On January 23, 2021, 126 people devoted six hours on a Saturday to attend PYM’s Addressing anti-Blackness Thread Gathering. Organized by Community Engagement Coordinator, Olivia Brangan and Events and Resources Coordinator, T.J. Jourian, the event featured Sarah Willie-LeBreton, Provost and Dean of the Faculty at Swarthmore College and Oskar Castro, Director of HR and Inclusion at Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. Tenaja Henson, NC Campaign Coordinator for Reproaction, while unable to attend, was also to be featured and contributed to the planning and visioning of the event, along with Sarah and Oskar.
It was the highest Zoom attendance PYM has seen at a weekend event, and it deserves special attention and gratitude to the community, staff, and community leaders who made it happen. Two of the attendees shared this reflection on their experiences as participants:
I appreciated hearing Oskar Castro generously share his personal journey around understanding anti-black racism paired with frameworks to look at our own experiences and at individual, institutional and cultural levels of how anti-blackness gets expressed. And Sarah Willie-LeBreton’s invitation to use all of our senses in describing anti-blackness, abolition, and liberation supported me to not just be in my head about these concepts, but to feel in a more full and tangible way the realities and possibilities within them. I came out of this gathering feeling gratitude for Oskar and Sarah’s leadership, for the chance to connect with Friends in small groups, and for the increased physical, spiritual, and emotional energy I felt even after spending several hours on zoom! – Ingrid Lakey
Using holy and wholly listening to block one’s own thoughts and feelings when hearing the stories of people’s experiences -regardless of their social identity – opens one’s heart and mind. So it was with the Anti-Blackness Thread Gathering. Absorbing what was spoken without prejudice allowed one to more fully understand what was shared. The Anti-Blackness socialization we’ve all received was confronted through personal experience and information/knowledge. See the Antiracism Collaborative’s website for resources for your own learning using your ‘holy and wholly’ listening. – Wanda Wyffels, Clerk Antiracism Collaborative
An interview with Oskar Castro and Sarah Willie-LeBreton follows.
Oskar – You are proficient in this work that we are undertaking as a community. Can you share your observations on how change happens? Are there any other thoughts or resources you’d like to offer to Friends reading this article?
From my vantage point and based on experience and observation, change happens when a thought becomes an action. When that idea of something turns into something tangible, or real, change has happened but that doesn’t mean it stops there. We have to notice the changes that happen as they happen and build on them.
Mindfulness to what has changed, and intentionality to continue to change are not daily practices that many of us in North America incorporate into our way of being in the world. Collective change, to me, is the same way. An individual can take that idea or thought, a positive one, and own it.
This is how personal transformation happens and I think it is the same for collective transformation. A group of five can become a group of ten and then twenty, and so on and if there can be a critical mass of humans collectively dreaming and doing what is needed for change, change will happen. The main thing to consider is that the energy works both ways. The change we saw in 2016, for example, is not the change that everyone wanted to see.
I encourage Friends to begin exploring the deeper connection to past behaviors and practices and seek ways to have greater heart and mind coherence in their life. I think that the hard work of moving through life more mindfully, and with more intentional joy and gratitude makes one more dedicated to changing toxic ways of being that run mostly on auto-pilot unless consciously interrupted. As a Black/Indigenous/Person of Color (BIPOC), mindful meditation moving me towards heart and mind coherence is one of my coping mechanisms to transmute the toxicity that may exist in me or that may be gathered around me.
Friends who are not BIPOC do not generally have to think about the things that BIPOC across the class spectrum must ponder on a daily basis and while there is no way that a non-BIPOC could ever know those granular realities, the willingness to acknowledge that those realities exist is a thing non-BIPOC Friends should incorporate into their morning mantras, or before they brush their teeth.
This should be followed up by actions such as reading How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X Kendi, or “Jesus and the Disinherited” by Howard Thurman, or “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander, among many other books.
And then ultimately this practice should lead those who want to be authentically anti-racist to do those things that they need to do in their lives and communities that is different than their auto-pilot way of being. I feel that every Sunday should be Meeting for Worship with attention to ending racism and anti-Blackness and anti-Queerness, etc. because I believe it will take that kind of mass, collective and intentional spiritual energy to make it happen sooner than later.
Sarah – You were a key presenter at Annual Sessions 2017 – how has the Quaker community changed since then?
I believe that Quakers in the US have–with perhaps some quiet self regard–assumed that we could feel good about our progressive politics, feel good about the hard work that FCNL does on our behalf, feel good about our wide array of K-12 and college level educational institutions, and feel good about paying attention to process in our meetings and organizations.
These are all good things worthy of our good feelings, our financial support and our engagement.
AND in a world on fire where inequality is growing so that millions live with high anxiety about the threat of eviction from their homes and eviction from within the country’s borders, with food insecurity, and death by gun violence, with jail as likely an outcome for smart kids as is college, where millions live in camps under freeways in the US and on garbage dumps and in migrant camps outside the US as refugees of climate crisis, economic insecurity and/or violence, where Covid ravages native reservations within our borders and where some of our neighbors feel uncomfortable and unwelcome in many of our meetings if they are different from the majority, the current moment has the potential to shake us into greater action.
Tenaja – You put a lot of energy and thought into this Thread gathering; can you share what you hope will be the result of the work?
When planning for this event I just wanted to create a space where our community could deeply engage with what anti-blackness and white supremacy that lives within all of us.
I spent a lot of formative years being in our PYM business meetings, and summer sessions, (at a time) when addressing racism and systemic oppression in our small community was rising to the surface … feeling the self hatred and discomfort that so many people, especially our white friends, were experiencing when uprooting these painful truths.
In my work and studies one of the biggest things I bring into facilitation with me is “if people show up they at least want to learn,” and I want to honor and nurture that calling to, at the very least, show up.
I hope people felt like they grew in their comfort of addressing these internalized thoughts, seeing that you can be creative in your weeding and tending to the gardens that exist within all of us.
This work is something I was hesitant to embark on at such a young age and in a vulnerable time of college and now a young adult figuring out the world for myself. However, it has helped me to build a more trusting, honest, and gentle relationship with myself, and that is all I hoped for our friends who were in attendance at this past gathering.
Oskar – What first sparked the intention of doing this Thread gathering and what do you feel you each brought to the content and format?
I recall our reflection on the moment of recent police murder and the protests and moments of uprising in certain cities where the police clashed with non-violent protestors and how the best thing we needed to do was to draw attention to what enables the way law enforcement treats Black people regardless of class in many cases.
That thing is anti-Blackness and it permeates everything we do in our society and throughout many parts of the world. It felt right to start by naming that and by encouraging Friends to acknowledge that reality not only within society, but in our lives as well. I felt that being able to help Friends understand how anti-Blackness is the root that we need to deal with would help those who intend to authentically embark on an anti-racist journey.
Oskar – Were there specific hopes you had about how it might go? Did you come away with any new ideas as a result of it?
For me it went as well as planned though we sorely missed Ten who was unable to be with us that afternoon.
Tenaja – Could you name three resources that you feel should be on every person’s bedside table? Is there a particular publication, or resource you most value for its impact on you?
Three resources that I would hope everybody takes time with: Emergent Strategy by Adrienne Maree Brown, this book is what lit a fire in me and is a cornerstone of my facilitation skills. Another resource I would recommend is getting into afro-futurism, so books by Octavia Butler, N.K. Jemisin, Alexis Pauline Gumbs, and so many others!
Reading about Black futures is a huge part of liberation because we haven’t been taught to see Black people in our futures only in our pasts.
Lastly, I think the best resource of all is – getting involved with movement work happening in your communities, whatever that is. BLM Philly chapter, (and social media groups that are) mutual aid groups supporting tent cities learning first hand, and taking direction from Black and Brown leaders, is a resource that is pushing growth and supporting your own community.
Sarah – What are you seeing today that you noticed less four years ago?
I am seeing that shaking.
Movement is happening. It’s happening on social media; it’s happening in the voting booth; it’s happening in donations to do good non profits; and it’s happening in difficult conversations that families and congregations and friendship groups are having.
I think we’ll see even more action post pandemic. Many folks are ‘spent,’ keeping themselves mentally healthy during this incredibly difficult extended moment.
Quakers in my orbit are recommitting themselves, and newly committing themselves to considered study, careful listening, and just action. I hear it; I see it; I appreciate it; and I say, Nobody’s gonna turn us around! We ain’t gonna study war no more! And we’re ready to trouble our own waters!
Oskar – Can you name some of the beautiful moments that happened during the morning to afternoon gathering? What about the hard ones?
The beauty that I witnessed was over 125 souls gathering to be a part of the dialogue with a willingness to be vulnerable. I witnessed BIPOC participants among those souls go into the dialogue with great hope and vulnerability as well. I also witnessed the beauty of nearly all of those people coming back for the second part after lunch!
There were some people who could only do the morning session, so I don’t think anyone who didn’t come back made that choice due to the content, and to see as many people come back for more dialogue and engagement in the afternoon reflected the beauty of intentionality.
There was beauty in the hard moments too. Unpacking one’s proximity to anti-Blackness is not easy and when Sarah asked us to use our five senses to put a stamp on anti-Blackness (what it might taste like, smell like, feel like, etc.) that was clearly a pivotal moment of discomfort that was hard, and yet a beautiful example of how to do the work.