Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Beloved Community Cville

For the last 10 months I have been building the framework for an initiative that I've named "Beloved Community Cville". (Cville is a nickname for Charlottesville, VA for those of us who live here.) The concept is like a city-wide book read, only in this case we'll be watching a documentary: "I'm Not Racist... Am I?" (INRAI) I've created a website for the initiative and you can check out the trailer from the home page:

The kick-off event is a free, community-wide screening at the 1,100-seat Paramount Theater on the downtown mall on Friday, Feb. 9th at 7 pm. After that the film will travel throughout the city for the next 30 days. It's going to be shown in our public & private schools, churches, libraries, non-profits, at the University of Virginia, and more. (Locations are still being lined up.) I'm excited that the film is going to be shown in both of my children's high schools, as well as the UVA Medical School and the UVA Curry School of Education.

After each screening there will be a facilitated discussion so that the audience has a chance to talk about the  important themes in the film. The first big community-wide screening at the Paramount Theater will be led by the filmmakers themselves, Catherine Wigginton Greene and Andre Robert Lee. The next day we're going to be training up to 50 people to act as facilitators for the remaining screenings.

                      Andre Robert Lee, Elizabeth Shillue, Catherine Wigginton Greene, and Gordon Fields

The first time I saw the film I'm Not Racist... Am I? was at Friends General Conference in 2014, so to my mind this film is related to the Friends. (It was the very first public screening that they did.) I could immediately see that this was a film that could have a big impact and felt led to bring the film to Charlottesville. With the support of my Quaker meeting and my children's Quaker school I was able to screen it at the Paramount Theater in February 2015. The event was co-sponsored by Charlottesville Friends Meeting and Tandem Friends School and it attracted a diverse audience of nearly 800 people! I was amazed by the turnout and audience response. There were many requests to bring the film back and so now, nearly three years later, plans are solidifying to do it in an even bigger way. This time I'm adding a 30 day licensing agreement with the film company to make it possible for as many people in Charlottesville to take part as possible.

Financial support for the project is being variously provided by organizations interested in holding screenings, private foundations and individuals, as well as Charlottesville Friends Meeting, the Charlottesville Office of Human Rights, and the Clarence and Lilly Pickett Endowment for Quaker Leadership. I am continuing to fundraise, with over half of what’s needed already pledged. I invite you to go to my website and make a donation! 

Very important to my process has been the mentoring that I've been receiving from the Director of the Charlottesville Office of Human Rights. Charlene Green has guided and encouraged me every step of the way. In addition I have a spiritual support committee from Charlottesville Friends meeting, with whom I meet monthly. I also have developed an agreement with a statewide social justice organization called Virginia Organizing, in which they act as the project’s fiscal sponsor. Virginia Organizing has nonprofit 501(c)(3) status and can accept grants and donations on behalf of the project, as well as provide tax letters.

Follow up plans for Beloved Community Cville include creating small social change circles called "Beloved Community Circles". These groups will be for folks in Charlottesville who want to plug in and do more after seeing the film. I believe that there's a need for us to practice being in community with one another. It's never going to be perfect, but we can learn together, gain clarity about the work that's ours to do, become accountable to one another, and possibly heal in community. 

I'm also planning to bring an “Undoing Racism” workshop to Charlottesville for local area high schoolers and teachers. This workshop is offered by the People’s Institute for Survival & Beyond, and is the first of the five that the twelve students participate in during the INRAI documentary. The vision is to bring 35-40 students from the different area high schools together (who’ve already seen INRAI) to participate in a day-long workshop sometime in the near future. This workshop experience could serve as a catalyst for the creation of intercity “Summits on Race,” self-organized by local high schoolers, as was done in Rochester, NY. I am in touch with a Quaker organizer there about their efforts.

I will close by speaking to the timing of this effort, as I'm sure you know what happened here in Charlottesville last summer. For many those events have served as a wake up call, but I've been engaged in my work for some time so it's not in reaction to the events of August 12th. I'd had the realization years ago that racism is the spiritual issue of our time and it's what I've been called to work on ever since. I believe that now is the time for giving everything we've got toward create change, and that this change must be both inner and outer.

There are many ways to walk the path of a change-maker or activist, all of which are needed, and all of which are supported by the kind of inner work and leadership development that ripples out into positive growth within our community. Unconscious attitudes and stereotypes can shape our behavior without our even realizing it. Yet we can uncover these hidden biases and learn to creatively respond in ways that invite healing and restore wholeness. We need more people who understand our mutual interdependence and can work with compassion, recognizing that love, truth, and justice are paramount. This is about becoming connected, inwardly and outwardly, so that our hands can do the work of our hearts.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

A Summer of Service

This summer I had the blessing of serving as the Evangelical Friends Church Mid-America Yearly Meeting Summer Intern. In short, my internship included everything from preparing for large ministry events to running errands to collecting supplies to being right there serving at an event; my internship was learning and serving in the capacity of the behind scenes work of ministry leadership. I was able to catch a glimpse of what goes on behind the scenes in ministry and event planning through helping plan and/or carrying out our summer camps at Camp Quaker Haven, VBS at Northridge Friends Church,  Kaleo Academy: A Friends Youth Leadership Training, Ministry Conference in Haviland, KS, our annual college gathering for Friends University students, Friends Friends Friends Retreat, and more!

I helped prepare for and served as an assistant administrative assistant at our regional gathering, Ministry Conference.

I was a counselor for a cabin of Junior High girls at Camp Quaker Haven for a week.  

I served as a Peer Leader at the first ever Kaleo Theology Camp. 

I have gained a deeper connection to the Friends church and have found great joy in becoming better acquainted to those in my yearly meeting–both younger and older than me. Throughout this summer I have seen the value in intergenerational living. The older generation has such wisdom and life experience to share and pour into me; the younger generation has such different views on varying topics and provides me with wisdom and creative thinking I would not have thought of on my own. Going forward, I would like to continue to foster relationships with both those older and younger than me, because I think that they both have things that I can learn from them and both provide outlets and opportunities to serve those within my local church body.

I look forward to continuing to serve in my local church and the local yearly meeting for the sake of the Good News. I'm thankful to the Clarence and Lilly Pickett Endowment Grant for helping make my summer of service possible. I am excited to continue to use the leadership skills I acquired this summer for the sake of His Kingdom!

Christa Follette
EFC-MAYM Summer Intern

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Retreat in the Cloud Forest

It is a treat to be contributing to a blog of such creative and meaningful projects! The summer of 2017 is proving to be an important moment to be of service and I appreciate the role that the Pickett Endowment has played in making that possible.

Starting in June, I have been supporting the development of an interfaith center in Huatusco, Mexico. Over the last ten years, I have been a part of a community in the state of Veracruz, Mexico protecting a Cloud Forest bioregion. This community provides education regarding sustainable agriculture and has planted thousands of trees in the region, promoting the regeneration of an important ecosystem here in Mexico.

I first came to live in Mexico two years ago, to blend my interest in spiritual practices and teachings with nature conservation. That work has blossomed into the creation of a retreat center that opened this summer. My role in the formation of this retreat center has been two fold. First, it is to provide a Quaker framework to our decision making process. I work with our leadership team to create an equitable and respectful environment through which to base all decisions going forward. Second, I am forming the first year’s program design and schedule in order to reflect the values of my faith and my community.

My first opportunity to step towards these goals was during our inaugural event. The vision of this event was to create an experience that honored and exposed participants to many faith traditions. In advance of the weekend, I was nervous about how it would turn out. While spiritual leaders from many traditions, from Buddhist to Celtic, and from Sikh to traditions honoring the sacred feminine had gathered, we did not have many people registered. What if it turned out to be a big flop?!

On opening night, over 100 people gathered to celebrate the space and to begin an important dialogue about the role of all religious faiths in the healing and protection of our earth. Here is our group just before saying goodbye on the final day of the inauguration in front of the retreat center:

The space is designed with eight pillars that lead towards a skylight, signaling the many paths that lead to God.

I had the honor of welcoming the participants on Friday night. I initiated the sequence of interfaith ceremonies with the Quaker tradition. Every tradition offered a symbol for an alter we created. These symbols will remain in the center for years to come, reminding us to create experiences that are inclusive and in the service of Spirit. For the Quaker tradition there is a carving saying “Welcome Friends.”

Perhaps the most touching ceremony for me was led by a French Canadian priest who serves those without resources in this community. Representing the Catholic faith, he presented five colorful squares, each with a symbol of Catholicism. One was a pair of dirty shoes. It was an invitation to step inside the experience of the other, and to treat all with love and compassion, as Jesus would have done.

The connection with the land here is so important. It speaks to us in ways that people can’t. Outside the retreat center, we built a spiral of Chicalaba trees. These trees grow to be so large that they create an supportive canopy for much of the cloud forest flora and fauna. Under it’s shade birds that are going extinct find refuge and plants seldom seen grow again. We have planted hundreds of Chicalabas nearby but the retreat was a chance for many people to meet one for the first time.

We closed the inauguration with a circle dance that was taught for healing in Mexico, after the use of nuclear waste caused great harm to many communities. The dance was a recognition of the healing power of trees in the face of disaster. Here you can see us dancing!

Monday, June 5, 2017

Partners in Ministry

Summer 2017 is off and running, and with that the Evangelical Friends Church Mid-America Yearly Meeting (EFC-MAYM) Ministry Center is busy preparing for all of the activities of this Summer! I am Christa Follette and I am the EFC-MAYM Summer Intern. I started serving in this position one week ago, and I am enjoying and soaking in every minute of it. The past week has included much planning and preparation for our summer camps held at Camp Quaker Haven: updating camp counselor information, putting together camp handbooks, loading a van, and calling counselors. I also had a great meeting with the Family Ministries Pastor at Northridge Friends Church to discuss Vacation Bible School and youth programming at Northridge Friends Church. Then, that same day I spend an hour and a half on the phone discussing and hashing out information regarding retreat books, college and young adult programming, Run 4 Missions, and how to use GoogleDocs.  This past week was full of a lot of planning, learning about long-term projects, and summer goals, which makes me eager for what the next nine weeks will hold. I have the joy of working alongside many different leaders within our yearly meeting, learning from them, and utilizing my time to serve them and serve with them. I'm so grateful for this opportunity to partner in ministry with EFC-MAYM and Northridge Friends Church.

Christa Follette
EFC-MAYM Summer Intern

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Casa de los Amigos, el libro: poco a poco

Muchos saludos amigos y amigas, friends, readers and fellow Pickett Endowment grantees. I have enjoyed reading updates from other projects, you do get a sense of these journeys.

My own project is a book about Casa de los Amigos, a Quaker Center for Peace and International Understanding in Mexico City. The Casa turns 60 this year and it's been exciting Quaker peacework, so there's a lot to write about, research, and understand. There are a lot of people to interview. I've been working on this book for just over a year.

an interview with Orfila Vidal de Flores, a Casa volunteer from 1967, in the Biblioteca Jorge Fox.  
I wrote a post on this blog in July, introducing this project. At that time, I still hoped to be finished by the fall (e.g., now), and I've since extended that date to the spring of next year. Things are moving along wonderfully, slowly and surely...just a bit more slowly than I had imagined they might. That's not necessarily a bad thing, it turns out. I recently wrote a bit about my decision to extend the project finish date on the book's Kickstarter campaign page here. The support that I have received in response to letting folks know about this decision has been very affirming for me.

Last weekend, at the Casa's 60th anniversary celebrations, I was able to speak with a large group of people about the project and about my own process. It was a fun chance to talk about what I'd been doing during the last year: research in several archives, interviewing many people, reading, collecting and organizing documents, photos and personal histories, writing a grant, running a Kickstarter campaign, and yes, writing.

kind of a weird picture of me talking about this project at the Casa last Saturday night 
It was also a great opportunity for me to hold up some of the myriad distractions I've succumbed to since leaving the Casa in April of last year (after over a decade of living and working there). Such as attending Pacific Yearly Meeting, traveling and spending lots of time with my 9-year-old, moving (twice), being involved in my Meeting, working for several months to help coordinate an AFSC delegation to Mexico, and adjusting to life outside Casa de los Amigos...things like that. It's helpful for me to look at this list, both to see that I've been very busy, and that I've not been entirely successful in resisting temptation and stripping my life down mostly just to creating this book (and hanging out with my kid, of course).

On a deeper level, Writing--as a full-time thing--has been more challenging for me than I thought. I was quite sure that I had learned how to work hard and long at the Casa, and I had. I'd also had to write, pretty much every day. However, the discipline of daily, solo writing was (is) nothing like the fast-paced, multi-tasking teamwork of the Casa, and I had to shift gears on several levels to get into it. I have done that, but I didn't give myself the time I needed. I slowly reconciled myself with the decision to extend this project and continue working on this book until its properly done. The finished product has to be where I want it...for me, and for all the Casa community. If the book is some months behind my schedule, nobody will recall this in ten years. It is more important that the book is an accurate and effective statement of the Casa's amazing history and impact.

A Casa piñata. Many people have responded to my ongoing call for Casa de los Amigos photos.
I have a few outlets to talk and write about this project and this process, so I have wondered exactly what to publish here. I've felt the temptation to use the Pickett Endowment Blog as the "support group" blog, as I've read other grantees who share news about their projects but who are also very honest about their trials and challenges along the way. I've certainly felt my share of those, but the sense of relief upon extending the timeline was re-inspiring, and I'm still feeling it...I've gone back to focusing on the project and not the deadline. Hope to post more frequently to this blog. Thanks again to Pickett Endowment folks and other grantees for reading, and for your great work.

¡Saludos a todxs!

This photo seems appropriate: here's a note to then-President Lázaro Cardenas about an upcoming, 1939 meeting with Clarence Pickett at the National Palace in Mexico City. This document is in the Archivo General de la Nación, where you have to wear gloves to look at anything...

Monday, October 17, 2016

Volunteer Coordinating at Los Quinchos, Nicaragua

Buenas Tardes! Reading through previous blog posts by other Pickett Fund recipients, I am amazed at the breadth and depth of the projects undertaken by fellow Friends, past and present.

A brief description of my project is that I am working in San Marcos, Nicaragua at Los Quinchos, a residential care center for street children from the capital city of Managua. While my day-to-day work involves a plethora of other tasks, my primary focus here is on improving the various forms of short-term volunteer engagements. Led by previous experiences at Los Quinchos in which I witnessed first-hand some of the deleterious effects of well-intended, but fundamentally misguided volunteer work, I felt a calling to return and devote my attention to improving these modes of volunteering. I have been blessed to have the material support of both the Pickett Fund and Haverford College´s Center for Peace and Global Citizenship, as well as emotional support from F/friends and family.

Los Quinchos is a residential program for children ages 8-18. The children all have unique histories and reasons for living at Los Quinchos, but the unifying characteristic of all their stories is that their parents are unable to provide a safe and stable home life for them. They are considered to be coming from ¨high risk¨ situations for reasons such as domestic abuse, sexual abuse and trafficking, involvement with gangs, long-term abandonment, forced child labor, alcoholism and drug addictions, and the death of parents. Los Quinchos provides stable long-term care for the children in a rural setting, attempting to also equip them with an adequate education, psychological services, and vocational training programs.

During 10 weeks spent working with Los Quinchos during the summer of 2015, I was alarmed by some of the negative manifestations of volunteers´ good intentions. In a particular striking instance, a visiting delegation of American missionaries unintentionally re-traumatized a number of the children by carelessly mentioning the children´s previous abuse and abandonment. After the group left, several of the kids struggled for the ensuing days to cope with the feelings that resurfaced. While it is easier to find fault in the behavior of others, I acknowledge my complicity in participating in potentially negative forms of volunteering; especially last summer, walking into Los Quinchos without either the adequate context or qualifications for working with high-risk youth, I am sure my presence had unintended consequences for the children and staff.

This is not to say that all short-term international volunteer work is problematic, but there are significant problems accompanying the presence of foreign volunteers in residential care centers and orphanages. (For a brief summary of some of the main challenges and risks, I highly recommend the Better Care Network´s position paper on orphanage volunteering).

After last summer, I returned to my final year of my undergraduate studies and dove into exploring the issues associated with short-term international volunteering, culminating in my senior thesis. For my thesis, I conducted primary research on volunteering in Chile and was able to find many instances in which the presence of short-term international volunteers can be useful, when carefully structured.

Acting upon one´s faith, for many Quakers, involves a deep commitment to social justice work, both in domestic and global contexts. Having gaining knowledge of what are considered ¨best practices¨ in international short- term volunteering, I now feel led to work in collaboration with the full-time staff to establish these practices within Los Quinchos.

I have been surprised at the many tensions between these ¨best practices¨ and practical institutional considerations. As a small NGO, Los Quinchos largely relies on international funding, much of which comes from individuals who visit the center in Nicaragua and make larger term commitments of resources. As such, Los Quinchos staff and leadership feels the need to appease volunteers and visitors, despite the fact that groups and individuals provide a significant drain of the staff´s time and resources. Groups frequently show-up unannounced at the center and without a translator, expecting to be guided around the various sites. Frequently when groups or individuals show up, the kids are all pulled out of school for the day in order to accommodate the visitors´ schedules. Despite these concerns, the Los Quinchos leadership has previously felt unable to restrict the times and ways in which volunteers interact with the children at Los Quinchos.

As a temporary volunteer coordinator, my main projects work to develop institutional practices and structure around volunteers and visitors. Over the summer months when most groups and volunteers arrive, this meant serving as an interlocutor between the center´s staff and the visitors.

Understandably, volunteers arrive with many pre-conceived notions of what volunteering at an orphanage in a developing country looks like. They want to take sweet photos with the smiling children to upload to their social media profiles. They want to return home to the United States, Italy, or Canada with emotional stories of the impact they had on the children´s lives, of the permanently forged bonds.

These are all natural instincts and desires, many of which I have felt myself. However, for the children and the center, these preconceived forms of volunteering can lead to behaviors that infringe on the children´s privacy or lead to longer-term attachment issues.

During the months in which the center was flooded with visitors and volunteers, I mostly worked to facilitate conversations about these instincts. Rather than accusing individuals, I tried to situate these instincts and preconceptions within the larger context of global North-to-South aid flows and the ways paternalistic attitudes are cloaked within norms and traditions around volunteering.

Since the majority of volunteers have returned to their homes, I am now mostly focusing on creating a framework for future volunteering. In an effort towards sustainability, I am working with the staff to institutionalize the ¨best practices¨ of volunteering. My hope is that by establishing basic perimeters and requirements for volunteers, the center can resolve some of the longer-term tensions between the center´s financial need for volunteers and their mandate to protect the privacy and emotional well-being of the kids.

Of course, most of my day-to-day activities involve working in solidarity with the full-time staff, developing trusting and mutual relationships with them and the children, and accompanying the kids through the daily challenges and joys in their lives. Every day spent working with the children and staff, I feel such deep gratitude for this opportunity.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Quakerism and Design: Creating community

By Julia Thompson 

In April to mid-June, I was working with an organization called Youth Spirit Artworks (YSA) to support the design and build process of an outdoor art space referred to as an ArtLot.  YSA is an organization that is committed to empowering homeless and low-income youth through art job training in Berkeley, California.

My personal passion is to explore the intersection of engineering and spirituality. I hold a Ph.D., and have researched extensively using service-learning as a way to teach engineering skills. The Pickett fellowship has allowed me to expand on this work, and to work directly with a community on a design project, one that was rooted in Quaker values. 

Through this experience, I was able to work with youth, staff, community members, and architects to push forward the design and build of the ArtLot.  We threw out rubbish that had been collecting in the area, weeded, stained benches, stabilized benches, and built trellises.  We had a number of meetings to discuss the space, and volunteer days to get things built.

Personally, the experience has given me a lot of insight into my gifts and limitations. I experienced the chaos, mess, and love that are present through life. Below are three lessons: my problem-solving mindset, me as a community organizer, and a valuable lesson of homelessness and God.

The ArtLot when I arrived (April 2016)
Two youth using the space to practice some poetry and music

My Problem-Solving Mindset

There were a number of things that needed to be figured out associated with building the ArtLot, and I loved putting on my brainstorming hat and can-do attitude to accomplish these tasks.  For example, there were beautiful benches, which had been designed by an architect student, and there had been a series of volunteer days to build them before I got there.  One of the first weeks I was there, a number of volunteers worked with youth to stain them. However, there were a number of structural issues with the benches.  The benches were designed to fold up, yet the front legs would collapse if you leaned back, the bench was wobbly, and the front legs were shorter than the back - each one being different heights. One of the professional architects and I examined them closely and figured out a way to make them stable. First, we measured each front leg to determine how far off the ground it was. Based on this measurement, we cut off that height from the associated back leg. We also attached nylon webbing and made it taught to reduce the wobble and make sure the front legs would not collapse. Currently, all the benches are relatively flat and stable.  This process of identifying an issue, figuring out a solution, and following through with it, was completely satisfying, and I recognize this as something that aligns well with my gifts and skill sets. 

The benches

A volunteer day where we constructed the trellises
Me as a community organizer 

This experience was a bit more than I expected. I put myself out there on a number of occasions and felt drained when things did not go as planned. Many times I felt like I was pushing the project too fast, and others were not as interested in being engaged. In the process, I learned a lot about myself; however, I often felt that I had jumped into the deep end. 

I would like my next experience to be more in the terms of wading. I am opening myself to opportunities to assist in facilitation experiences, working under mentors who have gifts and experience of holding space. Also, I want to work with communities who have a desire and intention to be present.

My current goal is to run retreats in the next three to five years where artists, designers, architects, engineers, and others can reflect on what it means to build the world with integrity. 
Raising up the trellises

God and Homelessness

I would say the most profound lesson I learned about homelessness was talking to one young man.  He arrived in Berkeley from New Jersey, following a meditation guru. He spoke of his love for this guru, and his devotion to meditation and yoga.  Up until that point, there was a naïve and arrogant part of me that believed that it was only through my privilege in this world that I was able to seek God the way I have, and strive to live out my vocation. As I talked to this man, I was touched and I recognized how human is this urge which I have, and how it is not limited by wealth and privilege. We are all children of God.

Community Event - Voices Unfiltered: An art exhibition of Humanity (August 6, 2016)

Overall, I am extremely appreciative for this opportunity and the incredible support from various communities. Many people supported me in various ways throughout this journey, from holding me in the Light to giving me places to stay.  I am deeply blessed and utterly grateful.