I was in my twenties when I came to Quaker faith and practice, and learned a new normal. It was the first time I saw social justice concerns centered by a faith community. Spiritual development was nurtured and encouraged for all ages and was treated as a personal responsibility, something one did for oneself and for the community. Although I had been raised in a religious home, this was my first exposure to faith as a way of life, not just individually, but communally. Quakers didn’t just “go to church together,” we shared the world and made sense of it as best we could together.
Like many new Quakers, I imagine, I was enamored of this new community and faith, and I had a naïve view of its merits.
I was in graduate school at the time, beginning a degree program which ultimately focused on the ethics of punishment. The Quaker influence on me unmistakable. In my early research, I read of the late eighteenth-century Quaker involvement in establishing the first penitentiary at the Walnut Street jail in Philadelphia, and my idealism about Quakers met reality. (Laura Magnani, AFSC, 1990)
Discovering the Quaker role in promoting the practice of incarceration was surprising – and disappointing. What might have become disillusionment, however, was further complicated when I learned the justification for the penitentiary at the time was, at least in part, to spare individuals the public humiliation of the stocks. The ethical appeal of the penitentiary was that it modeled respect and offered the promise of dignity in the form of a private, quiet place to become penitent and restore one’s relationship with God – a morally superior alternative to the ridicule, shame, and blame of the public stocks.
The promise of the penitentiary was not met, and within ten years, as the brutal realities of the practice became known, it was clearly a failure from a moral point of view. Yet, the practice of incarceration has continued to this day, as political motivations prevail over moral arguments.
Learning early in my faith development that Friends could be so profoundly mistaken helped me recognize that humility must be central to how we understand ourselves as Quakers. This was a useful tempering to my idealism.
I examined my own social justice work and saw how it reflected Quaker modeling. All the Quaker meetings I’ve been involved in have engaged in prison ministry at the individual level: prison visitations, worship in prisons, Alternatives to Violence Project, and other programs that focus on supporting people who are incarcerated. I felt a special responsibility for people in prison, given our history, so I also began offering support to individuals inside prisons.
But, I recognized a distinction now: Quaker action in the eighteenth century was systemic and focused on establishing the system of penitentiaries; Quaker action today often focuses on the individuals in that system. Comparatively few Friends today are working to undo the systemic work of the eighteenth century and abolish the penitentiary system, which we have known for two hundred years to be failing.
Providing support to individuals in the penitentiary system is critical – they are being harmed, and they need care. The systemic work, however, is the work to dismantle these unjust institutions altogether. Becoming aware of the differing impacts of individual and systemic approaches opened a new prison ministry for me. After years of working with incarcerated individuals, I joined others working at the state and local levels to reduce the number of people in prisons. This now includes working in a restorative justice program to prevent people from going to prison and organizing statewide to lower recidivism and reduce our prison population by 40% in the next ten years. I think of this as work toward abolition.
Once I appreciated that justice demands both individual and systemic work, I was able to look more closely at other social justice work I was doing, including the anti-racism work I was involved in. For decades, I had thought that since I believed racism is wrong, this meant that I was anti-racist. Based on beliefs that Quakers generally express, it seemed evident that they must be anti-racist, too.
I examined my own identity as a Quaker, a White woman, and an activist. Initially, I had not considered that my role or my power might be contributing to harmful patterns and racist behaviors. I believed I was part of the healing. But then I witnessed several incidents of White Friends giving racist ministry in my meeting, unconscious that they were doing so, and although some White Friends noticed, none of us spoke up. White silence left it to Friends of Color to address the harm. After those experiences, I no longer felt I was part of the healing. I knew I had to learn to speak up, even in worshipful spaces, and to develop a critical understanding of how my own actions and patterns of behavior among Friends in the meeting were working to perpetuate racism and other harms.
My faith and confidence were tested by my growing awareness of how unconsciously and successfully I had been socialized not to see my power as a White person, and not to see myself or my meeting as belonging to the dominant culture. I was not who I thought I was.
Neither was my meeting quite what I thought. Our meeting was a place, I learned, where racial harm occurred regularly. In addition to racist ministry and White silence, Friends of Color shared being frequently misnamed or mistaken for other persons of color; assumptions were expressed about Black Friends’ worship preferences; there was hair touching and admiration of Black Friends for being articulate. Any one of these incidents would be harmful or hurtful, but they occurred repeatedly, as common behaviors, which meant that our problem was systemic. These racist behaviors were part of who we were as a community, even though no individual would want to perpetuate harm.
Over the years, I attended different Quaker meetings as I moved around the country. Each one had a social justice committee, yet none of those committees focused directly on anti-racism or racial justice work. They seemed to take for granted, like I did, that personal convictions had more moral and practical force than they actually do in efforts to counter racism. The re-orientation in my understanding of social change and social justice – as efforts that need to happen at both individual and institutional levels – altered how I think about Quaker witness and how I think about the anti-racism work in our meeting.
I wonder how we, as a meeting, will navigate a shift from thinking primarily about individuals and impacting hearts and minds to thinking structurally and critically about systemic changes that are needed. I wonder especially how Friends who are White will navigate this shift. In recent years, the Friends for Racial Equity and Education (FREE) committee of my meeting, a committee I serve on, has offered educational programs for individual learning – to give us some shared analysis and terminology. Now when we use the term “White Supremacy Culture,” many folks nod, understanding we are referring to behaviors and patterns of oppression, not calling them White supremacists. But as a meeting, we have no shared understanding of the work we need to do to become actively anti-racist.
When Friends thank the members of the FREE committee for the anti-racism work they see us do, I am appreciative, but I also want to respond that the mere existence of a committee focused on anti-racism doesn’t make any one of us or the meeting any less racist. We all need to share in the work of becoming actively anti-racist, both individually and collectively, so we can create a new, more just, normal.
Amy Rowland is an educator, long-time activist, and new grandmother. She lives in Denver, Colorado, with her wife Carol and is a member of Mountain View Friends Meeting (IMYM).
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