Inspiring Connections Across Difference in Delaware County

Addressing Racism

Written by Sarah Willie-LeBreton and Pauline Guerin, July 15, 2016

Like many meetings and faith organizations across the country, Providence Monthly Meeting in Media, PA has been wrestling with what racism and white privilege, the nation’s policies of hyper incarceration of black and brown people in particular, and state-sponsored as well as individual violence mean for us. We have engaged in lobbying with the Friends Committee on National Legislation, participated in Alternatives to Violence and Black Lives Matter, and focused our Adult First Day School on these topics over the past year. 

While we are a predominantly white meeting there are several multiracial and multicultural members and families searching for deep and sustainable engagement.  Following the Charleston shooting last year, the meeting formed a working group of six members and attenders, the majority of whom identified as people of color or have multiracial families, to consider our mission and to be a sounding board for the meeting. It was agreed to focus the years’ Adult First Day School on racism and white-privilege topics and ten sessions were held. About 30 members of the meeting, most of whom identify as European American or white, dove in to full participation in these sessions. In fact, Adult First Day School was so successful, that we have reaffirmed our commitment to continuing the work. This year, with some repeat membership, a new constellation of members and attenders will replenish the working group. And we have asked our Clerk for a Called Meeting in the fall to include everyone in determining our way forward.

For PMM member Sarah Willie-LeBreton, an applied sociologist who studies racism and social inequality, engaging local police became a desire in the summer of 2015. She brought this leading to meeting having met and been inspired by Pauline Guerin, a PMM attender and community psychologist who promotes a model of understanding for health and human services professionals and Indigenous peoples in Australia and New Zealand.  Together and as a meeting, we wrestled during the year with how to do this effectively.

By mid-July 2016, the horrible week of continued violence in the country, Sarah was not alone in feeling the urgency of reaching out to local networks of neighbors, the NAACP, local political and faith organizations, and institutions of public and private, primary, secondary and higher education. Inspired by a friend on Facebook, the important work of Black Lives Matter, and all those who in small and large ways are working to transform structures, laws, policies and community relations, she drafted a letter to the local police chief and ran it by both the members of PMM’s working group and clerk. After receiving whole hearted support, she sent a letter to the police chief first and the mayor second.

Two days later, at Meeting for Worship, fellow Friends were curious as to whether Sarah had received a reply. Although she had not, she shared her intention to go to the police station the following morning to seek a meeting with the chief. The decision to reach out to police first acknowledged the importance of bringing them into a conversation in which we were already involved. Fellow working group member Pauline volunteered to accompany Sarah.

Early Monday morning, Sarah received a call from Susan Serbin, the coordinator of programming for Media Fellowship House–a local community social justice organization. Sarah had agreed to give a presentation on her new scholarship about challenges for diverse faculty and staff in higher education. By the end of the conversation, however, Susan and Sarah agreed that the issues of the current moment were more pressing. A workshop on racism, violence and policing should be the priority in the fall. Susan shared with Sarah that she had worked for 25 years as a local reporter and invited her to use her name wherever it might smooth the way toward the community gathering toward which Sarah was working. It wasn’t what Sarah had expected of the phone call, but she was beginning to appreciate Way Opens.

Pauline, who identifies as a white woman, and Sarah, who identifies as a black woman, met for a half hour before entering the police station. Sarah shared the idea of the fall workshop, and Pauline agreed to participate! They also outlined their mutual expectations for the meeting with the chief: 1) Would the police department partner with us on a community gathering? 2) Would the chief participate with us in facilitating the fall workshop? And 3) to share with the chief that we are glad to make our professional expertise available should the department need or want it.

The chief received us graciously and fully supportive of the initiative for a community gathering (with some caution about announcing police involvement because of threats to officer safety). He apologize for not having responded sooner due to some personal family events. He agreed to help us facilitate our community gathering but from behind the scenes. He also agreed to work with us on the workshop, and he took our professional cards. He also promised to get the mayor on the line and be back in touch before the end of the day. We left with a mixture of hesitant excitement.

The Chief was good on his word; the Mayor was on board.  We chose a time that was good for the Courthouse, good for the Chief and the Mayor, and good for us, crossing our fingers that we would not have thunderstorms.  We soon learned the next day that we needed a permit from the County to assemble in front of the County Courthouse.  The Chief got us those phone numbers and the County Council public relations staff person rushed approval through over night.

With about 24 hours before the intended gathering, Pauline and Sarah began to spread the word by social media, email and telephone.  When 4:45 arrived on Thursday evening, no thunderstorms were predicted but the temperature had soared to 92 degrees with high humidity, and we feared that we might not get more than 15-20 folks. But by 5:00, 50 people had assembled and by 5:10, there were 75 and by 5:15 there more than 100.  We began our 30 minutes of silence “holding those who have been killed, those who are suffering and each other in our hearts.”  Besides our two sentence welcome, the group held utter silence for half an hour, gathered under the shade of the Courthouse trees.

When we broke the silence with handshakes, we were deeply gratified by the energy with which people greeted each other on the sidewalk and grass.  There were hugs and handshakes, people met each other across all kinds of difference, and began conversations from which they did not want to leave, despite the high heat. Several folks asked “What’s next?… Is there an email?… Is there a group where I can get involved?… I am ready to do the work!” Two people I met were weeping.  Members of other faith organizations asked for contact information; police officers embraced civilians, clergy clasped hands with non-believers, and there were comments like “How could you have lived in Media for 15 years and I haven’t met you?!” 

Out of pain and suffering, inspired by Friends’ idea of waiting upon silence, one little town waited upon the silence Thursday evening and showed each other, revelations continue–they and we are ready to get to work!