Activists, Advocates, Human Beings

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Most young adults hold little doubt that we were born into and continue to exist in a world where systems of domination – racism, classism, sexism, etc. – create hierarchies of worth and power that segregate our communities. These systems ground our experiences in fear and suspicion of others, and often, fear and suspicion of ourselves. Oppressive systems are manifest in our institutions, communities, relationships, and inner lives. They stymie our attempts at creating a just and equitable society, healthy and loving relationships and communities, and radical, deep, compassionate lives.

Quaker Voluntary Service (QVS) fellows are offered an opportunity to process, dissect, and combat the ways we have internalized inherently unjust and dehumanizing narratives and behaviors. QVS helps us grow as healthy activists, advocates, community members, and human beings who are committed to co-creating a better world. We work on these goals through our site placements in nonprofits, through engagement with the local Quaker community, by laboring with Quaker practices, and by living together in intentional community in southeast Portland, Oregon.

2017 QVS Fellows, from left to right: Greg, Rachel, KellyAnn, Aila, Veronica, and Glynnis. Photo courtesy of QVS.QVS fellows are young adults who have chosen a year of service and exploration in the Quaker way. This year, the Portland house includes Aila, Glynnis, Greg, KellyAnn, Rachel, and Veronica. In our work and our daily lives, we wrestle with questions of forgiveness and accountability, belonging and exclusion, safety and risk, compassion and indifference. What are our own roles in structures of oppression? How do we confront and leverage our privileges while dismantling the system that confers such privileges? How do we deconstruct internalized narratives of hatred, guilt, and fear – which sabotage our ability to love ourselves and others? How to we confront the suffering we see in our work, our lives, and in our world? These questions, among many others, are not unique to the QVS experience, of course; they are part of the human experience. What is unusual about our QVS community is that we have committed ourselves to working on these big questions together, and we have the immense privilege of being supported financially and spiritually by the local Quaker community and our site placements.

A major appeal of the QVS program is the opportunity to work at a nonprofit for a year. In a job market where young folks fresh out of college are often competing with more qualified candidates, it can be challenging to find meaningful work that will build our skills, help us discern our paths forward, and still cover the bills. Portland fellows currently hold staff positions at Outside In, P:ear, L’Arche, Urban Gleaners, YWCA, and Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility. Some of these positions involve direct service through local community agencies, service that leads QVS fellows to confront directly the lived experiences of people who are marginalized, isolated, and disrespected by society at large.

Greg and Glynnis both work with homeless youth through different agencies in downtown Portland. As a Youth Benefits and Engagement Specialist with Outside In, Greg builds relationships with youth who are accessing resources to meet basic needs, and he provides them with assistance enrolling in government healthcare. As a Kitchen Coordinator at P:ear, Glynnis organizes volunteers to provide meals for homeless youth. Veronica works as a community member of L’Arche house, where she aids in the personal care of and community-building with neurodiverse adults.

Other positions employ fellows in the organization-building and public-outreach sides of nonprofits, work that leads QVS fellows to consider how social justice organizing can reinforce or perpetuate the very systems of oppression we seek to combat. These positions are also opportunities to learn ways to engage with intersectional issues as allies and accomplices, while interrogating and measuring the impacts of our own privilege and marginalization.

In the Social Justice program at the YWCA, Aila helps facilitate trainings for individuals and organizations on subjects ranging from anti-racism to legislative advocacy. KellyAnn, at Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), runs a writing scholarship program focused on the issue of nuclear weapons elimination, and she also represents PSR in immigrant-rights coalitions, helping the organization determine how physicians can leverage their privilege to advance the rights of immigrants. At Urban Gleaners, Rachel is in a unique position of both supporting the organization on an institutional level and also performing direct service. Some days she coordinates warehouse food repacking and distribution, and on other days she assists directly at one of the sixty food pantries that Urban Gleaners donates food to.

We came together as six near strangers from all around the world. We were tasked with creating an intentional community in a new city. We began by crafted “community guidelines,” which remain plastered to our dining room wall by a single length of tape. These include: “Radical compassionate honesty,” “Room for humor, Room for tears,” “Be helpful/Ask for help,” “Affirm often,” “Creating intentional space & time to have conversations about race, class, etc.,” “Be Patient,” “Have each others’ backs and not gossip,” “24-hour honesty policy/confronting issues when they arise,” “Support each others’ projects/interests,” “Environmentally friendly,” “Respect each other’s spaces and cultures,” “Need alone time,” and “This list can be amended/added to.”

Much of the guidance we receive in creating our community and managing conflict comes from Quaker tradition, combined with our own experiences and those of our other community members. In processing and unpacking all that happens in our work, home, and personal lives, we have committed to exploring Quaker methods for conducting business, structuring our lives, and deepening our relationships. Only one current fellow was raised Quaker, though three attended Quaker colleges, which means we have had – and continue to have – a lot to learn about Quaker practices. We have attended workshops on clerking and have worshiped with each of our sponsoring Quaker meetings.

While each of us relates to spirituality and Quakerism differently, we all find that taking intentional time together to listen – to each other, to ourselves, and to our inner guides – often helps us process our experiences or, at the very least, hold space for the messiness of life. Tensions abound among us over what “simplicity” actually means, how exactly our meeting for business should be run, and the role of religion in our daily lives. Even so, engaging deeply with questions of Quaker process and faith, with the support of the local Quaker community, is what sets our community apart from other groups of idealistic young adults seeking to be of use in this world.

Quaker practices often raise as many questions and concerns as they solve. It is certainly part of our Quaker practice to question ever more deeply the ways we make sense of our world and how we might organize this world more equitable; yet at the same time, that questioning also disrupts the ways we have been taught to experience Quakerism, spirituality, and faith in community. Ultimately though, we have seen the power of listening and the power of recognizing every person as equally love-filled or light-filled. That power will continue to impact and support us as we seek to continue becoming healthier, more compassionate, and more conscious people.  ~~~

KellyAnn Cameron was raised in Spokane, WA, and recently graduated from Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts with majors in Middle Eastern Studies and Religion. She currently works with Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility as a Program Assistant. She thanks Aila and other QVS fellows for sharing their experiences and thoughts for this article, and for their help in writing it.