Monday, January 2, 2012

Things That Have Never Been

It's been ten months since I've written. I've been back to meeting maybe once since the last time I wrote, which is part of the reason I haven't had anything to write. Most of my focus has been on a local anti-racism conference and an anti-marriage amendment to the Minnesota State constitution. And my family. And many other places where I feel like my gifts and talents are valued and sought after.

A few months ago, friend Su Penn wrote a piece about her leaving her Meeting and it still speaks to me and my condition. I've been hanging onto my Meeting because it's been all I've had, spiritually, all I've known for the better part of the last twenty years. It saved my life and helped me meet the love of my life. I was hoping to find another spiritual community where I felt at home before I left the only real spiritual home I had.

But I won't wait any longer; I need to make room in my life for what is possible. It's time to lay down my membership in the Religious Society of Friends. As such, it's time to lay down this blog for good.

I don't leave Friends bitter or angry, but instead like Su, feel lighter, freer, full of possibility. Maybe you'll see me in worship from time to time.

I'm on Facebook, Twitter and Google+ sometimes. I have a new blog that's just about social class. In case you want to stay in touch.

I'll leave you with these words, from Ranier Maria Rilke.

And now we welcome the new year, full of things that have never been.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Welcome and Ministry

Update: an updated version of this was published in Friends Journal on December 26th, 2012.

I hear over and over again tales of meetings wanting to be more welcoming and they spend much time at committee meetings or meetings for worship for business discussing how to be more so. They talk about greeters and potlucks and literature and how to be more "Friendly" to those we don't know. But do we talk about worship itself?

One place I find particularly unwelcoming and sometimes hurtful is meeting for worship, and more specifically the ministry given.

During worship, I might hear references to things like GRE or NPR or CPA, none of which I'd heard about before moving to Minnesota at 24. I hear about the trials and tribulations of graduate school, and see nods of understanding but was clueless about until becoming friends with people who had gotten their advanced degrees. Friends find metaphors for ministry in complicated investment tools (which are still beyond my capacity to understand), academic treatises (which only recently have ceased to intimidate me), and even in all the discipline required for doing middle class taxes (I'd always used 1040 EZ, one page, no tracking required).

Beyond using words and metaphors that aren't accessible, sometimes the ministry is hurtful. Recently, a man stood to talk about all the help he'd gotten to get where he was, a retired and published chemistry professor. As he went on to describe a woman he'd helped at his private elite liberal arts college, he stated his utter shock that she was so smart and talented given that she'd transferred from her local community college in northern Minnesota. It made me think that I shouldn't tell him that I'd only recently graduated from Metro State.

Another time, a dentist talked about her "a-ha" moment when she realized how unfair the trade was that she'd done with a man who painted all the walls inside her house. She'd given him partial dentures that took an hour of her time and little effort and didn't realize how much time it took to paint her walls until later when she painted just one room. She seemed to be using the story to "teach" us about economic inequality.*

So I have some suggestions about making our actual worship more welcoming and less hostile to those who are not like us, and welcome your ideas too.

1. Create ways in meeting to address hurtful issues like these when they come up and make them explicit. My meeting has channels to flag ministry that's considered inappropriate in Friends ways (responding in a defensive way to a previous person, speaking right after another, using the platform to advance something overtly political or personal), but considering content seems verboten.

2. Consider very carefully your use of education or finances or middle class professions as metaphors in your own ministry. Is this something a hotel maid can relate to? A day laborer? A dishwasher? Is there another metaphor you can use if not?

3. We can only "preach" what we know, so we must speak from our own experiences. But as you give ministry, ask yourself if you're assuming that your life and your story is universal. See the questions under #2.

4. Now this one is radical. Make it okay to talk about social class in your meeting in an open and honest way, even when you talk about the quality of ministry. Ask hard questions about how welcoming your worship is for poor and working class people of all races and ethnicities.**

What are your thoughts and ideas? Does your meeting talk about worship when they talk about being welcoming? If so, how does it tackle that topic?

*I had to explain to Liz why that one hurt so I'll also explain it here. All I knew before I met middle class people for the first time was hard work, the kind that wore you out every single day so that you had little more energy for anything more than pulling up the footrest of your recliner, the kind that broke your wrist or even killed you if you weren't careful, the kind that required protective gear. I've been among Friends for going on 20 years and I still am surprised and hurt when a middle class person has become the "expert" on economic inequality when they are only now choosing a couple of hours of physical work on the weekend "for fun". My life is easy now, but I did hard low-wage work for the first ten years of my working life and then low-wage office work for the next eight, all by the time I was 33.

**For a bit of disclosure, I haven't been able to have any of this conversation in my own meeting. More on this in an upcoming post, I hope.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

A Modern Plea

Wealth is attended with power, by which bargains and proceedings, contrary to universal righteousness, are supported; and hence oppression, carried on with worldly policy and order, clothes itself with the name of justice and becomes like a seed of discord in the soul. –John Woolman, A Plea for the Poor

I started this essay, originally intended for a Friends Journal1 special issue on education, not knowing what I was going to write. All I knew was that I felt a “seed of discord” about Friends prep schools, and I had no idea how to convey this sense that in our efforts to provide a good education, we're privileging the already privileged in order to give the same to those we deem worthy of getting it.

So I set out to learn about the social class diversity of Friends schools. Working with education professor Jane Van Galen, I developed a survey about the students who receive financial aid at Friends schools and part way through my research, I had to stop because someone with a measure of power among Friends schools decided they didn't like the questions I was asking and didn't like what I'd written before. And suddenly all the interviews I had scheduled from that date forward were cancelled and people stopped returning my calls. I don't know who it was and I don't know what was said. And that's not the story I want to tell here and now.

I tell you this because what initially looked like a wall turned out to be an opportunity. I don't work in education and didn't go to a Friends school. My college degree is in writing, not sociology. What was I to write about if I don't have "the facts" so many well-educated Friends ask for when I talk about Quaker education? So I pondered and prayed.

In my reflection I thought about the people I got to interview at fifteen schools before I had to stop the research. I found hard-working people with good intentions, people who crave excellence and equality. They reiterated some of what I already understood about Friends education: Quaker college preparatory schools supply a good education to students whose families can pay the tuition, and as many less wealthy students as the schools can afford to subsidize; some of the families receiving financial aid are pulled permanently out of poverty, so staff work hard to find funding for more and more families; Friends schools introduce students, families, and non-Quaker staff and faculty to Quaker worship, simplicity, peace, equality, integrity and community.

In story after story, I heard staff who themselves had become convinced Friends because of their experience of Friends education, and remembered that I count among my friends people who became convinced Friends at Quaker schools.

When I heard stories of the kids who Quaker prep schools helped, I forgot that my limited research was affirming my belief that a lot of the financial aid recipients have other social class privileges that would give them advantages over most other public school students.2

But when I closed my eyes in meeting for worship, I saw an auditorium full of poor and working class families holding lottery tickets hungering for one of the 20 or so spots at a Seed school in Washington, D.C. or Baltimore; I saw the poor and working class kids in sociologist Annette Lareau's "Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race and Family Life" who wanted to be in the band or play soccer or go to the library but starved for adults in their lives to make that happen; I saw urban Quaker prep schools surrounded by a throng of young people not knowing they need the educational nutrition inside those walls. And I wept. Not metaphorically, not just in my heart. Real live heart-broken tears.

Then I saw a vision of a food shelf as if it were run like we run Quaker prep schools.

It made me ask, if we had a blank slate in today’s society, in a culture that claims it’s a meritocracy but has one of the highest degree of economic status heritability among industrialized countries, would we have schools that give a very good education to kids who were lucky enough to be born into wealthy families, educate those who already have the most access to education? Does that system fit with our sense of the truth about equality?

Thus oppression in the extreme appears terrible, but oppression in more refined appearances remains to be oppression, and where the smallest degree of it is cherished it grows stronger and more extensive: that to labor for a perfect redemption from this spirit of oppression is the great business of the whole family of Christ Jesus in this world. –John Woolman, A Plea for the Poor

Before I ended my research, I got an opportunity to talk with a head of school who helped me see a vision of what’s possible for our schools: Dennis Hoerner at Wellsprings Friends School in Eugene, OR.

This Friends school started in 1994 like most other Quaker schools, as a private college prep institution with traditional entrance requirements and financial aid funded primarily through tuition paid by those who could afford it. Then in 1998, Oregon law changed to allow students struggling in public schools to be referred to any other school, public or private, and that student’s public school funding would follow the student. Within two years, Wellsprings became a school of almost entirely hard-to-teach public school students who are now thriving with the kind of tender attention and honor for which Quakers have such a capacity. William Ravdin, a Friend who became convinced because of his experience at a Quaker school and who has worked in Friends education his whole long life says of Wellsprings, “It is educating children who need to be rebuilt, emotionally and educationally, from the foundation up. Children whose families and schools in many cases have given up on them. Children who have given up on themselves."

Wellsprings Friends School’s only requirement to attend is that the student wants to be at the school.

Wellsprings fell into the work Woolman showed us three centuries ago. How can our other schools work toward a “perfect redemption” as we’re called, intentionally and with God's help? What will a Quaker school that embodied our sense of the truth about equality really look like?

1I submitted a version of this article to Friends Journal and retracted it a couple of days later, feeling like it wasn't finished. I'm not sure this one is finished, but I'm done with it.

2This statement comes from information I've gotten from a number of resources including Lareau's book that outlines how families where parents have a college education give their kids advantages that working class and poor families don't have, and how those advantages benefit the kids in school and later in life. Other more longitudinal studies have been done including Lewis Terman's "Genetic Studies of Genius" that show how much impact social class has on educational and professional accomplishments, and how IQ isn't an indicator.

My limited research of just 15 Quaker prep schools showed that while the majority of financial aid recipients income was low, an equal majority have very well-educated parents and caregivers. Many are choosing professions that don't pay well, many are artists or non-profit administrators. Few don't have a college degree. And of all the school's websites I visited (all the schools that have at least an 8th grade), all but one have admissions requirements that would favor families that have very educated parents of all incomes.

Given Lareau's work and what I found in my research, I concluded that Friends prep schools are mostly educating those who are already privileged educationally.

Welcome to Higher Arky Street Friends Food Shelf, HASFFS, where all* are welcome.

At HASFFS, we pride ourselves in the finest and most healthful fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy and proteins. The farmers we choose to buy from all have a bachelor's degree and most have advanced degrees. They use only organic farming methods and only non-violent techniques of conflict resolution with the people they hire to harvest their foods.

Our staff are even more highly trained than our growers are; some have their Ph.D. in fields like Sustainable Agriculture and Culinary Adventures. They are here not only to answer your most basic questions about food and cooking and healthful eating, they offer courses on Sustainable Understory Growing, Food Emotional Development and Off Grid Cooking.

But first, a few guidelines and a process for admission to our food shelf.

1. We accept applications continually throughout the year except November 15 to January 15, our busiest time of the year. Please fill out the required forms for each member of your family, including your personal chef. Be sure to provide the written references from previous food shelves and/or grocers and/or cooking instructors for everyone 7 and older, including your personal chef or cook, and send it to the address below with the non-refundable $75 application fee per person.

2. We require that children over 2 and under 7 get tested to be sure they are prepared for the rigors of healthy eating. You can find testing sites here, and it generally will cost $300-$500. All others in the family must take the Independent Food Shelf Standardized Entrance Exam, which costs only $89 for each person taking the test. Children under 2 need not be tested, but we do require they get the psychological test when they turn 2 and then when they are 7 take the IFSEE.  Personal chefs or cooks are exempted from testing if they are certified or have a degree from an approved culinary institute.

3. Once we've received all required materials and determine that you and your family meet all of our guidelines (we do not have the resources or training to deal with families who do not have a demonstrated interest or practice of eating well for good health), we will schedule a few site visits to your home to observe your eating and cooking practices, as well accompany you two times during your food shopping experiences.

4. Our goal is to ensure a good fit between your family and HASFFS and we will attend to your family's application with great care. After the site visits, we will meet with the admissions committee to determine, in the most worshipful way, whether your family demonstrates the necessary nutritional vigor we expect at the Higher Arky Street Friends Food Shelf, and will notify you within three months of your initial application.

Should you be accepted into the Higher Arky Street Friends Food Shelf, we request the first monthly payment thirty days before your grocery shopping can begin. Fees for food alone is approximately $1,500/month for a family of four. Additional costs you'll need to pay outside of the monthly fee include the cost of food, cookware, china, silverware (yes, real silver only here at HASFFS), table dressings, centerpieces and books for cooking classes, as well as transportation to and from the food shelf, and various fees for field trips to local restaurants, farms and food coops.

We understand that the average family of four in our city pays only about $1,000/month for groceries, but the quality food and cuisine we provide is far more expensive than what the average family can buy. You can't get this kind of bounty at your local free food shelf, or even at the highest end grocery store because they don't offer the kind of values-based cuisine that we can!

Also, we charge those who are able to afford this healthy bounty we offer so that we may make available some measure of financial aid for a few who are not able to afford such, including many middle class families who find our food out-of-reach. To apply for financial aid, go to the Food Shelf and Family Service website to fill out the family financial statement. Have ready all information about your assets before you begin including income; valuations for your: home, second home, third home, fourth home, fifth home, vacation home, boat, RV, private plane, private spaceship, original art and expensive jewelry; savings including retirement accounts and all that you've saved for your family's nourishment in a 589b-33 account; digital photos of your vegetable garden; a list of your available china, silverware, cookware and kitchen appliances.

Higher Arky Street Friends Food Shelf commits over $5,000,000 every year for financial aid, and over 23% of our families receive some assistance! Many of those are the middle class who don't have the resources they need to provide healthy nourishment for their families. While our food shelf doesn't come close to matching the diversity of our neighborhood, we have a diversity statement that comes from a diversity committee appointed by the board and we definitely value diversity in all its forms. Even socio-economic, which we measure only by income and assets because there aren't any other things to measure social class.

If you have any questions or concerns about the application process, financial aid, scheduling a site visit, or want to make a generous donation toward our efforts to bringing only the best to those who deserve it, don't hesitate to contact us at We at Higher Arky Street Friends Food Shelf thank you for visiting.

*By "all" we mean those who practice rigorous good nutrition and healthful eating, and strongly prefer values-based food shopping and cooking experiences. If this is not you, you might find a better fit at one of those free food shelves or warehouse food outlets.

Monday, February 22, 2010

As If Your Life Depended on It

A while ago, I talked with Liz about a committee charged with a specific task (I'm keeping this non-specific because the issue has since been addressed).

I was upset because the committee and our meeting didn't seem to act on a couple of things I sent the clerk and the committee about the task. I don't remember exactly who said what, but Liz and I came to the conclusion that if I brought my concern to the committee or the meeting, I'd be asked why I didn't do the task myself. My response?


Then I realized this might be a social class thing.

At my meeting (and at the yearly meeting and in a few other Quaker settings), if you bring a concern or solution to a problem, you're often asked to lead the committee for the concern or implement the solution.

Does this happen in your Quaker circles? Do you ask, "Why aren't they..." and you get, "Why aren't YOU...?"

This, I posit, is an expression of middle class individualism and not Quakerism.

Growing up, I was taught to go directly to a person or group responsible for a task they were supposed to do but weren't doing (or were doing badly). This, I think,comes from a working class culture. When you see something in the workplace that isn't getting done the way it's supposed to be getting done, you help protect the person on the line with you by saying something to them, because you know what it's like to have the boss come down on you, what it will be like if you lose your job. And they would do the same for you.

You're concerned because what he or she does impacts your job, your livelihood. He or she may live in your neighborhood, may be related to you closely or distantly. And you can't do his or her job also because your work won't get done.

If your coworker doesn't respond, you go to his or her family. If that doesn't work, you go to the union. And you never, ever go to the boss.

No, the committee's task isn't impacting my livelihood or isn't threatening my way of life or the lives of people in my meeting. But there's something embedded in me that wants, no NEEDS, that committee to do what it has been charged to do.

Does my worldview have a place in Quakerism? I think so.

Early Friends often let each other know when they weren't faithful, when they outran their Guide. We hesitate to do so and are sometimes offended when others do so because we so value our individual freedoms, our individual leadings and beliefs. They knew their spiritual lives, their corporate lives and Quakerism in general depended on it.

I think they were right. I feel like my spiritual life, the spiritual well-being of my meeting, and Quakerism in general depend on our collective faithfulness, our ability to do what we've been charged to do.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Some Answers

Su over at Tape Flags and First Thoughts reads voraciously and writes quickly and well. She also has an interest in the issue of social class. In her most recent post, she talks about conservative political scientist Charles Murray's most recent book, Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing American Schools Back to Reality.

I'm a slower reader than Su by a number of magnitudes, and I'm not going to read Murray's book anytime soon. Luckily, Su summarized it and pulled out the salient points for her readers. She likes the questions he brings about education (but definitely not his answers). She asks about educating children and specifically modern American educational institutions:
How do we recognize the different abilities of different children? How do we nurture and guide them to the best use of those abilities? How do we de-stigmatize the less academic gifts, so that spending 13 years in our school systems doesn't leave so many kids feeling like failures?
I've had the same questions about both public and private education precisely because separating our education efforts by social class wastes human talent and resources in the same way bottom trawl fishing wastes far more than it reaps. I found a bunch of Quakers who, if what they're saying (and what William Ravdin says about them) is true, are answering her questions in practice.

Wellsprings Friends School in Eugene, Oregon started in 1994 as a more traditional independent (private) high school with tuition and financial aid and fundraisers and a focus on preparing kids for college.

But a few years ago, Oregon law changed everything. Suddenly, kids who didn't fare well in Oregon public schools could be referred to the school of their choice, public or private. Within two years, Wellsprings became a school of almost entirely hard-to-teach public school students.

The same students, in the Wellsprings environment, are thriving.

No, they don't all go to college. In fact, most don't. Just like the rest of the public school students in Eugene, Oregon. Head of school Dennis Hoerner says that the school demographics closely match those of the public schools from which they draw.

"Maybe one or two graduates go to a four-year college, about half go to community college, and the others look for work or get into apprenticeship programs," said Hoerner

The school's goal?

To support that student in whatever they want to do, and to help them find that.

Wellsprings help students find and nurture their interests and gifts. Hoerner said teachers place kids into community college classes or vocational classes outside of Wellsprings, as well as connect them with people who are already doing the work the student wants to do.

"We open all of them to the prospect of a community college, which is a stepping stone," he said.

I'm not the only one impressed with Wellsprings. William Ravdin, a Friend who has worked in Friends education for most of his very long life, wrote a lovely article for Friends Bulletin (now called Western Friend) about his visit to Wellsprings. He says that Wellsprings shows us a new direction for Quaker education.

"It is educating children who need to be rebuilt, emotionally and educationally, from the foundation up. Children whose families and schools in many cases have given up on them. Children who have given up on themselves," Ravdin writes of Wellsprings.

Knowing that receiving public funding might limit the school's ability to talk about Quakerism, I asked Hoerner about religious education. He said they'd never considered themselves a sectarian school, even before the funding change. But they do something like worship.

"We have a weekly 'Silent Meeting', which parallels 'meeting for worship' at other Friends schools but is not presented as either "worship" or something particular to Quakers. Rather, while we do explain that link, we also refer to the role of silence/meditation in other traditions as well, both religious and non-religious."

I'm guessing that Ravdin would take issue with that because he found Quakerism in a Quaker school. His headmaster, after he expressed some misgivings about the faith in which he was being raised, gave him Thomas Kelly's A Testament of Devotion. After reading it, Ravdin became a convinced Friend. He was eleven years old.

I personally am easier with limiting religious education than others. I don't understand why, if we're educating everyone and not just those who "deserve" a fine education, we need to be producing Quakers. Our work should speak for itself and I think in time Wellsprings will see many fruits of the Spirit.

Finally, the tuition is $7,000 for students who aren't referred to the school. That's a lot of money, but 1/5th of what the most expensive Quaker prep school in the country costs. Just a reminder, they're educating and graduating kids who were unable to stay in public schools. For $7,000 each year. Amazing.

In case you can't already tell, I'm enamored. The school even has a blog where both students and faculty write and post pictures and video. If you do nothing else, check out pictures of the science class before they dissected squid. You can even follow them on twitter.

I think Liz and I will be making a donation to Wellsprings this year.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Urgent Question for My Readers

Is there anyone who reads my blog who is attending the Friends Council on Education diversity summit on education and class at Pendle Hill February 8-9? I can't go because I'm not affiliated with a Friends school, but would love to talk with people who are going, both before and after, for an article I'm writing for Friends Journal.

If so, please contact me directly at njeanneburns at gmail and you know the rest dot com.