Pausing to Turn Inward: Putney Quakers Wrestling with White Supremacy

Story author
LJ Boswell

Deciding it was time to turn inward, Quakers Wrestling with White Supremacy (QWWS), a small group of white women at Putney Monthly Meeting, took intentional time off from organizing and facilitating introductory workshops on issues of race. It had been about six years of developing curriculum and facilitating both for Putney Meeting as well as for the larger community.

Over these six years leading up to the break, the group had developed and facilitated several one-time workshops and a series. Claire Halverson, highlights the significance of the sessions they facilitated on the film series Race: The Power of an Illusion. Additionally,  they ran a five-week fall series that included topics such as micro-aggressions and how to be an ally. Always reflecting and improving, they expanded their curriculum to a 6-week series the next spring. It was through both facilitating together and taking action such as writing their representative after reading The Case For Reparations by Ta Nehisi Coates, that the group was already bonded when they decided to take a pause.

Claire explains the decision to take a sabbatical: “We were putting ourselves out, putting ourselves out. Taking the time to regroup and focus on ourselves was helpful.” Julie Forsythe further explains,“We recognized that this is absolutely the time for us to take our personal work with racism and look at it seriously and deeply.”

First, the members of QWSS read an article about  White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin Diangelo. Diangelo’s ideas guided them to begin reflecting on the emotional structures of whiteness that make it challenging for them to talk about racism. This led them to work through the book My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies by Resmaa Menakem. Resmaa’s book and the exercises in each chapter guided them through the exploration of how their own white bodies experience and can heal from racial trauma. “The moment we opened it up, we said we are going to crawl through this book. We are going to do every exercise. We are going to just breathe into this as deeply as possible,” Julie Forsythe recollects.

A Year of Building Relationship

Over the course of a year, they did just that. For Clarie there was not one particular moment, but rather it was the cumulative effect of working through all the exercises as a group that was significant. Overall, “I learned to be more in tune with my body. I’ve been reading anti-racist stuff since 1958, but it’s all been emotional or conceptual.”

Everyone seems to agree that the most meaningful part of the experience was deepening relationships between group members. Claire appreciates that “it was new material to all of us, so it put all of us on the same ground.” Julie highlights the significance of both sharing their family histories and discussions of how racial trauma in their families affected each of them. “This was deep sharing: it was not superficial; it was not just about the present moment, which is good, but ephemeral. It was also this kind of deep information about each other’s families.”

Dawn King reflects that “having a group to work with through My Grandmother's Hands was invaluable.  As we have continued, now looking at white supremacist values in ourselves, our meeting and our community, it has been wonderful to have friends with whom to talk things through.”

Coming out the other side of their intentional hiatus, Claire explains, “we’ve become quite a bonded, dedicated, in-it-for-the-long haul group.”


Deeply and slowly working through the exercises in My Grandmother’s Hands has transformed how the members of QWWS are now approaching their collective leading. “This book is really unique and important,” Julie explains. “There’s no way to do the work [of wrestling with white supremacy] and stay sane unless you’re really well grounded. This book is all about grounding.”

Julie notices the change in herself. She feels more grounded in her heart-space and consequently is more able to have conversations with people who have different views from herself. “In the past, I wouldn’t have [had these difficult conversations], I would have thought about it but not done it. It’s all less threatening and I’m more willing to speak up, knowing that making mistakes is part of the way.”

Members of QWSS are still reorienting themselves to their work. They now incorporate physical and embodied practices into their regular meetings. They are grappling with how to find the stories that speak specifically to white people’s hearts, to invite them into the never-ending work of checking in with themselves and uncovering what they have yet to understand. Dawn explains that through both being part of QWSS and reading on her own, “I am slowly growing in understanding of the development of our country from a whole different perspective than I was ever taught in elementary school.”

The Cumulative Effect: Connection, Introspection, Action

Now about a year later, the group has focused on keeping issues of racial justice alive for Putney Meeting by bringing one item for consideration to every business meeting. It’s important to understand that racism and white supremacy is not just elsewhere, it’s part of our community, part of ourselves, and part of our internal world. This is not about moving through a bunch of stuff and feeling accomplished. Instead, Julie explains “it’s the cumulative effect that matters.”

Currently QWSS, in their bi-monthly meetings, is using Tema Okun’s White Supremacy Culture and other resources to consider how whiteness plays into their own personal approaches in social settings and organizations. As they begin to consider Putney meeting and its work, they have learned that “it’s possible to hold the question: how can our meeting be more deeply welcoming? How can our meeting explore from many points of view, with depth and integrity and not just do a superficial thing and move on?”

This learning occurred in part through examining their connection to Indigenous peoples in their area and working on a land acknowledgement statement for Putney Meeting. “We’ve had it written for months and months,” Julie explains, “yet, we haven’t brought it to monthly meeting. We don’t feel that as a small group, we’ve held it deeply enough yet. And we’re not in a hurry.”

Julie further explains her own growth: “when I walked into this whole process, I thought ‘Oh goody, we can write our statement, we will have done something—there will be something we can say that we’ve done.’ And then I started looking around and listening and realized that’s not what’s being asked for. What’s being asked for is connection and introspection then action.”

Before presenting the land acknowledgement to the larger meeting, they all agreed that they need to do more work on it. As a result, some members of QWSS have gotten a lot more engaged and connected with their local indigenous community. “At some point maybe within this year, we may be ready to bring the statement forward.” Julie is clear that “the statement itself is only good if it’s got legs. It’s got to really involve connection.”

White People’s Work

Julie wonders about how to reach the white folks who are shocked to hear about racism in Putney. She brings up the fact that there were cross burnings in Putney as recently as 40 years ago. “This is a real town, it’s complicated.”

Beyond specific incidents of racism, systemic racism is difficult for many white people to truly understand. QWSS continues to wrestle with the question: “Are we as a meeting running with white cultural models that have nothing to do with our faith and in fact that might create totally unintended exclusion of others?”

“It’s easy for white folks to want an easy fix: How do I get off the hook? Give me the list, I'll do the list, I’ll graduate and then I don’t have to do anything else.” In holding all of these dynamics, Julie wonders “How do I talk about that in Putney. How do I see it? How do I talk about things like that without it being intellectual? Resmaa says you have to feel it in your heart.”

Julie is heartfelt in her desire to continue to stay aware of her tendencies as a white person towards apathy and silence. “I think the great tendency, for me, and possibly others, is to allow myself to get apathetic and slip back to the way it was. I have a wonderful family; I can just do family ‘til the cows come home and not need to do anything else at some level. I notice when I get exhausted, that’s where I go. I go back to my family in one way or another.”

It’s important for white people to support other white people in doing the inner work of understanding our own internal relationship to race. QWSS has learned about the power of this during their year of turning inward. Julie and Claire both emphasize the importance of this, naming that they’ve not only experienced it, but have also heard it said in many places, including from Robin Diangelo in White Fragility.

Julie intentionally lives this as much as she can: “I have made the commitment to not avert my eyes. I realize that when I’m looking at the paper I only read so much. Am I always reading a story about what’s impacting People of Color, or do I let my eyes glaze over thinking oh I already know about that. After a couple of years of making this commitment, I think I’ve become lax and need to sharpen my commitment again.”

“I think it’s pretty important for white people to start with Robin DeAngelo,” Julie states “because she understands the psychology of whiteness so thoroughly. You can find yourself there. You’re not outside looking in.” Claire agrees and adds that My Grandmother’s Hands is better for folks who already have a clear understanding of structural racism. She encourages “anyone who wants to take on the book to do it with at least one other person and take your time.”

Most important, Claire advises you “start wherever you are and continue working. The work is ongoing.”