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Powerful Quakers

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The Young Friends of Baltimore Yearly Meeting (BYM) open each of our business meetings by reading a short excerpt from our handbook: “when Young Friends gather, we strive to foster a community built on caring, trust, and love.” Far from empty sentiments, these words are the bedrock upon which Young Friends have built a second home. Every few months, Friends from all over the yearly meeting area attend a weekend-long conference in a meetinghouse. There, we hold all sorts of activities, from coffee houses to massive games of capture the flag. It isn’t all fun and games though. Because we are completely self-governed, we have our own business meetings and committees. However distant we may seem from the adults of BYM, we are still a community built on the same Quaker values that are upheld from big meeting to First-day school.

As a group, Quakers have opposed inequalities that are born out of rank and traditional power systems. Young Friends aims to follow these same ideas, yet stratification appears here, too.

While both Quakers and non-Quakers attend Young Friends conferences, the core Quaker values (colloquially known as SPICES: simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equality, and stewardship) are the glue that manages to unite all attendees. The Quaker way of doing things—Quaker process—is empowering for many who wish to have their voices heard.

Rosie Silvers, who was raised Jewish but found Young Friends through the camping program, attests: “Anyone can reap the benefits of the community.” They think that business meetings, despite their tediousness, are ultimately beneficial to the community. As a vocal person both in and outside of the community, Rosie has enjoyed the space Young Friends provides for respecting the thoughts and opinions of teens. In the world, teens are often patronized, even as many adults are who are faced with systemic injustice; it is hard to make their voices heard in the workplace or legal system. “But with the Young Friends, everybody gets a say in everything. And the Nuts and Bolts Committee (NBC) exists to fix the little problems.”

The Nuts and Bolts Committee functions as the youth-comprised executive community for Young Friends. Appointed by the graduating seniors of the previous year, it is the committee of clerks, recording clerks, Youth Programs Committee representatives, and various other figures who serve to steer and aid the community. To describe what the Nuts and Bolts Committee does, Rosie likens Young Friends to a machine and explains that the committee represents the working parts of the machine, keeping everything moving and making sure it works the way it’s supposed to. As a member of the committee, Rosie knows the responsibilities that come with the position. While Rosie’s understanding of Nuts and Bolts is that it is a nurturing group of caretakers, not all in the community agree. Some feel that Nuts and Bolts members dominate the business meetings that are intended to be a platform for a diverse range of voices, and that the committee can be cliquey and exclusive.

Not least among the voices responding to these flaws is Thomas Finegar, a co-clerk of Young Friends. Thomas often feels the pressure of the work and sees a divide occurring within Young Friends. Though Thomas believes that “power isn’t inherently good or bad,” many Quakers dislike power structures. “For whatever reason,” he continues, “human societies gravitate towards creating power structures. Maybe because people want things to get done.” Thomas brought up how the lack of power structures in many Quaker communities seems directly proportional to the lack of work that is accomplished. Among Young Friends, Thomas explains that he “just ends up being the person that people come to for help when the dishes aren’t getting done, and the figure who everyone expects to take a proactive role in, well, everything.” For those who want to do more in the community, Thomas offers a simple solution: be vocal. “If you ask for it, maybe it’ll happen.” But others point out that many of the more vocal people just happen to be on the Nuts and Bolts Committee.

“Some people say,” remarks Anna Goodman, another member of the Nuts and Bolts Committee, “that if you have a vocal person in the community, that the best way to shut them up is by putting them on NBC.” Anna explained that the community is held together by a scaffolding of Quaker ideas, and that the Nuts and Bolts members maintain that scaffolding and set the tone with intentionality and sensitivity. Anna has noticed the same type of social stratification that prevents the community from functioning as it should. “Nuts and Bolts just become the faces and voices of the system, and psychologically, that creates a power structure,” she says. “If people want to do something, they need to step up.”

As a group, Quakers have opposed inequalities that are born out of rank and traditional power systems. Young Friends aims to follow these same ideas, yet stratification appears here, too. However unconsciously, the Nuts and Bolts Committee has shifted into a controlling position, because an organization founded on the idea of running itself often has a problem focusing on a single cause. If Quakers aim to find connection with the Divine through peace, unity, and community, it would stand to reason that losing sight of these values would be the source of spiritual discord within the community. Furthermore, if it is by breaking the community that the seeds of discord are first sown, then the natural solution would be to address the transgressed value that led to the community’s disharmony. Anna, Thomas, and Rosie have all concluded that the way to solve the issue facing their community is for those in the community to choose to help.

The three young Friends unanimously agreed it’s not just the people but also the values of Young Friends that help it be such a loving, tight-knit space. Despite different perspectives, a similar agreement was found for solving the power problem. Those within the Young Friends community need to step up and get more done. If those who were dissatisfied with a Nuts and Bolts position were to speak up, there wouldn’t be a problem. As long as people remain silent about what distresses them, the problem will continue. It is through faith that Quakers speak out of silence, and it must be through that same principle that young Friends speak out within their community. As a clerk, Thomas admits that he has a job to do as a “tone-setter,” but ultimately, the solution isn’t one that can come from a clerk.

In a group of people that is often slow to act, there exists a need to do. There is no obstacle.

 

To many adults, the issues facing a group of high school students may seem far off and irrelevant—just drama of the teen world—but the same problems exist throughout the Quaker community. Thomas, a lifelong Quaker, and Anna, a convinced Friend, have both noticed the same patterns of stratification in Young Friends also occur among the adult Friends. Even though the adult Friends get the dishes done more consistently and fall asleep less often during business meeting, there still seems to be a disconnect between those who do things for the meeting and everyone else. Clerks in the adult meeting are still beset with large amounts of work, a problem many clerks feel they can’t bring attention to for fear of disrupting the meeting.

Many Quaker meetings have certain people do certain jobs for a long time. Unlike the members of Young Friends, the adult Friends don’t leave the community when they graduate, and some may serve on the same committee for years. While it may be subtler among the adults than it is among the teenagers, stratification is still a prevalent problem, and it is one that Quakers as a whole must face. Like any system of human organization, Quaker process has its flaws. In order to address the systemic injustices that exist outside Quakerism in government, culture, and the worldly environment, it is integral that Quakers also maintain their own connection with the Light. In a group of people that is often slow to act, there exists a need to do. There is no obstacle. Ironically, it will take powerful Quakers to expunge the problems existing in the community, but it cannot be just a few leading the charge. To be united, the Quaker community must accept that they are all powerful Quakers.

 

Lukas “Sunshine” Austin is a young Friend attending Stony Run Meeting in Baltimore, Md. They enjoy reading, writing, and long walks in the woods. This is their first publication.


Posted in: Features, What Are Quaker Values Anyway?

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