Some Challenges of Working for Justice

Each human is a complex, contradictory story. Some stories within us have been unfolding for years, others are trembling with fresh life as they peek above the horizon. Each is a zigzag of emotional design and ancestral architecture. All the stories in the earth’s mind are connected.

Harjo, Joy. Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings: Poems (p. 20). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

A large part of my Quaker heritage is for us to work to help those in need and, more broadly, to change our social and political institutions to become more just. There is often some tension in Quaker meetings between those who are led to be involved in activism and those who are not called to do that work. (Note: references to “meeting” below are to Quaker meetings.)

There are, unfortunately so many justice issues. Usually a given person in the meeting might be led to work on a particular issue. Thus most meetings might have some people who focus on race, others on the environment, others on immigration, etc. Each person becomes an expert in their subject, and usually knows more about that than others in the meeting. What works best is for each person to educate the rest of the meeting about what they have learned and are concerned about. We can’t all be experts, by any means, on every issue.

This is complicated for a number of reasons. One being the history most of us learned was “white washed” in the sense of changing history to make white people’s actions appear better than what actually happened, or not mentioning injustices that occurred at all. We have to re-learn history, and find that not as many Quakers as we have been led to believe actually participated in the underground railroad. We learn many Quakers were involved in the institution of slavery. We learn about what actually happened in Indian boarding schools, with the participation of Friends.

Even more difficult, partly because of the “white washed” history, many white people do not realize the extent to which their lives today are privileged.  Perhaps don’t know that in the past there were actual maps to show where people of color could not buy or rent a house. There were many forms of blatant public discrimination in the not too distant past and today. And don’t realize the extent to which racism is built into the structures of our society now.

We are each at our own point along the spectrum of understanding about each justice issue. There is frustration when those who learn more about an issue see that changes must be made to address the injustice. They then want the rest of the meeting to work to make those changes. But the rest of the meeting may have trouble seeing the problem, seeing the urgency of addressing the problem, or understand what needs to be done.  

The frustration is compounded when those who have learned about structural racism, for example, come to understand that the status quo is unjust. That certain beliefs and practices of the Friends in the meeting are now seen, by them, as perpetuating injustice.

What do we do in those situations? It would help to acknowledge who has expertise in a given area, and find ways for them to educate us. This is often a difficult and lengthy process.

An example of this has been my 40 year struggle to convince Friends to give up personal automobiles. Back then many people were not aware of the extent of the environmental damage that was being done by burning fossil fuels. It was possible for me to live without a car because I lived in a city and mass transit was available. It is obviously a completely different situation in rural areas and small communities, which is where Friends in my meeting lived. So, for 40 years there has been this tension between me and my meeting about this. I could readily see what a challenge this was and is for those who don’t have access to mass transit. But I couldn’t stop raising the issue, because I knew that no matter how good one’s reasons are for having a car, Mother Earth was being severely damaged. As a result we are now in the sixth mass extinction event.

One thing that resulted from these discussions was a Minute on Ethical Transportation (see below) that was approved by my meeting, Bear Creek, and then by Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative).

This makes me again appreciate how powerful the Quaker Social Change Ministry (QSCM) program is. Having the entire meeting focus on one specific area of justice helps us all move along the path of learning more about the injustice. But more importantly, one of the fundamental parts of QSCM is accompaniment of a community currently experiencing injustice. You cannot understand justice issues just by studying and having committee meetings. You have to commit to spending a significant amount of time and energy working alongside those in the impacted community.

I’ve written a lot about our experience at North Meadow Circle of Friends in Indianapolis when we adopted the Quaker Social Change Ministry model, and accompanied the black youth mentoring organization, the Kheprw Institute (KI): These photos are of the KI community and North Meadow Friends.

Information about Quaker Social Change Ministry (QSCM) can be found here:

Ethical Transportation

Radically reducing fossil fuel use has long been a concern of Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative). A previously approved Minute urged us to reduce our use of personal automobiles. We have continued to be challenged by the design of our communities that makes this difficult. This is even more challenging in rural areas. But our environmental crisis means we must find ways to address this issue quickly.

Friends are encouraged to challenge themselves and to simplify their lives in ways that can enhance their spiritual environmental integrity. One of our meetings uses the term “ethical transportation,” which is a helpful way to be mindful of this.

Long term, we need to encourage ways to make our communities “walkable”, and to expand public transportation systems. These will require major changes in infrastructure and urban planning.

Carpooling and community shared vehicles would help. We can develop ways to coordinate neighbors needing to travel to shop for food, attend meetings, visit doctors, etc. We could explore using existing school buses or shared vehicles to provide intercity transportation.

One immediately available step would be to promote the use of bicycles as a visible witness for non-fossil fuel transportation. Friends may forget how easy and fun it can be to travel miles on bicycles. Neighbors seeing families riding their bicycles to Quaker meetings would have an impact on community awareness. This is a way for our children to be involved in this shared witness. We should encourage the expansion of bicycle lanes and paths. We can repair and recycle unused bicycles, and make them available to those who have the need.

Minute approved by Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative)

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