This story is part of the "Let Your Life Speak" 2017 feature. Read the other stories from the project here.
Lauren Brownlee went to graduate school to prove to her student at Sidwell Friends School that nonviolent resistance to the Israeli occupation existed and could work. Lauren was a first-year teacher in a World History class, and every time she was covering kings and queens in Europe, a Palestinian student would find a bridge to events in Palestine. It was through these interjections that Lauren began to learn about the history and struggle of Palestine.
She was also learning about the anger and hate the student carried towards Israelis, and his belief that the conflict could only be resolved with violence. Lauren would try to think of ways the conflict could be resolved peacefully, in line with her Quaker values, but all her examples of nonviolent resistance were from other countries. The student didn’t believe that Nelson Mandela’s advice to South Africans to throw their guns into the ocean would be applicable to Palestine.
So Lauren went to graduate school, where she studied Global International and Comparative History, to find the stories of nonviolent resistance that existed in the Palestinian struggle. The student excitedly read all her papers, including her final thesis, and they would discuss what they were both learning about nonviolent resistance of the occupation by both Israelis and Palestinians. Although the two didn’t completely agree by the time she finished her degree, “he no longer dismissed [her] ideas of nonviolent resistance." Being in dialogue was fruitful for both parties. “It meant a lot to him,” Lauren said, “that I cared enough about the region to engage to that extent.”
Lauren's deepening support of nonviolent resistance to the occupation led her to the Quaker Palestine Israel Network (QPIN), which supports, educates, and connects Quakers who are working for peace in Israel and Palestine. After some frustrating instances where monthly and yearly meetings could not come to unity on minutes of support for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS), QPIN is working on resources connecting Quaker testimonies to BDS, and guides for engaging people about BDS.
As a result of her work on Israel/Palestine, Lauren also attended the War Resistors League's 90th Anniversary Conference, where she began to hear about the connections between international social justice struggles, such as Israel/Palestine, and domestic ones, such as fighting the prison-industrial complex. After the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Lauren knew she had to act. "Racism in America was something that actively needed all of the voices and bodies it could get to dismantle the racist structures and histories," she says.
To explain why her commitment to anti-racist work came to her after other kinds of activism, she points to Michelle Obama's remarks in a speech after Donald Trump's sexual assault remarks were revealed. Obama explained how it's sometimes difficult for women to speak fully about sexual assault because it makes them more vulnerable. Lauren says, "there's a vulnerability that is exposed when I acknowledge all of the pain I feel as Black woman. [But] there's not just a victimhood in acknowledging that there is racism ... I can both acknowledge that and be fighting against it at the same time and the sense of being a part of that struggle is empowering in and of itself."
Lauren helped her meeting take action for Black Lives Matter (BLM). After seeing a flyer contextualizing BLM from a Baltimore group, she brought the idea of doing something similar, "about why we as a Quaker meeting ... want to stand behind or stand with," the movement. Some people weren't sure about including the Quaker context in the proposed pamphlet, but Lauren stood firm with her draft and insisted the committee accept her proposal, "both as the only Black person on the Peace and Social Justice committee, but also as the one who volunteered to do this." The committee agreed, and a group handed out the flyers to passersby in downtown Bethesda.
"People were both very angry and very appreciative, the two extremes," Lauren says. African-Americans were the source of a lot of the appreciation and engagement. One person even sent a note to the meetinghouse, thanking them for building the "sense that this place is all of our place."
When moments of conflict occur, Lauren has different strategies for dealing with it. In Quaker circles, especially with regard to BDS, "it's easy to shift the conversation to how BDS is reflective of Quaker values." Even outside of Quaker circles, it's possible to have a productive connection and conversation when the focus is on the end vision. Lauren remembers a conversation with someone she met on a train who opposed BDS, where they were, "visioning across that difference, [talking about] what is it that we want to go for, and what does it look like to get there?" Connecting with others is a spiritual practice for Lauren, as she is "answering that of God in everyone to bring about a more loving world."
Lauren found a spiritual home in Quakerism after attending Sidwell Friends School and the Quaker Youth Leadership Conference. When her mother was dying, she knew she would need a community to support her, and she turned more substantially to Quakers.
"My mother was not Quaker, but asked if she could have a Quaker memorial service, and the meeting didn't hesitate to let us do that … even though I had only been attending for six or seven months at that point," she said. This generous and deep welcome led Lauren to become an active member of her meeting, serving on the Pastoral Care committee (in her view, the best way to get to know a meeting, but only if you have the energy for what is essentially a second job!), and on Baltimore Yearly Meeting's Growing Diverse Leadership Committee. Her spirituality has deepened through this work, as it allows her to come together in a space of vulnerability with her fellow Quakers and grow and heal together from that point.
Lauren was born into a different spiritual tradition and spent a long time around Quakers and Quaker practice before becoming an active member. As a result, her perspective on Quakerism provides a different insight into what Quakerism could be. Lauren thinks the tradition of not proselytizing makes Quakers afraid to be open with the world, but "when people know about [Quakerism], there are people who then want to be engaged in that." If Quakers could "own up" to who they are, then more people could see what Quakers are about and maybe find that those things align with their values. "The more people that we have,” Lauren adds, “the stronger we're going to be as a group that is bringing more love to the world."