If We Don't Build it

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(Please note: It is understood that Rrace is a social construct. There is no biologically meaningful concept of “different races” among humanity. For the purpose of this article, I use terms that may seem to imply distinctions or divisions between groups of people that do not exist biologically. These distinctions are artifices drawn by human culture, politics, and economics. There is only one race, the human race. – Delcy Steffy)

When the children file in from First Day School near the end of worship, there is a palpable lift in the meeting. One member described it as “a ray of sunshine streaming into the room.” The presence of the children is a welcome sight and a strong indicator of the health of the Meeting. But it didn’t just happen.

When Sacramento Monthly Meeting decided to expand its children’s program from beyond just two Sundays a month to weekly, it may have seemed to some members that we were creating capacity in excess of our need. At the time, few of our  families with had children attended regularly, and expanding the program required a big commitment from the whole meeting. We need two volunteers present with the children at all times, so tThe meeting had to develop a much deeper pool of volunteers whom the and the First Day School committee had to train as well as  them. The committee also needed to develop more curricula for them to present. In short, a great deal of energy was (and continues to be) invested in our children’s program.  

This may sound obvious, but I want to emphasize this point: Children now attend Sacramento Meeting regularly only because Meeting made a commitment to do the work to prepare for “more children” before “more children” were present. Before, with When the program was only twice a month, regular families could easily miss worshipthe children’s program for a month or more, and newcomers  families might find no program at all to welcome their children, receiving the inadvertent message that children are not welcome at our meeting. Now that our actions and our intentions are aligned, the message is clear: children are always welcome.

Sacramento is a diverse and reasonably well-integrated city with approximately two thirds of its citizens reporting themselves on the 2010 census as something other than “white.” My daughter’s elementary school pretty well reflects this mix, and on a daily basis we enjoy many benefits from living in a community place that is so richly mixed. And yet, one of my daughter’s most most treasured places, our Quaker meeting, is strikingly less integrated than our city. In fact, my daughter rarely  even sees another person of African American decent at our meeting – or, for that matter, at any Quaker gathering. In this regard H her spiritual home bears little resemblance to the world she sees on a daily basis.

This experience of segregation by default is not unique to Quakers. But our Quaker testimony of equality sets us apart from many other faiths – or it should. To actually live our testimony of equality requires us to learn to be welcoming to people from all groups in our broader community.

We have to acknowledge that we need to do more than we currently are. If willingness and desire were enough to achieve diversity, we would already be there. Everything in the current literature tells us that diversity does not happen in institutions on its own. While some degree of diversity may occur as a function of demographics, real diversity – and, more importantly, inclusion inclusive diversity –is only achieved only happen as a result of intentional action process..

In our meetinghouses, the eyes of the majority might see something that looks to them like diversity – one or two members each of several different minority groups present. But through the eyes of these individuals, “minority representatives,” the picture can look quite different. They might see only one other person , (or none) other person, who shares their racial or ethnic identity. When members of the majority say something that is racially The lack of a sense of safety in numbers is real and has consequences. The majority can be insensitive without knowing it, and members of minority groups mayoften feel uncomfortable speaking up about what concerns them.  I have been the only woman in the room on many occasions in my work life. I was always aware of it, and at times it affected whether or how I communicated. This lack of a sense of safety in numbers is real.

Our Quaker traditions can both help and hinder us in achieving the goal of diversity. On the one hand, it seems as though Friends are by nature inclusive. Our avoidance of dogma makes us generally respectful of individuals and their beliefs. But the flipside of this respect and tolerance – a our constant concern that we should not be seen as proselytize ing – often gets in the way of our desire attempts to welcome newcomers. We don’t want to imply that there might be anything lacking in the spiritual choices another, and then when we add in the specter of a long and painful history of religious imperialism by white colonists – we can become paralyzed. Instead, we could practice the art of frankly sharing our personal faith journeys with those in our circles newcomersand express our sincere interest in their faith stories too, assuming every person is a Seeker, whatever race they may be.

I was invited by a friend to attend Quaker worship with him when I was 24.  Perhaps he felt lead to invite me. Perhaps he sensed a need in me, as I was grieving the sudden death of my mother, and felt lead to invite me. Whatever made it possible for him to  to reach out and take the risk of reaching out to inviting me, I am grateful that he did. I found in that meeting a much needed and beloved spiritual home.

I hope that each one of us will take the risk of reaching out to others in our communitiesnewcomers.  And I hope that our meetings will take on the task of reaching out to racial and ethnic groups with messages of  in support and a sense of community and solidarity with them. Perhaps we could share with them the ideas that central to our identity as Friends are the belief in the equality of all people and a commitment to work for social justice. Many meetings now participate in their local Gay Pride festivals. We could also make our Quaker presence visible at celebrations like Juneteenth, Cinco de Mayo, MLK Day, and Caesar Chavez Day. Most people still don’t even know who we are. Just last week, another mother at my daughter’s basketball practice mistook me for an Amish person when I mentioned that we were headed to Quaker camp! I was mistaken for an Amish person by another mother at my daughter’s basketball practice!  What began as a misunderstanding That led to an awkward conversation led to a  at first, but then to lovely conversationsharing and an invitation for her to visit meeting.

But before we even come to the question of how to reach out to others, there is the question of getting ready. We need to be honest with ourselves about how we look and how we sound. I’m going to be blunt here: For the most part, we look and sound “white.” This profile can send an unconscious and unintended message to persons from minority groups that “this is not where you belong.” The care we take in preparing our meetinghouses can have a big impact on this unintended message of exclusion. We can make sure our bulletin boards display flyers for events sponsored by racial and ethnic organizations. We can develop habits of always behaving “as if” people from minority groups are in the room.

On a number of occasions in our meeting, our First Day School has studied Quaker participation in the Underground Railroad and in civil disobedience in the Jim Crow South. These lessons have often included some awkwardness around language. For example, one suca lesson might easily began with the  a statement like, “In the South before the Civil War, there were slaves.” These words land harshly on some ears. Language is constantly evolving and giving us better, more accurate vocabulary. Many people (including public school textbook editors) now refer to “enslaved people” rather than “slaves.” This important distinction helps remind us of the humanity of those who suffer in slavery.

In a lesson on Quaker involvement in the civil rights movement, an instructor repeatedly referred to “blacks” until my daughter spoke up and said she was more comfortable if people used the term “African American.” A discussion ensued and it was agreed by all the kids present – African American was what people said now, and that was they term they used in school. A reasonable enough outcome, and an example of how community can work. But what if the child who felt uncomfortable were a newcomer, and didn’t feel safe speaking to an elder in that way?

It is difficult to initiate conversations about such ideas at any time, but particularly with well-meaning, loving, members of our community. Especially when they are our elders, who may themselves have worked hard for civil rights. But we shouldn’t leave it to members of minority groups to make our communities safer for them and more inclusive. White allies can and should take the risk and burden of initiating challenging conversations about race and diversity. We should all be prepared to be patient and forgiving with each other as we make mistakes and discover together a path toward greater diversity and inclusion. And it starts with a shared commitment to build it.

Delcy Steffy is a member of Sacramento Friends Meeting, and an AVP facilitator with a lifelong passion on issues of diversity and inclusion. She worked for many years in the field of Socially Responsible Investment, working on behalf of religious and other investors to bring change to Fortune 500 companies on environmental and social issues.

For a longer version of this article, contact Delcy at delcysteffy@gmail.com.