I realize how fortunate I have been to have had experiences with diverse communities over the past six or seven years in Indianapolis. These have been immensely educational. When I said as much during one of my last meetings with the Kheprw Institute (KI) community, Alvin said “we’ll send you your diploma,” to much laughter. And that was yet another appreciated experience, of a group of such diverse people working and laughing together.
To review, for those who aren’t familiar with my experiences, I began to be involved with the Indianapolis social justice community about five years ago, with the Keystone Pledge of Resistance. That Internet driven campaign resulted in being trained to organize and execute acts of nonviolent direct action related to the Keystone XL Pipeline permit. I met and worked with activists from the Rainforest Action Network for several years on that project. And I was part of a network of environmental/social justice activists who came together in Indianapolis as part of this campaign. We worked hard together, providing training sessions to bring others in our area into the movement, holding public rallies, writing letters to the editor. What was fascinating was how these people continued to engage in other social justice activities together after the Keystone permit was denied by President Obama.
It was also because of an Internet organized event that I first made contact with the Kheprw Institute community that I’ve written so much about. This being a community focused on mentoring and empowering black youth and environmental justice, I began to learn some of what it is like to be black in America today. When you see a mother break down in tears as she describes her fear every time her child leaves the house, you learn something that can’t be taught in a classroom.
I was glad the Quaker meeting I attended in Indianapolis, North Meadow Circle of Friends, wanted to participate in a new program of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) called Quaker Social Change Ministry (QSCM) for many reasons. The goal of this program is to get Quakers to be out in the community and working together with a community that is experiencing injustice now. North Meadow Friends were so fortunate that the Kheprw Institute was willing to partner with us.
One of the most important things QSCM taught us is how important it is to wait and listen to those you are working with. To first understand what the new situation is that you are getting involved with. To learn what the issues and needs are, and what that community wants to happen, i.e. to support that community, not try to provide solutions. Looking back on it, this seems so logical, but that was not the approach that was usually used in the past. Too often social justice groups would go into a situation with their own ideas and plans, which often were not what the people they intended to help actually needed.
These lessons were very useful when I got involved with the efforts to support the water protectors related to the Dakota Access Pipeline. I was glad to be able to be in a supporting role as Native Americans held ceremonies and prayers in Indianapolis. This is my hope related to engaging with Native Americans here in Iowa, why I wanted to attend the Meskwaki Powwow.
With the gifts of this kind of education come the responsibility to share what you have learned. I knew there would be challenges when I returned to Iowa with its rural culture and lack of diversity. I knew many of the Friends in the predominately white Quaker community that has been my religious community all my life, even though I’ve lived at a distance, haven’t had the benefit of these educational experiences. Every one of them care deeply about social justice and peace, and work very hard on these issues. A number have had experiences with diverse communities.
But on the whole, I think many are in the situation I was in before I was blessed with the experiences I’ve tried to describe above. You just don’t know what it is that you don’t know.
I knew that moving to Iowa when I retired recently was going to be a challenge in many ways. I dearly miss those I’ve grown so close to as we worked together in Indianapolis. And as I began to learn what I hadn’t known, I become even more aware of what a problem lack of diversity is for people living in the Midwest. The increasingly visible killing of unarmed, black people by police, the militarization of our police forces, the poisoning of water to save money, or for oil company profits, and what occurred in Charlottesville last weekend make it increasingly urgent that white people learn more about people of color, and Indigenous people in America today.
I haven’t been to a white privilege conference but I’m sure they can be helpful. But from my experience, what white people really need to do is seek opportunities to be with, work with people of color. Prison work, like the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) would be a possibility. Engaging with predominately black or Hispanic churches and their work would be another. Or working with an AFSC project, and/or having your meeting engage with Quaker Social Change Ministry.
One important caution is to not do this expecting the people in these communities to use their time and energy to educate you. Instead, as you wait and listen, you will learn. Listen for opportunities to contribute, but don’t offer unsolicited help. See yourself as a resource and friend, but not a leader.
If your life is not currently blessed with a diversity of people, you are missing so much. If you are wondering what you can do in the wake of Charlottesville, Ferguson, children going to bed hungry, find ways to actually be in the communities experiencing injustice. We have to get out of our comfort zones, because these comfort zones are a large part of the problem of race in America today.