Deborah B. Ramsey: Guardians over Dreams

A Friends Journal author chat

Deborah B. Ramsey’s “Dream Protectors” appears in the December 2023 issue of Friends Journal. Deborah B. Ramsey is executive director of Unified Efforts, a nonprofit that serves underprivileged school-age children in West Baltimore’s Penn-North community. She is also an Open Society Institute Fellow, a Greater Baltimore Committee Community Impact winner, and a part of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership speaker’s bureau. She is a member of Stony Run Meeting in Baltimore, Md. Her previous Friends Journal articles include Soul Food Reimagined (2023); Make Freedom Ring (2022); An Awkward Pause (2020). She also appeared in a 2021 QuakerSpeak video, Serving Outside the Quaker Community. This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.

Martin Kelley for Friends Journal: The topic of the December issue of stewardship and we have a lot of what you might sort of expect: people talk about stewarding the earth and climate and such. But yours is really kind of unique, as you talk about stewarding dreams. What is it like to steward a dream?

Deborah B. Ramsey: When I got the topic, what came to mind, and what entered into my spirit, were some of the topics you just mentioned—climate control, population, social justice. As I allowed my Spirit to continue to go down that path, it really bubbled up to say, “What about dreams?” I think my spirit went in that direction because I do so much work with young people.

I have been working with young people practically all my life. As you mentioned, I am the executive director and founder of Unified Efforts, which is an out-of-school time program here in Baltimore that serve children who are living in conditions of no fault of their own and yet they still are in need of attention—not just academically to further them along—with the education, but also with what I call non-tangibles. As adults we often have this script that we always ask a child: What do you want to do when you grow up? What do you want to be? We do that to to start a conversation on their level. Why do we do that? Why would we assume that they are thinking about that? I think it’s a spirit-to-spirit thing; we also recall being a child—for me it wasn’t that long ago—that we liked to dream. I liked to daydream; I would like to see myself in an occupation or environment that spoke to me.

When I started allowing my spirit to be open to that particular vibration it came to me that hey you know we are stewards of our children’s dream. They are sharing something with us willingly and in a loving and non-demanding way. They’re not saying, I want to be a teacher, and it’s your responsibility to end up doing that. They don’t do that. As Quakers, one of our principles is good stewardship. I said, “Wow, a child’s dream. How do we protect that? How do we steward that? How do we enable them? How do we stay in connection with that? How do we honor that insight that they’re open to give to us?

I take it as a as a command—as an assignment. Over the past eight years, we’ve handled over 300 children (some are the same of course). Every one of them have given us a dream. Wow. What are the responsibilities and what are we going to do about that? And not just for the children in close proximity of us. What about other people’s children? Are we just limited to our own tribe, so to speak, our own circle? I think not: that’s what motivates me to think on youth-led programs that we work on. It is connected to a child’s dream.

MK: You talk in your article about non-tangibles. You say they can only be touched heart-to-heart and with love. I love that. Quakers can sometimes get very abstract—there’s this issue and there’s this happening in the world—but this really direct: let’s talk hard to heart with people and connect with them directly in a very physical kind of way that I really appreciate.

DR: It’s very easy for us to speak out of fear. We just had a conversation talking about our children. I have a grandson in college and a granddaughter in grad school. Sometimes when your talking out of care for that person, you’re also speaking in fear. To have a conversation with our young people, who are getting their own land legs and seeing that the world is up to. We feel obligated to guide their each and every step—Where are you? Where do you do? What do you have? Who your friends are? And all, for me, is coming out of a place of fear. When I come out of a place of fear for me, I feel as if I am superimposing my unnecessary concerns on a person that may not even think about it. If you can speak out of love, heart-to-heart, that energy—that vibration—opens up to way openings. When we talk out of love, Not just one solution but many solutions bubble up, whereas when speaking out of fear, only one solution bubbles up—I must know your every move, I must know where you are, I must know how you’re doing, I must know this, I must know that—and it’s very narrow. But when you speak out of love, it’s having confidence in the raising of our children— that we have shown them the best we could. And we’re not perfect, but it’s been intent to show you how you navigate through the world, how you interact with people, how you listen to people, how you cherish people and cherish yourself. We do the best we can.

In the article I mentioned an encounter, an unexpected encounter. I was traveling in Cape Cod in the summerand I was sitting on the bench. This gentleman comes by—I call him an older gentleman, but were about the same age, I’m a baby boomer. I detected that we’re from the same generation, and he asked if he could sit beside me and I said sure. As we talked he wanted to know who I was. I introduced myself: I’m from Baltimore, traveling on a road trip, I went to Canada, came through Maine, and I’m in Cape Cod on the way to Nantucket. He said he’s a resident and that this walk is part of his constitution, a place he comes every morning. It so happened that he was contemplating a conversation he had just had with his wife, who was very, very concerned about their son who just graduated from the police academy in Massachusetts. He was so excited about it and said he’d always said he wanted to be a police officer from age of three. But now his wife is almost in a deep depression because it has come to fruition. She is having serious concerns about. I’m a former Baltimore city police officer and detective and it felt like the universe wanted me to be there to lighten his concern that one, I’m a survivor from a large city and urban environment. And number two is that the son had been saying that to you all since he was age three. He has been prepared you all for this. You should not be surprised.

To be at this point [unsure] whether you’re going to be supportive of him, it goes back to creators of dreams. Why would a three-year-old say to his mom and dad, “I want to be a police officer when I grow up.” Why would he say that? He spoke out of love about how he saw himself in the future. He saw himself as a guardian; he saw himself as a protector. Where did he get that from? Probably from the love he received from his mom and dad. They had to take some responsibility. He may have said, “I don’t want to protect because I don’t know what that looks like.” I know what that looks like to have someone keep me safe and I want to do that because it feels good to feel safe. I would like the people to feel safe. So he’s speaking out of love. So I need to be guardians of his dream—not the parents’ dream. You know, you do have to think about what the child is looking for.

For me this was a very spiritual encounter. It wasn’t happenstance that here I am, hundreds of miles away and yet to be at this spot, at that location.

MK: And it was his bench too, his daily bench he would go to.

DR: Even if I had known him and call him and said I was going to be on this bench on August 11 at 9 o’clock, chances are it wouldn’t have happened. I just felt like the rhythm of the universe and where we ought to be in spaces. People may hear a word or have some type of comfort or to share a life experience with which you can connect. All roads lead back to relationship, to relating. What were the chances of an older white man and an older black woman from two different states finding something in common?. We didn’t go to school together, we’re not related, we don’t have any family ties, we haven’t socialized. But there we were relating: building a relationship, We had something to relate upon.

If we could just find one thing to relate to one another, that starts the conversation, that starts I care about you, and then that starts loving you, then that starts giving and receiving love. I think what the article spoke to me about.

MK: I really love the old Quaker lingo of opportunities. An opportunity is like this kind of worship-connection-love that happened spontaneously when you run into someone and realize there’s so much more that it’s going to happen here. It’s just being open to these sorts of moments where we might find ourselves on a bench next to someone and we’re suddenly deep into connection and ministry. It’s hard to do this in our lives now. We’re always rushing about, but I do try to think that sometimes I need to stop and have conversations with people right here and now.

DR: Yes, yes. And then as we were departing he said to me, “I want to take our conversation back to my wife.” So on another dimension, I was at his home. He literally, on another level, took me to his home. Physically, I was not there, but the spirit, and the vibration, and the rhythm, and the conversation, and how we related to his wife what my words meant to him. Hopefully, they would give her some comfort. So I feel like the non-tangibles: we don’t them enough credit. Oftentimes we invite 50 or 100 people, if there’s not a large crowd, then we’re feel like we’re not getting anything across. But who’s to say that she would not say something about what her husband told her to someone else—or either to her son! Is it the quantity or the quality? It’s easy to start a conversation with someone you’re in a relationship with, but how about a stranger? As Quakers, can we be so curious about one another’s condition that we would take—as you say an opportunity— to just take a look? As Quakers we have so much opportunity to speak to conditions, out of a general concern and love. How can you go wrong with that?

MK: That’s really beautiful. I want to cry here. I think this is what we need to do. We need to be really just open. do it. I always think of the Good Samaritan story too. Someone is hurt and all these people just walking by because they’re too busy. It’s the Samaritan who says, “No, I can’t walk by. I have to be a guardian here of this person who’s a stranger” The injured person was Jewish, the guy with a Samaratan: they’re not supposed to be friends. And yet he knows he has to take care of this wounded person. Sometimes I think we need to stop. It may not be someone wounded and bloody on the side of the road, but instead someone on a park bench looking over bay who’s carrying a weight on their heart. Their family is having something that they need to think about. Maybe you’re just the right person to sit down and help them with that. Y

DR: And also vice versa. Not only did my experience give him another perspective, but also he gave me a gift. He gave me a gift of having someone interested in what I had to say. He gave me the gift of sharing. Even if we hadn’t spoken words, words were spoken. He gave me the gift when he said, “May I sit beside you?” If nothing else was said, for me, having someone who did not know me, ask permission not invade my space, but to share my space. It hadn’t occurred to me, but now I think about it, because of that reaching out, I felt love when he said, “May I sit down beside you?” Because it was a question. He didn’t say, “Hey, get off my bench” or just flopped down and didn’t say anything because he felt ownership of entitled to it. If nothing else was said, that question was a beautiful gift. For us to share the same space at the same time and look at the same thing: because of that, I felt open to me see his vibration and vice versa.

MK: I know, I probably would walked to the next bench, thinking “oh I don’t want to interrupt anyone.” But we need these heart-to-heart connections.

DR: Yeah, because that’s his bench and chances are no one’s sitting on that bench that early in the morning. It was like 8 o’clock in the morning. The name of the beach was Bay Beach, on Cape Cod. It was the only free beach on Cape Cod. I had taken a cruise ship the day before and the captain had said that this beach was free, with free parking, and that you should get their early. I bookmarked that in my brain in my brain and that’s why I chose to go there. So the captain played part for those two spirits to come together on the bench. When I look at all it had to take for all that to happen, it’s just wow, the universe’s magnetic field is real!

MK: Those are great stories and there’s more in the article, it’s online in the December issue and arriving in mailboxes as we speak here for print subscribers. Debbie also has three or four more features that she’s done over the years, along with a QuakerSpeak video too. So there’s many other ways to see Debbie; I’m sure we’ll see more of you in Friends Journal in years to come.

DR: Thank you for giving me those opportunities. As you mentioned, I’m at Stony Run Meeting here in Baltimore and we do such wonderful social justice work, and I’m just happy to be with our Quaker friends. And Martin, I thank you for reaching out and allowing me to have my my voice heard through the Friends Journal.

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