This is the fourth in a series of articles related to White Quakers, such as myself, and new and perhaps more effective ways we can work for peace and justice. My goal is to convince White Friends (Quakers) that we need to not only identify the injustices of our economic, political, and justice systems, but act to change them. Need to confront systemic racism in our culture. My recent experiences convince me the concepts of Mutual Aid provide a way to do that.
One foundational principle of Mutual Aid is people in a local community must come together to work together, spend a lot of time getting to know each other. Build trust with each other.
There are several things we (“we” refers to White Quakers) need to be aware of as we consider engaging with Mutual Aid.
- Our neighbors likely include Black, Indigenous and/or other people of color (BIPOC). Even in states such as Iowa, where I live, that have so little diversity, there are, of course, BIPOC people. White Quakers may not have a lot of direct contact with these neighbors. Making these contacts might mean getting out of your comfort zone.
- You should learn as much as you can about the history and current conditions of those you are going to work together with. But there is a cautionary note here. It is NOT appropriate for us to expect those who have been oppressed to educate us. Our education will come from getting to know each other, spending time with each other.
- There will very likely be mistrust at first.
- BIPOC folks will be aware of historic injustices involving white people in general, and probably white Quakers specifically. Trust cannot begin to occur until these injustices are acknowledged by Friends.
- The greatest injustice related to Quakers and native peoples is related to the Quaker boarding schools. (Which will be discussed another time).
- White Quakers may be surprised by what is most important in BIPOC communities.
- A recent example was when I was participating on the First Nation-Farmer Climate Unity March. I thought we would be talking about our environment. We were walking along the path of the Dakota Access pipeline for that reason. But it quickly became apparent that the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women, which is related to the man camps of the pipeline construction workers, was first on the minds of my native friends. I was to learn every native person on the March had direct and often tragic experiences related to that. And the dangers continued now. This is an example of how we Friends need to listen carefully to learn about BIPOC people’s conditions.
- One of the hallmarks of Mutual Aid is there is not a vertical hierarchy. When that is maintained, despite times when a little vertical hierarchy creeps in, you, as a White Quaker, will be treated as a member of the Mutual Aid community. Once trust has begun to be developed.
- When I first began to engage with Des Moines Mutual Aid, I wondered whether I would ever be trusted. There are many BIPOC people there. I felt I didn’t deserve their trust. From the beginning, everyone was polite. But I could tell I was on probation. But after weeks of showing up I could sense I was beginning to earn trust. I would guess this process might be true for anyone new. But probably more so for white people.
What follows is not directly related to Mutual Aid, but are some of my experiences related to establishing trust. I think it is very important that I only speak from my own experiences, as reluctant as I am to do. I was taught we should not call attention to ourselves. I like what Noah Baker Merrill said in a presentation he titled “Prophets, Midwives, and Thieves: Reclaiming the Ministry of the Whole.”
“We need to be careful when we talk about humility. The kind of humility this work brings isn’t the kind that would have us reject or repress our gifts. This kind of false humility leads us to oppress each other in the name of preventing pridefulness. This happens far too often.” Noah Baker Merrill
Or as my friend Ronnie James says, “anyways, blah, blah, brag, brag”.
What follows is the story of how I (a White Quaker) first met with the people of the Kheprw Institute in Indianapolis. I hope this might give you some ideas that could be useful when you begin your engagement with Black, Indigenous and other people of color (BIPOC). The Kheprw Institute is a small Black youth mentoring and empowerment community. There are the four adult leaders mentioned below, and around a dozen youth.
I had long been struggling with the knowledge that simply through the circumstances of the family I was born into, my life was significantly better in many ways than that of a great many others in America and the world. This was a spiritual problem for me.
God (finally) provided me with a way to begin to learn about that. Nearly three years ago the environmental group 350.org organized a national day for environmental education/actions. Only one event was listed in Indiana that day, and it was at the Kheprw Institute (KI), which was how I found out about KI. The day of the event, I arrived at the run down building that had once been a convenience store. But it was full of kids excited to show us the work they were doing, including their aquaponics system, and the rain barrels they created and sold.
I was intrigued, and wanted to see if I could become involved with this group. So we arranged a meeting. On a dark, rainy night I rode my bicycle to the KI building. The adult leaders, Imhotep, Pambana, Paulette and Alvin, and about a dozen young people from the Kheprw Institute were here. I had thought we were going to discuss working on some computer software projects together, which is another area KI works with the youth in.
But Imhotep began asking me a series of questions about myself. I don’t talk a lot about myself, but Imhotep, I’ve come to learn, is very good at drawing stories out of people. I should have anticipated this, but I soon realized I was basically being interviewed so they could determine if I was someone they felt comfortable working with, or not. So I began to talk about living in Indianapolis and my work at Riley Hospital for Children.
When he asked for more, I talked about my environmental concerns. Imhotep said OK, and asked me for more.
When I mentioned that I was a Quaker, Paulette enthusiastically spoke about Quakers and the underground railroad, which was really welcome. But when she stopped speaking, everyone looked at me…
I had thought of this many times over the years. I greatly admired the work of Friends who helped with the underground railroad, as I likewise admired those who worked to help address any injustice or need. These situations should be a challenge to us. Where is the need today, and what am I called to do about it?
There is also a danger here. Sometimes Friends point to this work of other Friends to illustrate the work of Quakers. Noah Baker Merrill also warned us not to claim the work of others as our own.
This was also instilled in me during my upbringing. So I could immediately respond that while I was really glad my ancestors had done that, and it was the right thing to do, I didn’t do it. Which led me to talk more about how Quakers didn’t see religion as something only involving listening to a sermon once a week.
When Imhotep asked me to talk more about that, I said something like, “Quakers believe there is that of God in everyone, and that includes you, and you…” The very first time, I think I hesitated slightly as I was asking myself, “Ok, we Friends always say this, but do you really believe this of a group that is different from you?” And I’m really glad the answer was an immediate and emphatic YES, but it also seemed to reaffirm that by exploring it consciously and publicly. At that point I remember smiling at the thought, and the young person whose eyes I was looking into saw it, too, I think. Each person smiled at me as I said that to them, and I had the impression they were thinking, “of course”. I strongly felt the presence of the Spirit.
This left me at the point where I needed to provide an example from my own life. Since KI is built on concern for the environment, I spoke of how I had reluctantly purchased a used car for $50 when I moved to Indianapolis, mainly for trips home to Iowa. Car rental was not common in the early 1970’s. When my car was totaled several years after that, I decided to see if I could live in the city without a car, and have since then. I was hoping that would show how Quakers try to translate what they believe, what they feel the Spirit is telling them, into how they actually live their lives.
At that point Imhotep, with a smile on his face, said something like “Thirty years? You are a warrior.” I had never been called a warrior before. It seemed a humorous term to use for a pacifist, but I liked it. As I got to know Imhotep better, I think he said that intentionally. Humor is a great tool to help build relationships.
Then everyone looked at me…
Somewhat embarrassed at that point, what popped out of my mouth without much thought was “well…yes, I am really old!”, at which everyone laughed.
That seemed to satisfy the questions for the evening, and they have welcomed me into their community ever since. The best part of the evening was that then several of the kids came up to me to shake my hand.
Looking back on that story, I recognize my unintentional racial bias. Why should I have even stopped to ask myself about the people at KI being different from me?
I was not used to speaking about faith in public outside Quaker circles, and this was a lesson that it when it is appropriate, it is important to do so. I’m glad Imhotep continued to probe me about my life experiences and beliefs.
From the beginning, my experience at the Kheprw Institute has been a shared, spiritual one.
As I mentioned above, I was hoping to demonstrate how Quakers try to translate what they believe, what they feel God is telling them, into how they actually live their lives. I came to know my black and indigenous friends feel and act the same way. There have been very few occasions when the topic of spirituality came up. But their lives demonstrate their deep spirituality and its influence in their daily lives.