Quaker Peace and Social Witness Spring Conference
By Tim Herrick, Sam Robinson, and Sue Smith
The Quaker Peace & Social Witness (QPSW) conference (25-27/03/2011) was an excellent opportunity to learn more about the work of this important Quaker body, to meet some of the people at the heart of its activities, and to learn more from other Friends from all over the country. The three-day conference in Derbyshire drew Friends from as far afield as Cornwall and the Outer Hebrides, and was an intense period of learning, exploring, and reflecting. As with any such event, it takes a while for the information to go in and be appropriately processed and acted upon; so these notes are an attempt to give an initial impression of what happened and what we’re taking away. The report will talk through the plenary sessions and individual workshops, and wherever possible, offer further sources of information that interested Friends can follow themselves.
QPSW’s General Secretary Helen Drewery opened the event on Friday evening with an overview of QPSW’s work and history. This was helpful in setting the scene and introducing individuals associated with QPSW who would be talking later during the weekend. The conference proper began on Saturday morning with an excellent plenary address by Diana Francis, the veteran peace activist and campaigner. She talked movingly about the power of non-violence, and how central it was to the Quaker way of life. To outsiders, Quaker positions may appear fuzzy and sitting-on-the-fence; so it is our responsibility as Friends to retain and develop our certainty, grounded in a commitment to the testimonies, including where difficult decisions were faced. The example Diana used, and one that was very much in the minds of the delegates, was the NATO military intervention in Libya; and Diana was particularly critical of the notion that military intervention was being used as a “last resort”. There were, she passionately argued, always other possibilities, and Quakers should be actively promoting and championing them. We may look foolish in the eyes of others, but it would be a foolishness of God, and demonstrate a faith in the chance of peace that reflects its importance within the Quaker way of life.
We broke into different groups for workshops. Tim and Sue went to Suzanne Ismail, talking about economic justice and sustainability. A major part of her talk was detailing the benefits of a zero-growth economy, and addressing the perception that gross domestic product continually needed to increase, in order for a country to be successful. Work towards alternative forms of economic activity might include shareholder activism, where motivated groups and individuals buy shares in public companies to influence their behaviour; a re-evaluation of social contact and local engagement; and direct action, such as guerrilla gardening. Suzanne encouraged meetings to feed back to her and the Economic Sustainability and Peace committee of QPSW; they are looking to develop study packs and other resources to help meetings discuss these issues, and would welcome suggestions for useful material. She also noted that individual f/Friends could discuss economic matters on the QPSW Quakernomics blog (http://www.quakerweb.org.uk/blog/).
Tim went to the workshop on non-violent direct action, facilitated by Turning the Tide (http://www.turning-the-tide.org/). This group organises training and support for individuals and groups interested in non-violent methods of social protest, and offer guidance on developing strategies for getting organised and creating change. We watched a thought-provoking DVD about their work, and we discussed the numerous issues it raised about the legitimacy of different aspects of non-violent direct action. The principles of non-violent action to which Turning the Tide subscribe (available from the website above) includes “acting in ways consistent with the ends we seek” – that is if we seek a world without violence (direct, cultural, or structural), then we need to work towards it in congruent ways. Everyone has a role to play in this; you might not feel comfortable putting yourself at risk of arrest, or in a deliberately disruptive action, but could you act as a legal observer for another protestor, ensuring their rights are respected; or promise to look after their cat if they are kept away from home? One of our Quakerly commitments is to ensuring that no-one is beyond the pale, or not worth talking with; and this is a salutary reminder that individual policemen and other agents of authority, no matter what the pressure or provocation, also deserve respectful engagement and discussion.
Sam (as well as also attending the Turning the tide workshop) went to Helen Bailey’s workshop on the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI). Helen, as a coordinator of the programme, was able to give us an up to date insight into the work of the Ecumenical Accompaniers (EAs). She gave a clear overview of the role of EAs and how they provide protection by presence as well as supporting peace activists and monitoring any human rights violations in the West Bank over a three month period. As part of the workshop we were split into groups and given photographs of a specific situation in the West Bank or Israel and asked to discuss what we thought was going on. This exercise particularly highlighted the importance of the work; one photo showed two young men near a well and we were all shocked to learn that they were Israeli hard line settlers poisoning the water supply of the Palestinian village. Hearing about the day-to-day situation gave us a real feeling of the positive impact active non-violence was having; EA volunteers reduce the levels of abuse Palestinians suffer at checkpoints and help improve access to land, jobs, education and health care. Once back home the EAs use their first hand experiences as advocates to raise awareness about the human rights situation in the occupied territories. More information on how to support or become an Ecumenical Accompanier, as well as eyewitness reports, can be found online (http://www.eappi.org and http://www.quaker.org.uk/eappi).
Sue attended the workshop ‘Beyond the comfort zone, ’which looked at how the Quaker’s parliamentary liaison secretary, Michael Bartlet, operates. Michael talked about how he prioritised his work with three main strategies; connecting to Quaker values, how he can make the most influence, and appropriate timing. Presently he is focusing on soldiers under 18 years of age. Currently after they sign up at 16, they have a 6 month period where they can change their mind, if they want to leave the army, after that they have to remain in the army for 4 years. This is felt to be unacceptable, after all they are still children, at the moment a bill is going through parliament about this issue, so Michael is putting the Quaker view across. He also asked us to fill in a political audit, to help him inform his future work.
The main messages we took away were about the scale of QPSW’s work, in terms of the diversity of its interests, and its wide geographical reach. Attending the conference made it easier to see how small actions contributed to these much larger ends, and how individual Quakers could make a difference in their local area. Certainly many of the individuals we met at this conference were inspirational in the actions they had taken, and the ways they were living their lives. The challenge and opportunity for all of us is to find ways of living that are equally powerful and inspiring.
This article was written in 04/2011 and appeared in the Southern East Anglia Area Quaker Meeting newsletter.