In December 1999, 14-year-old Greg Woods attended the “High School Quake,” a gathering of Illinois Yearly Meeting youth. Along with many other isolated Midwest young Friends, Greg valued these young Friends’ gatherings. He says they helped him grow spiritually while giving him an opportunity to strengthen some of his most important friendships. “My best memories of those years are from yearly meeting; in tough times I longed to be there,” Greg said. Spending time with Quaker peers is a rare and exciting experience, and the opportunity to let down some of the defenses he carried was a welcome retreat.
Raised a Quaker in Columbia (Mo.) Meeting, Greg is outgoing, funny, and very intelligent. But his childhood and adolescence were not always happy. He was born with a neurological disorder that resulted in his having significantly impaired speech. In addition to the everyday challenges of growing up, Greg has therefore had to overcome the assumptions of others about his intelligence and abilities. In his everyday life Greg frequently felt isolated, but his Quaker peers were willing to see past his disability and discover the real Greg.
At the High School Quake Greg saw flyers announcing an upcoming American Friends Service Committee workcamp, building homes with members of the Pine Ridge Reservation community in South Dakota. The idea caught his attention. By the next summer, Greg was asking around his yearly meeting to see if he could find a ride out to Pine Ridge. He secured one and decided to attend. His parents supported his plan and paid the registration fees.
So in July of 2000, Greg traveled to Pine Ridge with Friends from his yearly meeting, Candy Boyd and her children, Maya and Michael Suffern. Greg says that the next ten days were an eye-opening experience for him. After spending time repairing houses and being in fellowship with Native Americans there, they concluded that this population—one of the poorest in our country—needed more help. Greg said, “I grew up in a small town that had really low unemployment and a pretty good standard of living, especially in my neighborhood. I had never experienced extreme poverty before, so it shocked me that it existed in the United States and that the outside world does not pay much attention to it.”
But what really caught his attention was that the people living on the reservation seemed happy. “At first I could not understand why, because I thought people would be depressed if they were living in poverty. But it is a culture that is different from what I am used to. Since going to the reservation, my want for material goods has decreased significantly.”
When I asked Greg what the people of Pine Ridge needed most, his answer was simple: money. “They are capable of building houses, but they don’t have enough income to buy the required materials. I remember thinking that if all the monthly meetings in the United States donated $10 or $100, that could make at least a small impact on the poverty and the housing situation on Pine Ridge.” Candy, Maya, and Greg realized that they could bring attention to the people of Pine Ridge simply by talking about their plight and convincing more people to participate in the AFSC workcamp to see things for themselves. They decided to call their efforts Project Lakota, and they continued the next year to build the organization.
Project Lakota was formally founded by the three of them in the fall of 2000 to raise funds for building materials and provide scholarship for people to attend the AFSC workcamp each summer. Greg spent that next year traveling around the country, talking about his experience, and asking Friends to donate to the organization. He continues to speak publicly, giving presentations to monthly, quarterly, and yearly meetings, university classes, and high school Quakerism classes.
Greg returned to Pine Ridge each year from 2001 to 2005. He says each workcamp is different because each group is composed of different people at different stages of life. “That’s what makes each workcamp special,” he said. In addition to his continued commitment to Pine Ridge, Greg has participated in workcamps in the Sierra Madres of Mexico, and with the Comaac living in Desembuque on the Sea of Cortez in Mexico.
Today Greg is a fourth-year student at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, and is still actively promoting Project Lakota. He says he chose Earlham because of the opportunity to be around other Quakers his age, something that was absent from his life in Missouri. “I decided the best place to study peace would be at a Quaker college, and now, as my focus of peace becomes more global in scope, I am trying to incorporate what I learn from the reservation into my schoolwork and vice versa.” After September 11, 2001, Greg witnessed some people, including some Friends, calling for revenge, and in response felt called to devote his life to peace. Today he is pursuing a degree in Peace and Global Studies, and he has studied in Mexico and Spain. Last spring the Peace and Global Studies Department awarded him the PAGS Faculty Award because of his activism outside the classroom, including Project Lakota.
In addition to publishing articles in Friends Bulletin, FGC Connections, and Northwest Seasons (a children’s newspaper in the Northwest U.S.) about the work of Project Lakota generally, Greg has written about the similarities between the Lakota religion and Quakerism. In an article in the Fall 2002 AFSC Now newsletter, Greg wrote: “Over the last three summers on the Pine Ridge Reservation, I have noticed several similarities between Quakerism and the Lakota religion. I think it is because of these similarities that the two groups have gotten along over so many decades. Both groups believe God can speak to them. Quakers believe that God speaks to us during meeting for worship, and sometimes God leads us to give messages in meeting. The Lakota people believe that God, whom they call Tunkashila, comes to them during ceremonies and helps people.… Quakers talk about the Light of God in everyone, and the Lakota people talk about not judging others until you’ve walked a mile in their moccasins.”
When I asked if Project Lakota is a solution to the poverty of Pine Ridge Reservation, Greg responded cautiously: “I wouldn’t say we founded it as a solution, but rather to help work towards a solution. Just one small organization can’t be the whole solution. While I feel happy with the success so far, I feel a lot more should be done.”
In the spring of 2004 Greg received a grant from the Clarence and Lily Pickett Endowment for Quaker Leadership, which made possible the purchase of a video camera and website software to help expand the reach of Project Lakota. It also made possible the publication of an informative brochure about the project.
While Greg has spearheaded the organization, Candy Boyd has continued to be an invaluable mentor and an equal partner in the initiative. Greg says: “If she weren’t involved, it would just be another idea that never materialized.”
The impact of Project Lakota has been felt throughout the Pine Ridge community. To date, the organization has raised over $100,000 and has helped over three dozen families on Pine Ridge. In the summer of 2003, after two years of fundraising, Project Lakota funded the purchase and building of a log cabin kit for the family of Gerald One Feather, a longtime AFSC staff member and highly respected member of the Lakota community. The new cabin was built by Gerald’s tiospaye (extended family) and an organization called Self-Help Enterprises, on a site just across the valley from where the 1975 shootout between the FBI and members of American Indian Movement (AIM) took place. This painful event in our history is a symbol for many people of the troubled relationship between the cultures. Gerald and his family chose this site for their home as a symbol of better days to come. For everyone involved, it seems the two cultures have come a long way in healing old wounds.
Greg’s story is exciting for me because of its potential to be repeated in each of our meetinghouses across the country: A young Friend is exposed to opportunities to serve in organizations like AFSC, sees injustice, is inspired to try to overcome it, is empowered to do something, and is supported and nurtured by a loving adult and by his or her meeting to foster a new project.
Though Greg is clear that the work of Project Lakota is only a small effort to alleviate the poverty of Pine Ridge, he knows it is an important piece. He hopes he can continue to raise money and awareness and can encourage more people to participate in the work being done each summer. Now at the “ripe old age” of 22, Greg is unsure exactly what he will use his Peace and Global Studies degree for, but he knows that Project Lakota and Quakerism are important parts of his future. For him, this is walking the walk.