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