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.

Monday, October 12, 2015

"Faith in the Process is more important than the Outcome"?

Keith Barrett X with his wife, Veronica
and kids Prophetshabazz Muhammad,
Jesus, Goddess, and Chief, saying
"One God" for the camera.
As I sat in Meeting for Worship on a spectacular fall day, I listened to a few messages enamored with Quaker process. These messages included that decisions made without Quaker process were not as significant as those done through process and, from one message, faith in the process is more important than the outcomes. Sitting among a 100% white congregation on the day between the Million Man March and Columbus Day, two events that are stark reminders of enslavement, suppression and discrimination, I wondered about these messages. I sometimes think that Friends can be too enamored with the process, especially as it is so often practiced among "like-minded" people. I think that the gift of Quaker process is when it is practiced out in the world, among people of very different opinions, beliefs, cultures and priorities. This is when true peace happens. And this is also when faith in another Quaker sentiment is vital: going "as Way opens".

Keith with Prophetshabazz
It was with all this rattling around in my brain that I walked into William Penn House the next day with a sense that the weekend had been a bit chaotic. Some of the chaos was because a family from Montana was sent to us on Saturday by a local TV reporter with an understanding that a local church was going to cover their lodging fees. As I started to try and make the connections between the various parts of this story, I met a remarkable family. Keith Barrett X and his wife, Veronica Lynn Illig-Barrett X, had journeyed 60 hours from the Flathead Reservation in Montana to be a part of the Million Man March. Keith told me that he was unable to attend the first one 20 years ago because he was in prison, but pledged to make the next one. Despite the economics, he made it with a bit of faith in the goodness of people - going "As Way Opens". Keith shared with me his story - growing up in Beaver Falls, PA, Los Angeles and Phoenix, the son of a man in the music industry (who worked with the likes of Barry White). At 18, breaking out on his own, he moved to Washington State. He bounced around between WA and AZ until 11 years ago when he met his wife. Keith is part Blackfoot, and his wife is Flathead, so with this lineage, they made their way to Montana.
Barrett X's garden

As Keith and I talked, he spoke of his belief that good people and oppressors come in all shapes, sizes and colors, and his stay at William Penn House was an opportunity to show that to his kids. He shared that he is a member of the Nation of Islam, but believes in one God that loves all of us. He showed me pictures of the 1/2 acre community garden he put in this spring, and had his 5 year-old son tell me about the lettuce, cabbage, onions, corn and tomatoes they are growing. It was an energizing connection.

Will we actually get the fees to cover this family's lodging? We don't know yet. Is this a vital part of continuing our missional presence in the Nation's Capital? Absolutely! Do we have the means to cover this ourselves (although a special thanks does go to Sam Ford from ABC7 News for covering a portion of this)? Not yet. My deepest faith is that way will open for us to continue to do this. It was not Quaker process that brought all this together, but Quaker faith.