New England Yearly Meeting’s Experiment with Paying Attention
In August 2018, participants of the annual sessions of New England Yearly Meeting (NEYM) were asked to approve a new rising clerk, a person who shadows the current clerk during their final year before becoming the new clerk. Our new nominee was the second White man in a row; existing records indicate that all of our previous yearly meeting’s clerks have been White, and until 1968, we only approved men for this position.
Minutes we had approved in recent years committed us to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery, challenge White supremacy, and support social justice. Our developing awareness of racism, sexism, and other systems of oppression made us pause our deliberations. The discussion on the floor of business meeting was not about our proposed incoming clerk’s gifts or capacity to serve as clerk. Rather, it was a recognition that our clerk position, as currently constructed, required a commitment of 20 to 30 hours a week, the finances to live and travel without full‐time employment, and availability on weeknights and weekends.
We questioned the impact of putting another White man in a position of power: what are we saying about leadership and authority? How do and don’t Friends see themselves being represented? We have long neglected to develop leadership among a diversity of Friends in New England, and our volunteer leadership positions are inaccessible to many. We understood how the weight of our past choices had created our current reality yet we didn’t know what to do about it.
Out of this conversation, and the many feelings it engendered, we tasked ourselves with two working groups. One would look at the structural barriers to serving in leadership in the yearly meeting. The other was charged with noticing patterns; specifically this group was asked to ”develop a practice to appoint people who will observe, name, and reflect back to us long‐standing, unseen patterns and practices that result in our complicity in oppression.”
When the working group for noticing patterns gathered a few months later, there were several things we noticed right away:
- We, the working group, were all White, all middle aged, all Queer, and had all been socialized as female. We did not represent the diversity of NEYM.
- Our charge failed to acknowledge that many Friends, mostly of color and/or Queer, had long been naming patterns of oppression and had mostly been ignored. It was not until a critical mass of White Friends wanted to address our dynamics of oppression that there was formal attention given to the issue.
- Our charge focused only on naming what was oppressive, not on lifting up what was justice‐oriented and faithful to God’s vision for the wholeness of how we can be together.
- Our charge focused on identifying a few elders, not on building our collective capacity to do and hold this work set before us.
We had experienced these patterns many times within NEYM and the wider Quaker community. They affect who gets named to do work and when something is deemed important or worthy of a formal working group. They appear when we focus on what is broken or wrong instead of engaging with the complicated messiness of the whole. They show up when we ask a few among us to do the work of all of us.
Our first step was to name ourselves the Noticing Patterns of Oppression and Faithfulness Working Group. We were clear that if we were seeking greater wholeness and healing from oppression, we had to focus on ways that we were being faithful—and not just oppressive—in our interactions with each other.
We spent the winter and early spring developing a day‐long workshop to train Friends to notice patterns of oppression and faithfulness among us. We wanted Friends to learn to name them clearly, explore how to interrupt oppressive patterns in the moment, and to lift up ways in which we were being faithful to God’s invitation to live the beloved community. We drafted a process to help us all notice and name patterns of oppression and faithfulness as we were enacting them. More than 75 Friends attended our workshops; through our time together, we identified several Friends who could serve as elders for noticing patterns of oppression and faithfulness.
We worked to increase the diversity of our working group, and while we did expand the range of genders and racial identities of the group, we never got close to reflecting the full breadth of Friends in NEYM.
Throughout this process, many Friends across the yearly meeting expressed deep fear about being called out, being told they were wrong, or feeling shamed. Friends also expressed deep hope that we might lift up harm in ways that would allow healing, growth, and learning. We hoped that more of us would begin to hold the pain of the ways we dehumanize and hurt each other—pain that had previously been held by just a few. We sought the fine balance of a truth‐telling that does not seek to shame but also doesn’t coddle those used to the comforts of privilege. Both within our wider U.S. culture and among Friends, we have few models of what it looks like to point out wrongdoing or harm in a way that is inclusive, truthful, and strengthens community.
Our working group based our practice on the belief that no matter how we have been socialized, our bodies know because there is that of God in each of us.
The practice our working group developed is simple. We based it on the belief that a core part of each of us knows when something is not right or when harm is being done. That core part also recognizes deep faithfulness and justice. Many of us who are privileged by a form of oppression have been socialized not to see it. We don’t think to name it, much less want to talk about it. Those of us targeted by a form of oppression often recognize it immediately but have learned to calculate the risks and costs of naming it. We feel the pain that it causes us and others.
Our working group based our practice on the belief that no matter how we have been socialized, our bodies know because there is that of God in each of us: oppression seeks to deny this fundamental Truth of our Quaker faith.
At any point during a committee meeting or gathering of Friends, we can take a moment to pause, breathe deeply, and consciously reconnect with our bodies and Spirit. From this place of awareness, we invited Friends to choose and use one of these simple sentence prompts:
- I feel …
- I see …
- I hear …
- I know …
- I wonder …
This simple practice centers our experience in the moment and allows everyone to have their own—potentially very different—experience. It can lift up uneasiness or the sense that something is off without requiring that the participant has it all figured out in a fully packaged way that can be explained. It moves us from “What you said was wrong” to “When you said that, I felt myself get small and draw in.” We can get into debates on whether something is right or wrong or dismiss another’s assessment, but we can’t argue that someone’s feelings aren’t what they are feeling. This practice allows us to focus on the impact of what is happening and leaves space for multiple impacts. It also allows us to share how we are experiencing God moving among us. In NEYM it is not uncommon to hear that a meeting was “grounded” or “held” or that a Friend had a “powerful time of worship,” but rarely do we talk about how we experience that grounding, holding, or power.
When we first tried out this practice with a group of Friends, it allowed us to publicly name dynamics that affected our ability to faithfully work together. At a gathering of Friends working on racial justice, a Black Friend spoke about the need to address racism. A White Friend then said, “I hear you keep saying this, but you are not telling us what to do to fix it.” A second White Friend then addressed the first White Friend, “When you said that, my stomach got really tight and I got really anxious. I hear you saying that it is Black Friends’ job to tell us White Friends what to do. I don’t want us to repeat that pattern of expecting people of color to do the work for us; it’s our job.” These three sentences of naming what had just happened allowed everyone in the room to understand and address this deeper dynamic that is common among Friends. The invitation to share created a space for Friends to speak up with honesty and clarity.
Another time, after a Friend had spoken passionately and with some volume about racism, everyone was asked to use one of the prompts as a way to engage with what had been shared. A Friend who had been listening said, “I can’t feel anything right now except the need to hide. Yelling means I am not safe; I couldn’t hear what that Friend said at all.” A childhood trauma meant this Friend was no longer having the same experience as others in the room. Instead of staying silent or checking out, this Friend’s sharing allowed the rest of us to care for them while also moving forward with our work. We didn’t get derailed from our conversation while still caring for someone who had been triggered. We could understand this Friend’s actions not as a denial of racism or a withdrawal from our work, but as a form of self‐care.
Explicitly talking about patterns and power not only highlight what was said or done in this moment, but also acknowledge the cumulative impact of repeated abuses of power or patterns of negation over time.
Sometimes, just naming what is going on within us or how we are experiencing something is not enough; we need more tools to unpack the dynamics. We developed a second set of prompts to help us do this work:
- A pattern I recognize …
- I see us using power to …
- In this moment, I hear God inviting us …
- The deeper call I hear …
- I am confused because …
The first two—patterns we recognize and how we are using power—help us identify when something we are doing replicates a pattern of oppression or ways in which we are using power over_ _another. “Power over” is present in all systems of oppression. It is European Americans prioritizing our comfort over the comfort and safety of African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinx Americans, Indigenous Peoples, and multi‐racial people. It is men using their social power over women and genderqueer people to maintain their comfort and control. It is cisgender people using our dominance to erase the realities of transgender, genderqueer, agender, and non‐binary people. Power over, while counter to our Quaker faith, is very present among our day‐to‐day Quaker practices.
These sentence prompts also give us the chance to name when we are breaking an oppressive pattern or using our “power with.” They help us name the ways we use power to recognize that of God in each of us and let us work together to end the systems that deny other’s humanity and divinity. Explicitly talking about patterns and power not only highlight what was said or done in this moment, but also acknowledge the cumulative impact of repeated abuses of power or patterns of negation over time. Most of these microaggressions get their power not from one simple act, but from hundreds of years of violence and oppression. When we can name these dynamics for what they are, we collectively gain the ability to interrupt and shift them.
In a business meeting at a local monthly meeting about the coming year’s budget, there was some debate about the hourly stipend for the child care provider. Some Friends were sharing local wage levels for comparable work while others were talking about how to calculate the cost of living in the area. A Friend reframed the discernment by saying, “I think God’s invitation to us right now is to examine what kind of employer we want to be and how we show we value those who care for our youngest Friends.” The discernment then fell into how to be a good employer and turned from numbers on a page to sensitivity of valuing labor.
The final prompt—“I am confused because”—makes space for us to say when we don’t understand. White supremacy, patriarchy, classism, and other forms of oppression expect that one be polished and knowledgeable when speaking. Sadly, these expectations exist among Friends: we are supposed to have it all together, use the right words, and command respect when we speak. At a recent workshop about gender inclusivity at a monthly meeting, one Friend said, “I am so confused about this, and I don’t want to hurt anyone by using words that are offensive, but I know so little. So I just stay quiet, which isn’t welcoming or inclusive either.” This admission in a public space led to four other Friends sharing similar experiences, and the meeting was able to create opportunities for Friends to learn together.
At New England Yearly Meeting sessions this past August, three elders joined our clerks on the stage for our business sessions. They were tasked with noticing patterns of oppression and faithfulness. All Friends were invited to use the prompts we developed, and there were times set aside every day for Friends to gather in small groups to share what they were noticing. We also had a box where Friends could share noticings in writing, and our working group offered three workshop spaces to practice, discuss, and work with this experience of noticing.
While we strove to create a culture of calling each other into engagement and greater wholeness, at times Friends experienced our new practices as calling people out. A body of more than 400 people taking on a new practice is complicated and messy work, and we are still unpacking everything we learned from this summer. We are writing this article as a way of sharing where we are in our journey, hoping to connect with other Friends in their journeys to uproot oppression and deepen faithfulness among our Religious Society and our wider communities.
On the second to last day of our sessions, the elders were invited to share what they had noticed and what Friends had shared with us.
We have been asked to report to the body on what patterns we have noticed at Yearly Meeting sessions over the past several days. We recognize that the number of examples we have noticed is far too large to share in our brief report this afternoon, so we will talk about some overarching themes of patterns we noticed and offer examples to illustrate each one. We also intend to produce a written report that more fully captures the noticing work we did this week. Each “we” on this list carries the love of many Friends who registered gratitude or some reopened trauma and shared these with us. This work stretched and tested us, and we will speak hard truths to you, honoring our charge to notice patterns of oppression and faithfulness, and holding New England Yearly Meeting in unconditional love.
We have co‐created a rocky time here. We are grasping in all manner of directions and hanging on for dear life.
We will start our report with examples of patterns of faithfulness that we noticed in our time together. Here is some of what we noticed:
- We hear friends joining the experiment and using the suggested prompts to notice patterns of oppression and faithfulness.
- We see moments of learning happen in business meeting and we moved with grace to new patterns when a harmful pattern was named.
- We feel the faithfulness of our opening celebration which led us into deep worship.
- We heard faithfulness in admitting errors and the loving forgiveness freely given.
- We felt joy at the witness of our plenary speaker and the challenge to un‐conform and resist Empire.
- We heard from Friends with ministry in Kenya who prepared for their work faithfully by building relationships and learning about Kenyan Friend’s culture before traveling there.
- We see faithfulness in the Nominating Committee’s decision to allow time for discernment of gifts rather than fill slots.
- We hear the faithfulness of the Clerking Structures and Practices working group completing the challenging work they were given to do.
In looking at patterns of oppression that were noticed, we will present examples in 5 categories: Undermining and Erasure of Experience, Cultural Misappropriation, Avoiding Discomfort/Enabling Stagnation, Humor that Hurts, and The Tyranny of Time.
Undermining and Erasure of Experience is when our words or actions make a Friend question if they truly belong here or ignore a part of someone’s identity that is important to their life.
Cultural Misappropriation means taking or using things from another culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect cultural context.
Humor that Hurts: keeping in mind that nearly all humor is culture‐specific, humor used by the dominant culture can be hurtful, insulting, dismissive, and evade real engagement.
The Tyranny of Time manifests in perfectionism, values staying on schedule more than spirit moving among us, and blocks deep discernment. It also appears in the misuse of time by speaking in ways that take up more time than necessary and therefore prevents other Friends from sharing ministry.
[Each of these categories were then followed with specific examples from our time together. The full report can be found here (PDF).]
We know that this experiment makes some Friends among us uncomfortable and felt polarizing among the body. We know that our process was imperfect. And we know that, to the best of our ability, we were faithful to our charge. We are grateful to all of you for engaging in this experiment. Any of these patterns that hurt particularly to hear or you noticed yourself feel numb when thinking about, you are not alone. Please reach out to any of us on the working group; we want to hear you and learn from each other. We love you.
Some questions for reflection:
1) Many Friends noticed a pattern of White men dominating speaking from the floor. How can we work to overcome our society’s mainstream socialization which does not teach men to consider if their words will contribute something vital before speaking and allow other voices to come through?
2) What impact does the increased use of Christ‐centered language, including references to the cross and crucifixion, have on our Jewish and non‐Christ‐centered Friends? How are we honoring our theological diversity in this Yearly Meeting?
3) What other ways of operating can we begin to cultivate that leave time and space for Spirit to work in us at Sessions and avoid the Tyranny of Time?
We offer this prayer in closing, please repeat after me: We love ourselves unconditionally. We forgive unconditionally. We feel ourselves loving ourselves unconditionally. We feel ourselves forgiving ourselves unconditionally. We thank you. We thank you. We thank you.”
Upon hearing this report, one Friend said, “Oh, I get it now. We are all hearing what only some of us have been experiencing and understanding! This is so hard and so good.” Another Friend shared that they felt harshly policed and judged by the practice. There were many reactions running along this spectrum. Sharing the elders’ report in full feels hard and vulnerable, as it is making public the messiness and woundedness of our yearly meeting.
Many Friends disagreed with some of the noticings or the questions raised at the end. After the experience, one of the elders wrote:
If we in New England Yearly Meeting continue to prioritize our own comfort over truth and refuse to acknowledge the pain we are causing, we will never be able to address the issues we say we are trying to address.
So this is where we are now. Our working group is continuing forward. We welcome the chance to be in relationship with other Friends doing this work of healing from oppression and stepping more fully into God’s invitation to create the beloved community.