Friday, December 7, 2018

Diving Deeper into Quaker Peacebuilding Work

Over my first three months in Kigali, Rwanda, I widened my understanding of international peacebuilding efforts and explored my Quaker values more deeply within this African evangelical Friends context. I will continue digging deeper into both of these during my remaining months here.
Sometimes I find myself focusing on the tangible successes and progress I have made here which helps me feel more confident and is sometimes a helpful way to visualize my time here. Primarily, I work with Friends Peace House (FPH) to assist with their post-genocide programs. I teach English as part their Vocational Training School where students major in culinary arts, auto mechanics, sewing, construction or hairdressing while they also take classes in health, religion and English. I apply for grants for FPH’s many programs, a never-ending task for non-profits, and I am rewriting their 5 Year Strategy Plan. To expand their health program, I proposed and now seek funding to include a sports component. I am also excited to have secured a partnership with Society for Family Health Rwanda to provide family planning and HIV-prevention materials for FPH’s health class. 
Using my FPH and FCNL connections, I have made valuable contacts with other international and local NGOs including Catholic Relief Services, Search for Common Ground and a few local HIV/AIDs prevention organizations promoting inclusion of minority groups. I built a partnership between a coalition of these HIV/AIDs prevention organizations and the Society for Family Health Rwanda to provide the coalition with health materials for their HIV/AIDs prevention work. This work led me to creating a website for Amahoro, one of the organizations in the coalition. 
But there are other less tangible parts of this experience that I find just as, if not sometimes more valuable: playing cards with my host brother almost every night; going to a tailor to get some clothes made with my host sister and laughing with my host family at dinner as I teach them new English words. The connections I make with people are some of the most important parts of my experience here and some of the things that I will bring with me for the rest of my life. My coworkers have not only welcomed me into their lives, but also invited me to visit their family for the weekend in northwest Rwanda; my host brother went with me to Uganda to help me get a new visa and we were fortunate to stay on a beautiful lake; and people continue to amaze me with their hospitality and generosity around making me feel comfortable and welcome. I was able to hike up a volcano in the northwest part of the country and met some strangers along with way who invited me along to see the golden monkeys that call Volcanoes National Park home.
I came to Kigali to work for a single peacebuilding organization, but I realized that peacebuilding comes in many forms, both structured through NGOs and unstructured in everyday interactions. By reaching out, I find myself involved in a range of peacebuilding experiences from working for FPH to the small work I do daily. I edit a friend’s college essays because if she attends an American school, she will share much with students in the U.S., and her life prospects will improve immeasurably. I converse with my host sister about homosexuality and learn her views so in the future, maybe I can begin to gently change her misconceptions. I play cards with my little host brother in the evenings, speaking English with him, so that he can excel at school and in the future feel comfortable building more cross-cultural communication. I strongly believe in the daily work that each of us do, often without even thinking about it. These small acts of connection build peace and can move mountains.
I also came to Kigali to explore my own Quakerism more, working in community with other Quakers. Each Sunday, when in town, I attend Friends worship services at the church where my host dad is amongst the 5 Pastors. For three hours, I hear beautiful singing by the 3 Choirs interspersed with sermons in Kinyarwanda and praying. Sometimes a translator can explain the specific content to me, but often I just watch, listen, and absorb. Although I feel more comfortable with the unprogrammed worship of my past, the sharing of values and social action between these two branches of Quakerism is important. Some values and actions match very closely, such as beliefs and work toward non-violence. I struggle with some other positions that seem more mis-matched with the premise of “that of God in everyone” with which I grew up. Specifically, although peacebuilding efforts denounce discrimination based on ethnic identity, I often witness support for discrimination based on gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity. As a visitor to Rwanda, I want to respect the culture, and I try to choose carefully when I speak the truth as I have come to know it. Often, I find that simply engaging as myself, or sharing a story, works better to build bridges than drawing attention to our different truths.
I am excited to continue learning from Quaker peacebuilders in Rwanda and making connections with people here. I am about halfway through my time here and am looking forward to what the next three months brings. 

At the base of Mount Bisoke, a volcano I hiked up in northwest Rwanda

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Connecting and Working Alongside Quakers in Kigali, Rwanda

After working for the Friends Committee on National Legislation, in Washington D.C., I wanted to continue exploring what my Quakerism meant to me and worship with Quakers all over the world. Thanks to the Pickett Endowment Grant and the Lyman Fund Grant I was able to do this.
I landed in Kigali, Rwanda about a month ago and was able to settle into this brand new environment while staying with family. For the first couple days, I stayed with my cousins who showed me around Kigali and helped me get a few of the essentials including  a SIM card for my phone and a list of good restaurants I had to try out.

I met my homestay dad, Augustin, brother, Justin and sister, Christine a few days later, who I will be staying with for the next six months. They picked me up and we had an enjoyable car ride back to their house, slowly getting to know each other and switching between English, French and Kinyarwanda. When I arrived at the house I met my homestay mom, Gaudence, who gave me a big hug and immediately made me feel welcome, and my other homestay brother, 8-year-old, Chris, who shyly said hi. My family showed me my room and let me settle in for a little while before dinner. That first night, we slowly started to get to know each other, teaching each other a little English and Kinyarwanda.

The day after I met my homestay family the entire country had a holiday for their Parliamentary elections. In Rwanda, you vote for a party and then the party picks their members depending on the percentage of votes they get. When we got to the voting station, it looked like a celebration happening. There were streamers and decorations in Rwanda’s colors: yellow, green and light blue and there was music playing. The voting age here is 16, so Chris and I got to hang out while everyone else voted. 

I started work at the Friends Peace House,  a local Quaker organization in Kigali, the following day. When I first arrived at the Friends Peace House, I was warmly greeted by Emmanuel, the teacher of the Health program who gave me a tour of the place. It is a very compact building, but includes classrooms for their hairdressing school, cooking school, a large classroom used by Emmanuel for his health program as well as other gatherings including English classes, and some offices for the teachers and staff. Out back they have their mechanics school: a grassy area filled with probably 10 cars and trucks for the students to work on. The classes that they hold: hairdressing, cooking, mechanics, English and Health are all part of their vocational Mwana Nshuti school. In English, Mwana Nshuti means “Friends of Children.” Students choose which they want to focus on between hairdressing, cooking or mechanics and everyone receives English and Health lessons. Friends Peace House also, I found out, monitors elections, like the one the day before. I helped them edit a report about how the elections went a few days after I started. They run programs in three refugee camps and a prison and assist refugees to come to Rwanda. It reminded me of a typical nonprofit that has too many ideas and too much need it is trying to fill, and not enough space or money. 

All of the staff have been so warm and welcoming and excited to try their English out on me as well as teach me some basic Kinyarwanda and try conversations in French. I am slowly learning how to say hello to the people I pass on my walk to work and bargain with the motorcycle drivers (motos), which is the main way to get around here. 

The first couple of weeks with the Friends Peace House, I have been able to learn more about the organization and begin to see where I can be best useful. At this point, I am researching and writing grants for the organization (a task that is never ending for nonprofits), developing a football (soccer) program to add to their health program and increase the number of kids their health program can reach, and assisting with teaching English in the Mwana Nshuti school. I am excited to continue learning from my wonderful coworkers at the Friends Peace House, attending Quaker meeting and connecting with local Quakers here, and exploring Kigali and Rwanda.

Monday, October 1, 2018

War-Impacted People’s Dialogue Project: Research & Development

Claire Bates

I was in the middle of graduate school when the idea for my Pickett Endowment funded project took root. “I just want the world to be a more peaceful place,” many refugee individuals said, through interpretation in many languages, as I co-facilitated group sessions helping refugees set future goals as part of my Master of Social Work degree. What did it mean to have future goals so huge, especially in a place and time where many refugees in the United States must usually focus hard on putting bread on the table, keeping electricity on and a roof above their heads?

Toward the end of my degree, interning with GI rights work of Quaker House in Fayetteville, I came to understand ways in which military veterans and families in the U.S. have been significantly impacted by the military habits of this country, similar to the refugees I had worked with before. Come to think of it, we all have. All of us have seen funding for public education and other public benefits stripped over the years. All of us have seen our earth polluted by byproducts of military (including nuclear) manufacturing and testing.

So why aren’t we more actively talking about war and our own participation in keeping it going or helping it fade? Why aren’t more of us working together to end war? So began the seeds of the War-Impacted People’s Dialogue Project, a program meant to connect people across the U.S. in dialogues analyzing the impact of wars on their lives and finding ways to activate together for change.

Late March 2018

I’ve spent three months interviewing people in touch with the impacts war has had on their lives (including refugees, veterans, activists, and related nonprofit leaders) to get input in deciding whether and how to do this group dialogue project. These voices will last on and guide me in my head. I’ve found out that the Clarence and Lilly Pickett Endowment for Quaker Leadership will fund me for a Research, Development, and Piloting Phase for this project—to read, to interview, to seek mentorship, and to create and run a pilot dialogue series using a new method to help people explore the impacts of militarism on their lives and involve themselves in activism from there.

I’ve also learned I will have to move to an unexpected area to help care for an ill family member. This will make the first few months of my funded period intensively internally focused: on reading, grasping mentorship, interviewing, reflecting, and plotting out plans . . . probably just what I need.

I’ve gathered an amazing support committee of Quakers (mostly from Chapel Hill Friends Meeting, my Meeting during graduate school) who will join me monthly by videoconference throughout the project’s beginning and who give me insight from their own journeys and perspectives that help me move through.

Late July 2018

The four unexpected months in Michigan have been fruitful. I’ve read broadlyfrom Macy’s work about raising group consciousness regarding harmful systems to which we’ve grown numb, to Freire’s work on empowering dialogue, to Mindell’s work on leading transformative conversations in situations of inequality—and I feel ready to start. I’ve learned from regional political actions led by others about ways to approach direct action. I’ve drafted a dialogue method for this project that combines Nonviolent Communication, Freirean Popular Education, and Restorative Circles methods. And I’ve piloted the approach in 3 dialogue sessions I hosted from my family’s house in Michigan.

I pack my belongings in my car and move across the U.S.—to Northern California, where I’ve identified mentors who will help me in the process of launching this project: some, through their expertise in facilitating connective dialogue focused on social change; others, through their history of working for peace through putting their bodies on the line.

In my ideal situation, I will host one 6-week dialogue series engaging people from multiple backgrounds in the U.S. (including refugees, peace activists, veterans and military families, and other concerned community members) in analyzing ways war has impacted their lives, learning from one another, planning ways to start or join existing efforts for change. I will test and improve this approach, and share it with other regions – both facilitating the dialogues myself and sharing it with others to lead them.

Late September 2018

Settling in California has been challenging. I have been impressed by the variation in cultural emphasis and regional interrelatedness we have in different places in the U.S. I am building connections with local and regional activists and refugee- and veteran-focused groups, and I am learning that it takes time to do so and to plan, advertise, and implement logistics of this pilot 6-week dialogue series in a way that responds to strengths and characteristics of the local and regional environment.

The Pickett Endowment has extended my timeline to complete the initial pilot 6-week dialogue series in a way responsive to partners here. I refine the series’ content plans as I work on planning for logistics. My support committee via videoconference has agreed to extend their commitment to this project until the end of the initial piloting period.

Sometimes—in discussion with individuals and activists here, in mapping out the landscape of where people with various sorts of impacts tend to live and how to connect this work with them, in considering ingrained patterns of U.S. militarism—I feel hopeless or overwhelmed. But tonight, for dinner, I cook from a recipe for stuffed vegetables taught to me by women from the Middle East and think about their lives. Tonight, my mom—who has been drawing poster art for flyers for the War-Impacted People’s Dialogue Project—tells me on the phone that through creating these drawings she has considered more fully the impacts of war on service members and refugees. That is and will be the point of the entire project: to make the experiences of loss caused by war more tangible and present to each of us, motivating us to action.


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