This is the story of the experiences of North Meadow Circle of Friends, an unprogrammed meeting in downtown Indianapolis, that were triggered by the killing of Michael Brown August 9, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri, and where that has led us.
A group of ten young people, who became known as Indy10, discovered each other via social media, as people who wanted to do something in response to the plight of the Ferguson community and the excessive, militarized police response. They arranged to meet and took food and water to Ferguson, and spent some time with the people in the community there. The experience radicalized them, and they were determined to do what they could to address similar issues in Indianapolis. One of Indy10 attends North Meadow Friends. Her partner also became involved, and the meeting was aware of this work.
Unfortunately, after several months of frequent (3 times/week), intense meetings and some street protesting, conflict erupted, and the Friends left the Indy10 group. That indicates how difficult this work can be. It was especially disappointing because it had seemed real progress was being made after significant personal investment. It became apparent that those in the North Meadow Meeting who had been involved were traumatized by the experience. Fortunately some other Friends in the Meeting recognized this, and offered to meet to work through it. Five of us, the three meeting members who had been involved with Indy10 and several of the Meeting’s spiritual elders, began meeting monthly over the winter last year (2014-2015), and found the meetings to be very helpful. (I was the third, but more distant Indy10 member from North Meadow).
You might imagine our surprise, and excitement, when we learned that the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) was looking for Friends Meetings that would be interested in participating in a pilot of a program called Quaker Social Change Ministry (QSCM), because that program seemed to reflect this process that we had started to deal with social justice work.
The Quaker Social Change Ministry program has two broad, connected goals. One is to bring a more intentional spiritual focus to a Meeting’s social justice work, as well as to encourage people in our Meetings who don’t usually see themselves as activists, to become one. It is common for meetings to have a number of people very involved in social justice and peace work. But I think it is a little unusual to find that meetings do much more than support the individual in many cases. They often don’t get involved, themselves, in that person’s work. But just imagine what it would be like if the whole meeting found a way to participate in such work together. Imagine how such work could flourish with the attention of more Friends, and how the spiritual life of the meeting would benefit by this shared work.
The second goal is to get Friends out of the Meetinghouse and into the community. The idea of accompaniment is for the Meeting to find a group of people who are dealing with injustice now, and to learn from them what we might do to help. Most of us are familiar with Friend’s history of jumping into situations and trying to provide leadership which often ends up not being what the impacted community needed. This can end up causing more harm than good, and is why activists so find themselves discouraged, often giving up the work entirely. QSCM helps Friends change the focus to the impacted community, because the people there are the ones who know the factors and people who are impacting their situation. The impacted community has a better idea of what the driving issues are, and thus know what solutions are needed, and probably have a good idea of how to create those solutions. Our role is to be ready to do what we are asked to do, when we are asked to do it.
To put it bluntly, white Quakers are simply ignorant about many issues facing people of color. “You know nothing until you realize that.” ― King Samuel Benson. Until three years ago, I was as ignorant as most other white people I knew. Now I know some things you can easily learn yourself, once you are aware of whatever the issue at hand is. I have been very fortunate, but often saddened to have been able to see how different my new friends’ lives are from mine. But this is the only way I see to begin to solve this problem. Once individuals reconnect as fellow human beings, the problems then belong to all of us, and working together we solve those problems for all of us. But I still have a great, great deal more to learn.
Ignorance can be corrected, as long as one is open to learning new things. One of the problems of ignorance is that one simply doesn’t know what it is one does not know, or realize which historical narratives represent history that has been rewritten, to cover up injustices and atrocities. I personally do not think you can be successful in this work if you do not start with the assumption of your own ignorance. Friends in particular have a great deal of difficulty with this. They are used to being well informed about social issues, and seen as leaders in social justice and peace work.
I know of the dangers of generalization, but what I have learned leads me to believe that if you are white, you do not understand, and you cannot understand what is happening to people of color until you have spent time with, and become friends with people of color. These things cannot be learned intellectually, they are only taught by experience, informed by the heart and soul.
The community your Meeting partners with is doing you a favor by helping you correct your ignorance. But be aware of this possible first misstep. It actually adds insult to injury when (usually white) people expect those experiencing injustice to teach them (white people) what they (white people) need to know. How would you feel if, after experiencing years of injustice, some of the very people who were involved in that injustice, even if they were unaware of doing so, came to you expecting you to teach them what the problem is and what they should do about it?
This was what really excited us at North Meadow regarding QSCM. Several of us, in our own separate ways, had already established a relationship with just such a community which is not far from the meetinghouse. The Kheprw Institute (KI) is a small (four main adult leaders) community that came into being over a decade ago to mentor young (teenage) children of color. KI has become one of the most active social justice organizations in Indianapolis. They are very generous in making their meeting facilities available for different groups working on all sorts of issues. Because of the excellent training they are able to provide their interns (kids), KI is more and more providing technical support for other social justice organizations and meetings. At a recent NAACP Environmental Justice presentation, KI provided live streaming of the event. But most of their work is done at KI, where the youth learn about (by taking care of) the garden, aquaponics system, composting, web design, and social networking and programming.
Over 30 years ago Imhotep Adisa, KI’s Director, and JT, a North Meadow Friend who was involved in the original post-Ferguson group, and is now active in QSCM, went to the local University together. It was about three years ago that I found KI when I attended an event there that was listed on an environmental organization’s website. Kevin has helped with some construction and wood working. Erin Polley, Indiana’s AFSC staff person, helped with the trip to Washington, DC, when one of the KI youth won the “If I Had a Trillion Dollars” video contest. So we had the good fortune of a history of acquaintance and shared work.
For a number of years after KI first started, they tended to keep to themselves, forming a protected community for their youth, in a manner similar to how Friends used to maintain their own schools. When I first met with them, I didn’t realize just how small and self-contained KI was. My experience during that first meeting at KI was really amazing to me. I describe that in detail here (https://jeffkisling.com/2016/01/05/importance-of-stories/). As I should have expected (but didn’t), that first meeting was actually an interview to see if I was someone who might fit into their community. I mention this because I think Friends should be very cautious during their first meetings. I hope you approach your meetings with the attitude that you are a seeker, wanting to learn about this new community, and, over time, growing into knowing one another, and remain open to what might be asked of you. Remember, at least in my experience, it is better if you wait until you are asked for something, or to do something with or for the community. Try to pay especially close attention, and listen for opportunities that may be somewhat subtle. You might hear “we are having … event”, which is an invitation to you to attend.
Especially knowing how constrained KI’s resources are, I was committed to making sure we did our best to minimize what we asked of KI for this program. Our goal was to help, not add to the burden of the KI community. We were fortunate, again, this time for the wisdom of KI’s approach to community building. For several years KI has held book discussions that are open to the community. These events have a number of benefits, and have been key to KI’s spreading involvement in the Indianapolis activist community, as well as a perfect mechanism for North Meadow Friends to begin to accompany KI and their work. Stimulating books are chosen, which have included “The New Jim Crow”, “The Pedagogy of the Oppressed”, “This Changes Everything”, “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle”, and the upcoming “Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States”. Last year the KI interns led the discussions of “The New Jim Crow”, which spanned several months of one a month meetings. Rasul and Keenan would read a couple of chapters, and then each write a blog post about what they had read. The community could then read those blog posts ahead of the discussion. Then Rasul and Keenan led the public discussion. They developed skills in critical thinking, public speaking, and leading group discussions.
Besides all of those good things, these discussions brought a wide diversity of people to KI to discuss ideas in a respectful and civilized manner. The KI leaders, Imhotep, Miss Fair, Pambana and Alvin have created an atmosphere for the interns and all who come to KI that is based upon mutual respect, acceptance, and challenging each other’s ideas. In his often subtle and humorous way, Imhotep helps people clarify their thoughts so everyone understands what they are trying to say. And he gently leads the discussion back on track when it, fairly often, goes astray. And helps summarize things. People really enjoy these meetings because of the interesting topics, interesting participants, and welcoming, and yet challenging atmosphere.
More and more North Meadow Friends are attending these book discussions. During our QSCM meetings we identified this as our first endeavor with KI, which would allow us all to get to know each other over several months’ time. And it is also great in not adding a burden to KI in order for us to get this benefit.
So this is where we are with North Meadow Friends, KI, and the Quaker Social Change Ministry. I think our participation in the book discussions at KI is appreciated. And those at North Meadow who are involved (around a dozen) are finding QSCM and time at KI, and time together processing all of this to be very invigorating. It does seem like we have had a unique set of circumstances leading to this point. But I hope this program becomes widely used by Friends.
Quaker Social Change Ministry program http://www.afsc.org/document/small-group-social-justice-ministry-model
Quakers and racism https://jeffkisling.com/2016/01/14/lessons-learned-about-quakers-and-racism/
My first meeting at KI https://jeffkisling.com/2016/01/05/importance-of-stories/
First combined meeting of North Meadow Friends and KI https://jeffkisling.com/2015/10/21/ki-and-north-meadow-friends/
“This Changes Everything” book discussion at KI https://jeffkisling.com/2015/11/15/this-changes-everything-2/
Conversation is underrated (about book discussions at KI) https://jeffkisling.com/2016/01/24/conversation-is-underrated/
Beloved community https://jeffkisling.com/2016/01/18/beloved-community/
Mind mapping racism https://jeffkisling.com/2015/01/15/mind-mapping-racism/