Keeping cradle Quakers by making room to lean in?

Sam Barnett-Cormack blogged recently about the idea of a Quaker Rumspringa. It might work for some people – I don’t want to put anyone off from trying it if it might help!

On the other hand, I tried something like it and only lasted a week or two; for me, it was much more effective to ‘lean in’ to Quakerism. I already had a faith community and I wanted to be a full and active member of it. I didn’t always feel this approach was welcomed, though, by the communities I was trying to join. That might be because I’m a shitty person that nobody wants to have around – and in a way that answer is fine, because it would just be about me and not a structural or widespread problem. Or it might be because people already have a picture that ‘those young things’ (by which they might mean everyone from about fifteen to perhaps forty) shouldn’t really be in a Quaker meeting. I should say here that this does not apply evenly across all Quaker meetings – some have been much better than others about involving me as a young adult and almost all find a way in the end, but not always before my hand hurts from knocking on the door.

A few years ago, when a book about women in the workplace was published under the title “Lean In” (Wikipedia link because this is NOT a book recommendation), I agreed with the many critics who said this didn’t always work and wasn’t good advice, in fact that it encouraged an unjust pattern in which some people have to work harder than others – and I recognised the technique I was using on Quaker meetings. Here are some of the methods I have used to try and gain respect in Quaker meetings:

  • Turning up every week, diligently, with minimal regard for practicality, my health, or the health of other people (e.g. attending while contagious with a cold)
  • Volunteering for anything which can be volunteered for and trying to do it not only well but outstandingly in the hopes of being noticed and trusted in future (including ignoring other people who could do it and irrespective of whether I genuinely felt led to the work)
  • Using educational privilege (which I have in buckets through a combination of brain wiring, class privilege, and luck) to overcome some of the ways I was disparaged as immature (this can be unethical and in any case it only works until it doesn’t: hello anti-intellectualism!)
  • Being stubborn and pushing back (as in: “I’m not a Young Friend, I’m a mung bean” – I grow best under pressure)
  • Shouting into the void and waiting to see if there’s any reply (which is the essence of blogging)
  • A form of respectability politics – trying not to do things ‘young people’ stereotypically do, such as sit on the floor, give computer advice, or be visibly energetic

Some of these come to me naturally – I’d have educational privilege anyway, and I deploy it in other circumstances to try and overcome sexism and (to a lesser extent) biphobia (and, although I try and avoid it, to bolster my white, cis, and other forms of privilege). Some had excellent outcomes – volunteering for whatever was going led me onto a Quaker Quest core team, which supported me in speaking out about my Quakerism, which led to my moment of convincement, or rather realising that I was already convinced enough (that is, it directly addressed the issue Sam is addressing in his blog post). Other things are more difficult – I love the internet and a desire that people stop assuming I use social media all the time is not enough to make me actually decrease my use of social media. More to the point, though, I wish I chose to do these things from love or because I was led or even just wanted to, and not because I felt I had to prove myself because of my age. I was working with a Quaker group recently in which the youngest member chose to sit on the floor. I felt a spike of real anger about that – how dare she let the side down by conforming to stereotype! – before realising how completely that feeling is an artefact of the way I have felt compelled to behave in Quaker groups in order to earn respect. It’s not even that I especially want to sit on the floor. It’s that I know I am more open to being patronised if I do.

I’m not advocating any of these methods. Some of them have appeared to work for me, but people shouldn’t have to ‘lean in’ and make a special effort in order to be counted as a full member of the Quaker community. They require luck as well. (And some of them encourage people to exceptionalise me, focusing on my particular talents or circumstances, rather than seeing the broader problem.) What I would like to see is a shift in the community to make these sorts of things unnecessary.

A while ago I was in a Quaker committee meeting discussing whether changes to some procedures or structures would help young people participate more. Someone pointed out that of twenty-plus people in the room, three or four of us were ‘young adults’, and suggested this meant the current situation was accessible. No, I said, I’ve worked hard and been lucky to get to a place where I can be involved in this way – not everyone can do that and nobody should have to. Now we’re here, let’s make change rather than forcing others through the same maze. So my questions for Quakers are: How do you ensure that adults are trusted to be adults even if they are under 30? How do you make sure that people are given opportunities to take responsibility without feeling that they must perform especially well because they are representing a whole demographic? Generally, how do you make sure you behave in accordance with our principle that everyone is unique, precious, a child of God?

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2 responses to “Keeping cradle Quakers by making room to lean in?

  1. Here in the U.S., the trick to getting on national committees while young (at least when I was trying it in my 20s) was having a well-known mom. As someone who kept knocking and kept getting turned away it blew me away when I heard Quaker-famous offspring complain how they were always being asked to serve on committees. But then I realized it was the same tokenizing phenomenon, just in reverse. So our work isn’t just looking around a room and ticking off demographic boxes, but really digging deeper and seeing if we’re representative of multiple diversities. And if we’re not, the problem isn’t just that we aren’t diverse (which is a fine value in and of itself but ultimately tokenizing) but that we have unexamined practices and selection systems that are systematically turning away qualified people.

  2. Sam Barnett-Cormack

    We definitely need to do better in the way we approach/think of younger Friends. Token inclusion, which happens too often, isn’t good enough – and is even worse when Friends have a clear idea of where it’s appropriate to have a token YF and where it isn’t (without necessarily any real logic behind it – I’m sure you recall my session at the central noms conference). Perhaps if we don’t think of token younger people at all, just about actually including people and embracing not only their very individual gifts but the genuine benefit of diversity of life experience, we would do much better.

    I am very pleased by the age spread of the revision committee. I have some raised eyebrows about other elements, but you can’t balance everything, and age seems to have been handled pretty darn well. Especially glad to see Taz on the list, though I would be regardless of age.

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