Attending to the Intersections of Oppression

Department: 

This article was written on behalf of North Pacific Yearly Meeting’s Peace and Social Concerns Committee: Kate Hunter (Clerk), Tom Ewell, Cims Gillespie, Rose Lewis, Steve Willey, and Ruth Yarrow.

Quite commonly, an individual Friend will carry a great deal of passion for one particular social issue (or for a very few issues). This tendency often reflects an outlook of reductionism in which all the injustices of the world reduce down to a single point. For instance: everything is a classist issue boiling down to wealth inequality, so we should only work on issues of class; or everything is an environmental issue boiling down to the destruction of the planet, so we should only work on environmental issues; or everything is an kyriarchic issue boiling down to one group dominating another, so we should only work on issues of oppression like racism, patriarchy, and ableism.

My experiences of Friends trying to make one issue into the central issue is that Friends often imply others Friends’ work isn’t important. This prevents us from working together on multiple issues side by side and fully sharing our light. We sometimes act as if our own individual light is the only one that shines on our collective path.

Instead of reductionism, we must learn to practice intersectionalism and look for intersections among the different issues we care about. Social scientist Patricia Hill Collins has been developing this approach for more than two decades. She argues that we need to challenge multiple intersections at once, that we need to challenge “the matrix of domination.” For example, understanding that the worst effects of climate change are harming people of color the most, we begin to understand how environmental destruction overlaps with racism and how we must all work together to resist both climate change and racism. Similar intersections between classism and gender identity show that individuals in poor communities and those in LGBTQIA communities (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning, intersexual, and asexual) are both especially threatened by police brutality and suffer all kinds of similar barriers to education, healthcare, housing, and other necessities.

By understanding such intersections, we come to understand how diverse efforts to create a liberatory culture can be mutually supportive of each other, how they can affirm the struggles and lives of people from diverse communities, and how they can oppose oppressive barriers for all of us. By casting our light together, we can discern how oppression operates. Once we understand how systemic oppression prevents our equality, we can work to reject all systemic oppression from our society.

There are many barriers to the efficacy of our work. Understanding how oppression affects the least among us requires us to ask hard questions about our own advantages and privileges as Friends. It requires us to examine how serious we have been in affirming the identities – and thereby the lives – of all Friends in our communities. It requires us to examine the personal barriers that keep us from even seeing and appreciating that there are Friends with different identities in our midst.

In addition to these personal barriers, many Friends have little way of knowing about the issues and concerns that neighboring Friends’ meetings and worship groups have taken up. This has limited the scope of our collective action simply because we have not had the information we need to coordinate our various actions across larger regions.

To begin to address this dis-coordination, North Pacific Yearly Meeting created a standing committee on Peace and Social Concerns in 2009. The committee’s first major project was to conduct a survey of all Friends’ meetings and worship groups in our region, to learn what Friends are doing for peace and social justice, and to share this information as widely as possible.  We published a report on this survey in January 2014, “Actions for Peace and Justice in the Northwest – Reports from Thirty-Seven Friends Meetings and Worship Groups in Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington.” The report is available online at: westernfriend.org/?p=3286.

We found a wide range of activity (and inactivity) across the various communities. Quite a number of large established Friends’ meetings had no Peace and Social Concerns Committee at all, while some small meetings and worship groups were very active in peace and justice work.  Throughout the thirty-seven reports, numerous common topics of concern emerged: war and peace, prisons, poverty, environment, guns, torture, indigenous people, diversity, transgender issues, restorative justice, military budget, and health care. Our committee plans to update this report each year and find ways to encourage networking and action among Friends in the Pacific Northwest.

The wide variety of social concerns moving Friends in the Pacific Northwest can be seen as a wellspring of spiritual energy, not just as a source of confusion. Friends who take on individual projects tend to to work dynamically with particular communities to address local needs. Further, individual Friends find great energy in answering their own callings to work on particular issues.

At the same time, we can overcome barriers to collaboration by bringing our communities together and by sharing our inner light. We can seek to understand each other’s experiences through whole-meeting educational programs. We can make our communities a little more aware of the many sources of oppression that confront us all – some of us far more than others. We can move against injustice together to make our whole communities Friendlier.

One way that Friends can find intersections among our diverse social concerns is by viewing them through the lenses of our historic “Quaker testimonies.” These describe broad categories of social witness that Friends have sustained for nearly 400 years. Viewed in this manner, we see the following examples of specific actions among Friends in the Pacific Northwest:

Simplicity: Small gatherings in prayer; raising monthly donations in meetings; potlucks; weekly and monthly discussion groups, information sharing, and movie sessions; personal correspondences concerning a more just world.

Peace: Peace Vigils; participation in Women In Black; silent protests; Friends Peace Teams; tax resistance; discussion series on gun violence; lobbying elected representatives; presentations, literature, and art work about peace, military spending, and the consequences of war; Hiroshima-Nagasaki commemorations.

Integrity: Anti-torture work; restorative justice, alternative justice, and prisoner support programs; work for governmental accountability through rallies, letter-writing campaigns, and visits to representatives; education about Citizen’s United and corporate tax loopholes.

Community: Ecumenical collaboration projects; community meals; gathering and distributing food and body-care supplies for those in need; support for community libraries, homeless shelters, and services for at-risk youth; providing direct support for unhoused youth.

Equality: Solidarity work with local indigenous communities; participation in diversity coalitions and multicultural celebrations; work on immigrant rights; Occupy Wall St.; discussion groups about poverty, Islamophobia, patriarchy, racism, and LGBTQIA injustices; support for pride organizations.

Stewardship: Support for locally grown food, food banks, and food shares; support for recycling, up-cycling, and re-use programs; opposition to coal, oil, and natural gas exports; discussion series on fossil fuels; environmental construction projects in meetings; habitat restoration and beach cleanups.

Friends have historically played a large role in defining how our broader communities function. I believe Friends of the Northwest can return to a place of social prominence, not by proselytizing, but by practicing our faith publicly. Let us pray for peace, and work for justice.  ~~~

Cimmeron ‘Cims’ Gillespie is a Member of Eugene Friends Meeting and also an attender of Multnomah Friends Meeting  in Portland (NPYM). He serves on the Peace & Social Concerns Committee of North Pacific Yearly Meeting. Cims is a queer Quaker organizer developing a critical analysis and liberatory practices.