A Report from the Called Meeting on Racism

Addressing Racism

If our principles are right, why should we be cowards?
– Lucretia Mott

We who believe in freedom cannot rest.
– Bernice Johnson Reagon

Report from the Called Meeting held January 10, 2015

On Saturday, January 10, 2015, more than 400 members and attenders from meetings across Philadelphia Yearly Meeting gathered in a called meeting to enthusiastically commit to addressing racism in our meetings and communities.

Although many Friends have been striving to address racism and prejudice for years, this called meeting arose from deeply felt concerns expressed during 2014 Annual Sessions at Muhlenberg College. During Annual Sessions several Friends rose to draw attention to a subject that was not on the agenda. While recognizing the importance of budgets and structural changes, these Friends felt that our yearly meeting needed to focus significant attention on confronting the isms that divide our meetings. No monthly or quarterly meeting brought a minute about racism; this concern sprang directly from the assembled body. At Annual Sessions we entrusted this concern to our clerks and elders, with an understanding that they would return with a process to address racism and the intersection of other prejudices. As a result, our presiding clerk called a special meeting to help us discern how we, as a faith community, are being led to address racism.

As Interim Meeting drew to a close on Saturday, January 10, 2015, a steady stream of Quakers came through the front door of Arch Street Meeting House. So many Friends showed up that the registration line looped across the East Room and it took an additional 20 minutes to seat everyone in the West Room.

After a time of worship clerks and elders on the facing bench introduced themselves. Our Presiding Clerk, Jada Jackson, recognized visitors and then reminded us of the sharing and discussions that occurred during Annual Sessions. She shared an important term, intersectionality, and explained that it is defined as the place where our isms overlap and connect. Jada recognized that anti-racism work has been ongoing for years and proposed that We cannot allow a small group of friends, a committee, to take on this work.

There has been an intentional shattering of our pattern, Jada suggested to us. If you came here to be relieved of your burden, we burned that altar last week. She also emphasized that this work is the work of the whole yearly meeting, Theres a saying that God has many hands, and, Friends, they are attached to you. Finally, she offered reassurance as we transitioned to our breakout groups, I am here for you. God is here with us. We will be OK.

Breakout Group Discussions

During registration, each attendee picked up two blank note cards. Elder Scott Rhodewalt led us in an activity to help us identify our privileges. With Scott’s guidance we listed rights, benefits and advantages that contribute to our privileges. Some privileges may be obvious, such as being white or male, while others may only become clear in specific circumstances such as being able bodied. Many of us filled our cards with the expected: race, gender or education. Some of us discovered new advantages including physical ability, religion or ethnic background. We left the West Room with a challenge from our clerk: How can we use our privileges to address racism?

Next we separated by quarterly meeting into breakout groups in different rooms throughout the Arch Street Meeting House. The five smallest quarters combined to form one breakout group in the West Room. Within each group we introduced ourselves by name, meeting and quarter. Each group considered two queries and used a worship-sharing approach in which each person shared once without responding to earlier comments. Several friends shared deeply personal experiences of privilege. One friend shared that as a person of color it was a privilege to not be feared in Quaker gatherings. Other friends shared stories about their parents changing their last names, hiding their ethnic backgrounds and religions or feeling unsafe in their neighborhoods.

During our second query friends shared stories about the anti-racism work currently taking place in their monthly and quarterly meetings. A friend challenged us that as Quakers today we do not get a free ride on the actions of people from hundreds of years ago. Another friend suggested that our engine is good, but our spark plugs need to be changed. Still another friends spoke about their frustration of being the only person who attends these kinds of events when it should be the responsibility of everyone in his monthly meeting.

We encourage Friends to read the transcript of responses to these two Queries.

A Minute of Action

When everyone reassembled in the West Room Jada tested for understanding to see if the clerks and elders are on the right track. She challenged us by saying If we are in a place to affirm this work then we all need to get up early and begin this work in our monthly meetings. We collectively and enthusiastically approved the following minute of action:

“Friends tested and affirmed the work of our clerks and our elders, since being tasked during Annual Sessions in July 2014, to help discern a way forward in addressing many -isms including-racism, sexism, genderism and classism. Friends also heartily affirmed that as a Yearly Meeting we:

  • Commit to increase our consciousness as Friends about the intersection of privilege and race in our culture and spiritual community. We know our knowledge is often limited by our own experiences and that we have much to learn from each other and from outside resources.
  • Commit to move forward with our entire community. The yearly meeting is the community of all our individual Friends and monthly meetings and this work needs to be done with the involvement of all of us.
  • Commit to integrate this work into what we do in an ongoing way at the yearly meeting level. We want this work to become part of the fabric of what we do whenever we get together as yearly meeting members and attenders.

Throughout the afternoon the words and presence of Lucretia Mott (through a paper cutout in the lobby) both confronted and compelled our ministry. One Friend paraphrased this quote as, “Be obnoxious!”

Quakerism, as I understand it, does not mean quietism. The early Friends were agitators; disturbers of the peace; and were more obnoxious in their day to charges, which are now so freely made, than we are.

And on a final note, as one Friend said at the end of the meeting,

“There is a hidden wholeness beneath the very evident brokenness of the world.” I felt a bit of wholeness emerging during called meeting on racism. We were asked to each make a personal commitment to do the work of inviting and nurturing change. We committed as a whole body to move forward to address racism. The meeting felt covered, the Spirit present. Now, let’s role up our sleeves.”

– Lucy Duncan

We thank Melissa Rycroft for preparing this report.