How did you come to be politicized by anti-racism work. It was an activism on your part that was visible within the Meeting.
I grew up in Framingham, MA. My recollection is that there were very few people of color in my school. However, when I checked my yearbook recently there were more than I remembered. As far as I know, Framingham was not segregated per se, although there were Portuguese, Italian, and other ethnic neighborhoods. There was at least one small section of Framingham where African Americans lived.
I was not raised in an overtly racist family. I was raised to treat people as equals. The only time I realized how easy it is not to be racist was when we moved to Philadelphia where there were a lot of people of color-of all sorts. And I realized that I wasn’t challenged at all living in Massachusetts with mostly European-Americans.
Soon after Maureen and I first started attending at New Haven Friends, the community mediation group in the city was organizing an interracial dialogue. The mediation group facilitated it and some of us from our Meeting went to “dialogue” with people from Immanuel Missionary Baptist Church on Church Street in New Haven. I was pretty inexperienced in talking to people of color and it was a bit awkward. At one point I suggested that we have a meeting up at our church or that we have a party. I said to the Baptists something like, “I don’t really know how you people feel about alcohol.” One of the Baptist women confronted me about saying “you people”. I didn’t mean African American, I meant Baptists, but it sensitized me to how the things I say might be heard. “You people” is one of those phrases that are highly charged, especially if you are used to hearing it used to castigate you. Another thing I remember is that one of the women said, “Why are white people afraid of us. We never did anything to them! They’re the ones that enslaved us.” “But, like them, when I walk down the street and I see a bunch of young black men up to no good, I too, cross the street!”
I went to my first New England Yearly Meeting gathering in 2003, held at Stonehill College, and I signed up for a workshop called “What Color is Your God?” led by Jean Marie Barch and Bruce Birchard. There was a small group of us including Hal Weaver, an African American Quaker. We had an interesting discussion for a couple of days, and I began to want to know more about racism. As I left the workshop, I ran into James Varner, another African American Quaker, who was wearing a Recovering Racist button. I said to him, James, why are YOU wearing that? He replied that he grew up in the same racist society that I did and was educated in the same racist system. He gave me a button. I like it because racism is like alcoholism. Alcoholics face their addiction and recovery a day-at-a-time. Thinking about racism like that really spoke to me. I then, got a bunch of the buttons and gave them to others. I use it as a conversation starter.
So, at that same Yearly Meeting, they passed the Minute on Racism. I inadvertently attended one of the first meetings of the Working Party on Racism, which is a working party of NEYM Ministry and Council. I didn’t really know what I was going to; I just picked it as something to do one evening. After that I became a member and started working with them. James Varner had been instrumental in bringing the attention of Yearly Meeting to the issue of racism. James stood up [in a meeting for business at which I wasn’t present] and said that he had been subjected to some discrimination within NEYM. He was invited to talk to Ministry and Council, and the Working Party was formed at that time.
That Fall I took a workshop, Beyond Diversity 101, held on a weekend at the Powell House in New York. Maureen and I decided that we should get more interested in this subject because we didn’t know much about it. Neither of us had grown up where we were exposed to it, so we decided to educate ourselves. Niyonu Spann was the leader. I had already met Niyonu when I took a singing workshop she led at the Friends General Conference Gathering. She’s a wonderful singer, a fantastic musician. I got to know her there and then a little bit better at the Powell House.
The following spring, Niyonu ran a full-week Beyond Diversity 101 (BD101) training at Kirkridge retreat center. Maureen and I, Judith Shea, and Bill Graustein all agreed to go. It was challenging and opened our eyes to some of our own blind spots. This was a mixed group of whites and people of color, which made it even better because you get called on things and you remember those kinds of comments. At the beginning we were each asked what we personally needed to be able to do the work that week. White attendees typically said they wanted to feel comfortable or that they wanted to feel safe. Niyonu assured us we would have a safe environment, but it didn’t mean we would feel comfortable all the time. I was challenged by the workshop. It opened my eyes and changed me. From that experience, we all became enthusiastic about doing anti-racism work.
At the workshop at Powell House, I met a Friend from Wilton, Jerry Leapheart. He is an African American Friend who grew up in Detroit. We got to talking and I found out he was working on reparations. This was after 911. It must have been 2003-2004. It was educational for me. I learned a lot about the issue by reading some of the books that had been written on it. I think it sensitized me to knowing just how uneven the playing field is for people of color in our country. There is this one passage I recall about a young black man who went to Washington DC with his younger brother. They looked at the monuments of dead white men and saw buildings built by slaves. I imagined what it must have felt like and what it said about one’s place in America by not seeing anyone that looked like them. I thought that was a pretty powerful statement. I even went on a local public TV program with Jerry to talk about reparations.
All the while, I continued to be a member of the Working Party on Racism. One of the first things we decided to do was to give framed copies of the Minute on Racism to all the Meetings in the Yearly Meeting. We got them finished in time to distribute them at Sessions the following year. It was eye-opening that some of the Meetings refused to put the framed minute on their meetinghouse walls. I heard comments such as, “We don’t need this,” or “We didn’t agree to this,” even though the minute had been passed at Sessions. So, I learned a lot about the Yearly Meeting and about process. In retrospect, that minute probably should have been seasoned throughout the Monthly Meetings first and then brought back to Yearly Meeting for approval. As it was, people didn’t buy into it as though it was theirs.
Maureen and I were involved in the Working Party for years trying various ways to move forward education on the issue of racism and white privilege. During that time a racially charged incident occurred on Cape Cod. When some Friends from a local meeting felt called to protest the incident it caused serious discord within their meeting. (An account of it can be found in Friends Journal October 2014 ). The Working Party was involved in it for at least a year. We were not very effective, I would say, and Ministry and Council did little to give the Working Party direction. Over time, Maureen and I and a couple of other people got frustrated. We set up a meeting with M&C, aired our concerns, and ultimately decided to step down from the Working Party.
Out of this experience I realized that you can’t change people’s behavior by appealing only to their minds; you have to affect their hearts. In Healing the Heart of Democracy Parker Palmer says, “Heart comes from Latin cor, and points not merely to our emotions but to the core of the self, that center place where all of our ways of knowing converge – intellectual, emotional, sensory, intuitive, imaginative, experiential, relational, and boldly, among others.” I began to think about using art, theater, and poetry to affect the hearts of people. I had met Amanda Kemp, the playwright of Show Me the Franklins, in BD101. In an effort to change some people’s hearts through the arts, I worked with the New Haven Friends Meeting to bring the play, to New Haven. We partnered with First and Summerfield Methodist Church and held the performance at their church on Elm Street. Our organizing group consisted of people from our Meeting, First and Summerfield, and several leaders in the African American community. We would have liked a larger audience but I think it was a success.
Maureen and I became trained facilitators to give workshops generated by the book, Fit For Freedom Not For Friendship, promoting a belief that understanding the truth of Quaker past was vital to achieving a diverse, inclusive community in the future.
I was also was a support person for Abraham’s tent, the overflow homeless shelter for men in New Haven. Again we partnered with First and Summerfield and provided meals and stayed overnight with the cohort of homeless men chosen to be in the program. It was yet another way for us to be exposed to and learn from a more diverse group of individuals
And were you clerk of our Meeting at that time?
I became clerk soon after, around 2005. I was clerk ten years ago when we had the retreat at the Incarnation Center where we tried to discern our Meeting’s leadings about Friends Center. We had that BIG circle, I remember that there we decided Friends Center for Children (FCfC) could start their program in the basement of the meetinghouse. I felt then, and I still do, that FCfC is one of Meeting’s best ways of being engaged in diversity work. It was Friends Center’s intention from the start to have the center be open to everybody across economic and racial barriers. I felt good participating how I could and clerking the unofficial Meeting for Business at the retreat and then the official Meeting for Business in our meetinghouse.
Then, Yearly Meeting nominating committee asked if I would join the Racial, Social, and Economic Justice committee, which writes the Freedom and Justice Crier. It is an official standing committee of the Yearly Meeting with its own budget. I became clerk of that for a while, but after several years, I felt I had done what I could do there and went off it. Other good people came onto the committee and have taken on the repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery, which takes on a different aspect of racism.
How were you led to be involved in this issue. Did you just think this was something you should pay attention to?
Yes, it was really no big deal. It’s like putting your toe in the water and the next thing you know, you are up to your waist, and then you are swimming along. It’s a typical kind of Quaker leading in a way.
What about the fear? When I first went down to the soup kitchen, I must say, I was a little afraid to go. I had to walk through some fear and discomfort. Of course it all turned out fine. And beyond the discomfort kind of fear, there is a fear that it might lead me further to other scary things that I don’t feel equipped to handle.
I think I can relate to that. My friend Carl Puleo and I would go into the downtown evening soup kitchen in the basement of First and Summerfield. Later they shifted over to the parish house on Temple. There were homeless guys of every stripe. And I had conversations with them and I realized they were just people. It wore away my apprehension about being in those circumstances. And then I’d run into some of them on the Green and I’d ask how’re they doing. So, I agree, those kinds of little steps are important.
With our work with Habitat for Humanity of Greater New Haven, where all our builds are in the city, it’s the same thing. We work with families who tend to be people of color, though not all are African American or black. We work side-by-side with them in some pretty rough neighborhoods. We worked in Newhallville on one of the first builds. They don’t build houses there anymore, at least right now, because people don’t want to live there. It’s a really violent part of the city. We know people in Madison and other shoreline towns, who won’t drive into New Haven, so some of the work we have done with Habitat is to have these activities on the Madison Green. We build walls in Madison to be trucked into New Haven-all in an effort to get shoreline people interested in going into New Haven.
I think these barriers are real for white people. I think it is important to label them and identify them as such because I think the recent events of Ferguson and Staten Island are calling to the nation and calling to white people to make a stand, to do something about it, but there’s a lot of baggage and a lot of stuff that gets in the way.
I don’t feel like I’m an authority on this nor do I have any answers, but I think it’s important that we try to become aware of the world that the Other lives in. When something like Ferguson happens, too often, European-Americans say, “He must have been doing something wrong or illegal.” So, how do you make white people more cognizant of what really happens. Henry Lewis Gates, an African American Harvard professor, got arrested for trying to get into his own house in Cambridge. He got arrested because someone thought his house was being broken into and they called the police. He was breaking into his own house because he had locked himself out! You can understand why people who get questioned like that respond with rage, not necessarily physical violence, but they are insulted, outraged by being assumed guilty before being found innocent.
Again, one of the thoughts I had while working on the Working Party and the Racial, Social, and Economic Justice committee was that you can explain things to people logically and you can tell them these stories, but it only affects their head and not their heart. Unless you can do something to affect someone’s heart, nothing is going to change. So, that is how I think about it now-what would it take to get white people to change? This is one of the reasons we had George Lakey come up to do the workshop on Class. I found that workshop really changed my outlook about things and helped me to relate to people differently. So I am trying to find things that can affect people without bludgeoning them with facts or what they should do and why they should do it.
I was most affected personally by an article, The Seed Cracked Open written by Vanessa Julye, a Quaker of color who works for FGC. It is based on the keynote address given to the New York Yearly Meeting in July 2005. In it she shares stories about Quakers and racism, hoping to give the reader a chance to identify the seed, crack it open, and grow beyond racism.
In another article, she wrote about how, as a person of color, she had to teach her son that he couldn’t pursue a white girlfriend that wasn’t that interested in him the way he would like to or the way white boys could because he was going to get in trouble. She also had to teach him to keep his hands on the wheel when he got stopped by the cops because he was going to get stopped by the cops at some point for DWB-“driving while Black”, especially if he was in a nice car in a nice neighborhood. It will be assumed he doesn’t belong there. I really felt moved and felt, “What if that was my son and I had to raise a child in an environment that was so hostile and where they got confronted for no reason at all. Trayvon Martin comes to mind as a young black man killed for having a hoodie on. I changed my photograph on Facebook for a while to one with me in a hoodie in solidarity with Martin. I try to think of ways to get white people to be aware of these things. I try to notice things that maybe we European Americans don’t realize. If you are in a store and a person of color is not getting waited on, step in and say, “That person was here first.” Simple stuff. Quakers could get involved by being witnesses, to attend something like a trial, to be in the audience and just be a presence while letting it be known that we are there watching.
I recently saw some surprising survey statistics about how white people felt about both policemen not being indicted for the Ferguson and Staten Island shootings. 70% felt it was the correct decision in Ferguson, but only 23% thought it was correct in the Staten Island case. The difference appears to be the video that captures the details of the arrest and chokehold placed on Eric Garner, but the researchers also suggest that, even so, the majority of whites believe the justice system still works and that it is mostly fair while only a small proportion of blacks would agree with this. The reaction of African Americans to the OJ Simpson decision was a strong illustration of this point.
I remember where I was when that decision was announced. I got the feeling that many African Americans were happy that OJ got off, not because he was innocent, but because he (and they vicariously) had finally gotten the system.
And whites were outraged!
You can tell people until you are blue in the face that the US incarcerates more people than any country in the world even though we don’t have the biggest population. And of those incarcerated, it’s disproportionally people of color. That should say something about the justice system, but that is something that doesn’t get to people’s hearts. Imagine raising a family where sons don’t have expectations to live beyond 29 and where it’s very likely that they will end up in prison for something small. No, I don’t think the justice system works. It’s a system of laws, but not of justice.
There has been an interesting intersection in my life with my ancestors coming from Portugal. I told my friend Jerry, the man pursuing reparations, that my relatives didn’t own slaves, they came from Portugal. Jerry laughed and said, “Oh, really?” And he didn’t try to educate me, but subsequently I learned more about the discovery of Brazil in 1500 and then how quickly because of sugar, the transatlantic slave trade started in Brazil. They started first by enslaving the indigenous people, but that didn’t work out very well. So, the “colonists” brought enslaved Africans into Brazil and South America. There were more slaves there than were brought into North America. By studying Brazilian history this year in a class at Southern, I finally became aware that slavery was about sugar, not about cotton. Sugar was gold. Britain, Portugal, and Spain’s economies were totally enmeshed in the sugar industry and that involved slavery. So, my ancestors did come from Portugal. I don’t think they owned slaves. I can only go as far back as my great-great grandparents who lived in the north and were poor. Excuses that I tell myself that they weren’t involved (laughing).
This path of becoming more and more aware of things begins to build upon itself. More connections are made and affects how we live our lives. Young African American men live in a different world than you or I do and most white people are unaware of it. How can we can be there as witnesses or stand side-by-side.
So I have one last question and to put it bluntly, what’s in it for white people? It looks to me like this is about giving up privilege, which is uncomfortable and not easy to do. What are the gains for us as a culture or as a group? In one of the workshops I took, we talked about how any monoculture is narrowed by the sameness of the constituents. White culture has limited definitions about what is acceptable in a neighborhood, what your house looks like, how your lawn is clipped, are your Christmas decorations tasteful?, do you have a clean-looking car? what do you and your family look like? are your kids in college? what do you wear? Opening White culture up is one of the benefits of this work. To have people of color as friends/Friends, you have to open your culture up, that invisible (to us) “whites only” look and feel.
I would agree with that. And the benefits could actually be backed up by statistics, not necessarily about race, but about economic diversity. Societies where there is less of a gap between rich and poor can be shown to be healthier on a number of parameters for ALL the people, not just the one percent, not just the people down below. Life expectancy is greater in those countries. Those with the mentality to say, “Well, I got mine” might be better off if they didn’t have theirs so much, I don’t know how you convince people of that. Certainly showing them graphs won’t do it.
Thinking about benefits for whites: The fear of another group of people doesn’t do one any good. It closes off avenues and physically takes a toll. Think of the art we get exposed to. Think of the spoken word poetry slams that many people of color participate in. They open you up to ideas you wouldn’t have had otherwise and they are certainly creative. In the Bible, Corinthians 12:14-26 it says, “if one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part is honored with it.”
John McWhorter, a linguistics professor at Columbia, and an African American, spoke at Southern about language. Any language can be thought of as a legitimate language. There isn’t a bad language. You can’t say Standard English is good but Black English is bad. Black English is not defective in some way but white people won’t buy that. When Black English is described it is often done by saying what it doesn’t have, Like it doesn’t use as many tenses as Standard English does or it drops the plurals. So it makes it look defective. Whereas, in fact, it has its own grammar. There are things that people who speak Black English would never say. It doesn’t make sense to them. There are things in Black English that aren’t in Standard English. McWhorter’s message was that Black English needs to be portrayed as having expressions our Standard English lacks. This is similar to Spanish having things that we don’t have. There’s something to be appreciated there. Our Standard English that we speak now would look as incorrect to people in Chaucer’s time as we think Black English is now. Languages evolve. This is one way of addressing “What’s in it for us”.
This is hard work and it is a long haul. Sometimes I think of where I want to live next because I get so discouraged. Though, I saw a cartoon that made me think twice. It showed a cliff and there is a plank with a large group of people standing on one end. Out on the other end of the plank, over the edge of a cliff is standing a “one-percenter” a.k.a. rich white guy. If the people in the group step off, he goes over. They don’t know how much power they have. It is true; there are so many more of us than them. When the Supreme Court picked George Bush to be president, I couldn’t believe it. In any other country and there would have been a revolution. We are so complacent.
I don’t know what the next thing is going to be. I want to feel effective. Though, you can’t have that mindset. To be engaged is what’s important. It’s the path not the destination. But it’s hard, at least for me, to have that mindset. I want to see some change to be able to stay involved. I’m going to read Parker Palmer’s book Healing the Heart of Democracy; the Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit to see if I can become clear on what is next.
Note: Dwight sent this link to a blog by Quaker, Marcelle Martin responding to the recent deaths of black men at Ferguson, MO and Staten Island. I include it as further reading: