Open Letter to SAYMA* Friends of Color

June 2019

Dear Friends, 

After our last SAYMA-URJ Meeting, (May 2019) the interim clerk, suggested that one reason Friends of color are not participating in URJ is because they fear being called out publicly by me. 

Please, if you have a concern or problem with me, come to me. Instead of swallowing whole what someone else may have said. Contrary to the popular narrative that Sharon “Star” Smith is impossible to work with because I am self-centered, unreasonable, and vengeful, I am actually reasonably intelligent, knowledgeable, rational and strategic--most of the time. It does not matter to me if you understand how white supremacy works, or how apathetic you may be about organizing to addressing it. And, IF you come for me based on unsubstantiated bull shit claims against me, I will first attempt to reason with you, IF I know of it and can reach you. Then, if we are able to discuss your concerns, like responsible adults and we still disagree, even that is OK.  Everyone is entitled to an opinion, even uninformed opinions. I accept that not every Friend of color is called to do the work of challenging racism among Friends. Not everyone has the time, inclination or stamina required. However, after all that, IF you persist in sabotaging my work, I will definitely call you out. 

Basically, if you don’t start nothin’ then there won’t be nothin’. 

Ask Vanessa Julye. Contrary to what you may have been led to believe, I do not attack her for no reason. We have a long history, going back to The Quaker racial hysteria in Sandwich Monthly Meeting/NEYM (2006).  For someone whose FGC recognized ministry is supposedly to support Friends of color and bring Friends of color together, she has done none of that for me, or any other Friend of color I know. 

While I was suffering through what might be called a political lynching in New England Yearly Meeting, Vanessa never once bothered to call me to say, “How are you?” “Are you OK?” or “How can I help?” At that moment, when I needed support from Friends of color the most, not a soul among Friends of color in New England Yearly Meeting, nor FGC, stood by me. 

The so called weighty Friends of color in New England Yearly Meeting were silent. Neither Greg Woods, nor Hal Weaver, nor James Varner, all high profile NEYM Black Friends.  Though James did come quietly to me and admit that I was experiencing racism, he would not say so publicly. Hal Weaver, who agreed to be on my NEYM appointed support committee, told me I “should not use the word racism because it enflames people.” Greg Woods had nothing to say at all. Although, years later he did try to tone police me on Facebook because a few white women complained that they did not approve of my style. Ya just cannot make this stuff up. 

Frankly, I found it fascinating, that though each of these FOC had their own personal concerns with Quaker racism, they were apparently incapable of organizing to support one another to address Quaker racism as a group. AND, they were so easy with the idea of everyone’s focus being on me as the problem, instead of the rampant racism in New England YM. Unfortunately, I’ve seen the same pattern of behavior among Philadelphia Yearly Meeting and SAYMA Friends of color. I have a hard time understanding it. 

But there is absolutely no excuse for Vanessa Julye.  It wasn’t like she did not know who I was, or had never heard of me. I met her several times at Quaker anti-racism events, such as the Burlington Conference in New Jersey, and we attended several Beyond Diversity 101 courses together during that time. She knew exactly who I was AND that I was a target of Quaker racism. Yet she, as the Black FGC coordinator of the Ministry on Racism, always held herself aloof and took a hands-off approach?  

When she finally did come to Cape Cod, it was definitely NOT to support me but to attend a Friends of color retreat there. One which I helped to organize.  I arranged the dates, the itinerary and the accommodations at Quaker House in Falmouth.  I even arranged for my Mashpee Wampanoag friends and relatives to cater their meals. Friends of color from New York, and Philadelphia Yearly Meeting enjoyed themselves on the Cape. They ate well, shared one another’s fellowship and saw the sights on Cape Cod during the best time of year, after Labor Day. 

Until the last day, when we all attended East Sandwich Meeting for Worship and NONE of the members showed up for Worship or brought anything for pot-luck fellowship, afterwards. Not even the clerk. Instead, they sent someone from Falmouth Meeting to open the buildings for us.  Imagine. The one time a contingent of Quakers of color came to Worship at the oldest continually operating Quaker Meetinghouse in this hemisphere, and the entire Meeting chose not to show up. Of course their excuse, not that they mentioned it to me, was that they refused to support anything Sharon Smith did in the name of Friends…because I would not submit to their authority, be a good Negro, know my place and STOP upsetting white folks by endlessly TALKING about racism.

The crucial moment for me, during that Friends of color retreat, was when we had the time and space to discuss Quaker racism, specifically the racism I had been experiencing for the last year among New England Friends, these Friends of color, including the Black clerk of NYYM at that time, and Vanessa Julye, decided the issue would not be discussed, because there were non-Quaker Wampanoag friends of mine in the room? Except, my Wampanoag friends were eyewitnesses to the racism, and they wanted to discuss it. Because Wampanoags and Quakers have lived as neighbors since the 1600s, they were more than willing to testify to what they clearly saw as a case of racism among Friends. So they were quite shocked to see the way my concerns were dismissed by these “weighty” Black Friends.  Please, explain to me how the choice these FOC made, helped, in any way, to make the RSoF more welcoming for people of color?

Since that time, Vanessa and all other Friends of color, especially those who attended that retreat, have acted like they don’t know me.  Including the current secretary of New York YM, who managed the financial arrangements for the retreat on Cape Cod, and the former clerk of NYYM. Whenever I reached out to any Friends of color for support of any kind, they simply ignored me. 

I didn’t realize it for quite a long time, because I didn’t interact with other Friends of color often. But when Vanessa ignored my e-mail and telephone messages asking her to be a reference for me when I applied for a job at AFSC that piqued my interest. That’s when I began to pay attention to their deafening silence, specifically on the issue of racism among Friends.  At the time it puzzled me, because I had not yet learned that Friends of color who work for, or depend on Quaker institutions and organizations for their daily bread, would leave me hanging, every time, the way they consistently have. I did not have absolute proof of their duplicity yet either, so I let it go. 

Then, years later, when I arrived on the scene to support Avis Wanda McClinton, in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, as she suffered from racism at Upper Dublin Friends Meeting/Abington Quarter, we faced massive resistance from Philadelphia YM Friends of color, including Vanessa Julye. Her Meeting publicly declared themselves an “All white Meeting” and again, NO Friends of Color stood up to support Avis Wanda, either.  We saw Friends of color stand up in public and say, shit like, “These are good kind people, why are you calling them names?” and “I don’t see the racism Avis is talking about.” Vanessa was right in the middle of it, as the designated PYM representative of FGC AND the Philadelphia YM Undoing Racism Group--their expert on Friends of color and racism. She knew all too well that what was happening was indeed racist, and still she said absolutely nothing, at every opportunity to stand with and for Avis. In fact, Avis asked me to clerk her support committee, because Vanessa had organized it but was doing nothing but taking notes at all the awful meetings where the white folks tried to make their problem about Avis’ behavior instead of their racism. 

When I agreed to clerk Avis’s support committee, Vanessa threatened to quit. She told Avis, “I just cannot work with Sharon Smith; she has an attitude problem and she is an embarrassment.” I heard this directly from Avis. As if Vanessa was doing anything for her at all, besides taking notes and reporting back to the then, Black clerk of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, Jada Jackson. We watched them work to separate me from Avis and to silence both of us in order to maintain the white supremacist status quo and to deny that racism was indeed the issue. We watched in horror as Philadelpia Yearly Meeting had several called Meetings on racism, in which Avis was not allowed to speak, and the clerk, the next clerk after Jada, Penny something-or-other, had the microphone turned off on me, in mid-sentence, when I tried to speak. 

Remember, Philadelphia YM acquired its wealth through cheating Indigenous people out of their lands and trading in Black and Indian slaves. Now they use that wealth to buy the allegiance of a few desperate and/or despicable Friends of color and to suppress dissenters. I am a witness. I saw so much unFriendly behavior from Friends of color and white protectionism in PYM, I could write a book on that alone. 

Before Vanessa quit Avis’ support committee, she and Jean Marie Barch attempted to block me from participating in the pre-FGC Gathering weekend retreat for Friends of color and their families, citing some bull shit institutional policy decision which no person of color in their right mind should have agreed to.  I won’t go into that here, so I if you are interested, just ask and I will send you my notes. 

Suffice it to say, Vanessa Julye is no Friend to me, Avis Wanda, or any other Friend of color. So, when I heard that the SAYMA Planning Committee had chosen “Unraveling Racism” as its theme for SAYMA Yearly Meeting gathering in 2016, and invited Vanessa Julye to be Keynote Speaker, I was adamantly opposed. And, when I shared my concerns about Vanessa with the Planning Committee they refused to take my concerns seriously. They also refused to consider any of my suggested alternatives. What Hank Fay literally said to me was, “The decision has already been made and nothing will change it.” 

So, I requested that Vanessa meet with me and a qualified mental health professional skilled in Social Work and Critical Race Theory before the Yearly Meeting gathering, to discuss her “hands-off approach to Friends of color experiencing racism, and how to move beyond back-stabbing and spreading malicious gossip to maybe being more pro-active about supporting Friends of color, like myself and Avis. 

First, the Planning Committee clerk refused to pay for the professional consultant of my choice, Dr. Kimberly Richards of the People’s Institute. Instead, she decided, all on her own, to choose a Black Friend of hers, to “mediate” between me and Vanessa. I agreed to talk to the woman, but discovered that though she had a degree in Psychology, she had no experience with CRT, so I did not agree to work with her. As a result, the Planning Committee clerk, assumed I was being unreasonable and had refused mediation, so she hardened her stance against me.  But, Vanessa was also refusing to meet with me. She acted like she was afraid of me, and the Planning Committee supported her in that. In addition, at no time during that situation, did the clerk of the Planning Committee speak to me directly. She used Folami Adams, a FOC from Atlanta, to “manage” the situation. So that is why some of y’all saw me for the first time, at the SAYMA Gathering (2016), acting like an “angry colored woman” going off on Vanessa Julye…whom most of you met for the first time, also.  Except she was treated like an honored guest while I was treated like an interloper in my own Yearly Meeting. None of what happened that year, as the white folks were supposedly unraveling their racism, was OK. And I’m still not over it.  As far as I’m concerned, I should not be. 

That was the same year Asheville Friends brought forward a proposal to form a Yearly Meeting level anti-racism committee to the floor of sessions. The proposal came from Asheville because I was the one who thought of it. I brought the idea to the Asheville Racial Justice Committee and once it was approved by them, they brought it to Asheville’s Meeting for Business and it was approved there as well. Which is why Steve Livingston, a white man, Asheville’s representative to SAYMA, brought it to the floor of Sessions. Because I knew damn well, if it came from me the proposal would not have been taken under consideration. 

As soon as the Yearly Meeting approved the timely proposal, they charged the SAYMA clerk, Jon Saderholm, to create an ad hoc committee, primarily of Friends of color, to do the formation work for the new committee and report back the following year, 2017. From the beginning, the Yearly Meeting clerk tried to block me from participating in the formation process, of what later became known as SAYMA-URJ (Uplifting Racial Justice). He was charged with nominating members of the ad hoc committee, so the first thing he did was nominate Folami Adams (Atlanta GA) as “convener” and then Diane Butler (Colombia SC). He claimed he wanted to nominate a geographically diverse group of FOC, because he did not want all of us to be from Atlanta, where most FOC apparently are, but was still reluctant to nominate Sharon Smith, from Asheville? In the end, he had no choice, though, because even Diane Bultler, who never liked me or approved of my “style,” commented that she did not have the energy to commit to this work, and that I should have been nominated. 

As it turned out, six FOC were nominated, but four of us actually did the work. In the very beginning, Folami and I decided we should be co-clerks, because I was the one with the ideas, the time and energy to do most of the actual work of organizing the FOC involved, recording and documenting our progress, while Folami mostly clerked our Meetings and represented the ad hoc committee to the YM. Other members of the ad hoc committee were, Lisa Bennett (Memphis, TN), Shahina Lakhani (Atlanta GA). We worked well together, until Shahina began to sabotage the process. 

First, let me say, Shahina is from India. She has no connection whatsoever to our history of racial struggle in this country.  So not only was she far out of her element, in terms of understanding the historical power dynamics associated with American racism, she had the temerity to take it personally when we disagreed with her analysis and did not automatically approve her ideas about how to move the work of undoing Quaker racism forward. She accused us—all three of us—of discriminating against her, “because she is not Black.”  Lisa and Folami can confirm this, if they should decide to. 

When we met in Atlanta to draft the Mission and goals of SAYMA-URJ, she argued with me about the definition of racism. I defined racism as, “racial prejudice plus institutional power, aka white supremacy.” Shahina refused to accept “MY definition,” called me a hater, and claimed we would never succeed in eradicating racism by hating white people, only by loving them. She also said we could not end racism without their help, so we must learn to forgive, forget, and move on to the love so that they will help us. I’m paraphrasing here, but this was essentially her point of view. Except, what she calls “MY definition” was not invented by me. The definition I shared with the ad hoc committee came directly from my work with Dr. Kimberly Richards at the People’s Institute.  I tried to explain. Then after much animated discussion, I thought we had come to an understanding, but apparently not. Miz peace and love Shahina, did not LOVE me enough to let it go. 

Three months later, just after the March Representatives Meeting, where the draft Vision, Mission and Goals SAYMA-URJ presented were so well received, Shahina accused me of committing “lateral violence” against her. It was a new term she learned, when she attended her first People’s Institute training, but clearly did not fully comprehend. I was really surprised, because I seriously did not know what she was talking about, until she alleged that I had abused her at the SAYMA-URJ meeting in Atlanta. So basically, she falsely accused me of assault over a difference of opinion?  Now I understood. The same thing had happened in Sandwich Monthly Meeting on Cape Cod, so I was already familiar with this tactic.  I asked her to explain to me and everyone else what exactly I had done to her which constituted assault, but to this day, all she has done is issue more accusations against me, and never once answered to my question. 

Shahina used this ploy to subvert the work of the ad hoc committee.  She said she would no longer participate on the ad hoc committee, and threatened to oppose the committee’s proposal on the floor of Sessions (2017) if she did not get satisfaction before the Yearly Meeting. It was now April and we still had a lot to do before Sessions in June. We still had not done half of what we wanted to accomplish, like getting other SAYMA FOC to approve the proposed Vision, Mission and Goals and drafting a strategic plan for moving the work forward. We also wanted to identify possible members for the standing committee and attach a preliminary list of educational resources to the draft. But the committee work was effectively derailed to accommodate Shahina’s selfish and bogus demands.

We tried to organize a Friends of color retreat before the Yearly Meeting gathering in June, hoping to get enough Friends of color together to get their input and approval, and to do some community building work, including professional mediation for Shahina. That never happened for two reasons. Vanessa July, refused to share her FGC contact information for our own yearly meeting with us, so that we could do the necessary outreach. And the Finance Committee refused to give us the four thousand dollars we asked for to pay for it, even though the clerk of SAYMA asked them to release the funds.  

When we were not able to do the retreat, we improvised. We used the little money ($1000.) that the March Representative’s Meeting gave us to hire Vahisha Hassan (Movement in Faith) to lead a workshop just for Friends of color at the Yearly Meeting on internalized oppression. We were hoping Shahina would accept this as a valid attempt to satisfy her demand for resolution, but she refused to join us, even after Vahisha personally invited her. 

I remember asking Folami, “What are you going to do if Shahina does oppose the SAYMA-URJ proposal on the floor of Sessions?” She said, “I asked her not to.” Nothing else.  So, when Shahina, who was sitting right next to Vanessa Julye, did stand up and oppose the ad hoc committee’s work, saying she felt like her ideas were not welcome, that the committee was run like a dictatorship, AND the SAYMA clerk was willing to let the accusations stand without comment because he was ready to break for lunch, I was led to be out of order, to speak out in defense of SAYMA-URJ. Lisa was not there that year and Folami, who was sitting on the other side of Vanessa must have been stunned because she said absolutely nothing. 

So please, do not believe for one minute that I am the person you were most likely told I am. I am not in the habit of cussing’ folks out in public or calling people House Negroes easily. Believe me, Vanessa had it coming. And, even though it looked like I had lost my mind, my arguments were more than sound. Which is why Vanessa was eventually forced to sit down with me in a fish-bowl kind of setting, moderated by Folami Adams.  Seriously, what kind of FGC employee, the Coordinator of the Ministry on Racism, no less, comes as a guest to a Yearly Meeting whose stated goal is to “unravel” their racism, invites everyone there to meet with her, anytime, but refuses to meet with one particular Friend of color, namely Sharon “Star” Smith? She lost that round, but she continues to assert that I am dangerous, as if there is anything I can do to her. She has full institutional support from FGC, and literally holds on to her job by NOT challenging white Friends’ racism.  I’m just sayin, House Negro is implied in her job description, so please don’t be upset with me for simply saying so.  

And, please do NOT assume that because I called Vanessa a house Negro and Shahina a bitch, that I will call you one too.  First, I don’t know most of y’all well enough to say one way or another, whether you are, or are not an assimilationist instead of an anti-racist. Second, I prefer not to make assumptions about people I do not know and have no experience with. I like to give everyone as many benefits of whatever doubts I may have, until it becomes obvious otherwise. That takes time and shared experience, which we have not had together. 

Therefore, I ask you to cut me some slack.  Please do not believe everything you hear from the so-called fragile white folks, or their employees, props and tokens. They have a vested interest in discrediting my character for fairly obvious reasons. Do not allow the Quaker racial hysteria and considerable passive aggressive racial animus, which has followed me from New England Yearly Meeting to SAYMA, to hinder your better judgement and consequently the work of SAYMA-URJ and ultimately, the cause of racial justice among Friends. 

To date, I am the only SAYMA Friend of color who is willing to openly challenge Quaker racism and Quaker racists. I am also, apparently, the only SAYMA Friend of color with expertise in Critical Race Theory AND years of experience with Quaker Process, Faith and Practice, who is willing to do the work. Do not help these racist Friends, conscious or otherwise, to shut me out of the process of achieving their own stated goal of undoing racism among Friends, due to some unsubstantiated bull shit you heard from questionable sources. 

Never forget, white supremacy is maintained by controlling the narrative, the processes and the resources--all resources, concerning everything. That is what white supremacy, aka white settler colonialism is. Therefore, white folks cannot be the ones to dictate the process of undoing their racism. That would be like the blind leading the blind, or having the foxes guard the hen house. They have a strong vested interest in maintaining the white supremacist colonial settler status quo this nation was founded on. 

IF the goal is to undo Quaker racism, white Friends cannot be allowed to control the narrative the processes or the resources regarding that effort. It certainly is not about protecting their allegedly fragile feelings, believe me.  According to all the experts, white people are supposed to be learning to sit with their fear and discomfort, instead of tone policing, pathologizing, tokenizing, victim blaming and shaming people of color who challenge their racism, conscious or not. That shit is NOT OK. It’s also abusive. Remember, “Power concedes nothing without demand.” –Frederick Douglass. 

One thing I learned through hard experience, is that they have no compunction about hurting my feelings, or standing in the way of my Human Rights as an Indigenous elder. They are not above lying, either, to maintain the appearance of white innocence. For example, Friends from Upper Dublin told other PYM Friends who were trying to support Avis Wanda that she had a criminal record and therefore could not be trusted. What these racist Friends said was believed, until we asked them to look deeper into it. Upon further research, it was discovered that Avis had been the victim of violent crime and had filed a criminal complaint to the court. She has no criminal history or record at all. That is just one example. Another example: Three white women, members of Sandwich Monthly Meeting, told everyone in New England YM that I assaulted one of them, and that they simply had to defend the Meeting against my “violent outbursts” by any means necessary. Why? Because they had called the police to have me removed from the Meetinghouse grounds--over a simple difference of opinion--and they could not justify what they did, even in their own minds, so they falsely accused me of assault. Of course, everyone believed them. But there is no police report, and no charges were ever filed, because that would have necessitated going before a judge to explain themselves. Yet, if you ask anyone from Sandwich today, which story they believe, I can guarantee it is not mine. 

In conclusion: 

In every book I have ever read and every workshop I have attended, on the subject of undoing racism, the best practices advice is always to “Listen to people of color,” “believe” us, and follow the leadership of people of color.” Therefore, White Friends cannot be the ones to decide which Friends of color they will listen to or whose leadership they will follow. So, IF you are concerned about racial harmony or justice, especially during these times--and you may not be-- you cannot allow white Friends or their paid employees and go-along-to-get-along assimilationist people of color to decide who, or what your leadership will be or how to proceed. You need leadership that will challenge white control of the narrative, the processes and the resources concerning undoing Quaker racism, and someone who can model a different cultural framework for them.  Not everyone has the drive or the stamina to put themselves out there for that, but I do.  It is what I am called to do, as a birthright, Black and Native Quaker elder. 

There are precious few Friends of color who are called to do this work and even fewer who have been faithful over time to this extremely controversial and difficult charge.  Few have the requisite experience with Quaker Process AND expertise in Critical Race Theory. Again, the original idea for the formation of SAYMA-URJ was mine. No one else thought of it, or had the know-how to move the idea through Asheville Friends Meeting to the floor of SAYMA. Just IMAGINE what Friends of color can accomplish IF we work together instead of protecting white folks’ feelings and enabling their addiction to control, scapegoating and victim blaming. All I ask is that you reconsider your fears and doubts, in the name of Uplifting Racial Justice among Friends, and give me an honest good faith chance to provide the leadership needed to move SAYMA-URJ’s Vision, Mission and Goals, which you approved, forward.  I am not the one you need to fear.  It is these white Quaker passive aggressive and color-blind racists you should be afraid of, not I.  

In the Light of Racial Justice,

Sharon “Star” Smith

* SAYMA = Southern Appalachian Yearly Meeting & Association

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