Each summer — as the program year winds down — we invite Fellows to reflect on their experience and write a testimonial to share with Friends. Margaret Thurston, a young adult Fellow who served in Boston during the 2020-2021 program year, shares about the ways QVS transformed her understanding of justice.
“The political is the personal.”
One of my housemates said this at a House Worship this winter, and it encapsulates pretty well what I’ve been learning about justice this year.
When I came to QVS I had done a fair bit of learning on social justice topics in the few years before that. However, QVS helped me realize the depth of what I don’t yet know. Looking back, there hasn’t been one moment, but a series of smaller ones that have helped shift my thinking.
Lessons From My Housemates
Once, at the spring retreat with my housemates, I recounted an experience where I had said something racially harmful. Later, a few of my housemates helped me understand to a new depth both why it was harmful, and how my retelling affected them. They helped me realize that even telling this story can affect people, and helped me think about when and how I might tell the story, and when not to. Not only did this deepen my learning, but it helped me heal from the experience myself, because I now feel that I understand it better.
I sometimes felt ashamed for not knowing the answers already, but my housemates always responded to my questions with grace and patience.
Around the dinner table, my housemates and I regularly debrief our work days and current events, discussing issues like police violence, celebrities’ misconduct, and workplace norms. (We talk about lighter things too!) I often feel like I understand less than my housemates, so I try to ask a lot of questions. And in time, my understanding grew.
In the program, QVS Fellows are each given a monthly grocery stipend, which my housemates and I combine for a household food budget. Each person pays for groceries when it’s their turn to shop, one or two people keep track of what everyone paid, and then we settle up about every two weeks. Many times my housemate and I were late to calculate what everyone paid, and we settled up late. At first I didn’t think about how this impacted people. But gradually, I realized that settling up late did affect people, both financially and stress-wise. (This wasn’t rocket science — many times my housemates asked us to settle up more promptly.) It was our responsibility to do better.
The list goes on, but in sum, there is something about living in a close community — especially a community that cares about justice — that deepened my learning in a new way. The lessons are especially memorable when I or my housemates are directly affected by a social justice issue — and when I’m responsible for an injustice.
Lessons From My Site Placement
My site placement also helped me internalize climate justice issues to an extent that I hadn’t ever before. This year, I was placed at Better Future Project, serving at Communities Responding to Extreme Weather (CREW). CREW works to advance social resilience through engaging grassroots individuals and organizations around climate preparedness.
Admittedly, before QVS, I didn’t think that climate change affected people in the U.S. very much, at least not in the short term. I knew that climate change affects people in other countries, and that there are already some effects in the U.S., but I didn’t really understand the depth of these impacts. (I still can’t say I understand completely, but I am learning more.) However, at CREW I have witnessed — directly or indirectly — how climate change affects and matters to people, and how it is a social justice issue.
In my first weeks at CREW, I watched a video about the Chicago Heat Wave of 1995, which killed 739 people. Many of these deaths could have been prevented by better social connectivity and by better city planning: by work like CREW is doing. Later, during Zoom events, I heard gory details about how extreme cold impacts people’s bodies, and learned about how extreme heat impacts people with disabilities in India.
As part of my role, I created flyers explaining how people can deal with extreme weather and how many extreme weather phenomena are becoming more frequent due to climate change. As I watched people appreciate the information on those flyers, I gained glimpses of how these weather events affect people.
Most recently, I experienced the first heat wave of the summer in my attic room in Boston, and helped my elderly neighbor carry her stuff up the street (her feet were swollen and very painful, perhaps partly due to the heat). This was a stark reminder to me that climate change is already affecting us (these heat waves are becoming more frequent and intense), and that we are not all impacted equally.
A New Kind of Learning in QVS
Before QVS, admittedly I thought learning about justice was somewhat of a noble cause, where I could choose to learn about it because I’m nice. But the learning I’ve been doing this year is not a pat-yourself-on-the-back kind of learning about justice. It’s more of a “jolt into reality” kind of learning about justice. To me, this is how it should be — because it centers people actually affected by the injustices.
In sum, I’m pretty grateful to my QVS year for bringing me a little more into reality. Because this stuff really affects people — and now I appreciate that more. I’m sure there are a lot of jolts left to come, and in a way, I look forward to them.
More about Margaret
Margaret Thurston was born in Boston, but lived for most of her life in Rochester, New York. She graduated in 2018 from the University of Rochester, where she designed a major in Development and Sustainability. There, she explored environmental issues and international development efforts from multiple disciplines, and completed minors in Spanish and Anthropology. During her senior year, she got to study for a semester in Bolivia, where she completed a short documentary about deforestation and forest conservation. She is concerned about environmental issues, especially biodiversity loss, and is interested in how people can work together to ameliorate these issues while pursuing a good quality of life. Margaret loves to sing, dance (contra, folk, rueda, swing) and play violin. She might also be found jogging around the neighborhood, reading, or cooking experimental dishes. (It’s more fun if you create it as you go!) She has attended the Rochester Friends Meeting at various times in her life since about age 8.
During her QVS year, Margaret worked with the Better Future Project. Specifically, she worked with the Communities Responding to Extreme Weather (CREW) program, to help communities build resilience in the face of climate change.
Why participate in QVS instead of applying for a job directly with a nonprofit?
QVS partners with organizations that otherwise might not be able to hire someone to help build up their capacity (perhaps adding a new role or helping spearhead a new campaign).
Our goal is to provide entry points for young adults to explore a range of vocational paths. In doing so, Fellows are able to learn from each other and see the ecosystem of service and justice work that they are a part of. Again and again, we hear from alumni how grateful they are for the wrap-around and holistic support they are offered during their QVS year (housing and intentional community, training in conflict resolution and anti-oppression work, spiritual accompaniment) to help them discern vocational work, engage in service long term, and avoid burnout.
More Quaker Service Stories
Each summer — as the program year winds down — we invite Fellows to reflect on their experience and write a testimonial to share with Friends. Erica Loredo Belfi, a young adult Fellow who served in Portland during the 2021-2022 year, vulnerably discusses the...
Each summer — as the program year winds down — we invite Fellows to reflect on their experience and write a testimonial to share with Friends. Rebecca Rubenstein, a young adult Fellow who served in Atlanta during the 2021-2022 year, reflects on the spiritual...
Ella Quainton, a Minneapolis QVS Fellow, is serving with Friends School of Minnesota, a Quaker progressive education school in St.Paul, MN. As a Communications Assistant, Ella is instrumental in developing creative ways to tell FSMN’s story, including using animation,...