Opening Up to Transformation

by Callie Janoff
Brooklyn Meeting


During the closing plenary at Coordinating Committee Weekend, January 31, 2021, Callie Janoff shared the following message, sparked by these queries: What is structural bias? What is the relationship between our structures & processes and who is welcome to participate in NYYM?


I noticed this weekend that almost no one that I heard in committee meetings or in my small groups talked about the pandemic. It just didn’t come up. I noticed this because by the end of the day I was feeling pretty down, feeling alone, and like I hadn’t been as faithful as I could have been. And then I reminded myself of something that I’ve needed to hear many times since last March: you survived. You didn’t die today. Having COVID last year, and losing so many precious people to this disease, this has become a very real and totally reasonable baseline goal: survive today. I need to admit to you that it wasn’t until June of last year that I really appreciated how real this baseline goal has been for my black and brown neighbors EVERY day in America for the last four hundred years, not just every day of a global pandemic.


And once I’d really heard that and seen that, I couldn’t un-hear or un-see. I began to see things differently. Being stuck at home and seeing everything through a screen helped with this, actually. Not that I liked it; but it was a different way to see. By this time we were beginning to really lean in to producing the virtual Summer Sessions. And again, Friends, I need to confess to you: Summer Sessions was brutal for me, and for many of your NYYM staff, and for a lot of you who participated in organizing and producing Summer Sessions. By my estimation, Summer Sessions took the equivalent of about 30-40 people working almost around the clock for at least a month to pull off—most of them unpaid.


And it was in that context, at the end of a very long, very intense month of work, that I heard two important messages, from younger Friends, and from Friends of Color. From younger Friends I heard the message that they desperately needed our support, and that many had found that support through the mentorship project that was born at the Summer Sessions of 2019. For them participation in NYYM didn’t look like the work of serving on an existing committee; it looked like building mutually nurturing relationships that deepened their connection with Spirit. From Friends of Color I heard the message that our structures and processes tend to exclude them, and that they must exhaustingly work around structural blind spots, White-centered cultural norms, and internalized biases to participate in Quaker spaces.


And all of this listening made me wonder: is producing a two week virtual Summer Sessions really how we want to spend our resources? Just imagine what Friends could do if 30 to 40 of us, working around the clock for a month, spent that time developing ways to support younger Friends. What would make it possible for us to do that? Imagine if the same efforts we took to pull off Summer Sessions were marshaled to the cause of dismantling systemic racism, structural bias, and internalized bias in our spiritual home. What could we accomplish?


The way that most Friends participate in New York Yearly Meeting is through working. I heard it many times in committee meetings yesterday: our work, the work, my work. Lots of working. I know many would make a case that it is through work that we worship and build community, and I agree that it is one way. But to me this is a narrow way to understand worship and community. Because if participation is based in work, it is best suited to those who do not have to work for pay due to age, retirement, affluence, privilege, life circumstances, or additional resources. Those who do both the work of the yearly meeting and must also work for pay, often draw on other resources, burn out, feel inadequate, do with less, or struggle to maintain other aspects of their lives.


Because participation in our yearly meeting as it is currently structured is primarily based on work, and because it is primarily a particular type of work, we exclude from participation most Friends who are not able to work to participate. This is structural bias.


The gifts we carry and our ability to exercise those gifts are often shaped by our cultural, social, racial, economic, family, age, sexuality, and gender circumstance. Even though as a religious society we aspire to organize ourselves according to the values of equity, equality, and justice, we live in a world where power is assigned to and held by those who, through circumstance, belong to a privileged caste. This inequity shapes every aspect of our world and permeates our reality. It makes it difficult to unlearn what we have been taught to expect from ourselves and from each other. This is internalized bias.


Our structures, like Coordinating Committee Weekend, are ripe for transformation, like an egg just ready to crack open. And it is already transforming. We had sequential rather than concurrent coordinating committee meetings—will we ever want to go back to the way we did it before? I hope not. I think some of the structural changes we have made this year have benefited us, even as we have been forced to make them by the pandemic. And now that I’ve seen a different way to do it, I can’t and frankly don’t want to unsee it! And now I see the possibilities of transformation everywhere. What if our yearly meeting was less focused on building relationships through work and more focused on just plain old building relationships? What if committees weren’t our primary opportunities to know each other? What if we could spend as much energy on recognizing and celebrating the gifts we carry as we do assigning them to a task?


We create and maintain our structures and processes and we have the capacity to transform them. It isn’t someone else’s to do; it is ours. I pledge to you that I will do what I can in the corner of the NYYM that I support and nurture. It is not easy for me. I am attached to familiar structures, I don’t want to lose them, and when I do, I grieve them. It is not easy, but it is also not work. It is metabolization, it is transformation. So I want to invite you to join me. I have a query for you: Where do you see yourself in our structure? Where do you see an opportunity to transform it?