How Meetings Can Become Welcoming and Inclusive

Annual Sessions

This year, as part of the Agenda for Business Meeting at 2017 Annual Sessions, we were led by Sarah Willie-LeBreton and Inspira Williams through a two-day group activity focusing on ways meetings can become more welcoming and inclusive. The opening remarks are posted below, along with the queries used for small group discussions, and definitions of terms for people who are new to this work.

Opening Comments

Good-morning, Friends!

My name is Sarah Willie-LeBreton, and I am here with Inspira Williams to engage our forward momentum on the topic of Welcoming Friends who are different from us.

Most of us would agree that it is very difficult to be truly welcoming it we are out of touch with the obstacles that keep us from being welcoming. For us, this work of becoming welcoming includes deep listening, silent worship, and verbal sharing… and then returning to our meetings, our worship sharing groups, our relationships with fellow Friends and seekers as we attempt to listen, to share, to grow, and to discern new ways. We will begin this morning and continue tomorrow evening during All Together Time after dinner. We hope to see you there.

This morning, our work will be thinking about our collective and individual experiences with racism, oppression, and our experiences working against oppression and racism. Our work tomorrow evening will offer us concrete ideas of how to respond to the awkward situations in which our newfound insights
might place us – what to say when we hear or see someone stumble into or commit an act or comment, intended or unintended, of disregard or aggression; what to say or do when it is us who stumbles into or commits such a micro-aggression. And then, we will exchange all manner of wonderful ideas about how we can make our Meetings more welcoming.

lnspira and I ask you to spend a few moments now asking yourselves whether you are new to the work of fighting oppression or whether you have been engaged in this work for a while. If you are having trouble deciding with which group you most identify, you might want to ask yourself whether you are familiar with the differences between bias, prejudice, and racism? Whether you have taken workshops on diversity, inclusion, and fighting racism? Whether you have led workshops on diversity, inclusion, and fighting racism? Think on these questions a bit and then we will ask you to decide for yourself whether you would like to be in a small group with others who are new to this work or with those who are experienced in it. For those who think they are new to these issues, we offer some definitions of concepts so that you do not feel like there is a secret language from which you are excluded. We have no judgment about which group you choose.

Some of us have formed an opinion that to continue and move more deeply into conversations about racism distracts us from the urgent changes in climate and the human destruction of our natural environment. Others of us believe that to bring our analytical attention to bear on the race system leads us away from a necessary focus on wealth inequality. And still others of us worry that spending
our time attempting to understand policies and inequalities across the globe pulls that same attention away from the challenges within this nation’s borders.

Martin Luther King Jr. once cautioned: “[W]hen the issues at hand seem as perplexing as they often do […], we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty.”

lnspira and I assume that these challenges are interrelated; we assume that each of us will find our way toward engagement; we assume that the ways opinions and approaches have been pitted against one another, as if our hearts must compete against themselves, are hypnotic and mesmerizing, distracting us from appreciating the intersections among them and rewarding us internally and within our circles of close friends with a sense that each of us is on the right true path. I saw some graffiti in North Philadelphia on the first day of this week: it read pause, pause, pause, pause. If you find yourself nurturing the internal self-congratulation of righteousness it is time to pause, pause, pause, pause.

The Religious Society of Friends – now broader and more diverse than its founders might ever have imagined – has so much to offer and learn from the diversity of our human family. But for those of us operating in the United States surrounded by the legacies and continued expressions of exclusion, we must also admit that working across difference, to be truly welcoming, takes self-reflection.

This work that we must engage together to transform our Monthly Meetings and our Yearly Meeting into more profoundly welcoming organizations cannot only begin with welcome; we must acknowledge the long career of inertia and unwelcome; acknowledge our individual and corporate obstacles to openness. Inertia and fear are not the same as prayer and spiritual consultation. But they can masquerade as the latter. We say that we are more fully whole when we name the presence of creative, inclusive and resilient sub-cultures within our body. But it is just as often that we do not behave in a way that demonstrates this understanding. To become more welcoming is synonymous with being open to transformation.

There is oppression in the land and in our Meeting.

There is resistance to undermining oppression in the land and in our Meeting

There is creativity and the will to undermine that oppression in the land and in our Meeting

I ask you — Do we have work to do?

Are we ready to do it?

At the close of her breathtaking book “Citizen: An American Lyric,” Claudia Rankin writes, “Though a share of all remembering, a measure of all memory, is breath and to breathe you have to create a truce – a truce with the patience of a stethoscope.”

Small Group Activity Part 1

We ask that you spend about 25 minutes in this small group. Begin with introducing yourselves to each other with first names. We suggest beginning with the first question, circling around the group to share. Attempt to share for no more than two minutes. Try to answer candidly, listen deeply, and observe about 15 seconds of silence between speakers. You can say pass if you do not wish to share, though we ask that you step into uncertainty and attempt to answer at least one of the questions. There may not be enough time for everyone to answer each of the following questions, but there may!

Queries for people who are new to this work…

1) Give an example of a time when you offended someone unintentionally.

2) Give an example of a time when someone offended you.

3) Can you remember if anyone intervened on behalf of the offended person or you?

Queries for people who have long been engaged in anti-oppression work…

1) How would you suggest working with people who are new to this work?

2) Have you found ways to deal with emotional exhaustion or burnout?

3) Have you recently been surprised at a blind spot that you did not know you had?

Small Group Activity Part 2

The first half of tonight’s session will be spent brainstorming or role playing some ways to react to micro-aggressions in small groups.

When you join your small group, please introduce yourselves to each other with first names. Dive into the exercise that we have provided; there is one copy for each group.

Everyone in your small group is responsible for ensuring that no one speaks too much and that everyone has had the opportunity to contribute to the conversation.

Brainstorming: Ways to be Welcoming to People We Perceive as Different

As Individuals…

As Monthly Meetings…

As Quarterly Meetings…

As Continuing Sessions…

As a Yearly Meeting…


Definitions for people who are new to this work…

We offer these definitions to provide a starting place for thinking about the following concepts. They are not the only definitions, but they may be initially helpful.

micro-aggression – indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group.

intersectionality – the complex, cumulative manner in which the effects of different forms of discrimination combine, overlap, or intersect.

oppression – prolonged cruel and/or unjust treatment for belonging to, or association with, a particular group.

racism – belief and/or antagonism directed against an individual or a group that is perceived as different. Racial differences are often marked by phenotype or skin color but may also include ethnicity, religion and/or ancestry. Racism is justified by ideology that defines one group as superior and others as inferior. Racism takes on dramatic power when the ideology is supported (and often made invisible) by the habits, customs and laws of those who assume their superiority.

prejudice – preconceived opinions about an individual or group, based on stereotypes, singular characteristics, and/or ideologies about a group.

bias – prejudice in favor of, or against, one thing, person, or group compared with another, usually in a way considered to be unfair, occasionally used as a synonym for point of view.

welcome – to greet in a warm and friendly manner; to be pleased about; to encourage or support.