Stepping Stones: A Reflection on Professional Development

Each step we take has a history behind it, other steps that got us to that point.  As we walk, we create a path.  A narrative can never be complete by isolating one segment, but a reflection on a few steps can provide some insight into the trail. In this reflection, I will articulate three critical steps.  The first is my involvement in Quakerism and Occupy, the second is to organize a confidential space, the “town halls,”  to discuss major concerns within the Engineering Education (ENE) graduate student community and the final is my organization of a Quaker retreat. By taking what I have learned from each step, I bring new skills to each situation, build personal capacities and have a clearer vision of what I wish to do in the future.

My step into Quakerism and Occupy

I am relatively new to Quakerism.  I have been attending a local meeting since Fall 2010. Then in July 2011, I went to a larger meeting of Quakers in the Midwest, which is referred to as a “yearly meeting.”  One of the key attributes of Quakers is they worship in silence, cultivating the holy spirit, and follow leadings from God. At the meeting, there was time to share personal experiences in a worshipful way, spiritual-centered workshops and speakers throughout the weekend. I felt accepted in the community and thankful to be a part of it.  After the yearly meeting, I was inspired to be more active in the Quaker community.  The first step I took was attending an environmental conference, Quaker Earth-care Witness (QEW) in Chicago in October 2011. Each morning we had worship sharing and reflection on the environmental impacts of American food production.  There were talks from policy makers and overviews of different projects attendees were working on.  This meeting happened during the height of Occupy, and many of the attendees were actively involved in the movement.  One man even went out of his way to go and sleep each night at the Occupy camp in Chicago.

Quaker process and guiding principals have a lot of similarities with the Occupy movement. During any type of meeting, business or planning, Quakers seek Unity before making a decision.  This is similar to a consensus, but rather than objectively agreeing, there is an agreement through Spirit.  For example, many Quakers do not believe that Christ is the Son of God and thus would not consider themselves Christians.  However, when the Norway Quakers recently decided to join in with other Christian institutions, they reached Unity on the decision.  They acted from a place of Spirit, rather than a place of rational thinking.  There are six main testimonies of Quakers: simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equality and stewardship. Both the process and many of the testimonies were found in the Occupy movement.  The Occupy movement worked primarily through consensus. Things were thoroughly discussed.  There was a strong presence of equality, as there were no designated leaders in any meeting and the intent was to give each person equal opportunity to speak. This is why many Quakers were active in the Occupy movement.

After I left the QEW conference, I become active in Occupy Lafayette and Occupy Purdue. I would regularly attend meetings and have discussions on issues our community was facing, like threats on Union labor.  Certain topics interested me more than others, issues in food and the environment were topics that greatly weighed on my heart.  However, upon reflection of the Occupy, what I really liked about it was that it gave people a chance to come together and identify the issues that were bothering them, such as labor, food, and banking policies.  Issues became clearer and then people stepped up and face them, by holding protests and speaking out.

Both Quakerism and Occupy create a space that allows people to recognize common concerns. This space is much more process oriented than having a tangible end.   I appreciate this element of both Quakers and Occupy, and have integrated this lesson into my following steps of life.

ENE Town Halls

My experience with the Quakers and Occupy laid the ground for some changes in the ENE grad student community.  When I first started at Purdue in 2009, I was the ENE Graduate Student Associate Committee (GSAC) representative.  There I met with the Associate Dean once a month to discuss concerns of my department. I spoke up about the issues I faced as a graduate student; however, I could only do so much, since I was new and did not know the concerns of other students. As I continued in the program and became embedded in the department, students started to discuses their issues with me. It seemed like the graduate students needed some type of Occupy movement, or at least a meeting, where they could confidentially discuss issues they faced.  I decided to set up a space to do just that, and we called them “town halls.”

I was co-chair of the communication committee in Spring 2011 and our department head, Dr. Radcliff, headed a leadership workshop emphasizing how each of us should take on one task that we could lead.  I started having smaller, semi-formal meetings, so the graduate students can articulate their issues and come up with solutions.  The first semester we had one every few months.  We ended up having two larger meetings during the weeks that our regular seminar didn’t have a speaker. In the discussions, I ensured confidentiality and replicated the facilitation method from the Occupy meetings.  Some students felt more comfortable approaching me personally about topics they saw were essential to include, but did not want to share with the group.

By the end of the semester, we were able to sort out main issues in the following five categories: community, advisor-advisee relations, new student transition, courses and health insurance issues.  This concise list provided a tangible record to accompany various representatives to the graduate school and the college. The graduate students associate now has had a few meetings with the department head and the graduate committee chair to discuss issues.  The department head has acknowledged the difficulty in addressing many issues of those that we have brought up; however, he recognizes them a problems that need attention.

For me, I see this achievement not as much as solving any of the problems, but rather creating a process so that students can be a part of the conversation.  This year the town halls have continued with new organizers.  I am grateful to have made a mark and started a tradition that allowed graduate students to vocalize their concerns in a formal way. This whole experience has been fulfilling to me.  I felt like I found a niche to create safe space so that people can step up and articulate the issues that were concerning them. As it is said in Quaker terminology, this was a leading.

Organizing the Midwinter in the Midwest retreat

Another leading I had, and followed through on, was to co-organize a Young Adult Quaker retreat.  This took place from January 4th to 6th 2013 in Pendleton, Indiana. For months prior to the event I was skyping every Sunday afternoon, figuring the schedule and organizing the event.  Everything aligned nicely, my largest contribution was the theme “A place for Quakers to dialogue and understand each other’s views of Christ and Scripture.” I did not know how this would actually unfold.  Though I had helped created space for people to talk about issues before, we did not know how to program such an event for 3 days. As we went forward a Friend[1] contacted me telling me she felt led to organize the programming, and another mentioned she would like to organize the food.  I then got shifted to collecting and managing the money.  A task I felt more qualified for. As the first night approached, I was nervous.  People came later than was planned and there was an awkward silence as we sat around the table.

Quakers come from many theological standpoints on Christ and Scripture. There are four main branches: conservative, liberal, evangelical and FUM.  The two branches I am most familiar with are conservative and liberal. Conservative Quakers are more true to the original practices.  The liberal friends branched off in the 1800s, the main theological difference is that they started to question scripture as being secondary to the personal connection with the Holy Spirit. I am a liberal Quaker, and have friends in other branches.  My view of the liberal Quakers is that we are much more “spiritual” than religious. Most of the Quakers I know do not consider Jesus as the Son of God, and use terms such as “Spirit” and “the light” rather than “God.”  They are more open to New-age practices, and are more likely to be interfaith. I consider myself a Buddhist Quaker.

When I have met Friends from other branches and asked them about their beliefs, I was often met with an uncomfortable feeling. I received the vibe- “I rather not talk about it.”  I wanted to understand this. This is what instigated my interest in creating such a space, not to change others, but to be able to talk about our own thoughts and beliefs.

The retreat did just that.  There were 18 people that came from different branches. There was discussion of our personal spiritual journeys, we shared one-on-one conversations on our thoughts of Jesus and Scripture, and each night ended with discussions in a small spiritual group.  The space was open and allowed for the diverse views to be discussed freely. A lot of the attendees had insights that deepened their own faith.  I felt a sense of deep satisfaction that I helped create the environment to allow for personal growth.

Conclusion

Through these three steps, I have gained a deeper understanding of myself and the world around me.   I have gained insight that it is not accomplishments that matter, but creating processes that allow for voices to be heard and growth to happen.  Change is slow, and that is okay.  I see myself as being a catalyst of growth by working to create safe spaces for progress to happen.  I will continue deepening my experience and skills as I move forward on my path of life.


[1] Quakers are referred to as “Friends” with a capital F

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