Tag Archives: young

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?


Y is for… Young

“We need young Friends like you.”

“It’s so nice to see so many young people here.”

“You’re so young and full of energy, why don’t you [move these chairs/sort out this problem/reverse climate change]?”

There are Young Friends – capital Y, capital F – and they have their own General Meeting, and I wish them all the best with it. However, I am not now or have I ever been, for various reasons of my own which I don’t think should need defending, a Young Friend. I am a Friend, a Quaker, certainly, and I am also ‘young’ in the sense that I cannot yet be described as retired or even nearing retirement. I am also, though, an adult. I live alone, I pay bills, I manage my own time, I take responsibility, etc. I can, if I choose, drink, drive, marry, and/or join the army. (As it happens I don’t at present, but I reserve the right to change my mind.)

Here are some myths about youth and age which creep into Quaker conversations sometimes. I think people don’t always notice that they’re there – or at least, that’s the most generous way to account for the fact that they continue to rely on them. I’ve tried to keep this post not too angry, although in all honesty the patronising attitudes I have met among Friends do hurt me deeply.

  • Pain is related to age; young people don’t know about pain.

This is pretty obviously wrong, I hope. If you think of a horrible childhood disease – there are, alas, plenty to choose from – it’s clear that some children experience considerable amounts of pain. If you recall that a considerable number of moderate to horrible diseases are invisible, it becomes clear that a child could be in pain without this being obvious to strangers and acquaintances. Now, it’s true that the chances of experiencing severe or sustained pain probably increase with age, because you’ve had longer to injure yourself or get an illness, but that doesn’t mean that you can assume young people don’t know about pain. Also, I’m a bit worried if older people are assuming that their pain is just part of ageing; some pain, including some of mine, is hard to treat or incurable, but I hope you ask that question of a doctor (or two or three) before you decide it’s an ordinary part of life.

  • Young people have more energy.

Clearly not true in all cases; stress and fatigue, like pain, can affect everyone. Some older people may have more energy than some young people, and energy expenditure can, again, be invisible. This myth often comes up when we are considering nominations, and those conversations don’t always take into account the other commitments (exams, work, hobbies, children, etc.) which ‘young’ people in our meetings are juggling. Actually, everyone is usually juggling something against the time and energy they put into serving the Meeting, and time of life is only one factor in the complex calculations here.

  • Young people are the future.

At the moment, David Cameron is the future. By which I mean: the people who shape our collective future are those who have the power to shape the world we live in now. Granted, I might see a bit more of the future than someone older than me (unless the Tories wreck our economy some more and I’m unable to earn a living of any kind, at which point I might choose to jump off a bridge instead). But I shape the future of my current meeting by the things I do now – leading a study group which sets someone thinking, giving a newcomer (whatever their age!) the information they need. We are the future. ‘We’ is you, whatever age you are, and me, whatever age I am. If you want to improve that future, don’t opt out, but acknowledge the power you have now. Don’t abdicate and leave it to ‘young people’ – especially if you’re going to leave it in a mess. (Do you hear me, Dave?)

Another way to approach this topic – in contrast to the myth-busting method above – would be to talk about privilege and ageism. Discrimination based on age can cut both ways in our society: people looking down on, ignoring, or fearing the young (not listening to children, treating teenagers like another species, assuming that young adults – even at 20 or 25! – are less capable or less responsible), and people rejecting, ignoring, and thinking the worst of the elderly (not listening, treating them like another species, assuming that they’re less capable… seem familiar?). There are stereotypes for all of this: racist grandma, violent teenager, dotty old man, drunken student.

Sometimes when we talk about an axis of oppression, it seems that the power flows in one direction – within the genders spectrum, for example, usually the more masculine you are the more privilege and unearned power our society grants you. For age, though, it seems that the problem is being at one extreme or the other; your age is only unnoticed if you’re in the middle stretch, 30-50 or maybe as much as 20-60. I suspect that this correlates with when people have most power generally – most responsibility in a job or childcare, for example, and most money going through the household even if not much stays.

The problem manifests differently at each end, of course. If you’re at the young end you’re likely to get the kinds of myths I discussed last week. If you’re at the older end there’s a whole other set of nonsense. I think we, as Quakers, need to realise how much of it is nonsense, though. Of course there are people who for whatever reason can’t do a particular job, but these reasons are not automatically age-related – I can’t be an overseer because I’m terrible with people, and it’s no good asking my incredibly forgetful and disorganised friend A to convene a meeting because it would never happen – but we’re both in our mid to late twenties. Making assumptions based on age, rather than taking individuals as individuals, is going to lead you to a lot of mistaken answers.

Y is for… Young

It’s sometimes said of Paganism that it’s a very young religion. I think there are ways in which that’s true: neo-paganism, as a matter of fact, has only become a religion – as opposed to a rumoured secret society, a heresy, or an occasional leaning of an individual or isolated small group – in the very recent past. I won’t summarise the history here (you should read Ronald Hutton and Margot Adler and Cynthia Eller if you want to know), but it’s less than a century old. Futhermore, the more eclectic and solitary kinds especially often attract teenagers and young adults, so that it is sociologically young (compared with other religions – Christian churches tend to have ageing populations in the countries where western neo-paganism is on the rise).

In other ways, of course, Pagan religions are very old; indeed, it sometimes seems that antiquity is all that the major neo-pagan sources of inspiration have in common. One can trace connections – the Norse and the Egyptians both had contact with the Romans – and some patterns – the Celts, the Greeks, and Hinduism have known triple deities – but it is really being old which they have in common. Often, too, they have been extinct and neo-paganism is a revival, reconstruction, or reconstruct-and-reform movement.

Perhaps it is most obvious in the deeper matters. Neo-paganism, as a community, is only beginning to explore these issues, although there are many trailblazers; Quakers, at only 350 or so, are relatively young in global terms but have had three and a half centuries to work on such things. I think the youth of the movement is what we see when more advanced practitioners complain about the wealth of beginners’ books and the dearth of publications for the already expert. The answer is to publish them, and it is happening, but the process takes time especially in such a scattered community – if it can be called a single community at all.