever we get together as yearly meeting members and attenders.

Meanwhile, between July of 2014 and January of 2015, a group of approximately thirty Friends had already become active. They represented a wide network, many of whom contributed to the formation of a “working document” which would define a mission and specific action steps to take in partnership with the rest of our yearly meeting community. Their meetings were always open, and, though I wasn’t able to attend all of them, I was welcomed whenever I was there. My participation was always encouraged; I became one of them. We began to call ourselves The Undoing Racism Group (URG).

PYM Staff helped give URG a web presence on the PYM Website, to post their working document, and to establish a network of contacts at each monthly meeting. The Undoing Racism Group was providing some organizing energy at the grassroots level, and I saw that their ministry could help the yearly meeting follow through on its commitments. As Associate Secretary, I believe I was instrumental in coaching some members of the Undoing Racism Group to see themselves as part of the yearly meeting, as an expression of the many levels at which anti-racism witness was needed. These efforts would eventually be thwarted, and, even so, I still believe that URG is part of our yearly meeting community. Our Clerks and Elders simultaneously stewarded the concern of ending racism for Annual (and later, Continuing) Sessions. The two groups, Undoing Racism Group and our Clerks and Elders, did not make connections during this period.

The Undoing Racism Group and our Clerks and Elders continued to meet and work separately after the January 2015 Called Meeting. The two groups did not converge until the late spring of 2015. It was mutually agreed that there was a need for consulting on how to support people of color at the 2015 Annual Sessions. While this is something we should have already been doing, the need became especially poignant ahead of an agenda that contained community-wide anti-racism work.  

For 2015 Annual Sessions, the Undoing Racism Group organized a series of workshops, many of which would become a set of traveling workshops. They hosted affinity group spaces, and they provided “Undoing Racism Group Resource People” who made themselves available to help other Friends process the anti-racism work. The Undoing Racism Group was not involved in the formation of the agenda for the 2015 Annual Sessions. The Clerks and Elders had also met with a consultant a few times, but it was unclear whether the clerk at that time relied on these consultants to build out the parts of the agenda focused on addressing racism. Then during the 2015 Annual Sessions, we stumbled when it became clear that the work of anti-racism unintentionally centered whiteness. We mistakenly focused on the challenges of white people to notice their white privilege, which left many people of color feeling isolated and excluded from the very work that when done correctly could have led to new forms of healing.  In this, it needed to have been a “both-and” wherein we found ways to examine thereby to dismantle whiteness while also lifting up the voices and leadership of people of color in our work.

Additionally, a separate group of Friends gathered to form a sprint group during the 2015 Annual Sessions. This was an ad-hoc grouped created by the Implementation Committee, because, at that time, there was no permanent body responsible for planning Continuing Sessions. Implementation Committee was the body charged with implementing our new governance structure. The only task of this sprint group was to name a query to serve as the theme of the very first Continuing Sessions scheduled for the fall of 2015. The query was, “What is God calling PYM Quakers to do next to end racism and white supremacy in the Religious Society of Friends and beyond?”

The PYM Clerk at the time when she heard what the theme would be, had nearly refused to let it be so. I remember the Sunday morning of 2015 Annual Sessions receiving news that our Clerk was essentially blocking this query from existing. I heard myself saying, “If I had the power, I would not let this happen.” And behold another member of staff had overheard me; she turned and exclaimed, “You DO have the power!” It was decided that we could at least talk with the PYM Rising Clerk and with other members of URG. After extended conversation, we moved forward with the query. God was calling us to do so. It was only through relationship, listening deeply to one another, that we were able to notice God speaking.  This moment is representative of many that would come after it—the sense of powerlessness, of needing to work hard to take even one step forward, and nearly burning out whenever we would raise our heads and see the vastness of the ocean against which we were pushing. It was and remains dangerously easy just to stop; to let everything slip away. This is why relationship is key. In relationship, we find God’s inspiration to keep going.

The Undoing Racism Group provided consultation in the planning of fall 2015 Continuing Sessions, and, around this time, the Rising Clerk, who had become our newly named PYM Clerk, had begun attending URG meetings. Also, the newly named clerk of the Quaker Life Council had already been attending Undoing Racism Group meetings.

After the fall 2015 Continuing Sessions, it came time for the Undoing Racism Group to apply to become part of the new structure. URG decided to apply to become a committee. After some initial disagreement, the Quaker Life Council was clear that the work of ending racism needed to be placed at a high level in the governance of our yearly meeting. Becoming a committee would allow URG to continue playing the role it had already been playing and to help the Quaker Life Council coordinate work across local Quaker communities.

The proposal to become a committee under the care of the Quaker Life Council was forwarded to the Implementation Committee. I was unable to recall exactly why the proposal was forwarded to the Implementation Committee. My best recollection, after consultation with the Clerk of the Quaker Life Council, is that the proposal concerned care for an entire strategic direction. The committee also would not necessarily have members of the Quaker Life Council serving on it, while the Governance Handbook explicitly requires that all council committees have at least one member of the council serving on them. With such a substantive issue, and because of this deviation from the handbook, the proposal came before Implementation Committee where it was not approved.  Reasons for not approving the proposal centered on fear that the work would be relegated to a “committee” and then forgotten, which is what happened to the last Working Group on Racial Healing and Wholeness. There was increasing unity that this is work of the whole body and so should be carried by, “all of us.”

For me, I do not agree with this argument. Through years of studying social theory, I’ve learned about how one goes about characterizing human activity. When doing this, one needs to be able to draw distinctions. To know how we start at point A, let’s say, and end up at point B, we need to be able to distinguish between points A and B. When we attribute a characteristic to everyone or to, “all of us,” the characteristic runs the risk of losing the power of its meaning as it doesn’t help in any way to distinguish one from another and thereby to identify useful analysis, goals or purposes. This is the principle I’ve often referred to as, “everything is also nothing.” Those who would use the “all of us” line of thinking, would also in the same breath refer to our Clerks and Elders as the only holders of this work. I would argue that our moving forward with anti-racism was and remains located across several distinct points in space and time. There were times when, together, we all contributed (like at the 2015 Called Meeting) and there were times when the Undoing Racism Group helped move us forward, when our staff has done so, and still other times when our Clerks and Elders did so. The assertion that it is not the role of the Undoing Racism Group or other people to help move our work forward because it is, “all of our work to do,” firstly pretends that the Undoing Racism Group and other people did not proffer important leadership, which they did and continue to do, and it secondly overlooks an important aspect of anti-racism. That is “both/and” thinking. It is possible that the Clerks and Elders are leading us alongside other leaders, and I would argue that it is necessary for our success to be able to hold both as being true.

Despite the lack of approval from Implementation Committee, by the end of 2015, the Undoing Racism Group had begun to be viewed by PYM leadership as an essential element in the work of stewarding our entire yearly meeting to end racism. Good relationships between Undoing Racism Group leadership and PYM leadership had begun to form. Where at first the two groups had not worked in tandem, they now seemed to be. URG became the de facto consultants for agenda setting and community-wide projects, and this positive relationship persisted into the spring of 2016.

Given the news that the proposal to become a committee was not approved, the Undoing Racism Group formed an ad hoc group to write a new proposal. I had hoped that this small group could include several stakeholders, and I acknowledged my excitement that it seemed to include many of them when the group was formed. But the process was delicate because PYM leadership needed to respect URG’s discernment and avoid taking it over. So after further discussion between a member of URG and the PYM Clerk it was decided that we would not try to add other stakeholders to this small group. I’m not sure why this was the case; I believe it was a mistake. It meant that Implementation Committee and the Undoing Racism Group would continue working separately from one another, never in relationship and never hearing each other’s perspectives, moving beyond their hangups. I think we are most easily able to access God’s leadings in relationship, and the opportunity to do so here was largely missed.

The Undoing Racism Group submitted their revised proposal to the Implementation Committee in May of 2016. A member of URG attended the meeting of the Implementation Committee where the proposal was not approved for a second time. Concerns about relegating the work to one group remained, and another emerged regarding the function of accountability in the proposed structure. It was thought that, while URG would hold yearly meeting governance bodies accountable, the Undoing Racism Group, also, should be held accountable to the wider community. The proposed structure didn’t specifically address this, and the Implementation Committee didn’t make any suggestions for how it could.  

In June of 2016, several members of the Implementation Committee attended an Undoing Racism Group meeting, where the proposal was discussed at length. By the end of the meeting, a felt sense of connection and solidarity arose between all who were present. I would call it a gathered or covered meeting, in the Quaker tradition. The possibility of asking Implementation Committee to consider a revision arose. However, the Implementation Committee was in the process of being laid down after nearly two years of hard work. The Clerk of the Implementation Committee agreed to ask his members whether they would see fit to consider a revision, and the committee did not see fit to consider one.  

At the meeting between the Undoing Racism Group and Implementation Committee, I rose and spoke to the apparent mutual accountability that had already developed between URG and PYM’s governance bodies. In the Quaker tradition, we keep each other spiritually accountable through mutuality. For, even our elders can miss important spiritual insights. There was a sense that no accountability existed, yet I saw it happening consistently and repeatedly. To ensure that URG would remain accountable to the body of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, we would merely have needed to require URG to report to the body at Annual or Continuing Sessions, as we require our other Councils to do. That such a simple solution was consistently overlooked and never suggested indicated to me something different undergirding the objections to the URG proposal. Actually, the objections emanated from a fear of losing power and control—it came from leaders who didn’t particularly like the idea that they might have missed important insights related to racism. To me, a leader is one who understands their weaknesses and asks for accountability and support to compensate. In this moment, I had hoped and continue to hope we reach our full potential regarding this aspect of leadership.

Of course, I don’t believe that PYM leadership was the only group with overactive egos. Many times, I observed members of the Undoing Racism Group, especially white members, pushing back against any notion of accountability, even mutual accountability. I observed white members of URG asserting that those who disagreed with them must then be more racist than they and unworthy of trust. A sort of white righteousness would sometimes emerge, leading even to assertions that people of color who disagreed with the “URG approach” were then clearly suffering from internalized oppression themselves. It is difficult to come to agreement on a way forward when ego has a stronghold on both sides.

This is why the aforementioned meeting in June of 2016 between Implementation Committee and Undoing Racism Group was deeply moving to me. It seemed we all had been able to move beyond our fears and distrust into God-led relationship. Relationship, again, helped us break through our divides, even if for only a moment.

Since the Implementation Committee was about to be laid down, but there remained unanswered structural questions, which included but were not limited to what URG’s place would be in PYM’s governance structure, it was decided that PYM leadership would propose a small ad-hoc group be created to adjudicate pre-existing, outstanding issues. URG’s proposal to become part of PYM’s governance was never meant to be brought to the floor of business meeting. The plan was that this ad-hoc group would work to resolve the issue after Annual Sessions, after the ad-hoc group’s charge was approved by the body. It was proposed to the body, and some questions arose about how long the ad-hoc group would exist, who would serve on it and what the term limits would be. It seemed we’d forgotten to determine the operational details. Someone rose, a white man, and accused the proposal of, “not being seasoned.” While the details may not have been fully developed, the need for an ad-hoc group was well seasoned, indeed. A process of discernment lasting two years had led to the need for this ad-hoc group. Not the Presiding Clerk nor anyone else challenged this accusation, and so we were unable to approve the creation of the ad-hoc group. To this day, there are issues regarding PYM’s governance structure that remain unresolved, all because no one was willing to push back against the knee jerk reaction of a white man who spoke inaccurately against a well-seasoned and spirit-led need.

During the July 2016 Annual Sessions, at various points, the URG proposal that the Implementation Committee did not approve was mentioned without context. For the sake of transparency, the proposal was made available widely, and can be found on the PYM Website. After being presented merely for information at an early session, it became clear that Spirit was moving us to consider another revised version for approval. The body did not approve this version. Then the PYM Clerk and the Co-Clerks of URG worked together to create a third revision. This can also be found on the PYM Website. During the final business session, this proposal, too, was not approved. Yet it should be made clear that we would likely never have needed to consider the URG proposal on the floor of Annual Sessions had we been able to approve the ad-hoc group, as mentioned above. So a pattern was perpetuated here, which is that when older white men speak, we act swiftly. But when people of color or white people advocating for people of color speak, we hesitate.

As this discernment was happening, the Undoing Racism Group had been invited to offer a report on their work. This was yet another example of the accountability that was already taking place between URG and the yearly meeting body. Other members of URG stood in solidarity with those who were making their report. Many of us stood. There were so many of us standing, Friends young and old together, it became difficult to tell who was not standing. The entire facing bench was standing, even. I remember feeling a sense of anxiety about what would happen next, but nothing dramatic occurred. Three or four Friends remained standing after the report as we moved on to our next agenda item, while consideration for final approval of our Faith and Practice revision was in progress.

There is disagreement about whether the act of standing in solidarity caused us not to approve our Faith and Practice revision. Actually, substantive concerns were indeed raised regarding our commitments to anti-racism, which some Friends did not see as being sufficiently reflected in the Faith & Practice revision. There were also concerns about its readiness for printing. There did persist a sense of disruption, but the disruption came both from Friends who were upset about the URG proposal not being approved (in a previous session) and from Friends who wanted the Faith & Practice revision to be passed. In most of the narratives about this moment in PYM’s 2016 Annual Sessions, we have merely lifted up the disruptive energy coming from members of URG, but it came from all sides.

Those who know more than I about organizing for change have asserted that the ruckus at Annual Sessions was precipitated by ill-conceived (or the lack of) action logic. This would have been a cogent sense of good strategy, given the audience and the goals. This may be true, and yet, from my perspective, URG’s was a very mild action that resulted in very little observable turmoil. When the Faith & Practice Revision was being considered, no more than four people stood at the front of the room. They didn’t say anything; they just stood there. What exactly is highly unusual about this, I might ask rhetorically? For centuries, Quakers have had the practice of standing to indicate that something is amiss in the current process. Several people spoke out of turn (without being recognized by the clerk) during the Faith & Practice Revision to exhort those who were standing to sit back down. While some members of the Undoing Racism Group spoke out of turn during the URG report and in the moment of our transition from the report to the Faith & Practice Revision, the only folks who actually disrupted the Faith & Practice Revision discussion itself were folks speaking out against URG.

It is clear that we as a body might have forgotten our center and become more entrenched in our respective egos. It is also clear that the movement of Spirit was still afoot. She was speaking through us, if imperfectly. Those who like to refer to this session as being “hijacked” by URG or by staff members are incorrect and insensitive. I don’t believe I would want to refer to anything as being metaphorically hijacked, as this is a term that has come to be racially loaded and associated with past tragedy. And even if we were going to use this word, I’d say the more accurate description is that we were hijacked by the Holy Spirit. Amen!

To Be Broken

I lost myself after the 2016 Annual Sessions. I was devastated. I wrote this on Facebook a few days after:

Some may have heard that Philadelphia Yearly Meeting was unable to approve an additional element of our governance structure at our recent annual sessions, which would have created a mutual accountability and relationship with all other governance structures toward our stated aim of becoming an anti-racist, multicultural community. I have been walking for two years with the organizers of the movement that led to this opportunity, which my community chose not to take. To an extent greater than I thought possible, I am devastated. My people chose to draw distinctions where none exist between love and transformation, between what is spiritual and what is political, and between our ailing world and the responsibility we hold to do all we can to heal it. Now, how can I ask the organizers I’ve accompanied to keep going? How do I continue in this journey, when my people have for two years claimed a corporate witness on which they seem at this juncture to be unwilling to take action? As we prepared to depart at the end of this year’s annual sessions, I cried. I cried loading the trucks with PYM supplies, taking tubs and boxes through the buildings, and I cried in the elevators.

I sank into a sense of loneliness so powerful and pervasive I was unable even to recognize my isolation. Unaware, I operated from this place for almost ten months. It would often manifest itself as fear. Other leaders around me usually carried perspectives much different than mine. People were sounding off, as it were, about what was perceived as irreparably inappropriate behavior of the Undoing Racism Group. The disruptive energy at Annual Sessions through word of mouth was largely blamed on the Undoing Racism Group, and no one from PYM leadership, including myself, spoke against this prevailing narrative.

When the Undoing Racism Group hosted a retreat to regroup, I didn’t attend. Other members of the Program and Religious Life Department were going, and I told myself someone had to stay in the office to make sure the trains run on time, as it were. I told myself that in order to keep the cause alive I needed to distance myself from the Undoing Racism Group for now. I didn’t reach out to the leaders of URG, I didn’t reach out to Niyonu Spann, who led the retreat. I didn’t check my strategy with anyone, because these weren’t the actual reasons for my distance. I remained out of touch with most members of the Undoing Racism Group from the this point until the present day. I also remained largely out of touch with the two consultants, Niyonu Spann and Ingrid Lakey who had been working with PYM staff around our anti-racism work. Truly, I feared the loss of relationships with those in power, I feared the loss of my job, my status, and my reputation. Along with this fear came powerlessness and ultimately a sense of being broken and exhausted. I had lost myself and my sense of purpose.

I have learned that when groups or institutions try to make change there is often a point at which backlash occurs, which is followed by a closing of the ranks. Of course, this is what happened at Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, and I participated in it. Yet I did not anticipate the incredible force of the backlash and its accompanying effects on body and soul. It cannot be stated too many times that the urge to recoil and enhance one’s isolation in order to protect the status quo arrangements of power is very strong. It captured my whole being so easily and so comprehensively, it was difficult even to notice. It was like a wave, a tsunami really, that rises and falls in the blink of an eye, leaving a soul-crushing path of silence in its wake.

This is similar to what I have learned about my own white fragility. My thoughts return to James Baldwin and his well-known essays published in The Fire Next Time. In his first, “…Letter to My Nephew…” he writes:

…the danger, in the minds of most white Americans, is the loss of their identity. Try to imagine how you would feel if you woke up one morning to find the sun shining and all the stars aflame. You would be frightened because it is out of the order of nature. Any upheaval in the universe is terrifying because it so profoundly attacks one’s sense of one’s own reality. Well, the black man has functioned in the white man’s world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar: and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations (p 8-9).

As many have said, racism and white supremacy are the words we use to describe the arrangements of power in our society that keep white people served first and best. These arrangements are maintained  to the extent that they actively weave a fabric of meaning that limits our available cultural and intellectual resources—that limits political imagination. In other words, the most basic ways in which white people understand the world and how it must function also informs white identity, white people’s sense of belonging and purpose. When attempts are made to rearrange these basic things to create equity, white people do not experience merely a loss of power, but a loss of their own identity, sense of belonging and purpose. Losing these things is akin to death, and so white people, well meaning liberals even, are overcome with existential anxiety when pushed to examine how their way of life perpetuates racist structures in our society. This existential anxiety is also called white fragility—the response from many white people when they realize not merely that their actions may contribute to suffering, not merely that they may lose some of their power, but also that their entire worldview must necessarily transform. Yet my understanding of Quaker Faith and Practice is that it is essentially grounded in the premise that spiritual transformation is necessary to live a good life. Later, in, “…Letter from a Region in My Mind,” Baldwin asserts:

…though transformation contains the hope of liberation, it also imposes a necessity for great change. But in order to deal with the untapped and dormant force of the previously subjugated, in order to survive as a human, moving, moral weight in the world, America and all the Western nations will be forced to reexamine themselves and release themselves from many things that are now taken to be sacred, and to discard nearly all the assumptions that have been used to justify their lives… (p 43-44)

Indeed, white people are called to reexamine the structure of their ways of life. This is true at least in terms of my own experience and journey along the path of anti-racism in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. For, as I have said, to articulate a stance that contradicted the idea that Undoing Racism Group was the cause of our collective misery at the 2016 Annual Sessions, would also ultimately have been to open myself to the possibility (the necessity even) of changing the ways in which I make meaning. Some folks in our community have been discussing a Thomas Merton passage. Merton describes the dilemma of the white well-meaning liberal (like me). He writes, “Though [the Black leader] knows you will not support all of his demands, he is well aware that you will be forced to support some of them in order to maintain your image of yourself as a liberal,” (p 33). Merton continues:

He also knows, however, that your material comforts, your security, and your congenial relations with the establishment are much more important to you than your volatile idealism, and that when the game gets rough you will be quick to see your own interests menaced by his demands. And you will sell him down the river for the five hundredth time in order to protect yourself. (p 33)

I think that the very fabric of meaning making for white people is much more powerful than material comfort, security and congenial relations. These things work to inscribe the ways in which I, as a white middle class cisgender man, go about making meaning. Yet without identity, belonging, and purpose, I am nothing; I might as well be dead. So in the face of anti-racism work, I am confronted with a powerful existential anxiety that tempts me more than anything else to sell those Black leaders for racial justice down the river for the five hundredth and first time. I think this is the point that James Baldwin makes about transformation, and it is why the Quaker faith is so deeply needed today.

Obviously, there are ways in which I am being strident in the above pros to demonstrate a point about existential anxiety–the set of feelings that accompany white fragility. I have not lost a sense of purpose, belonging, and identity, and I need to remind myself of this fact in the face of challenges to step into transformation. This is why I (and why all of us) require a strong spiritual community that will help us name and navigate the call to transformation. In order for my community to be able to help me, of course, I need to be vulnerable enough to show that I need it. I need to be willing to stand in my vulnerability. This in turn leads to profound intimacy; a closeness and a love between fellow seekers that grounds us in relationship. From within this love, I am reminded that I have what is required to traverse transformation. It lies within me. It is that of God in all of us; it also goes by many other names.

This love is also why as a Quaker I must continue down the path of anti-racism. Many of my fellow seekers are calling out to me and to all of us. They are naming profound pain and tragedy and telling me how I might change in order to reduce these. How could I not respond to their call? Standing before me, when a person that I truly love says I have hurt them, I must believe them. It is part of my spiritual practice. I must seek to address their pain–to do my best to honor their struggle. I don’t think that pain is always bad, and I don’t think that pain should be avoided at all costs, but it should be kept in an equitable balance with the many other concerns held in our community.

About seven months after the 2016 annual sessions, Upper Dublin Monthly Meeting removed a woman of color from membership in one of our meetings, and our General Secretary demoted another woman of color on PYM’s staff. Both were outspoken about how they experience racism, and they were teachers in our anti-racism work. There are disagreements concerning the circumstances of their experience. Some would say that the details of their situations help to temper and complicate the reasons for their treatment to show that it was not motivated by or intended to express racism. Yet in anti-racism work, we learn that there is a big difference between intent and impact. This is why it is disappointing to many that we have been unable as a body to approve a statement that acknowledges that there is a racist pattern, regardless of the details. It is why we can say as much as we want that racism did not motivate our actions or that it wasn’t our intent. In this respect, the details matter little, for, overall, the instances at UDMM and on PYM staff perpetuate a pattern in our community and society of marginalizing people of color.

In another way, however, the details within the UDMM case and on PYM staff do matter. As particular manifestations of larger patterns, they reflect and relate to the greater struggles that persist beyond our communities. They reflect asymmetrical power dynamics. As a demonstration of this point, I like to consider traffic accidents between cars and bikes. In these, it doesn’t really matter whether the driver or the biker is at fault for the accident, because it is still the case that, while the driver risks physical damage to her car, the biker risks her life. The asymmetrical power dynamic between those people being marginalized and those in power means that when we choose to manage personality differences, for example, by pushing out someone who isn’t a good fit, we run the risk of threatening someone’s livelihood because of our discomfort–we become more concerned about the damage to our car than about the life of the biker. We might also run the risk of causing someone to lose their spiritual home simply because of our lack of capacity to deal with mental health issues.  No one is a bad person and no one should be punished for their actions in these instances, but we do need to acknowledge the ways in which the details mirror larger, negative patterns. When I say above that pain should be kept in an equitable balance with other concerns, this is partly what I mean. When certain people of color tell us they are hurting, we need to consider their pain in a larger context and in relationship to larger arrangements of power. These help to illuminate the significance of the pain and serve to change our response.

Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s interaction with our legal system is another example of the ways in which arrangements of power perpetuate racism in our institutions. There is a barrier potentially preventing organizations that realize they may have racist structures from admitting this and thereby examining and changing them. Doing so opens the institution up to civil lawsuits. Yet if the first step is admitting you have a problem, as they say, and there is a legal disincentive to take this first step, then how are we to move forward? We are discerning our answer to this question, but the reality is that I am prevented from discussing in greater detail the anti-racism work of PYM staff at this time.  Nevertheless, I know that I did not push hard enough against the marginalizing of the Undoing Racism Group, nor against the demotion of the aforementioned member of PYM staff. My actions in this particular situation reflect a larger pattern (discussed above) of siding with those in power to protect my reputation and ultimately my own sense of how I make meaning. I must hold myself to account and allow others to hold me to account to this fact and help me avoid future missteps. I am now beginning to reach out to individuals I hurt. I am also in the process of discerning other next steps in consultation with folks who far along in anti-racism work. I need (we all need) support to keep speaking up immediately when I notice that racism might have been exposed in certain instances and in larger processes.

In the past and in the present, my hesitancy to speak up also comes from a sense of deep caring for those in power. In addition to existential anxiety, I was also afraid of losing affection and intimacy as a result of conflict. This is another silly pattern of white supremacy—to train white people to fear conflict. Yet my Quaker faith tells me that our love for one another is much stronger than whatever is required to weather our conflict—our conflict which might change us and deepen our intimacy as a result.

So, while I must commit personally to speaking up when I notice racism potentially being exposed in our systems, I also want to work for a new system, one that encourages speaking up in the first place. We need to live more fully into transformative conflict, wherein we are changed through disagreement and disharmony. How do we get there? We need to continue broad-based training, we need to implement an institutional audit of our organization and community, and we need to find ways to be reminded of our love for one another. Philadelphia Yearly Meeting needs also to seek out relationships of partnership and mutual accountability with communities of Quaker people of color and with other churches and organizations led by people of color.

I ended my Facebook post after the 2016 Annual Sessions with these words:

Since my return from sessions, after some rest, I have also become reacquainted with my center. There, beside the felt betrayal, a gentle compassion has pulled up a chair. It has helped me to remember that, while I am a Quaker, a lover, and member of PYM staff, I will hold to the corporate witness of our yearly meeting. Joining with whomever will join, we will do all that we can. For we still walk together, weep together, and know together–even with those who, tripped up by our institutionalized racism, were unable to take this most recent step. Though it may be a long one, our journey extends much farther beyond the horizon than it would if we chose to walk alone, as is said. Profoundly humbled, I return to the center, to the beginning, to the ground once again, and I wait for what God calls me to do next.

It has taken me almost a year to receive these words of my own construction with their fullest meaning. I absolutely cannot keep on isolating myself. I must forgive those who disappointed me, and I must forgive myself. For better or worse, I take to heart the Christian notion that I am broken. I am broken, and from within my brokenness, strength springs. Our ability to love one another emerges only once we expose our brokenness and become vulnerable, and our love for one another is where God’s love is found. With God’s love, we can move mountains, weather storms, and bear tragedy. With God’s love, we can transform ourselves and the world.

About the Youth and Young Adult Staffing Changes

In this section I talk about our youth programs, the recent staffing changes, and some connections they have to our anti-racism work.

Since 2014, I had been exploring the various weaknesses and strengths of our youth and young adult programs on a parallel track to our anti-racism work. From 2014 to 2016, I (along with other members of the program staff) had collected data, conducted surveys and planned a visioning process that would culminate in a sprint group being appointed by the Quaker Life Council. The sprint group would review all the information we had gathered, identify missing perspectives, add these, and then recommend to the Quaker Life Council a vision, mission and governance structure for youth programs. In partnership with the new governance structure, the plan was then to use the vision and mission as a lens through which to address some of the weaknesses of our youth programs and implement any needed shifts in programmatic focus and staffing structure. My hope for the new governance structure was that it could be broad-based, include people who work with youth from monthly, quarterly and yearly meetings levels, staff people, and volunteer leaders. In our system, the General Secretary has the final say on staffing changes, but I knew we would need a lot of input and buy in if it became clear that staffing changes would be needed.

As this visioning process got underway, new overtime rules came into effect, which pushed us to begin paying our youth program coordinators for every hour they worked. This is something we should already have been doing. Up to this point, they had been receiving additional time off for hours worked over their regular work week. Yet there was a limit to the number of hours they could accrue in this bank of additional time off, and they would often end up working more hours than they could accrue. It was an unfair practice, and it was good that we ended it. Doing so also made it unsustainably expensive to maintain our current staffing structure for youth programs. Thus, as the visioning process progressed, I began to explore various staffing structures that could be more affordable and allow us to expand capacity. My intent in working ahead of the visioning process was simply to prepare for its completion and be able to respond to the vision and mission with a substantive and dynamic proposal for staffing to complement them.

By January of 2017, it also became clear that we were going to need to think creatively about how to continue staff support for young adults. Whereas, we had not planned originally to make changes to the young adult Friends staffing structure as well, several things drew the Young Adult Friends Coordinator position into the mix, as it were. First, the Young Adult Friends (YAF) Program is modeled after the Young Friends program. It developed originally out of a stated need on the part of newer young adults (I among them at the time) for there to be a program that bridges graduates of the Young Friends Program into the wider community of adult Quakers. Yet young adult Quakers represent an expansive age range, with at least three distinct phases: college age, mid-twenties to late twenties, and early to mid-thirties. Over its ten-year history, the YAF Program had been successful in engaging some folks in each of these ranges, but it also continued to leave out people who for whatever reason didn’t jive with the center of gravity established by the community that regularly attends YAF retreats. Through the successes achieved in the YAF Program up to the present day, we now have created margins to which it is time to direct attention. We could use better relationships with the Quaker colleges in our area, we need to begin cultivating community among young parents, and young adults of color need to be celebrated and better included. Also, monthly meetings are in desperate need of training on a range of social competencies, including young adult empowerment. It seemed appropriate to imagine new ways to engage the whole range of young adults that might at least include shifts in the job description of the YAF Coordinator.  

Second, up to this point, the YAF Coordinator had functioned as a team member in the Youth & Young Adult Programs Team on staff. The four coordinators on this team supported each other in their work, followed similar safety practices and procedures, and worked together to develop things like a curriculum arc extending from the Children’s Religious Life Program to the YAF Program.  Third, the YAF Coordinator position was also affected by the shift in how we pay the coordinators. For these reasons, It seemed to me appropriate and fair to reexamine the staffing structure for youth and young adult programs. As soon as this shift came to light, in January of 2017, I informed all four coordinators. I gave them a review of the types of changes in staffing structure that might occur, and I made them aware that the YAF Coordinator position was also being reexamined.

It was at this point in the process when mistakes were made. First, I didn’t reach out to the leadership of young adult Friends soon enough. Just as we had engaged Friends via a sprint group to develop vision around our youth programs, I should have immediately started a parallel conversation with the YAF community. While it was my intention to begin this conversation, I did not begin it soon enough. Meanwhile, I did not share with members of the Youth Programs sprint or anyone other than the coordinators themselves the options for shifting our staffing structure. There was a serious lack of transparency that came at a cost that I did not anticipate.

By the end of February, it became clear that the General Secretary needed to move up the timeline for announcing staffing changes for youth and young adult programs. We had been aiming for a May announcement, and we had not yet taken steps to discuss options with any volunteer leaders for feedback. We hadn’t yet shared with anyone the years’ worth of information gathering that grounded our thinking. Therefore, when the changes were announced, they came as a shock, and many felt anxiety and deep hurt, even betrayal, at not having been included in the pre-thinking. It was also my sense at the time that we had a firm idea of what changes we might make, but, since other discernment processes had not yet concluded, I wanted to remain open to the Spirit for any new revelations that might shift our thinking.

I immediately reached out to anyone I knew might be affected—youth leaders, regular volunteers, Youth Programs Sprint members, and the YAF leadership. I was and continue to be in dialogue with these Friends. There was and remains a breakdown in trust, which we need to work to rebuild.

Our General Secretary reinstated that YAF Coordinator position, after receiving feedback from young adult Friends leadership that the YAF Coordinator position shouldn’t be lumped in with the youth programs coordinator positions. We found funding for the position for the next two years, and one of the first things I hope to work on with the new Young Adult Engagement Coordinator is to look for additional funding so the position can be extended beyond the two-year mark.

We heard feedback regarding the shifts to youth programs staffing as well. Some Friends were concerned that there wouldn’t be enough hours, especially for Young Friends, in the new Youth Program Facilitator positions for time spent with constituents between gatherings supporting leadership development. We enhanced the flexibility in hours for the Youth Program Facilitator Positions to accommodate for relationship building between gatherings. Another concern was about consistency in adult leadership. We will seek to secure at least a three-year commitment from new Facilitators, and we will work to build community among Facilitators so they feel supported and engaged, making their work more sustainable.

Still, the person who served as the Young Adult Friends Coordinator secured a different job before we could reinstate the position, and two out of the three youth coordinators might be moving on. Losing the primary adult leader always destabilizes the group dynamic. I have visited with the Young Friends community since the staffing changes were announced, and I remain in dialogue with them. I have also sat with and visited many young adult Friends, and I remain in dialogue with the leadership of the YAF community.

When our General Secretary told me she was moving up the timeline for announcing staffing changes, a part of me wished I had pushed back more. Yet, the bottom line is that we could have been in dialogue about potential staffing changes sooner even than February. I believe that this mistake comes from the same sort of isolation of which I write in the previous section—the sense that one is all alone in one’s decisions, the tendency to avoid conflict, and forgetting that relationships are vital in making change. We were acting with power over rather than power with, and we forgot about previous lessons regarding the youth programs—that there should be no decisions, “about us, without us.” This was a principle I believed in so heartily, I questioned how it could have been that I would so swiftly break from it. For many months, I began to question my actions, and to believe myself a terrible person who had lost his way. I didn’t recognize my own vision anymore, and I fell into ever greater isolation. The anticipated vitriol on Facebook also helped only to entrench this sense of isolation.

I wasn’t able to see beyond my isolation until I started meeting with people to hear their pain and anger and show them my remorse and my humanity. I found healing especially during the annual 2017 Young Adult Friends Conference that is held at Pendle Hill. I was terrified I might encounter people who would want nothing to do with me. I was terrified that I would be ostracized. Instead, I found Friends whom I enjoyed and who I know enjoyed me. I found positive relationships with people who welcomed my vulnerability. I finally understood that I wouldn’t be able to reconcile with those who were hurt without first reconciling with myself.

It is true that I made several large mistakes. It is also true that I carry a vision for a yearly meeting that raises up leadership regardless of age, that embraces people into our community regardless of membership status, and that welcomes women, trans* people, and people of color alongside all others with celebration. I carry a vision for our yearly meeting that we may move away from congregationalism into a new form of being together. We need to recognize that we are always stronger and more able to follow our spiritual journeys when we reach beyond the brick and mortar of our meetinghouses. I carry a vision of partnership and collaboration between monthly, quarterly and yearly meeting Friends when it comes to religious education and caring for our children, families and youth. I carry a vision for us that we may become truly anti-racist and multicultural thereby to change the communities and institutions around us toward the same. I think we can be a powerful religion devoted to doing good on this earth, to protecting our planet and changing people’s lives for the better.

In several instances in the last year, I didn’t abide by the spirit of my own vision; I lost my center. I am profoundly sorry for my missteps and for the pain and anxiety it has caused many. I will continue to work to repair breaches of trust where they exist and to renew and sustain relationships where they have faltered. I know now that I am not a monster of any sort; I am merely broken.

Dearest Chuck Fager

I’d like also to speak to Chuck Fager’s blog post about Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s 2016 Annual Sessions. Fager’s writing is read widely, and I believe his descriptions of the event are largely inaccurate and deserving of correction. Fager writes:

At last summer’s annual session, after [the Undoing Racism Group’s proposal] was read, described for information only, several URG supporters walked to the front and surrounded the Clerk’s table, and prevented the body from moving on to its next agenda item (revisions of Faith & Practice), insisting that the URG proposal be discussed and then acted upon.

This is not accurate. As stated, members of the Undoing Racism Group stood in solidarity with those who were presenting a report on the URG’s work. Many people, almost half of those present at the plenary session in question stood with the URG members, including all of the folks sitting at the clerk’s table. There was no, “surrounding the Clerk’s table.” Fager later calls this a “blockade”, which is even more inaccurate. Nothing so dramatic ever occurred. It is dishonest and disrespectful to suggest otherwise. It is also a singular example of the ways in which untrue rumors have been spread actively by some in order to marginalize and discredit the Undoing Racism Group.

The clerk’s table was up on a stage and so rather difficult to “surround”. Even if it were surrounded, it would have hardly been a significant point since the clerks stood in solidarity with the many others who were also standing. The Undoing Racism Group report included a presentation of the proposal for informational purposes, but it also included a presentation on the breadth and depth of service that the Undoing Racism Group had afforded us, from which the clerks had already directly benefited on multiple occasions. At the conclusion of the URG report, there were some Friends who requested verbally to the Presiding Clerk without being recognized that we consider the report for approval. The Clerk declined these requests and asked everyone to be seated so that we could move on to considering the Faith & Practice Revision. Chuck Fager continues:

They got their wish. Faith & Practice was set aside, and the URG plan was extensively debated (some Friends might object to the term “debate,” but I’ll let it stand.) And in the end, the URG got its wish, but didn’t reach its goal. When the Clerk asked for approval, there were also numerous voices raised in disapproval, and the Clerk properly noted that there was no unity and the plan was set aside.

The Faith and Practice revision was never set aside. Perhaps because he wasn’t actually there, Fager’s timeline is also inaccurate. The URG proposal had already been considered for approval at an earlier session, and would again be considered at a later session. The particular session in question never included a consideration for approval of the URG proposal.

The Clerk of the Faith and Practice Revision Committee gave her report, after which Friends expressed objections through the regular process of being called on to speak by our Clerk. The objections were twofold: the revision didn’t address our commitment to anti-racism strongly enough, and it didn’t seem actually to be ready to go to print (it still needed to be copy edited). While the need for copy editing, if this were the only issue, would likely not have prevented approval, the lack of anti-racism in the revision was substantive enough to the body that we were not able to reach a sense of the meeting. When it became clear that the revision was not going to be approved, some Friends spoke out of turn in rebuke of the Undoing Racism Group’s actions, for throughout our discernment about Faith & Practice four members of the Undoing Racism Group had remained standing. These Friends never said a word, and, in my view, followed in the footsteps of elders in our tradition who stand when they believe something is amiss in our process. Fager goes on in his blog:

Did the “blockade” of the Clerk’s table (some URG supporters called it “eldering”) & the disruption of the session spark this opposition? To some extent it seems likely. Even URG leader Lucy Duncan, who helped present the plan, later wrote that “Though it felt as though there was urgency and spirit moving, I can see how some would interpret this as pushing too hard, perhaps even bullying.” (Facebook August 4, 2016) It would also hardly be a surprise if some resolved not to reward such behavior but to rebuke it.

It was clear that some Friends were deeply offended by the audacity of the URG members to assume a role usually played by elders of the more venerable sort, as it were. One of those who remained standing was even a member of staff, although this member had not played any leadership role in the efforts of the Undoing Racism Group up to this point. The offended Friends were the only ones who disrupted the session by speaking out of turn. It was in fact the case that, by the end of the session, most of the disruptive energy emanated from the Friends who felt disgruntled by the actions of the few members of URG who continued standing. This is the reality to which Lucy Duncan points in her Facebook post which Fager quotes. She is speaking to the larger critique mostly by other organizers that, however mild the action, it was still viewed as impertinent by many. Therefore, whatever effect that may have been intended, the impact was to galvanize people into critiquing the method of pushing for change rather than to see the underlying needs for this change. It also happens to be the case that this is another example of a pattern in groups faced with the invitation to make new, anti-racist arrangements. People critique the manner in which the invitation was proffered regardless of its content. Lucy was therefore expressing regret in the tactic taken, and she implies here that the Undoing Racism Group employed faulty action logic.

There is also another power dynamic here wherein the feedback itself, whether it is content or process related, is taken differently depending on who gives it. As mentioned in a previous section, when white folks deliver feedback, it is taken into much greater account than that of people of color or white folks advocating for people of color. This is why it was so easy to marginalize the Undoing Racism Group. Their marginalization is part of a power dynamic whose pattern is entrenched within our institutional culture.

A recent article in Friends Journal by Barbara Dale speaks to this phenomenon as well. She quotes Audre Lorde who asserts that when we ask others to regulate their tone, to say their piece in a different (not angry) way, we also ask them to dump a rich source of meaning. Things are lost when, “we are not able to hear the information and energy of the oppressed.” Barbara continues:

…In the long negotiations of peaceful white folks, we are not able to hear the information and energy of the oppressed. A few Quakers of color and some white allies are unduly burdened in trying to drag the body to the living edge of radical faith. I am worried that Quakers will deliberate for too long as they wait in silence for the correct choice, all the while perhaps ignoring those they “cannot hear” due to harshness or the threat it poses to comfort. There is insidious white supremacy inherent in a religion largely comprised of the input of white individuals, and it often manifests as systemic complacency. This occurs while maintaining a high-minded narrative of being on the correct side of history. …There are…times when it is important to be quick… In our current, stressful sociopolitical environment, it is necessary to be swift in listening to the energy of the individuals in our group who are angry, who need our help.

The urgency, energy, and frustration emanating from some members of the Undoing Racism Group and others conveys important information. If a member of my community whom I love faces me with this level of energy, how, really, am I to ignore them? How could I not do everything I can to respond to their waggle dance, as Barbara would put it? While the means of delivering the message at the 2016 Annual Sessions may not have been tactically wise, it was and remains a substantive one, which requires our full attention, investigation and response. It should not be dismissed or distorted.

I would say that much of Fager’s critique of the Undoing Racism Proposal itself is a distortion of it. He writes that, “the plan’s rhetoric reportedly alienated some. It spoke repeatedly of the [yearly meeting] as embodying & supporting ‘white supremacy’ and ‘racism.’ Yet, for me at least, trying to see [the yearly meeting] in a larger social perspective makes this terminology problematic.” Fager’s words here remind me of what is written in the preparatory materials that were distributed to Friends ahead of the most recent Called Meeting of PYM on June 24, 2017. In this packet, there is a section titled, “Reflect on the term white supremacy.” I excerpt most of this section below:

The term white supremacy has been difficult for our yearly meeting community. For some Friends, the term harkens back to the days of George Wallace and the Klan. To refer to the current context of race and racism in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting with the same iconography used to describe Klan members and slave owners erases the progress that our movements of resistance have made. These Friends see the use of the term white supremacy as unfairly equating the current situation in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting with a tragic past of racial violence and explicit and unapologetic beliefs that white people are superior to other races.

Other Friends find the term white supremacy to be the most accurate language for describing a prevailing ideology (or set of ideas, not necessarily beliefs) that justifies the maintenance of wealth, power and privilege of people of European descent throughout the history of the new world to the present. The ideology of white supremacy warps individual and societal dynamics in dramatic and traumatic ways. From the distribution of economic resources, to spiritual and psychological health, to officer involved shootings, and to mutually fulfilling [egalitarian] relationships, we have not left behind our violent past because the violence continues today (albeit sometimes in less blatant, more covert ways). Through this understanding, higher education, healthcare, banks, criminal justice systems, popular media, religious institutions (among other institutions) play interlocking roles in perpetuating the ideology of white supremacy and maintaining wealth, power and privilege for folks of European descent.

The ways in which racism and white supremacy persist today are different than in the days of George Wallace. Interlocking institutions maintain structures that prevent people from attaining access to resources due to increased scrutiny, never getting the benefit of the doubt, assumptions of irresponsibility and criminality, and everyday interactions (called microaggressions) that express hostility and discomfort towards the specter of race. For example, it is a distortion and a microaggression to use the term “race riot” in the title of his blog and to refer to our mutual accountability with the Undoing Racism Group as, “calling down the electric furies of ‘racism.’” These express hostilities towards mutual accountability around racism and trivialize a sincere concern.

Fager’s portrayal of the Undoing Racism Group proposal is also a distortion in other ways.  Fager frames it as, “top-heaving wheel-spinning,” that would have set up a new kind of overseer, “in every nook and cranny of [PYM], with mysterious measuring rods and the power to call down the electric furies of ‘racism’ on miscreants at their option.” What the proposal actually called for was the ability to appoint members of the Undoing Racism Group to other leadership bodies, so that an anti-racist perspective could be in every room that mattered. It seems to me that one or two people in every room holding the anti-racist perspective and encouraging others to do the same is far from the creation of a new type of overseer. The intent of this was to engage in mutual accountability with those in power, to be present during difficult conversations about race to help guide these, and to participate in decision-making alongside the many others engaged in the solemn work of leading a spiritual community. The proposal was centered in the value of power-with, not power-over, in a process whereby we sometimes call others into greater commitment at the same time as we remain open to being called in ourselves. These appointed folks might possibly have been more accurately described as anti-racism elders, and one of the best indicators of an elder is the ability both to hold others to account lovingly and to be open to being called into the same accountability.

The Undoing Racism Group proposal also called for a care committee that could serve as a source of advice and guidance around anti-racism to our core leadership – General Secretary, Clerk, Councils. This is a role that the Undoing Racism Group had already begun to play informally. They advised the leadership on the 2015 and 2016 annual sessions program, and they advised the leadership on parts of the 2016 agenda. The proposal would have formalized and expanded this role, but, again, only as a source of advice and training.

Some have said that if the proposal had been approved, the demotion of the PYM member of staff who was also a woman of color would not have occurred. Others use this assertion as an indication that the Undoing Racism Group had intended on “taking over” or some such. Really, this assertion comes from a deeper knowing. It comes from extensive experience that when people are trained and guided through a process of becoming ever more anti-racist in their thinking and being, they act differently in the world. The primary mechanism of course for this training and guidance is relationship. At its core, the proposal was about creating the opportunity for more relationships between those who carry anti-racist wisdom in our community and those who lead us. It was about sharing power more broadly, not about giving it over entirely.

The Undoing Racism Group also would not have used our current nominating process to populate its leadership. The URG leadership would have been appointed internally. Since it was proposed that the Undoing Racism Group operate at a high level in the organization, many Friends were uncomfortable with it not using the same nominating process that we use for everything else. Chuck Fager writes:

…the URG…was answerable only to itself, like the old Select Meetings. And like them, its jurisdiction and tenure were essentially unlimited. And there’s that freighted phrase, “hold accountable”. …Moreover, in the proposal, both “racism” and “resisting racism” are referred to in doctrinal terms: the URG asserted that it knows (best) what the one is, and how (best) to do the other. Expressing doubts about this is typically seen as evidence of racism (i. e., heresy). I don’t say the URG Friends all think this way, but that’s how it reads.

I don’t think Chuck is entirely wrong here. Noticing the number of Friends of Color who spoke in opposition to the proposal generated a key shift for me, and possibly for others as well. There was and continues to be disagreement among people of color in our community regarding the best approach to take in our work to end racism and white supremacy in the Religious Society of Friends and beyond. I have indeed experienced at times a certain amount of righteous certainty from (usually white) members of the Undoing Racism Group that I don’t think is always healthy. However, and most importantly, when I have pointed this out to some of the URG members, they have responded not with vitriol but with acknowledgement. When I have brought them my own feedback, they have not attempted to police my tone or ask me to deliver it in a different way.

There are legitimate reasons why we might choose a different process for selecting the leadership of the Undoing Racism Group. As we work for equity, a state of being beyond equality, we realize that different people and things require different approaches. When we find ourselves reacting to the prospect that we might need to change our process, it is usually a sign that we are too attached to our process. For me, our process was never the essential golden nugget of Quakerism. With a shifted nominating procedure, the Undoing Racism Group still would have been accountable. They would still have reported to the body, and they would still have been required to develop objectives, to meet these and be evaluated on their performance based on them. I don’t believe, ultimately, that it would have been detrimental to have used a different nominating process, as it was a unique situation wherein the point was to create mutuality and power-with (not power-over).  

Finally, Chuck Fager’s brief historical review of the trajectory of Quakerism from something more hierarchical to something more congregational I believe is accurate, yet it seems to presume that the congregational way is the end goal. Now that we have achieved congregationalism, our journey is complete. I would disagree. Quakerism, especially Liberal Quakerism, is entering a new phase of development toward what I have begun to call a community-organized Quakerism. I think this is brilliantly explicated by Noah Baker Merrill in his very recent Friends Journal article.

In the early twentieth century, people like Rufus Jones and Jane Rushmore helped to reshape our religion. Baker Merrill writes that, “at the beginning of the twentieth century, Friends led by visionaries [like Jones and Rushmore] created many of the wider Quaker institutions we know today. Largely through these efforts, a divided, scattered religious society at risk of irrelevance…was reconnected and molded into the shapes we recognize.” Yet, Baker Merrill argues, and I along with him, that we have come to see these shapes as, “the way things have always been.” This is an attitude we need to get out of the habit of inhabiting. He argues that we are moving from, “an industrial lens to a view that also includes an ecological or relational lens, from the institution-centric…to an emerging…movement-centric,” orientation that is kinetic and strategic. It is kinetic or dynamic because it is reorganizing itself to meet new needs as they emerge, and it is strategic because it is engaged in the larger world with a purpose, inviting new people in, not due merely to advertising but due to the need to partner with and align with movements around us. The role of a yearly meeting within this shifting orientation is much more of a community organizer, bringing people together and connecting them to others within and outside the faith to help them achieve what they are only capable of achieving together. Noah has a great chart that everyone working in Quaker circles should post to their walls.

I see the Undoing Racism Group proposal as an expression of our new and dynamic trajectory. We are in the midst of a tension-filled transition with exciting possibilities. I am disappointed in Fager’s blog because I believe he could have written it in an engaging fashion, about the new kinds of innovations coming out of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. Instead, he chose sensationalism and fear.

In his follow-up post some months later, I don’t believe there is anything defensible in his conduct as a writer. He reports on an encounter with two young adult Friends who approached him in earnest at the recent 2017 Young Adult Friends Conference. I served as an informal sounding board for these two, and I supported them in expressing their concerns about his original post. They asked him to retract his inaccuracies—to correct them at least. It is something he has refused to do. They pointed out that he is considered a weighty Friend with scholarly influence (in a word, he has power). At times the conversation did become heated, but an ambush it was not. One of the Friends who met with Fager also followed up with an action during a conference being held at Earlham School of Religion on Quaker history. She distributed a flyer, placing them on all the chairs at an event Fager was facilitating called the Quaker History Roundtable. It was not received very well, as one might imagine, by the attendees who understood it to be a letter rather than a flyer. There was critique offered as to why the “letter” was unsigned; when this critique was raised the young adult Friend identified herself as the author and also made herself available after the Roundtable to those who had concerns about the flyer. Here, again, is another example of the ways in which, when feedback about needed changes is raised, the response is not to hear the feedback but to critique the way in which it was delivered. I hope my post here demonstrates as fully as possible the many ways in which Chuck Fager’s blog is precisely deserving of the feedback proffered by these young adult Friends.

To this day, Fager has not reached out to either of the young adult Friends who met with him for comment. His unwillingness to stay in direct dialogue and his post, taken together, strike me as incongruent with one of our most essential commitments as Quakers to stay in relationship with one another. I think it would be appropriate for Fager to apologize to both individuals at the very least, and, further, to reach out and keep dialoguing with them. I will quote a professor of the Friend who followed up with action. The professor wrote this in the comment section of Fager’s blog:

I teach at ESR, and I know the student in question well. She has showed great integrity in all my interactions with her. Although her politics are more radical than mine, she listens closely, considers deeply, and generally shows enormous capacity for insight, self-criticism, and compassion. In short, I am able to argue and discuss with her fruitfully, and regularly, even when I disagree. And when I listen, she often helps me reconsider things that I needed to reconsider.

I will not comment on details of events for which I was not present, but I can say that this is a one-sided version of that story. I can say that because I have heard the other side of the story, which differs in significant ways. I hope the other side will be told, though I can quite easily understand why they wouldn’t want to do so in a comments thread here.

I am quite happy, however, to say that this is a profoundly ethical person. One small note: she stayed in the room, stood up, and owned her work when attacked — and this before an audience that was at least partially hostile. She was alone, not in a mob. This wasn’t Berkeley or Middlebury. What she did — again, standing by herself – takes guts.

To see her character attacked – and it does seem to be attacked here – bothers me a great deal.

I reached out to Chuck on July 9, 2017 and I heard back from him a few days later. I let him know that if there is anything he would like to add as a comment to this section, I will update this blog at that time.

The Man Who Lived by the River

We remind me of the man who lived by the river.  

The river started to flood, and there was a radio broadcast saying people should evacuate. He paid no mind to it.

He thought, “I am religious. I pray. God will save me.”

The river got pretty high and started to flood his house. Someone came by in a motor boat and called out to him.

“Come on. Get in. I’ll take you to safety!”

He yelled back, “I am religious. I pray. God will save me!”

The boat motored away, and the man’s house continued to flood.

He climbed onto his roof, and soon enough a helicopter flew by. Someone dropped a latter and called out.

“Come on! Grab the latter! I’ll pull you up and take you to safety!”

The man yelled back, “I am religious! I pray! God will save me!”

The man who lived by the river drowned.

When he got to heaven, he saw God.

He said, “God, I was religious. I prayed. I thought you would save me!”

She turned to him in surprise and exclaimed, “I sent you a radio broadcast, a motor boat and a helicopter. What the hell are you doing here?”

I think we expect some sort of magical release valve to appear, a deus ex machina. Otherwise, we expect God to speak to us and through us only in ways that are familiar to us. Yet, history and theology should teach us that God rarely ever works in familiar ways, or in ways that aren’t at once terrifying and invitational. It is not enough that we are waiting for her to speak, we also need to realize that she has been speaking all along.

We are called now to stand in our vulnerability, to struggle, to forgive and to rediscover our love for one another. As a friend and mentor once wrote to me, “When we listen to each other more deeply, we hear God more deeply.”


Works Cited

Baldwin, James. The Fire Next Time. New York: The Dial Press, 1963.

Dale, Barbara. “Consensus Decision Making in Eusocial Organisms.” Friends Journal June/July (2017): 8-10.

Merrill, Noah. “What We Cannot Do Alone.” Friends Journal June/July (2017): 11-14, 40-41.

Merton, Thomas. Seeds of Destruction. New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1964.



2 thoughts on “A Recent History of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting: from the perspective of a humble insider

  1. I’ve lived and participated in four different Yearly Meetings in the U.S. Phila YM is by far the one of these four that has the hardest time letting go of status quo and sharing privilege. It’s also the one of those four with the greatest amount of material belongings. I think those two facts are strongly linked.

    Before Phila YM can share privilege and acknowledge white supremacy in big ways we’d need to practice in small ways. In my 16 or 18 years in Phila YM I have yet to see it act corporately in a way that lets go its grip on privilege. Phila YM also has a tendency to come to unity on minutes that don’t require any actual action. For instance, the minute at the called meeting in 2015 says that we commit to put race and racism at the center of our work and we commit to increase our consciousness of racism but doesn’t commit us to taking any measurable steps toward learning about, acknowledging or decreasing the racism among us. I remember (vaguely) a meeting much earlier in my life in this YM where a minute about Friends schools included some non-measurable statement about increasing economic diversity in Friends schools, with no specifics about actions that we’ll take.

    I’ve grown pessimistic about Phila YM’s ability to take corporate action that makes any meaningful strides towards social justice on just about any front because it would require some loosening of our grip on our own privilege. I think monthly (or maybe quarterly) meetings are the places where anything like that can happen. I tried for awhile to be an active participant in changing that culture in the YM, and that’s where my pessimism comes from. Additionally, the amount of time and energy it would require to make a meaningful difference in the YM precludes doing that while at the same time carrying out my ministry of parenting in a way that’s fully faithful to how I believe God is calling me to parent.

    For those who are able to put time and energy toward the YM, I hold you in my prayers. Maybe if we can take on something that’s smaller and measurable, we could learn from that and broaden our scope. I think that the Friends schools under the care of the YM would be a good laboratory for that — practice what it would really mean to use those schools as resources to combat racism. I’m not suggesting giving up on the bigger picture, but let’s see what it feels like to loosen our grip on privilege, then we can loosen it a bit more, and a bit more, while we also continue to keep racism and white supremacy in the spotlight on the larger scale.

  2. Zachary, I appreciate the space that you have stepped into here. I feel the power of your stance – it feels to resonate with the 3rd goal of the BD101 workshop that I’ve led for many years: “To speak from my knowingness/To speak truth aloud.” Someone in the January, 2017 BD101 Intensive pointed out that in hearing that 3rd goal, before looking up at the flip chart to see the word “aloud” they instead heard “allowed.”…..To speak truth allowed. It occurs to me as I read your offering that you have stepped into a space beyond what has been deemed to be, “ALLOWED. ” I stand as a grateful and loving witness to y/our journey. I hope to witness many more stepping into this unknown territory. This is a journey that I can join with wholeheartedness. For as Baldwin also describes it, “Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it…” Within the space that you have entered we find our peace, our justice, our healing, OUR WHOLENESS!

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