A Vibrant and Intergenerational Quakerism: An Interview With Angelina Conti
By David Kosbob
I first heard of Quakers United in Publication’s Quaker Youth Book Project back in the spring of 2008 via Facebook. I wasn’t sure exactly what it was, but there was a call for submissions of writing and art by young Quakers from across the theological spectrum. As a young(ish) Friend who’s dabbled in art here and there, it caught my eye. I looked into it a little further and found that a few friends of mine were involved in putting the project together. It seemed they were knee-deep in assembling an anthology attempting to collect young Quaker voices far and wide, from every corner of the Society. It sounded ambitious. I never did end up submitting anything, but I kept the book project on my radar. I thought something interesting might come of it.
Flash-forward two years to the summer of 2010. I’ve just begun interning at FGC QuakerBooks and Spirit Rising: Young Quaker Voices is everywhere. The Book Project’s ambition produced a mammoth volume of art and writing that spoke to a lot of people. I read a little bit and what I took away from it was a sense of the richness and vast depths saturating these young Quaker writers and artists. There was a real expanse to this volume; nothing was left out. It made me reflect on all the different ways people can be Quaker. It also made me think about generations in our faith. Looking back, it was fitting that I first heard about the project through Facebook, such a generational curio.
I was asked to conduct an interview with someone concerning Spirit Rising and was given the name Angelina Conti. Angelina was the book’s project coordinator and a member of the editorial board. Currently she’s a teacher at the Woolman Semester out in California, but fortunately I was able to catch her on a visit back to her old place of employment, at FGC here in Philadelphia. Angelina has herself conducted a number of wonderful interviews which you can find on this site, and I was happy to give her the chance to be on the other side of the voice recorder.
David Kosbob: I want to start out by asking what the original impetus of Spirit Rising was, how it got started.
Angelina Conti: Sure. QUIP did another youth anthology that came out in 2005 called Whispers of Faith, and Lucy [Duncan] was actually really involved in that project, so you can ask her if you want more information. It was about one hundred fifty pages and was edited by a youth board, and it came out of QUIP’s desire to support and lift up rising generations of Quaker writers and publishers and leaders. And they were really happy with the results but they also learned a lot from the process and wanted to do it again and apply the lessons they had learned to a second anthology. I was not at all involved in Whispers of Faith; I actually didn’t even know it was happening. I was hired here in the summer of 2006 originally to help with promotion for Fit for Freedom, but after I was hired the timeline for that changed and part of my reconstituted position was working on the youth book. At the time, Lucy was here [at FGC] and was also really involved with QUIP, I think she was one of the clerks, so there was a lot of support between QUIP and FGC even though they’re separate organizations. So I started then in the fall of 2006 writing grants and a year later we formed the editorial board and kind of took it from there. But the vision was very much the same for this book and the first book, which was an awareness of the aging nature of Quaker populations and a desire to really lift up and empower, but also work with, young people in gathering the writing and art of younger Friends for everyone, younger Friends and older Friends, to see. In that first book, the writers were a bit younger, I think they ranged in age from thirteen to twenty-one whereas the age range for Spirit Rising is like thirteen to forty-one, so we added two other decades. Does that answer your question?
DK: Yeah, very much so. And I want to get back to the idea of holding up youth, but first I wanted to ask about QUIP. That’s Quakers United in Publishing, is that right?
AC: Uniting in Publications.
DK: Uniting in Publications, Okay. You mentioned that’s a separate thing from FGC but the book was a collaborative project?
AC: Yeah, it was. FGC has published at least two other books that QUIP produced, one being Whispers of Faith and the other being George Fox’s Book of Miracles. So QUIP is not really a publishing body, they’re basically a professional association for Quakers involved in publishing [and book selling]. Historically that’s meant, you know, FGC, FUM, [Barclay Press], and Britain Yearly Meeting publishing programs and many yearly meetings have small publishing programs, but increasingly there are a lot of small independent Quaker presses and self-publishers as well as journalist and bloggers who are very inclusive of new media, so they meet once a year to have a professional conference. They’ve been one of the few organizations over the past twenty or thirty years to really strive as much as possible to be cross-branch. There are only really a handful of other Quaker organizations that have been doing that for that long, and that’s tended to mean U.S. and U.K. with a little bit of continental Europe representation when the meetings are in England, but from the U.S. there’s usually pretty good representation from across the branches. They’ve also focused on and have a particular interest in supporting publishing amongst Quakers in developing countries, or whatever nomenclature they use. So they’ve produced manuscripts that they’ve then partnered with other Quaker publishers to publish.
DK: So it’s almost like a collective of Quaker publishers and writers.
AC: Yeah, collective is a good non-Quaker word that describes what it is.
DK: [laughter] I didn’t realize it had been around that long, I hadn’t heard of it before this book. About the editorial board you mentioned earlier; they’re, like the books contributors, a very diverse group, both geographically and across the branches of Friends, which I know was intentional, but how did you all come together?
AC: It was an application process. We solicited a number of applications, and we also had a number of applications that we didn’t, which we considered equally. We worked a lot with FWCC, which we went to for names of Latin American Friends and with FUM and some other organizations in Kenya to find Kenyan representatives and also with Britain Yearly Meeting. And some of the board members from Whispers of Faith were involved in that selection process, so there was some nice continuation there. I think we originally aimed for like five or six [editors], but we had all these amazing applications, so we thought we should take more people. Which has kind of been the theme for this project all along; we were like, “Okay, the book’s going to be two hundred pages, by which we mean three hundred fifty.” [laughter]
DK: Yeah, it’s a big book. There’s a lot in there.
AC: Which, if I could do it again, maybe we’d be more discerning, but at the same time I don’t think it’ll happen again, so maybe it’s good that it’s gigantic. So, yeah, it was an application process and we did one round, and then there were a few holes that we were feeling so we did a call again, specifically looking for Friends from certain populations, and then we formed the editorial board. And, actually, it is diverse theologically, but there’s a pretty strong North American top heaviness. But a lot of them are well-networked and had connections in other parts of the world.
DK: I want to talk a little bit about the Convergent Friends Movement.
AC: Okay, I’m not an expert.
DK: I don’t think anyone is. [laughter] But Spirit Rising is so all-encompassing of so many different brands of Quakerism, different parts of the world, different theological views and I was wondering what role, if any, you see this book playing in a Convergent Friends Movement and if that was intentional, if that was a goal of the book at all.
AC: To be engaged with convergent Friends?
AC: Yeah. Well, I think there are a couple of answers. One is that one of our editors, Wes Daniels, is one of the primary voices of convergent Friends. There are a number, but it’s something he definitely works on and thinks a lot about. He’s now a pastor in Northwest Yearly Meeting and one of the pieces in the book about convergent Friends is his. You know, I think that convergent Friends are about convergence, about drawing pieces from different traditions, but I also think they’re really about conversation and the book is certainly about conversation. I think the vision was not necessarily that we would gather all these voices and they would produce some kind of cohesive whole, I think the vision was more that we would gather all these voices and they might be a little cacophonous at times and that that cacophony was really important. There’s this struggle with Friends when we do cross-branch work about how much we talk about difference and how much we strive towards agreement. I think there are different styles. I think convergent Friends have one really productive style and I think the youth book is certainly in conversation with that, but at the same time our focus was different because we were trying to assemble an anthology, so our focus was not as long-term as convergent Friends are; they kind of carry on. Something they certainly share is a belief that that conversation is enriching amongst Friends of different theologies and different cultures, expectation aside of what it will produce. The feeling is that it’s enriching.
DK: So the idea wasn’t to have any sort of goal or end-product in mind, it was more to produce that conversation?
AC: What do you mean by goal or end-product?
DK: Well, maybe I heard you wrong, but what I thought I heard you saying was that, rather than there being some sort of intentional purpose behind this book in order to get somewhere or say something in particular, it’s more, like you said, a cacophonous collection of voices that can be used to inspire conversation and play on our differences in a productive kind of way.
AC: Yeah, I think that the goal was to inspire conversation both among the branches and among generations and to kind of hold a mirror up to the Religious Society of Friends and say, “People who also call themselves Quakers have these beliefs that are very different from yours, what does that mean to you?” So I think there was a very clear end-product, but at a certain point it becomes open-ended because the question becomes, “What does this mean to you, what are you going to do with it?” and it becomes about how people receive it.
DK: One of the things that I thought the book does so well and makes it really engaging is the way it does show the difference in how things are expressed between different theological schools of thought, perhaps, or just individual people. How they use different language to express things but often times what’s being expressed is very similar, if not the same, but often related; sort of a language versus message thing. And in the introduction there is a story that you all invoke about John Woolman where he’s talking to an Indian leader who cannot understand him because he doesn’t know his language, but he said he loves to feel where the words are coming from. I thought that was a really great, thoughtful way to lead into the book, and that it gives people a good perspective when reading it. I don’t even know if I have a question here, but you said that that story was important for you all in the process of putting this book together and I was wondering if you could talk about that a little bit.
AC: I think the process was that we were preparing for our meeting in April 2009 in Oregon, which was when the editorial board made a lot of our selections, and I think in one of my preparation communications with them I talked about that story. It’s kind of one of those apocryphal stories in Quakerism and I don’t know when in particular I started conceiving it in relation to the book but it really resonated with the editorial board. It was kind of a throw-away comment, just trying to think in terms like, “Some of these [pieces] might seem weird to you, just try to hear the message and listen past the language.” In our first meeting, we spent so much time finding the way through language and extending ourselves to each other and developing and tuning our personal translators. So that [story] really resonated and was actually in the mix when we were brainstorming titles for the book. Different permutation of it like “where the words come from” was one idea but we didn’t get very far with that title. But it seemed like that was a really important story, so we used it in the introduction. The piece of it that I think is key is that John Woolman is ministering and he goes and visits this settlement that I think was north of Philadelphia. They don’t speak his language and he doesn’t speak theirs, and the translators are trying to make it work but it’s not going well. So he says, in some ways maybe with colonial bravado (I don’t know, I’m not a historian), “I think I’ll be understood, I think God will make me understood,” and then he preaches. And the group welcomed him as a preacher; I think the implication is that some of the Lenape were already Christian so it wasn’t that far out of their comfort zone. Then John Papunehang says, “I love to feel where the words come from,” the implication being that he didn’t get the language, but he got that there was a message. I think there’s a lot in that story; there’s being faithful to your message even though you’re not sure you’ll be understood, there’s being received in a way differently than you thought you might be, there’s listening for the message and listening past the language. It’s a really good story.
DK: Yeah, It’s a great story and a wonderful way to start the book. I’m not sure I have this right, but did you all hold workshops with teenage and young adult Friends in order to solicit material?
AC: Yup, We did.
DK: What were those workshops like?
AC: They really varied. They were amazing. A couple of the editorial board members developed a writing workshop model and an art workshop model. Most of the ones we did were writing workshops, just because we discovered art workshops required more supplies and thinking in advance. We have those workshop models available and we’ll put them on the website once that’s up. They’re pretty basic writing workshop exercises, like “use these five words in a creative piece” or “respond to this thought-provoking query in ten minutes”, combined with a method of group listening and feedback critique that I actually learned from travelling ministry with Lucy. Rather than being too critique-y, it’s more along the lines of supporting the writer to be true to the story, asking clarifying questions and respectful questions and giving praise and that kind of thing and really focusing on drawing out what’s there. We also, as part of the call for submissions, had a number of queries that the editorial board had brainstormed and those were part of the writing workshops. So we did a bunch here, we did some in PYM and people did them in their home yearly meetings. Sometimes we would collect the writings from those workshops with permission, but more often it was just meant to get ideas flowing and advertise the project. But the writing workshops were a gigantic piece of how we collected pieces in Bolivia and Kenya, and our two editorial board members from those countries were amazing traveling ministers in recruiting writing and sitting with people while they wrote and also our Canadian editorial board member travelled hundreds of miles to give workshops and people on the west coast did, too. So the workshops were both focused on producing things for the book, and more broadly focused on an affirming that you have something to say and let us accompany you on saying it.
DK: I was curious when I was looking through the book how many pieces came from those workshops, directly or indirectly, and how many were otherwise solicited; how many existed before the idea for this book and how many were in a way inspired by the project.
AC: It’s really a definite mixture. It’s interesting, some of the pieces I can look at and know were definitely written in a writing workshop, and with a lot of the Kenyan pieces, John [Epur Lomuria] was sitting with people while they were writing them. I don’t know if I would qualify that as a workshop but he was definitely an accompaniment. But a lot of them did already exist, some of them had been published before and if they were that’s noted. We kind of used the call for submissions to structure the book. There’s a relationship thematically between the call for submissions and the structure of the book, but there were also things that we got for the book that we were surprised by that we created sections for.
DK: I understand there was quite a lot of risk in getting some of the pieces, including bodily harm. Is that something you care to elaborate on?
AC: I think the story’s in the book. It’s called “The Road to Kitale” and it’s by John. John was on a bus travelling somewhere to do something for the book and the bus was shot at, so he tells that story. And Emma [Condori Mamani] also had a close call at one point. Emma is the Bolivian editor. I don’t know if she was traveling for the book, I think she may have been. There was a lot of travel involved, a lot of road-tripping. It’s interesting to compare the different ways that the editorial board members worked; with some of them it was almost entirely digital, recruiting people online via Facebook and email, and some of them were much more person-to-person. It would be interesting to count how many miles we logged in services of this book. I don’t know if that’s even calculable.
DK: Seems like quite an undertaking. One of the things that Quakers do a lot of, besides starting schools, is writing. And a lot of those authors go to lengths to make their writing accessible to non-Quaker audiences. That doesn’t appear to be the case with Spirit Rising. The book is really focused on the Quaker experience, particularly the youthful Quaker experience. I’m wondering what sort of audience you all had in mind when you were putting this together, if it was just Quakers everywhere, or if you thought it would appeal to non-Quakers, or a certain niche within Quakerism.
AC: That’s a great question. I think the audience is primarily Quakers, but a broader Quaker readership because it’s cross-branch. I mean, there are certainly other books that have appeal across branches, and a lot of Quaker writers who are writing for that. But I also hope that it’ll be true that this book is in some ways in conversation with a larger conversation about youth in spiritual communities that I think is happening amongst a lot of congregations worldwide, or even just in a microcosm in the U.S. And that is how faith communities can bring in young people and keep them. Even the wording of that sentence somehow implies that young people are something separate from the faith community, something to be brought in and absorbed, but really it should be a question of how we can be vibrant and intergenerational. That conversation often becomes, “How can we not die out?” but I think it’s actually a bigger conversation. So I think in tapping into that the book really does have a lot to say to other denominations and faith communities who are asking similar questions. And I don’t have the expectation that it’ll find a wide audience outside of Quakerism, but I think there is some appeal.
DK: You just mentioned how there’s this question that’s sort of perpetual in Quakerism about how we get young people in there and how we keep them there, and often times it does feel like youth is a commodity almost. In your piece in the book, there’s one point when you’re talking on the phone to somebody and you mention that you’re not actually a member of any meeting and he seems flabbergasted and says, “Well, you should be!” which obviously made you feel valued. And elsewhere in the book, I think in the introduction, there’s a part where the editorial board talks about how important youth is in Quakerism, how it’s needed to survive basically. Do you think this need is born of a basic need for survival or do you think there’s more to it, and how does this book speak to that?
AC: I think we often talk about it – thank you for this question, by the way – as, “Well, if we don’t have young people, who’s going to have the babies and where are we going to be in thirty years?” and it is about survival, certainly that’s part of it. But I think that the bigger question, and the bigger reality for me, is that if we are not multigenerational, in the same ways that if we are not multiracial, multicultural and multi-experienced, that we are missing out on the fullness of humanity and that our communities are incomplete because there are people with unique life experiences who are not present and who are not contributing. I think one of the incredible things about Quakerism is that we have, for hundreds of years, acknowledged the capacity of young people to be ministers and to have relationships with God, or with whatever you want to call God, with the Divine. Meetings have histories of recognizing really young people independently of their families as being Quakers and as being ministers and that’s such a powerful history. In a lot of congregations, and no disrespect to religions for which this is true, you have to go through different steps and at some point you’re acknowledged as a full member, whereas for Friends people can be members at a much younger age. I think that’s really powerful and you’d think that would inspire us to say, “Okay, we’re missing something,” and provide us an opportunity to kind of, not equalize, but transform conversations that happen between generations to being not only mentoring but to mutual spiritual friendships and mutual relationships. So I think it’s not just, “How do we not die out?” it’s, “How do we thrive?” and can we really thrive and nourish people if we’re not keeping young people and we’re not feeding them or being fed by them?
DK: Well, thank you for that answer. [laughter] Do you think youth as a diversifying force is just one of many? Because you could talk the way we were just talking about youth about people of different ethnicities or people of different theological beliefs, even. There are so many different types of diversity, do you think that is something Quakerism values, or needs to value? Those other types of diversity?
AC: Yeah, certainly. You know, I think it’s tempting - certainly there are similarities between diversity work that focuses on age and generation and diversity work that focuses on race or sexual orientation. Certainly there are similarities and ways that that work can be in conversation, but there are also key differences, so I don’t want to make them sound like they’re the same. And I don’t think you’re doing that, I just don’t want to have an interview with me that makes it seem like I’m saying that [laughter]. And what was the second part of your question?
DK: I guess just how important do you think that is to the thriving of Quakerism, and in a way the continuation of it, but mostly just the thriving?
AC: I think it’s pretty important and I’m still thinking about how to do that diversity work and how to do it in a good way, but one thing that a person who was involved in QUIP said early on to the editorial board that I thought was pretty profound was, “The work that you are doing is a microcosm of work that needs to be done with deep fissures that exist in our society.” And it was society with a lowercase s, not Society of Friends. I think there’s this question of how we are related to each other for real, and how do we live together and own the fact that maybe there’s a deeper relationship that goes beyond really important pieces of identity? How do we be faithful to that, given our history and given or current societal situations? I don’t have any easy answers, but I think that asking how our meeting can be more welcoming to people of color, or more welcoming to young people, or how we can retain young people and have vibrant intergenerational conversations, is rising out of, being faithful to, and preparing us for greater work amongst ourselves and in the greater world. But I think Friends have always had that bigger work on their minds.
DK: Yeah. Well, getting back to the book a little, do think there’s any chance of a sequel or spinoff in the future? I was thinking “Spirit Settling: Geriatric Quaker Voices.”
AC: [laughter] “Spirit Goes to Grad School.” We haven’t talked about one. Whispers of Faith made Spirit Risingpossible; it was kind of like the door opening. And Spirit Rising has been such a gigantic project and has attempted to be as cross-branch and as total as can be, though certainly it will always be imperfect; that kind of work will always be imperfect, particularly when there are so many unprogrammed Friends involved. So I don’t see a sequel coming along anytime soon. What I personally would like to see would be regional anthologies of young people’s work. We had a number of pieces from Kenya that we didn’t use. The way that I would like to see Spirit Rising go to seed is to see regional meetings and Friends around the world focusing on youth concerns and on how we can have conversations with each other about our experience in our faith, and some of them certainly already are. And there are other books that kind of look like Spirit Rising; there was a Britain Yearly Meeting book done sometime in the nineties and there was an FWCC anthology. So there have been others before QUIP’s work and I’m sure there will be other since, but I think QUIP probably has, for a while anyways, been satisfied. And we’re not done with this book yet, we have work to do in carrying it on.
DK: What do you mean?
AC: We’re hoping to organize a lot of what I’ve been calling Spirit Rising Events. They’re sort of book events, where people read from the book and if people were involved with it they talk about their experience. But then the goal is really to get people in conversation with each other using the book as a catalyst. That’s been part of our language for a while, using the book as a catalyst for dialogue and renewal. So the Spirit Rising Events are intended to get that ball rolling and get people using the book