Lori Fernald Khamala is the director of the North Carolina Immigrant Rights Program for the American Friends Service Committee and also serves as the coordinator of AFSC’s Sanctuary Everywhere initiative. One aspect of this initiative is our Sanctuary Spaces project, in which AFSC highlights non-traditional examples of sanctuary spaces that are created by and for targeted communities.
Sophia Perlmutter: What work do you do for social change?
Lori Fernald Khamala: At AFSC I am the director of the North Carolina Immigrant Rights Program. Over the last year and a half or so we have transitioned our program from being one that worked more with allies on policy issues to one that is doing direct community organizing with undocumented Latinx communities in central North Carolina called Siembra.
We have a really strong team of three community organizers that are out every week, knocking on doors in trailer parks and other communities where mostly undocumented Latinx folks live, identifying issues directly with folks in the community, seeing what their needs are, what they want to focus on. They are running a hotline that people can call if they think that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is in their neighborhood, and setting up direct text message groups, so that people in the same neighborhood can report when they have seen an ICE vehicle, or to just be able to check in with their neighbors. Our organizers are responding to complaints of wage theft, they are mobilizing support for families affected by deportation and immigration detention, and are also working to disrupt the collusion between ICE and local law enforcement.
We recently had a big victory in that the 287(G) Program, which is a deportation program that is a partnership between local law enforcement agencies and ICE. We were able to stop that program from coming back to a county in which it had been very active. These kinds of programs are one of the main ways that immigrants are funneled into the deportation pipeline; even if someone is pulled over for a mere traffic offense, 287(g) enables participating local sheriffs to initiate deportation proceedings.
A lot of the work is about developing leadership of undocumented folks, so that they can stand up for themselves to live their lives with dignity and self-determination.
Sophia: What does being a Quaker mean to you and how does that identity shape the work that you do?
Lori: I was born into a Quaker meeting in Charlotte and I’ve been part of many different Quaker meetings in North Carolina where I’ve lived all my life. Being Quaker is very central to my identity, and my faith and spiritual journey, and my Quaker faith contributes greatly to the work that I do and the work that I have always felt called to do around social justice and racial justice. Growing up learning about the Quaker testimonies (spirituality, peace, integrity, community, equality, stewardship) of course was a great influencer to me. The testimony of equality is what really resonates with me deeply and I want to work for a world that is more just, where people are treated equally and fairly.
At Guilford when I participated in the Quaker Leadership Scholars Program, my class was very unique in that there were representatives of all of the branches of Quakerism in my QLSP class, so it was really very interesting connecting with Quakers of very different backgrounds than my own. One of the things that shined through was that not all Quaker communities are completely focused on the testimonies. So then when you really look at what is a defining feature of Quakers, if you are not looking at the testimonies, I think it’s the central core belief that there is that of God in everyone, and to me that is what really resonates as a call for equality, and seeking to honor that of God in every person is a core value of mine and my work.
Sophia: Do you think the broader Society of Friends views the testimonies as central to their faith as you do?
Lori: I don’t know how to judge that exactly because I have to admit, as much as I personally and spiritually identify with Quakerism, I’ve been disappointed in Quakerism broadly. I think that even Quaker meetings that profess a strong commitment to social justice, it’s been hard to see that carried out as a corporate witness. I think that there are people who as individuals are very committed, but it has been a challenge, even in this day and age when people are very united in opposition to some of our national policies and leaders, to identify a corporate Quaker witness, or a collective witness as Quakers. I think that that has been absent.
I think a lot of Quakers will say, “Oh, social justice, that’s what AFSC does,” and they aren’t necessarily finding ways in which an entire meeting can come together around a justice witness.
When I’ve had the opportunity to really expose Quakers to the work of AFSC, when people can really see the depth of what we are doing, I think that Quakers are incredibly impressed and committed and feel more connected to it. But I think that it has been a struggle to identify those points of connection where people do feel very invested in our work, but I think that it’s really powerful that our work is guided by people who are directly impacted by Injustice. It’s something that really separates us. AFSC is not an organization that has only Quakers as our constituents, it’s very different than FCNL (Friends Committee on National Legislation), whose work I tremendously respect, but FCNL’s constituents are Quaker meetings, and that’s not true of AFSC. Our constiutents are primarily people who are directly impacted and often criminalized by polices and systems. Our work is guided by impacted communities, and many of our staff members also come from the communities we work with. It can be hard for some Friends’ Meetings that most of our staff are not Quakers, but for me, I believe this brings greater integrity to our work. I see Quaker values at work every day in every AFSC program, and I believe that being led by communities who are directly impacted makes me a better Quaker.
Sophia: What is your vision for a just world and what do you think is needed to get us there?
Lori: One of my visions for a just world is one in which everyone has what they need and have a voice in the decisions that impact their lives. Everyone deserves to live in peace and feel safe in their communities. I think we need leadership by people who are the most impacted. We need this leadership in every way, in formal leadership, in elected officials, community leaders, leaders within businesses, and in anyone that is making decisions. Anyone who’s setting policy whether it’s the director of a library, or somebody in the city council, or the informal leader of a community.
In terms of what’s needed in order to get us there, I think allies, white folks, and privileged folks, being willing to take a step back, being willing to accept and defer to the leadership of those who are impacted, even if that leadership looks different than what we would do. Also what’s really important to get us there is a sense of joy, and that that joy is able to help us sustain the work. Being able to find joy in social justice movements is critical to creating the world and the community we want.