Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Consequences of Deciding Who Needs Our Service

I recently completed a course called "The Mind-Body-Energy Toolkit". The class was mostly geared towards people working in mental health as clinicians (as I do in addition to my work at William Penn House), but I find that what I learn in these classes also has applications in all of our community work and in Quaker Workcamps. After all, when it comes to addressing the large social justice issues, we have to remember that we are all humans first, and as human we have some basic psychological processes that transcend all the silos we like to create to divide us. Unfortunately, I have often noticed that when it comes to service programs and creating funding, policies and protocols, basic truths about psychology are often neglected. How else to explain why very smart people continue to address issues such as stigma by targeting people for service and engagement. It only reinforces the stigma.

In this class, the instructor, Dr. Robert Schwarz, a specialist in Comprehensive Energy Psychology, effectively demonstrated how moods and thoughts influence energy - our own as well as that of those around us.  In class demonstrations, "energy" was measured by muscle resistance. People had less energy both when they were asked to think thoughts, and when we were asked to think negative thoughts of volunteers, unbeknownst to them. We all know this: the more optimistic or good we feel about things, the more energy we have. But what are the implications of this when it comes to how we engage in well-meaning service work from a model that often relies on assumptions of what people need without knowing them?

It is both an honor and a responsibility we take seriously, and that responsibility includes trying to
bridge the gaps between what social sciences show us and how we engage in social justice work. The challenge is raising awareness about the importance of engaging with people at the personal level rather than at the level of assumptions. Often we hear reflections about how different people are, or how much we feel good about helping those in need. As Lilla Watson is often quoted, "If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together." It is this spirit - the spirit of unification - that we know sustainable change and peacemaking takes place. The "us/them" divide, even in well-meaning service efforts, still serves as division and requires a certain level of judgment about others and their needs that can negatively influence the energy flow of healing and possibility that we are trying to bring about.

So, as much as understanding history, and some of the disciplines of environment, climate change, culture, history and nutrition when we set out to do service, it is perhaps as important to consider the role of psychology, mirroring neurons and energy as a primer of service learning and experiential learning. It's not what we think, but how we connect, that matters. Planting the seeds of awareness about this are important. As Quakers are fond of saying, "There is that of God in All." Mirroring neurons flowing from positive thoughts and open hearts help to create the energy to truly let this be of peacemaking service to the world.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Words Are Never Enough: Reflections from Pine Ridge

The wind started shaking my tent at 1:58AM. We had to drop people off at the airport 100 miles away by 4:30AM. It was as if the wind knew, and was acting as Mother Earth’s alarm clock, helping us to take care of what needed to be done.

These are the kinds of things that seem to happen every time we are on Pine Ridge. Energy, spirit and relationships are strong, and it is easier to be present in the moment. Wind announces that it is coming so that you can stop what you are doing and revel in its cooling presence. White cows emerge just as they are inquired about; dogs warn us to prepare for storms in the most remarkable ways – knocking on doors; cars get stuck in mud just in time for us to get out and see remarkable views. The
ever-present nature, the natural beauty of the Rez and the Badlands, weather elements, plants and animals (including horses joining us for dinner) all help us deepen our connection to all that is around us in ways that are not always felt in our daily routines. They are what invite a downpour of rain to become a communal shower, and deeply appreciating a nap in the shade. They are what get people to wake up at 5AM just to watch the sunrise or fall into frequent moments of silence and worship.

Mike Sierra's farm
And there are the remarkable and inspiring people. Shannon Freed, her husband Adam Weasel and his father Gerald Weasel, through their company Earth Tipi, are working to be a demonstration of sustainability in Manderson while also developing a place for people to come together to explore, be a part of, and help build a sense of community. Mike Sierra and his wife and the small farm way off the beaten path in Oglala that is a model of healthy, organic vegetables grown local – something we saw more signs of this year than we have seen in past years. Reva High Horse and her niece and husband Cindy and Dwayne High Horse, carrying on the tradition of the Sundance in a way that, over the course of a few short days, builds deep and lasting relationships – one big family that extends to include all of us who came together, often as strangers or acquaintances, as we explore our own faith, values and traditions while learning those of the Lakota through fellowship, work and stories. Our tasks may not always make sense to us, but we learn to respect their importance to others. Respect is a necessary component of peace and justice work. Through it all, there are also the struggles of addiction, unemployment, and idleness. As one of our members said during our last worship-sharing, this is real life, not the materialistic, frenetic lives we tend to live when we leave the Rez. 

Inside tipi after Meeting for Worship
“Are these the Quakers?” asked one of the leaders of the High Horse Sundance, pointing to the tents that housed 20 of us from a mix of Friends entities that included a private school (Sidwell), a college (Wilmington) and a Monthly Meeting (Downingtown, PA). Mike Gray is the constant Quaker presence, as he has been for over 20 years. Through William Penn Quaker Workcamps, we try to do our part to help maintain that Quaker presence – not just in numbers but in our faith and practice. We are a witness, and our own worship becomes something for others to witness and to participate in, just as we participate in sweats and song. As we heard from a Lakota man who works as a park ranger at Badlands National Park’s Lakota-managed division, we all worship one God, just in different ways. The hospitality expressed at the High Horse Sundance is a testimony to that.

We have now all returned home, with the exception of Mike who will be heading south in a week or
so. We have moved back to beds from nights on the ground, sometimes in tents, sometimes under the stars, or in a few cases, in a tipi. We have washed off most of the dirt that we had become a bit accustomed to (although will likely still find remnants of dirt, grass and bugs in our clothes for a while), and the facial hair we may not otherwise sport is shaved. It is ironic that being so used to not cleaning ourselves can lead to feeling so cleansed. We were wisely counseled by Rosebud elder Charlene to listen to and pursue our dreams and our purpose. Perhaps not being so concerned with earthly things like what to wear and how to look opens way for doing this. Our dreams will be perhaps driven more by our hearts that are now fuller, our love and our tears. We are hopefully more whole, more grounded, more intentional and more respectful as we re-engage our minds to our purpose. We are also challenged to step up our support for the Lakota and other native Americans – whether it is calling on Congress to stop cutting Indian healthcare funds or fully funding Indian colleges (both of which are treaty commitments that continue to be violated), or calling on President Obama to pardon Leonard Peltier before he leaves office in a few months, or directly supporting the work of Earth Tipi or Mike Sierra.

William Penn set out to create the Peaceable Kingdom. We have a long way to go, but we saw glimpses of what is possible the last few weeks. We hope that more F/friends will join us so we can maintain – and perhaps grow – the presence of the Quakers on the ground next summer and in spirit and advocacy throughout the years. 

From July 20 to August 4, William Penn Quaker Workcamps was on Pine Ridge. Many thanks to Mike Gray, Shannon Fried, Adam Weasel, Mike Sierra, Reva High Horse, and Jeff Domenick and Sue McKenna from Downingtown Friends Meeting. And to all who joined us, what a ride! You were all fantastic. Let’s keep it going. More pictures can be seen on William Penn Quaker Workcamps' facebook page (
-Brad Ogilvie

Friday, January 15, 2016

Fear of Tears

"I had to turn away. Otherwise, I was going to start crying."

These were the words of a recent WPQW participant who was in DC with her college for an alternative break week. We were taking time for reflection about what insights, experiences, or wisdom they had noticed from their time with us, so far. The activities included participating in Our Daily Bread (a fellowship community breakfast with people from all walks of life, including many who sleep on the streets and in shelters), garden winterization and soil prep for spring planting, and street outreach with people that are homeless.

Among the insights of other folks was the realization, garnered from their 1:1 time with people, that listening to people, simply engaging in conversation, being with people where they are, matters. In this was also the awareness of the fact that mental illness has high co-morbidity with the homeless population, but to really connect we have to have a relationship. Others had reflections that it all can seem overwhelming as we seek answers (I maintain that it is not answers that keep us moving, but the next good question), and that the real work for social justice has to continue in their daily lives, not just as an alternative vacation.

But it was the role of tears where things got real. One student spoke - somewhat apologetically - through her tears about how a homeless woman told her that she and her fellow-students reminded the woman of her own daughters. It brings it home - there are families, loved ones, and whole life stories that remain invisible. Then, there was the statement by the student about needing to turn away from all the stimulus. She said it was overwhelming. I suspect, and we talked about it, that what was overwhelming was not what was going on around her, but what was welling up inside of her, perhaps a mixture of anger, sadness, guilt, disgust, even love, and her all-too-common belief that we should not be emotional. And it is the fear of tears, the sadness, perhaps intellectualized as a sense of weakness, that we seem the most uncomfortable with, and it often leads us to want to flee.

And yet, we need to be with these emotions, fully present not just with our heads but with our hearts, embracing them, not fighting them, if we are truly to engage in the good work of trying to make the world a better place.  We can talk about statistics of poverty, mental illness, health indicators, etc., but as Emma Goldman said, "The demand for equal rights in every vocation of life is just and fair; but after all, the most vital right is to love and be loved." To be loving means being able to laugh and cry. When we turn away from our tears when they naturally occur, we turn away from our emotions, and we turn away from being present with others. But when we let it flow, we strengthen ourselves, become more present and more whole to carry on the good work.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

A Friendly Reference: A Spectrum of Experiences in Campus Ministry

Over the past two years, I have had the good fortune of support from the William Penn House in creating Quaker campus ministry groups. At present, I serve as the chaplain at Georgetown University and as a “chaplain” at George Washington University both in Washington DC. As you read through my own particular experiences here, you’ll see why I put that second title in quotation marks. I’ve spoken with a number of Quakers in different yearly meetings and gatherings in my position as an employee with the William Penn House, and because campus ministry is an interest of mine I often find people saying something along the lines of:

“I really wish that someone would write about their experiences in setting these things up and why they’re important.”

This blog post is here to serve that purpose. Those of us within the Quaker tradition I’m sure have all recognized that many college campuses are places ripe for interested seekers in new religious traditions. It is always hard to approach these institutions of learning, especially if you have few personal connections within those campus communities. Even harder is reconciling the Quaker discomfort surrounding the idea of proselytizing. I won’t talk about concerns that others have raised with me because my answer is always the same. I have no interest in harassing others into joining my own religious movement, but rather I wish to provide a convenient reference for students who have never interacted with Quakers before and to provide a space for students to enjoy worship in the Quaker tradition. I am a reference first and a friend and confidant second.

I have had the lucky happenstance of living in a city that has many colleges to choose from and a large Quaker meeting that sees students exploring it as an option. In setting up both ministry programs, I sent out emails to the Friends Meeting of Washington listserv asking if any students, faculty, or administrators might have an interest in having a campus ministry group at their college. In the case of George Washington, I was lucky to find that indeed a student was interested, but sadly it took a little while for us to get connected. In that space of time, I emailed members of the administration who told me that George Washington University preferred that worship groups be students led, now you see why I put my title in quotations. I have been lucky in that the student that runs the worship there is driven, charismatic, and passionate about Quakerism. While we bounce ideas off of each other and I am there to support her, I would prefer to give her credit as she leads the group on that campus. I design fliers, show up to meeting, and develop personal relationships with people who attend our meeting, but she is really the driving force there. Georgetown is another scenario entirely.

When I sent an email to the listserv at Friends Meeting of Washington for Georgetown, a member of the campus administration replied. She helped me arrange a meeting with the chaplaincy office and after meeting with other members of the campus administration, it was determined that Georgetown was indeed interested in setting up a Quaker Chaplaincy. Because they have an official chaplaincy program, I am lucky enough to be invited to a number of campus events. Chaplains at Georgetown have a once-a-month meeting to discuss developments within the different religious communities and to share effective ways of supporting students. Georgetown has also asked that I run a scheduled weekly worship, as opposed to one with an alternating date and time. This has been helpful because the students who attend our worship know when and where it happens every week. At George Washington I was never allowed to post fliers, whereas Georgetown allows me to, something I always wanted to do so as to spare the student leader the hours of work.

When I first started, I would usually just set up a half hour long service of silent waiting worship. I found that students usually only gave messages after they had seen me give them. It didn’t particularly lend itself to growing interest or engaging students. After starting at Georgetown, I tried doing worship sharing with a query among the group of students. The query that first night was:
"Do I treat conflict as an opportunity for growth, and address it with careful attention? Do I seek to recognize and respect the Divine in those with whom I have a basic disagreement? Do I look for ways to reaffirm in action and attitude my love for the one with whom I am in conflict? In what ways might I seek to do that?"
It really sparked some engaging discussion and allowed for us to develop a stronger bond. Mixing worship sharing and regular worship into our monthly schedule really helped, and I can only strongly recommend that it be considered for introducing new folks to Quaker process and tradition.  

Among many Yearly Meetings, there has been a growing concern over an aging membership. I feel that campus ministry is one of many opportunities presented to us for growing Quaker communities. While it is up to each individual to decide whether Quakerism is for them, it is up to us as Quakers to get out of our meeting houses and do what we can to make seeking Quakerism easier for those who might wish to explore it. If we are unable to provide easy and convenient means for others to explore what we offer, how can we expect a diverse and growing membership?

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Equality, Race and Grace

I remember a few years ago on a Quaker Workcamp, we were having a conversation about the various colleges that the students on the program were considering attending. One of the young folks mentioned that he would probably go to a prestigious university because his family had a long list of graduates from that school (siblings, parents, grandparents) , even though he might not otherwise have qualified for that university. The conversation turned to the paradox of wanting to work for equality but, at the same time, being a product of and beneficiary of privilege. "Do you think I should not go to that school if I get accepted?", asked the young man. After a moment of reflection, I said that, no, you should not turn down that acceptance but to, instead, commit to trying to balance the equation when in a position of taking action. For example, I mentioned that, when buying a car, perhaps buying a slightly lower costing car, and put that extra money towards a scholarship to support someone else or, if in a position of hiring someone, rather than hiring the candidate with the best education or best suit, consider the one who journeyed the longest to get to the interview.

So as I was recently attending a church service at National Community Church, I listened to Dr. David Anderson giving a powerful sermon about "Gracism" (as the spirit-led counterbalance to "Racism" that he defines as "to think, feel, or act negatively of others because of color, class or culture"). One of his seven points to practicing gracism is "I will consider you." His example was to recognize that a car dealer may offer a better deal to a man than a woman, and we act with grace by doing what we can to correct this by sharing with you my benefits. I think it is essentially what I was trying to articulate on that Workcamp. I also think it would be a great lesson for so many of the private schools we work with - rather than shame privilege, have the conversation about how we can effectively share that privilege with those who do not have it. As Dr. Anderson has listed it, this is identified as "Having Equal Concern".

It is sermons like this that I find amazingly inspirational and challenging. Even though I hear these kinds of sermons at places like NCC, they are what lead me to Quakerism. To practice Gracism is to see that of God in all and truly live that out. Of course, as a gay man, knowing that the founder of this church has been, to put it mildly, less than affirming about gay marriage (sending out the double-message that being gay is a sin, but we are called to be loving, as if my higher purpose is to be straight, as he did on the Kojo Nnamdi Show last year), and "sexual identity and orientation" is glaringly missing in the definition of racism, I cannot go all in here. I think the silence about sexual orientation can perhaps do much harm by continuing exclude truly all people. But having said that, I know that if places like NCC want to truly practice gracism, I'm in for that, knowing that I can still let my life speak and find true joy in the relationships I have formed there, and in that, find more ways to bring that grace to what we strive to bring in our William Penn Quaker Workcamps. Sometimes, being open with the messiness (or 'living in the tension', as if often expressed) really seems to be where life happens.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Mindfulness in the Garden

We recently spent about 90 minutes with ten 9th grade students from Sidwell Friends School at Wangari Gardens, cleaning out garden plots and organizing community spaces in preparation for winter. It's amazing what can get accomplished when you have multiple hands to help out.

Among the tasks was to pick kale that was still growing in abundance from one of our plots. Kale is one of the plants I have learned to appreciate since getting involved in gleaning and gardening here in DC. It's a low-maintenance plant that produces from spring through the hardest of frosts in the winter, and is also good for you.

As we wrapped up our time together, I asked the group, after a moment of silence, to reflect on an image or a memory from our time together that they can take with them, knowing that bringing intentionality to an image carries itself with us for a longer time. One of the kale pickers said that she will remember how relaxing it was to pick the kale. She was one of the students who had never picked kale, but quickly learned that you cannot mindlessly pick it (or, as I've seen noted other places, "mind full" and "mindful" are very different experiences). One has to connect with the plant, noting where the top of each stalk is, and gently taking each leaf and stem below it. It is not something that can be done while multi-tasking. It is being mindfully present with each stalk and each leaf for a brief moment.
Another student said she will take with her the image of the light reflecting around us as the sun was setting. "I don't usually get to see the sun set", she stated. It's not that the sun does not set every day; it's that we are so often busy doing other things to notice what is happening around us.

These are two simple examples and affirmations of how easy it is to experientially teach mindfulness. We had not talked about mindfulness, but these two students got it, and by taking a moment to intentionally connect with it, it starts to infiltrate their being. As good friend Janie Boyd has taught me, spending time in the garden is good for the soul. It's as simple as that.  I will get to work with many of these students once a month over the school year. I look forward to deepening this practice with them as we strive to do good in the world.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Investing and Community Economics

William Penn House has been involved in Quaker Workcamps for more than ten years and during that time we have been involved in community projects and partners with specific goals to helping develop the community we live in. From projects in local soup kitchens, to helping out neighbors install garden beds. Often times however, we find ourselves confronting economic forces. It can be discouraging to walk into a neighborhood and do a project only to find out that the homeowners have been moved out and their property is being renovated. Gentrification is a real problem that is extremely difficult to combat. Often communities are divided based on racial and class lines. If something you own which had no value at one point suddenly becomes valuable, how do you hold onto it if you have few resources yourself? Residents in Takoma Park rallied about a month ago against rent increases in an apartment complex as rents in some cases jumped a staggering 70%.

Its an indictment of our current economic system that incentivizes landowners to drive rates up with destabilizing effect and for prospective residents who are willing to pay whatever to just get a space to live. While  Residents coming in are so desperate to get a space that they don’t question who they replace or even the pricing. So concerned with consuming out of fear or out of desperation or even out of a need for self fulfillment by proving that we can, we often step over and hurt other people in our community. Consumptive economies, ours especially, are wasting resources, creating great inequalities, and is harmful to life on earth. In particular the way we easily use and discard resources has become the hallmark of our consumptive economy. From styrofoam cups, to water bottles, from fossil fuels to electronics, Americans have a problem of using something until it doesn’t meet a particular need before poorly discarding it. It’s completely ingrained our culture.  

While progress has been slow towards sustainable economies, Quakers have begun pushing wall street and the business to be more ethically conscious. After our October potluck discussion at William Penn House, we heard about Friends Fiduciary Corporation’s push to invest in morally sound companies that use ethical business practices that follow Quaker testimonies. Jeff Perkins suggested that using the power of shareholder ethics and a fear of reputational risk, Mutual Funds and shareholders might be able to motivate companies into right action through proxy votes and shareholder resolutions. He told us that there was a time when Wells Fargo engaged in predatory lending practices and after Friends Fiduciary brought the matter to a shareholder meeting through a shareholder resolution, other shareholders felt that the reputational risk was to great to continue those practices and the shareholders voted against providing predatory loans. Having a stake in a company keeps

At that point a local consultant from green eagle consulting sat and talked about a number of great efforts to help the DC community such as micro-lending and smaller investment groups one could support. After the talk, I went and spoke with the individual and asked him, “is there any particular way in which people are combating gentrification at an investor or economic level?” to which the he answered “not that I know of”. So what has been the current recourse for residents facing the loss of their homes to high rents and property taxes? According to Curbed, in Takoma Park, residents have protested and have told authorities about the raising rates, but so far they have seen little success. So what is an organization like ours supposed to do? Follow the words of George Fox by “walking cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone”, which requires us to remain active in our community.