Friends Journal: Sharon, could you take us through what happened at the 2016 Friends General Conference (FGC) Gathering in St. Joseph, Minnesota, and the events that led to your service to Friends as co-clerk of the task force?
Sharon Lane-Getaz: I came to the Gathering with my partner, planning to camp. As we were just putting up our tent, a cop pulled up in a little mini SUV with tinted windows. It just pulled up right next to where we were setting up our tent. The officer didn’t open a window or say a word to us—just sat there and stared at us. We were both rattled; I’m sure that that was the intent.
I didn’t know at the time that this was a foreshadowing of the 2016 Gathering in St. Joseph, Minnesota. I live in Minnesota. I know that St. Joseph is in Trump territory: conservative, very white, and intolerant of people that are not like them. Even just driving through that area is not pleasant.
When the Pre-Gathering Retreat for People of Color and Their Families started, we learned that other attendees were having similar experiences of profiling. The cops were following people when they went for walks; they would pull up and just stare. Five different people shared their stories of what had happened to them over the first day and a half. We also began discussing how Gathering sites are selected. Why aren’t the organizers making sure that sites selected are welcoming to everyone, including Friends of color?
Then there was part two of the experience: how Friends of color were being invited to sit on the facing bench for the opening Gathering plenary. One Friend of color who was invited thought the invitation was arising from his long-standing friendship with the person inviting him. Another Friend of color reported that they had been asked by someone else. Then another Friend of color said they had been told to please bring as many Friends of color as possible to the opening plenary and invite them all to sit up on the stage. All of a sudden, what people had thought were genuine, personal invitations just felt like a tokenizing effort to have as many faces of color on stage at the opening plenary.
No one wants to be anybody’s storefront Negro. And that’s what it felt like: that we were just asked to be there for show to depict an illusion of diversity within FGC. That was extremely disheartening. I heard about a petition group forming to challenge white supremacy within FGC, and so I showed up at the group’s initial meeting and started work on the petition. I then became co-clerk of the group that would figure out how we were going to get the petition that sought an institutional assessment before FGC’s Central Committee, its governing board.
Justin Connor: I too was at the 2016 Gathering and was also a part of the Pre-Gathering Retreat for People of Color and Their Families. That week was a moment of heightened awareness and realization for me, particularly about what had long been going on within FGC and numerous instances of racism and white supremacy showing up over the years and its impact on Friends of color.
You didn’t even mention that the outside world broke into the cocoon of the Gathering when Philando Castile was shot dead 40 seconds after being stopped by a police officer during a traffic stop in a St. Paul suburb 70 miles from the Gathering site, with video coverage of the events for all the world to see what happened.
Sharon Lane-Getaz: It’s easy to look at Philando Castile’s shooting and say, “Oh, look. See? That is what violence against African Americans looks like.” It is not as easy for people to look at tokenizing representation of Friends of color at an FGC plenary session and also name that as a form of violence against African Americans.
Justin Connor: The dynamics experienced by Friends of color, along with the nearby murder of Philando Castile during the Gathering created an environment in which the voices of Friends of color and concerns that had been raised for many years were finally heard by European American Friends. Working on the petition process together with Sharon and other Friends felt like an important way for me to contribute my time in service of my values, at that moment in time.
How did the task force form?
Sharon Lane-Getaz: The work began in October 2016, when FGC’s governing Central Committee said we could have the task force if we could raise the money. That process took a year, after which the 2017 Central Committee meeting agreed to undertake an institutional assessment.
Crossroads Antiracism and Organizing was appointed by FGC to be the consultant to the task force to help guide and assist us with the completion of the assessment, given their decades of experience working especially with faith communities around issues of racism. Forty-three people attended a workshop that Crossroads led for us, and the 12 members of the task force stayed on for an extra day of work to lay the ground for our work together.
What have been some of the greatest challenges, rewards, or surprises in your service?
Justin Connor: One of the surprises for me in the Crossroads workshop was when we took a very close and careful look at Quaker history: what was going on in the broader society at the time and the interplay between Friends and the society. So much of the real history differs from what the typical narrative that most Quakers have historically told about ourselves. There was a realization of how often Quakers have fallen short of our aspirations, values, and truly living out our faith and its teachings.
Crossroads’s extensive experience working with other denominations on their racism helped us to understand some of the similarities between Quakers and other faiths and how similar white Quakers were and are to their broader communities in their racism, as we undertook the assessment of our history and how it impacts where we find ourselves today.
FGC is an association of mostly unprogrammed Friends. It has no formal authority over its membership; its role is to serve and inspire. What do you see coming out of this work?
Sharon Lane-Getaz: I see better communication coming out of this—communication with yearly and monthly meetings. We can build engagement and relationship, if you will, that would allow more people who are out there to feel, “Yes, I am FGC. I am part of this organization. How can I help?”
This work will require thinking about our structure in a different way and about the nominating process in a different way. I hope we get away from “we/they” thinking so that more folks start thinking, “I could probably help out on this committee and help them understand my area of the country and my perspective.”
Justin Connor: One of the most powerful results I saw from the October 2018 meeting of the Central Committee was the minute stating that in every FGC decision-making process, we will now ask how does this decision support FGC in its goal to transform into an actively anti-racist faith community? We will be asking that query on a regular basis, in many different contexts, and in every decision that we are taking.
There are all kinds of interesting answers to that question that come up that we never really thought about before: governance questions and the ways that historical structures or ways of doing things may exclude Friends of color or make FGC less accessible. I think taking seriously this question has the potential to transform how we see and do things within FGC and our affiliated meetings.
Another powerful piece is the potential for sharing of experiences. At its best, FGC can be an amazing kind of clearing-house of support for its monthly meetings, yearly meetings, and isolated Friends to come together and share our experiences of our faith in action.
Have you learned anything about yourselves or had a different sort of view of where you fit and, you know, maybe your own sort of identity as a Friend in this work here?
Sharon Lane-Getaz: I think I’ve learned quite a bit about myself. I never thought of myself as someone who would clerk anything. When people asked me to serve as co-clerk, my face must have looked like a bunny caught in the headlights! But I said, “Well, OK,” because I felt like the people that were surrounding me were very able, experienced people who would sort of prop me up and help me do it. And I have felt incredibly supported by the folks around me on the task force.
I felt like sometimes I am stumbling through and sometimes I am leading and then sometimes I am following. But this has been for me an experience of growth. Sometimes, you just feel like you need to carry the load. And sometimes, you feel like you need to step aside and make way for others.
Justin Connor: I have learned that seeking peace and seeking justice is not the same thing as simply avoiding conflict. I tend to be conflict-averse. And, unfortunately, as a white person, that sometimes has me showing up as a passive bystander and not intervening. I have a difficult time interrupting something that I experience as racism with love, compassion, and care for those involved.
Bystander training and other anti-racism efforts are available to help us white people to more effectively speak up; interrupt/question racism; and call each other in, bringing others along on the journey with us. That’s true in our meetings as well. I hope that, as a result of the assessment, we all feel freer to speak up at the right time and find the right words rooted in our amazing faith tradition, our beliefs, and enable us to truly live our Quaker faith and create the beloved community of which early Friends spoke.