A Piece of a Much Larger Beginning

On a weekend in early February, I attended the Quaker Youth Leadership Conference (QYLC) for the third time. Unlike previous years but in accordance with the times, the conference was hosted virtually by Friends Select School in Philadelphia, Pa. While this format limited the conference in some respects, it also allowed for the inclusion of multiple international Friends schools, including Brummana High School in Lebanon and Ramallah Friends School in Palestine. The conference spanned three days of activities; highlights include discussing plans to buy a communal cow; playing PowerPoint charades (when someone presents a PowerPoint they’ve never seen before and must act as if they’re the world expert in that topic); arguments over whether milk is, in fact, just thick water; and the award-winning journalist Ernest Owens. Light-hearted moments were mixed with grave ones as we reflected together on the past year. The panel, featuring Owens and two other Philadelphia-area activists, discussed the wide-ranging implications of the summer’s protests and calls for racial justice.

QYLC almost felt like a summarizing of the past year’s chaos. Quakerism, remote learning, the pandemic, and racial justice all found their way into one 30-hour conference of 100 curious and enthusiastic students passionate about making the world a better place. It made me think back on all that had happened since the pandemic’s escalation in March, and think ahead to all that might come after.

Remote learning was an odd combination of freedom and loneliness. I was curious at first; it was new and somehow charmingly scintillating. Some teachers, especially my English and math teachers, managed to keep it that way until the end of the year. School was still as it always had been, but it slowly took on a feeling of repetition. Things settled into a rhythm of synchronous and asynchronous classes, usually with more of the latter. Obligations, aside from the play and most in-school clubs, were not canceled but moved online. Not having to travel meant extra free time. It was during those unoccupied hours that I discovered my deep passion for Roman language, literature, history, and culture. In the spring and early summer, I worked on a lengthy essay project about three famous Roman poets; by the end of the summer, I started taking Latin outside of school.

Early in the pandemic my family retreated north to my grandparents’ cabin in the Poconos. I felt lucky that I was distanced from nearby hotspots of the crisis, unlike many of my peers. I kept in touch with a friend in New York City; there the pandemic seemed to be going from bad to worse. I must admit I didn’t think much about my privilege and took my safety for granted. I was in the woods by a lake, taking long walks on old logging trails and running for miles down empty dirt roads—nothing to fear, except the occasional trip to the grocery store. What a privilege that was!

At QYLC we participated in an activity called “Silent Movement” in which every person started with their camera off and would turn it on when they identified with a given label. This exercise revealed the range of ways that privilege manifests itself in different categories. For example, I am privileged because I am White; I am privileged because I am male. That security was given immense context as the summer unfolded.

George Floyd’s murder last May had a major effect in my home city of Wilmington, Delaware. Black Lives Matter signs went up; statues of Caesar Rodney (a slaveholding Continental Congress delegate from Delaware) and Christopher Columbus in the city were taken down; and I participated in two protests. One, at the local art museum, took us on a circular route through town. As we marched, we chanted loudly, “Black lives matter” and other lines with our fists raised in the air. My brother and I were new to this, and it struck me that as a middle-class, straight, White male, I could not even begin to fathom the suffering of all the communities that are wronged daily and have been wronged for centuries.

The administrations of Delaware’s private schools were caught off guard by an Instagram account called @WilmPSSpeak, where students, identifying as members of a discriminated-against community, shared stories of racism, sexism, and other forms of prejudice experienced at school. My school, Wilmington Friends, saw its fair share of accusations, and a teacher eventually resigned. I could see the pain surfacing all around, yet I felt powerless to do anything about it. Later, as the year progressed into an uneasy veneer of normalcy, it almost felt like the progress made during those months, as real or superficial as it might have been, slowly became a time of memorialization rather than a call for continued action. The school hired a diversity, equity, and inclusion counselor, and facilitated discussions about increasing those elements, but the movement lost the fierce intensity of the summertime. This concept of continuing progress toward social justice came up at QYLC, and Owens shared his perspective that the campaign for equality had lost some of its enthusiasm in the face of resistance to change.

The fall brought with it an oxymoron: as the pandemic worsened (again) and wrought death and misery on a scale unimaginable back in March, school began to re-open—first two days a week, then three, then four. We were masked, but social distancing was soon abandoned. The city choir returned in-person—albeit only on every other Sunday. Bits and pieces of regularity returned, while others emphatically did not.

After this long year, I find there is something magical about meeting out-of-doors. Even in the winter, when the breeze is cold and crisp, there is a wonderful feeling about sitting quietly in nature to reflect. I myself prefer the red-and-gold woods of the autumnal Poconos, the lake clear with wind, though of course my privilege gives me access to that. While I had a calm, if somewhat stressed, year, I am acutely aware of the fact that others did not. Hundreds of thousands of Americans were killed by a virus that the government denied, minimized, and mishandled, disproportionately affecting communities of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. Their pain I will never fully understand.

And yet, this past November, something incredible happened. My fellow Americans elected Joe Biden, the antithesis of the previous government-sanctioned hatred and incompetence, to the presidency. We drove 15 minutes into downtown Wilmington that Saturday afternoon—thousands of people were there, a massive American flag was waving, and the collective joy was thrilling. Things are far from over—all the challenges exposed and exacerbated by the pandemic are still unsolved—but there’s now a sense that they’re turning for the better. For the past several months, I had carried a slight uneasiness at heart, wondering whether the country was collapsing under the cumulative pressure of dozens of colossal issues. But at that moment, when I saw the bold, defiant flag waving, I felt the apprehension lift. After years of lies and chaos and darkness, it felt like an epiphany, a reawakening, a light at the end of the tunnel. Participating in QYLC framed that experience for me this winter, through our laughter and gravity, joy and sorrow, and our pensive meetings for worship. It’s not an end, but simply a piece of a much larger beginning.

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