Reflecting on Woolman's Values

June 14, 2016
by Emily Wheeler, Program Director

In April of 2012, I returned to Woolman for the first time since my Community Internship ended two years prior. I am not a Quaker and I rarely attended the Sunday Meeting during my time as an intern, but when Sunday arrived, I decided to go. I will never forget this Meeting, as I sat sandwiched between two women in their 90’s whom I will forever consider my elders and mentors: Lynne Henderson and Mary Jorgenson. Mary was undoubtedly wearing pink, the brightest shade of it, or perhaps that is just how she is permanently held in my memory. In the 60’s, Mary had been part of a group of activists who moved to Nevada City, California with the vision of creating a residential program for young people to commit to and grapple with their commitment to the values of peace, justice and sustainability – the vision of Woolman.

During Worship that Sunday, Mary stood to share about her value of non-violence. She began by reflecting on her history of organizing for racial justice and her many experiences being arrested while participating in peaceful demonstrations during the civil rights era – a time that people often recall when speaking about Mary’s life – but the ministry that day was not about her past, it was about her present. She spoke of non-violence and how difficult it is for her to truly live non-violently, to do so in her thoughts, words and actions. She noticed this most acutely, she said, in her own home, with her husband and family. Her ability to self-examine and self-reflect was inspiring and I believe her willingness to do so and share with others was one of Mary’s greatest gifts.

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to meet up with the Director of my graduate program at Goddard College – another small academic institution, much like Woolman, working for peace, justice and sustainability. We met up for a walk along the Cape Cod National Seashore, where I am currently visiting old friends, and immediately started sharing about the past year, both at Woolman and Goddard. “It’s really hard work”, she stated, “to be constantly walking the line between our values and our actions”.

To this day, these values are central to the Woolman community: they adorn our marketing materials and the banners that we hang on stage at Graduation, but more importantly, the values guide our curriculum, they are the underpinning of our restorative practices and they inspire our commitment to land stewardship, producing organic food and providing high-quality, nutrient dense foods for all diets present at any given meal. These are just a few of the manifestations of peace, justice and sustainability on our campus.

This year, to a greater extent than I’d seen before, Woolman’s core values came under scrutiny. And the examination came from within our own community – staff, interns, students – with a strong critique of the ways our institution is not living up to its own vision for world based on principles of equity and social justice. Questions were asked: How can our campus become safer for marginalized identities? How can our staff and board explore topics of oppression and privilege to the extent that our students do in their classes? How can we become more comfortable addressing microaggressions in the moment and fostering dialogue that is both calling out and calling in when members of our community unconsciously perpetuate forms of oppression? We seek answers to these questions in order move through our challenges and into a more just, equitable and peaceful coexistence where all members of the community can thrive.

Throughout the Spring, I had been keeping up with some of the conversations happening on college campuses like Yale and Middlebury, and most recently a more nuanced illustration of this dialogue was published in the New Yorker about Oberlin College highlighting the paradox of institutions that are both welcoming (if not trailblazing) conversations around the greatest injustices of humanity today while simultaneously not fully acknowledging the manifestation of those injustices throughout the campus community. Upon reading this, I realized that I had been so immersed in the lives of the 50 some-odd individuals on the Woolman campus, that I had not paused to see where the conversations at Woolman were located in the larger context of activism in 2016. With a little space and time for my own reflection, it all makes a lot more sense to me now.

When I come back to the message that Mary shared that day back in 2012, I feel gratitude for the Woolman community, for the people who have created and will continue to create a space for deep reflection and discernment around our values. And whether the dialogue continues in Quaker schools, high school semester programs, liberal arts college campuses or even in our own families, I feel confident that the collective consciousness is shifting. “Student movements have an odd habit of ending up on the right side of history,” writes Nathan Heller in his article about activism at Oberlin, and this, I believe, no matter how difficult or painful the work is in the moment, is reason to continue.

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