Quakers, Slavery and Climate Change

June 18, 2014 § Leave a comment

I’m speaking in York on Monday 21 July.

Quakers, Slavery and Climate Change

Learning from 18th Century American Friends’ journey to abolitionism: parallels for our responses to climate change

This is as a result of some personal research I’ve been doing over the last couple of years. My aim has been to examine how an organisation and its communities made a fundamental internal change over an issue which every member was connected to, directly or simply as a citizen of a society in which slavery was embedded. I hope that there is enough similarity between the two contexts to draw some useable suggestions for approaches and ways forward, today, in responding to climate change.

Chaired by Danielle Walker, Director, Friends Provident Foundation

Monday 21 July, 7.30 pm, Friargate Quaker Meeting House, Friargate, York, YO1 9RL

Copy of my paper here: Quakers, Slavery and Climate Change.

Contact me for more information or to respond to the paper: 07986 016804,  john@johngray.org.uk




Quakers, Slavery and Climate Change

February 11, 2014 § Leave a comment

I’ve been looking at how American Quakers changed from condoning slavery, and some Quakers being slave-owners or slave-traders, to in 1758 making slave trading an enforceable breach of Quaker discipline. I was inspired by a quote from Bill McKibben: “Since all of us are beneficiaries of cheap fossil fuel, tackling climate change has been like trying to build a movement against yourself – it’s as if the gay-rights movement had to be constructed entirely from evangelical preachers, or the abolition movement from slaveholders.” [1] (my emphasis)

Given how endemic slavery was to the economy and society at the time, few people could have imagined the situation ever changing. If we knew how Quakers internally made that shift, might there be valuable lessons for those working to inspire change today in response to climate change?
Here is the article I’ve now written: Quakers, Slavery and Climate Change; I would be very interested in your responses or comments.

[1] Quoted in the Guardian on 30 November 2012 by Anne Karpf, Climate Change: You Can’t Ignore It http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2012/nov/30/climate-change-you-cant-ignore-it

News from Newcastle – the impact of the cuts on communities

July 3, 2013 § Leave a comment

Newcastle Conflict Resolution Network, with whom I’ve had the privilege of working with over several years (facilitation, Management Group support and development, and carrying out an evaluation), has just published their latest Newsletter which I recommend to you.

In particular it looks at the impact of cuts and of the bedroom tax on communities – forced moves, reduction of services for young people, greater community divisions, and an increase in crime – especially shoplifting, and not theft of valuable electronic goods: nowadays it’s meat and baby foods.

Their newsletter also includes news of their projects to support constructive community building and capacity for conflict resolution amongst Newcastle’s residents and agencies.

Good Lives Project, guest blog 2: Sustainability

March 28, 2013 § Leave a comment

Here is the second of my guest blogs on Woodbrooke’s Good Lives Project – you can view the original post at http://woodbrookegoodlives.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/sustainability-and-minute-36.html

This article explores the second element of British Quakers’ “Minute 36” commitment to become a low carbon sustainable community.


What does sustainability mean in the context of Minute 36?What are we doing or would like to do that we can call sustainable?

Out in the wider world, sustainable is often used by organisations or governments to describe environmentally-friendly practice. This sometimes means “We’re using less energy than we did before” or “We’re trying to do less harm than we did before”, or even “We’re trying to mitigate some of the harm that we nevertheless choose to continue to do.”

A more sophisticated use of the word is to describe the conversion of economies or behaviours towards the targets needed to avoid catastrophic climate change. As we would need at least three planets for everyone to live a UK-equivalent lifestyle, the steps that humankind is currently taking are nowhere near big enough to justify calling them sustainable.

Is there a better definition?

To my mind, sustainability has a very pure meaning: if something is sustainable, it has the capacity to adapt and continue indefinitely.

The 1987 World Commission on Environment and Development, also known as the Brundtland Commission, defined sustainable development as:

“Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

This definition describes a pattern of behaviour which in theory could continue forever. However this definition views the earth and its resources from a human point of view: resources must be conserved because we need them for future (human) generations. In reality, though, we are part of the ecosystem, and one of many species. The definition makes no reference to the web of life of which we are part; it implies that resources are available primarily to keep our way of life going, at the expense of other species if necessary.

A more recent definition of sustainable development feels to me to be a step forward: “Development that meets the needs of the present while safeguarding Earth’s life-support system, on which the welfare of current and future generations depends” (1) – though I’m still wary of that word “generations” if it’s only about humans.

Sustainable lifestyles

Whether or not these definitions are adequate, my sense is that they are weakened if we use sustainable for anything less than that which can exist or continue indefinitely. It is certainly weakened if it is used as greenwash or to imply that something is being done when in reality not enough is being done.

So what do I say instead of sustainability when describing human economic or environmental activity?

The closest I’ve got so far is the phrase ‘responsible practice’. By this I mean practice which takes into account the effect of our behaviours on people and planet. Essentially, this means how we use, process and dispose of the earth’s resources; but it also includes the impacts on biodiversity and on other human beings in relation to dignity, human rights and aspiration.

We cannot halt immediately the damage that is being done, nor repair what is irreparable. But we can learn as much as we can about our impact – in human as well as ecological terms – and we can take as big steps as we possibly can, as quickly as we possibly can, to reduce and ultimately avoid those impacts.

That for me is responsible behaviour from a global standpoint. It doesn’t rescue us in anyway – it leads us into evaluating and negotiating our practice, especially if we’re part of a community working out sustainability together; the conversations explored in last week’s article are inevitable and ultimately provide the way through.

Another sustainability?

To sustain something has another meaning too: to nourish or enliven something.

Rather than thinking of sustainability as forever enabling us to consume resources, I hope one day we may use “sustainable” to describe human practice which truly nourishes and enlivens the earth. After all we have drawn from the planet, the time I think has come for more sustaining in return.

(1) http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/redefining-sustainable-development-by-david-griggs

Woodbrooke Good Lives Project – Guest Blog 1

March 21, 2013 § 3 Comments

With thanks to Maud Grainger, Faith in Action Tutor at Woodbrooke, below is the first of three guest posts of mine on the Woodbrooke Good Lives Project. You can view the original post at http://woodbrookegoodlives.blogspot.co.uk/

Community and Minute 36

This post is the first of 3 guest posts. Before we begin, John Gray tells us a little more about his background and I leave you to his words.

I was brought up a Quaker, and I am an attender at Friargate meeting in York. I originally qualified as a solicitor, and since leaving the law in 1994 I’ve worked and volunteered in the not-for-profit sector, including at the Quaker UN Office in Geneva and with local Friends caught up in the ethnic-political conflict in Burundi. For the last twelve years I have been a freelance organisational consultant and coach, specialising in organisational and individual change, and inquiry approaches into ethical and environmentally responsible practice.

In the summer of 2011, Britain’s Quakers at their Yearly Meeting Gathering, the business assembly of Friends in Britain, made an historical corporate commitment to become a low carbon sustainable community www.quaker.org.uk/creating- just-and-sustainable-world The commitment has since become known as the Minute 36 Commitment, or the Canterbury Commitment, drawing the name from where the Yearly Meeting Gathering took place.

These three guest blogs on the Good Lives blog explore in turn the three elements of the Minute 36 Commitment: community, sustainable, and low carbon.

Community and Minute 36

For me the greatest challenge and opportunity in the Minute 36 Commitment are not the aspirations to sustainability or low-carbon, but rather that we aspire to these things as a community.

Even as we sat in the Yearly Meeting Gathering session, it was clear that for some Friends the aspects of targets and accountability were problematic, and for some, the words  baselines and frameworks were in themselves contradictory to the concept of community.

Recent articles and correspondence in The Friend echo this. What does it mean if some members of the community are not the least interested in committing to become a low-carbon community? If I’m in community with someone who has different views, do I ignore them? Tolerate them? Try to influence them? Will Minute 36 remain a silent topic? What is our response to the work of Quaker Peace and Social Witness, Woodbrooke and others in enabling us to live this commitment in practice?

My guess is that within any typical Quaker meeting there will be a range of views about the Canterbury Commitment. There will be those who regard the Commitment as central, perhaps the most significant, aspect of their Quaker witness in the world today. There will be a few who do not regard human-made climate change as an established fact and thus requiring no action. There will be another group, perhaps larger in number, who are accepting of the evidence but who do not believe that changes in behaviour individually or as a meeting are appropriate responses. For everyone, there will be levels of comparative ignorance or misunderstanding of the evidence, and emotional response to the Minute 36 commitment which at their strongest could include passion, fear, anger (at themselves or at other people), resignation or despair.

This range of responses is also likely to be found in Quakers in their other meetings –committees, special interest groups and Quaker-led organisations. I mention these because the Commitment refers to corporate as well as individual action, so wherever any Friends are meeting or working together in the expression of their Quakerism.

The strength of the wider public debate on environmental issues – its critical language and vehemence, the blame-culture and vested interests (on both sides) – is unlikely to embolden Friends who are wondering how on earth to begin the conversations with their fellow Quakers.

It is because of all this that the word Community in the Commitment, ‘a low-carbon community’, is for me the way forward. Friends have over 350 years’ experience of trying to live in community with each other. We began as a gathered body of people, and although the foundation of our religious experience is ‘What canst thou say?’, our spiritual practice is of corporate worship, not individual meditation. When James Naylor rode on a donkey into Bristol in 1656 in apparent imitation of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, early Quakers’ response led in part to the establishing of processes – still in use today – of testing concerns as a way of moderating and guiding spiritually-grounded action in the world, This aspect of community, establishing norms and expectations and a willingness to support Friends in living their witness, still serves us well in our collective discernment of right ordering.

So back to those troubling words in Minute 36, accountability and baselines. My view is that accountability is the very nature of being in community with other people.

If I have views on other’s behaviour, what am I do with those views? Is it OK to fly for work? Is it OK to fly to visit family in far-flung places of the world? Is it OK to install a hot-tub in my back garden? Is it better to buy locally-grown produce or support fairtrade  producers in the developing world? if I have a larger carbon footprint than you, can we negotiate a sharing – rationing – of carbon usage?

There are no right and wrong answers to these questions – it seems to me that it is for each community to find answers together. And a starting point is to dare to name the questions.

It seems no coincidence that the sections in community and on conflict, in Chapter 10 of Quaker Faith and Practice, are next to each other. To be in relationship with others is encounter difference, and that may lead to conflict, and that conflict may be a negative destructive experience or an affirming deepening process.

These two quotations from QF&P might serve as useful starting points for Friends wishing to explore, in relationship with the Friends around them, what being a community of sustainable, low-carbon users might entail.

Our shared experience of waiting for God’s guidance in our meetings for worship and for church affairs, together with careful listening and gentleness of heart, forms the basis on which we can live out a life of love with and for each other and for those outside our community(from 10.03, QF&P)

And from 10.24:

In our desire to be kind to everybody, to appear united in spirit, to have no majorities and minorities, we minimise our divisions and draw a veil over our doubts. We fail to recognise that tension is not only inescapable, however much hidden, but when brought into the open is a positive good.

John Gray

January 25, 2012 § Leave a comment

The very first programme on Consciousness Meaning and Practice took place at Oasis during the weekend 14- 15 January.

It was a weekend of firsts, as the programme also marked the initial steps of the Oasis strand in globally responsible practice (see http://www.oasishumanrelations.org.uk/blog/courses/people-and-planet-workshops).

The feedback from the January programme was most encouraging: participants were given time to reflect on and develop the sustainable self, connecting to what was most significant in their lives and how it acts as the foundation for their engagement with the world. One participant described the weekend course as a bridge – between the inner and the outer worlds; that echoes the progress of the weekend from what is the nature of my connection to people and planet, to its implications for action.

What particularly struck me was the nature of the invitation of such programmes: how to invite people to explore issues such as these without assuming anything about their inner experience. Reflecting afterwards, I think the outward simplicity of the programme freed people to take themselves where they needed to go; looking back, there were only six substantive questions over the course of the weekend. If the questions are good enough then they will lead to intersting places, and that seems to have been the outcome of the weekend. I learnt plenty myself, of course, about the role and process of the facilitator, with much more to discover as the globally repsonsible practice strand unfolds.

Two further programmes are planned, together with an exciting development now shaping for 2013:

A repetition of the January weekend: Consciousness, meaning and practice: a two-day exploration of global responsibility and the transpersonal. Dates: 29–30 September 2012

A three-day introduction to globally responsible practice and the triple bottom line, incorporating a Whole Person Learning approach. This programme is aimed specifically at those working in or with organisations. Dates: 2–4 July 2012

In 2013, Oasis will run a two-year Global Change-makers diploma. If you are interested in being kept in touch about this – or about registering on the two programmes this year, please be in touch with Samantha at Oasis: Tel: 01937 541700,samantha@oasishumanrelations.org.uk.

The work is at the level of deep complexity, and with bigger-than-self challenges exploring 21st century relationships within a global context. Those who engage will find time and space to:

  • explore their current connection to and with people and planet
  • raise consciousness of the connections that exist – social, transpersonal, financial, emotional and environmental
  • be supported into action within their spheres of influence, with an emphasis on the spheres of work, local community action, leadership, collaboration and social innovation.

John Woolman

November 23, 2011 § Leave a comment

I’m reading The Wisdom of John Woolman, Reginald Reynolds, Allen and Unwin 1948.
John Woolman was an American Quaker, 1720 – 1772. He challenged some strongly-held practices amongst Quakers at the time – most significantly slave-owning Quakers in the USA and the UK, and also excessive wealth, bad business practices, racial prejudice, and general complacency. A most uncomfortable Friend!; and a loving peer – he was effective not through polemics or opposition but by visiting and meeting in a loving spirit those who whose practices he disagreed with.
How about this for a statement for creating radical community (translate the language as you wish):
“There is a principle, which is pure, placed in the human mind, which in different places and ages hath had different names; it is, however, pure and proceeds from God.—It is deep, and inward, confined to no forms of religion, nor excluded from any, where the heart stands in perfect sincerity. In whomsoever this takes root, and grows, of what nation soever, they become brethren.”
Quakers say that they live “in the virtue of that life and power that takes away the occasion of all war”. Woolman went further: he urged Friends to look at their lives and possessions and “try whether the seeds of war have any nourishment in them”. In our current context, I think his definition of war could readily include the negative aspects of globalisation.
I think it’s not true to say that John Woolman was “before his time”: his words have spoken to all times since his own, and – because of his strong awareness of his connection to the divine – his words are likely to remain relevant for centuries to come.
I don’t mean to place him on an unassailable pedestal. But in my reading about him he seems to me someone whose practice matched his words and his inner experience more completely than many in the world, and that in itself is unusual.
He died in York, England; and his grave is half a mile from my house – take you there one day, if you like.


November 1, 2011 § Leave a comment

Alongside a client, Oasis is inquiring into the application of the word “stewardship”.

It is a word that holds many rich meanings; the Institute for Family Business, for example, takes Tomorrow’s Company definition of stewardship as “the active and responsible management of entrusted resources now and in the longer term, so as to hand them on in better condition.” Family Business Stewardship, 2011.

Tomorrow’s Company characterises modern stewardship as a proactive rather than defensive approach, enhancing not just protecting value, “recognising the interdependence between us and the wider system of which we are part, whether it is the economy, the financial system, or the natural environment.” Tomorrow’s Stewardship: Why Stewardship Matters, Tomorrow’s Company, 2011.

Accepting that we hold the world’s riches in trust for others is a key developmental step away from the idea that we somehow ‘own’ the earth and its resources were placed there for the ultimate benefit of the human race. This view, a rights-without-responsibilities approach, has historically driven much of our approach to economic development – if it’s good for profits, why wouldn’t we do it? The importing of bottled water from Fiji to the UK is one of many remarkable consequences of this line of thought.

There are positive resonances of the historical usage of stewardship that we can learn from. In perhaps the most well-known example, of a steward overseeing a farm or land on behalf of an absent owner, we can see the following:

  • A system-wide view of the enterprise, managing all aspects in pursuit of a bigger picture that may be less visible to sub-elements within the system
  • A leadership role, exercising influence and guidance
  • Led from a place of humility – “I am not the master”, so there is limited freedom to dispose of assets or take a short-term view
  • And an approach of responsibility and caring – preserving quality and income in the knowledge that the owner will return and hold the steward to account.

The phrase ‘human stewardship’ is used to encourage us to see ourselves in a new relationship to the earth and the environment. Whilst again this is a positive step, there are aspects of this approach that could lead us into danger. Briefly stated, these are:

  • False ownership. If we are stewards, we are taking care of the earth on behalf of its owner – in this case, all humanity. This encourages careful use, taking one’s share and no more. But in truth humanity does not own the world: all life owns itself – or better still, we are co-creators.

Taking this line further:

  • We risk hubris if we think we are the ones that are tasked to “solve” the environment’s problems, that we are somehow in charge. Rightly we need to reduce our impact because of the damage we are causing to our species and others across the planet. But it is not we who decide how the planet responds – the ecosystem’s laws are far beyond our control, beyond any decisions we make take about how things ought to be.

And so:

  • A stance of stewardship may make us believe that there is a false separation between us and the planet we think ourselves stewards of. All life, all resources, all actions, all economic realities, are a subset of the planetary environment, not the other way round. We are not separate from those things we care for, at a transpersonal as well as a system / environmental level. We are the many that make up the one, the see-er and the seen.

It is for that reason that I find myself drawn towards global responsibility rather than stewardship. Not responsible in a steward’s way, of managing and overseeing. But responsible in that we know our impact, we are responsible for the choices we make, we are connected in more ways that we know about to people and to planet, and we have values, passion and commitment that makes us actors in the world. This to me implies responsibility – able to respond to what we know and what we yearn to see in the world around us.

As ever, these are developing thoughts for me, and comments and “Have you thought about…” are warmly welcomed.

Nine billion people? Get into farming!

October 31, 2011 § Leave a comment

I am pleased that the BBC’s Farming Today is looking at the issue of how to feed nine billion people.

Although the programme is rightly looking at technological innovations to improve efficiency and effectiveness, to my mind this is rather a political and social not technological question.

My reason is that we do not now feed seven billion people fairly or effectively. The stunning statistic, that there as many obese as there are undernourished people in the world, demonstrates the failure of ourselves as an international community.

And in the UK, we treat food production as a matter of national rather than international interest. This is because in the main this country does not experience problems with food production and supply. So politicians are more concerned to ensure continuity of supply than address the wider – global – conditions that affect that production and security.

So when there are nine rather than seven billion people, to my mind the problem will be similar but more acute. Food insecurity, such as was experienced three years ago with a rise in oil prices, will be much more evident. Changes in climate will mean more weather extremes – hotter, colder, and especially more flooding and more droughts. Banning of food exports will be much more routine, forcing every country to produce more locally. Countries like ours will be under greater pressure from international migration. Pressure will increase as to how every inch of UK soil is used: which will be seen as more important – housing, food production, areas of natural beauty, retail parks…?

So that’s my prediction – unless feeding us all becomes seen as a matter of international cooperation, and led by equity rather than market forces.

One thing is for certain: it has never been a better time to get into farming. The amount of investment that will be needed by governments, and the entwinement contribution of food production to national security, will make food production one of the most significant industries in the UK.

Assessing the impact of community mediation

June 14, 2011 § 1 Comment

As a result of work which Mediation Yorkshire and I did together last year, we have produced a paper describing how the impact of mediation – both within the dispute and the wider effects – can be captured.

Challenges and Opportunities in assessing the impact of neighbour dispute mediation, 2011 John Gray

There is something of a gap within the UK community mediation sector in the theory and practice of impact. After a phase of comparatively generous public and financial support for the sector during the 90’s and early 2000’s, services need to be even clearer what benefits they are bringing to their stakeholders. Their stakeholders include not just the communities in which they work, but the service’s funders who are often local actors and influencers within the same communities.

Community mediation in the UK is approaching its fourth decade, and I hope this paper gives ideas and support to the sector as the challenges and opportunities of the current operating environment begin to make themselves felt.

If you have comments on the paper or contributions to the impact assessment debate, do be in touch.

Update: Mediation Digest has picked up on my Impact Assessment research, including an article from Mediation Yorkshire about how they have used the research with funders, referrers and other stakeholders.

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