Divesting from White Supremacy: Reparations as the Next Phase of Benjamin Lay’s Prophetic Vision

The 2023 Benjamin Lay Lecture

By Lucy Duncan & Robert Peagler

Reparations As a Tool for Healing

ROB: I am going to open with a quote from two Black psychologists, Bryan Nichols and Medria Connolly.

They hadn’t been thinking about reparations, but upon reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “A Case for Reparations,” they were inspired to become committed advocates, recognizing that the denial of our collective history is pathological, and that reparations is the medicine we need to move toward healing and repair.

They wrote:

In our lexicon of haunting, American culture is haunted by both former slaves and former slave owners. Our ghosts are equal opportunity haunts.

No one escapes the taint of a crime against humanity. We are all affected by its web of complicity.

Haunting teaches us that while the effects of being a victim are different than the effects of being a perpetrator of shadow violence, we are all bound by the complexity and particularity of the American social contract.

As such, haunting calls for a “something-to-be-done.” For us that “something-to-be-done” is reparations.

It is our contention that reparations to the descendants of American slavery, through an expression of collective remorse, are the only way that this country can move from its racialized inequities to restorative justice and racial reconciliation.

In this way, our ghosts can finally rest and be transformed into ancestors.

—From their essay “Transforming Ghosts into Ancestors: Unsilencing the Psychological Case for Reparations to Descendants of American Slavery

White Supremacy: A Malady


My grandmother, my mother’s mother, did not know it but she was sick from the disease of white supremacy. She was deeply disconnected from herself and others, a wound that she lived with and passed on. She changed my mother’s name from Susan to Nancy when she was four because she was disappointed that my mother wasn’t more like her best friend Susan. When my mother was a teenager, my grandmother had a portrait of her painted to look like Princess Margaret. My mom hated it and put her foot through it after my grandmother died. In the summers, my parents would send my brothers and me to visit her big, white house on Peachtree Avenue in Atlanta, Georgia; and she would ignore us, drink beer, and watch television in the den while we roamed through the plush, blue living room and other places in her mansion. My grandmother told us not to go into the kitchen where her Black cook and housekeeper worked, so we would not connect with her. I accepted the prohibition even as I felt it was a lie. Visiting my grandmother was lonely, deeply disconnected, and disorienting. She had an enormous penny collection, and when she died of a heart attack, I imagined her falling into her piles and piles of pennies. She taught me a lot about how to live a life of luxury without warmth and affection, an all-too-common white, upper-class experience.

I started researching my family genealogy in order to find out how my ancestors were complicit with slavery. I had suspected there were slaveholders in my family for a long time, but that’s different from really knowing.  I wish I had been surprised to find that my grandmother’s great-grandfather Reverend Clement Reade, a Presbyterian minister, had listed among the record of his estate 22 people whom he enslaved, including Ephraim, Lucy, Africa, Juda, Ben, and Sophia. I am still processing the reality and holding the weight of this knowledge: what it means for me and how it animates me toward repair and healing. The shadow of its truth has been passed down through my ancestors’ tissues and cells in their efforts to obfuscate the truth: holding it in their clenched jaws and holding themselves apart from themselves, each other, and those they abstracted as inferior to themselves. The disconnection of whiteness begins in the self. As Nichols and Connolly indicate in their essay “From Ghosts to Ancestors,” it is a disconnection from grief, from longing, from unhealed trauma, and from so many generations of displacement and disconnection from our own indigenous selves. It includes the violence of cutting oneself off from one’s own humanity in order to enact great violence on others. Though I would never assert that these harms are greater than the harms my ancestors enacted, I would say, as American writer Wendell Berry does, that the violence we cause renders a hidden wound deep in the souls of white folks that mirrors the hurt enacted. Leaving that wound buried and unconscious renders us white folks delusional and sociopathic: perpetuating harms that threaten life on earth and can result in genocide and, ultimately, collective suicide.

Though he was no saint, Benjamin Lay understood this disease and the disease that was slavery. He felt it, he saw it, he agitated against it, he told the truth and exposed the lie. He understood abolition as spiritual work, as a pathway to the New Jerusalem, and as elemental to the faithful expression of Quaker insights. He saw it as an extension of the antinomian understanding that the direct, unmediated experience of the holy spirit (his understanding of the root of Quaker insight) and following the sense of right action that arose from that experience would lead to support for abolition. He connected slavery and the abuse of fellow humans to abuse of the earth and animals and saw it as connected to restoration of the commons. We will explore how Lay understood and responded to this sickness of white supremacy and slavery and how we see reparations as the spiritual descendant of his efforts to abolish slavery and to heal and rebalance the world.

White Supremacy: The Malady in Ben’s Day


Benjamin Lay’s spiritual and social commitment to abolition was sparked and fueled by his direct experiences of slavery. Lay and his wife Sarah moved to Barbados in 1718. It didn’t take them long to recognize the island as a place of “barbarity and ill gott wealth.” (Marcus Rediker, The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf Who Became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist, quoting Thomas Walduck, p. 34). 

Lay owned a waterfront store. “Exhausted, emaciated workers staggered into their … shop, buying, begging, and sometimes stealing small items and food” (Rediker, p. 34). Early on, Lay responded in anger by whipping a few of those who had walked off with items from the store. Lay recounted, “So when we were in a hurry, one would run away with one thing, another with another, and so on. Very much we lost to be sure. Sometimes I could catch them, and then I would give them stripes sometimes. But I have been sorry for it many times, and it does grieve me to this day, considering the extreme cruelty and misery they always live under. Oh my heart has been pained within me many times, to see and hear. And now, now, now, it is so.” (Benjamin Lay, All Slave-keepers: Apostates!11: The Abominable Stuff Filthy Rum Is Drawn From, and the Barbarity Used towards Slaves in West Indies”).

He realized, as Marcus Rediker recounts, that “this monstrous slave society called Barbados had been built by bigger thieves, who sought not subsistence, but riches.” With a clear sense of his personal complicity, and with attendant feelings of guilt, Lay was motivated to be curious and learn from the enslaved.

He talked regularly with an enslaved man who was “a lusty Fellow, a Cooper.” The cooper’s enslaver, Richard Parrot, generated wealth by selling the cooper’s highly skilled labor. Lay learned that Parrot’s efforts to boost worker productivity included a regular practice of “whip[ping] his Negroes on Second-day [Monday]  Mornings very severely, to keep them in awe.” Ultimately the cooper was broken under the weight of Parrot’s intimate terror campaign. The cooper told Lay he could bear the beatings no longer, and that, “he would be not be whippe Munne Morning.” And true to his word, he opted out of Parrot’s inexorable cadence of weekly violence by literally taking his life into his own hands, and killing himself on a Sunday (Lay, All Slave-keepers: Apostates!12: Slave-Keeping Very Opposite to the Doctrine of Christ”). 

Lay shared that, “although, as I have said, I saw and heard of such very great barbarity used toward the slaves, night and day, yet for want of dwelling near enough to the blessed Truth, I was leavened too much into the nature of the people there which are masters and mistresses of slaves—though I never had nor would have any of my own.” (Lay, All Slave-keepers: Apostates!11: The Abominable Stuff…”). His experience beating enslaved people with his own hands, and listening to his body as he felt remorse for the beatings, as well as hearing directly from enslaved people, supported Benjamin Lay to be open to Spirit, and to perceive and confront truth, and to strive to be its witness.


But slavery was not condemned by other Quakers who also had direct experience of it in Barbados. Decades before Benjamin Lay lived there, George Fox visited, as it was home to thousands of Quakers after Mary Fisher and Ann Austin arrived in 1655 and convinced/converted many island residents. By the early 1670s there were only four Quakers who were not enslavers on the island.  In 1671, Fox took a trip and stayed with his stepson-in-law, Thomas Rous, who was an enslaver. According to historian Katharine Gerbner, when he arrived Fox was sick for two months. His body was telling him something was terribly wrong. But he did not—as Lay had—listen to his body. Many people were concerned that Fox would condemn slavery. Though he did urge Quakers to consider manumission, he did not condemn slavery outright, and instead proposed that Quakers practice a more “mild and gentle” slavery, and worship with those they enslaved. 

This was considered to be radical by other slaveholders as it disrupted Christian hegemony as the justification for enslavement, but clearly this was not an action consistent with the revolutionary fervor and understanding of the inward light of Truth within all people, out of which Quaker faith had been birthed. Fox had created an institution that included these Quaker enslavers, and rather than listen to his body and denounce the cruelty and terror of enslavement among Friends, he chose to preserve the institution of Quakerism. 

How does this story speak to us today?

  • When in our current Quaker practice do we choose the institution over the truth?
  • When do we choose the status quo over the revolutionary and faithful expressions of Light among us?
  • Who among us is telling the truth and suffering for its expression by being outcast or marginalized within our Society?
  • How do we protect the truth tellers and agitators among us, working to support us to live into a more vibrant and revolutionary faith?

White Supremacy: The Malady Now


As our Abington Friends Meeting host Richard has noted, Lucy and I were invited by the Meeting to think of our work in light of Ben Lay’s prophetic vision. 

If white supremacy is a disease, then it seems to me that it wasn’t the case that Ben Lay was insusceptible, but that he did seem to have an uncommonly hearty immune system.

And like curious folk who want to know the health routines of people who have lived unusually long lives, I want to know what attributes and aspects of Lay’s life might have rendered him resistant to epidemic white supremacy.

I am curious what helpful insights we can glean from considering our current context, challenges, and choices, in the light of Lay’s life.

I will share a few aspects of Lay’s life that particularly caught my attention:

  • His proximity and interaction with enslaved Black people—We have already discussed his time in Barbados.
  • His historical moment—I was struck by how cosmopolitan Lay was. He had a clear sense of the structure of the global economic system and his place in it. And Rediker mentioned that Lay was part of a spiritual awakening in the US and England that was taking place at the time. I was surprised to find that Lay was not the only person in his day living in a cave for spiritual reasons, and not even the only one in the Philly metro area to do so.
  • And the particulars of his person—I can imagine that his social identity and social location may have lent to his independent thinking and uncommon empathy. A few attributes that struck me as particularly salient are:
  • Class—He was a tradesperson. Rediker noted that prominent abolitionists tended to be tradespeople. 
  • Education—He was self-taught, and that perhaps supported his tendency toward independent thought. As a dyslexic person who can describe much of his formal education as “autodidactism on campus,” I appreciate this about Lay; I would not find myself unhappy to be living in a nice dry cave, surrounded by a large collection of books that I had carefully curated over the years.
  • Physical Stature—As a Little Person his body was out of the norm, and that experience may have enhanced his sense of shared humanity, and allowed him easier access to empathy for marginalized people.


A part of Benjamin Lay’s radicalization and evident immunity to white supremacy was his experiences of the ways in which he was complicit with slavery. Beating enslaved people who stole from his store shook him up, opened his eyes to the ways the system of slavery had impoverished and tormented the enslaved people, and provoked him to learn more from those ensnared by slavery. Facing the ways we have been complicit in perpetuating the system of white supremacy is an antidote to its perpetuation, being able to understand and own the ways we are implicated in a system we did not set up is critical to resisting it, to abolishing it. 

In addition to the complicity of my ancestors, I continually need to be examining the ways I show up and support white supremacy. Without active interruption and continual examination, if I just walk about in the world I will be perpetuating white supremacy. A consciousness of how my white body shifts space when I walk into the room—and this includes all white spaces, which unless they are racial affinity groups, are perpetuating white supremacy—is elemental to this awareness. Rob and I have a house in a predominantly Black neighborhood. We live there, and my son rents the first-floor apartment. My and my son’s white bodies, just in and of themselves, change this space. As the neighborhood becomes whiter, the housing prices are going up and the property taxes, too, which make my Black neighbors much more vulnerable to displacement. There is a park and recreation center across the street. Since I’ve lived in the house it has become noticeably whiter, and often there are either mostly white bodies or mostly Black bodies in the space, with a seeming schedule; though my guess is that when white bodies are there, Black bodies avoid the space. My white body walking on the tennis court across the street alters the space, I would argue makes it less safe for my Black neighbors and puts them in a situation of potential displacement even without my doing anything overtly racist. Having consciousness of how white bodies have been used to displace BIPOC bodies and what that means about how I show up in space, where I show up in space, is a critical understanding and process as I lean more deeply into anti-racism. If you have a white body, and you become aware that body situates you as complicit, it’s easier to subvert whiteness and divest from it.

I am also harmed by white supremacy. White supremacy asks white people to dissociate from our bodies; to intellectualize; to live in our heads; to revere thinking over feeling, intimacy, or the wisdom held in the body. When I was a child I used to dance to process sadness, to express joy, to metabolize and work through my feelings. My brothers teased me ceaselessly and cruelly about my dancing until I stopped and lost access to the wisdom and bodily knowing that I had then.  I have in the last few years been learning to dance again, but it’s taken me decades.

We’d like to pause and give you an opportunity to consider ways you are complicit or implicated, and ways you are harmed by white supremacy. Take a few minutes and think of a couple of illustrative experiences. One that helps you understand how you are complicit with, or implicated in, white supremacy. And another that helps you see, and remember the feeling of, how white supremacy has harmed you. As you are reflecting on those experiences, I also invite you to reflect on where you feel healing is needed among Friends? 

White Supremacy: Medicine for Healing in Benjamin Lay’s Day


Despite his marginalization, Benjamin Lay offered medicine to heal himself and his Quaker community from white supremacy and slavery in his time.

Through his daily actions, he worked to create the New Jerusalem, not only outwardly, but inwardly.

He didn’t just aim to end slavery. He held a through-line, striving to eradicate all forms of oppression, and to be one with all people and with nature.

He understood that truth is a practice, and that to truly call New Jerusalem into being, he must manifest it through the way he lived. It was not enough to proclaim, provoke, and pontificate, but in order for it to have the weight of integrity, truth must inform every aspect of his life. I am reminded here of something an iman said yesterday at an interfaith Eid-al-Fitr dinner celebrating the conclusion of Ramadan: We are all each others’ role models.

In the way Lay conducted his life day-to-day, and with a series of strategic provocations, he embodied and manifested the world he strived to create.

Making his home in a cave, tending his garden and apiary, spinning his textiles, and making his own clothes, he created his own commons, with a conscious intention to “avoid the exploitation of the labor of others, including animals.” (Rediker, pp. 14–15).

Lay took action to “provoke, unsettle, and confound” his fellow Quakers, to cause them to sit up, think, and act:

  • He spattered pokeberry juice on slave-owning Quakers as they sat in meeting for worship
  • He absconded with a slave-owning neighbor’s child to offer them the experience of having members of one’s family taken away
  • And after being expelled from a meeting house for speaking the truth, he laid on the ground at the threshold so that the congregation was forced to step over him to leave the building. 

Lay was the keeper of the sacred flame of abolition; and, despite John Woolman and Anthony Benezet getting much of the credit for abolition among Friends, according to Marcus Rediker attitudes about slavery shifted in the Religious Society most significantly in the decades that Lay was most actively confrontational and outspoken.

Woolman and Benezet did not share Lay’s appetite for outrageous provocation and conflict, but they did align with Lay’s vision by living lives that embraced free produce and connected the treatment of all creatures with slavery and abolition.

Lay laid the way for their quieter approach. He gave his self-published book, All Slave-Keepers … Apostates, to younger Friends, some of whom were children of slaveholders, who grew to become champions of abolition.

Lay seeded the ground for the action that Philadelphia Yearly Meeting would take in 1776 of making slaveholding grounds for removal from membership. He was cast out, but his influence was deeply felt and meaningful. 

White Supremacy: Medicine for Healing Now


We cannot claim such a significant impact as Benjamin Lay had. And we are trying some things with reparations as a tool to abolish capitalism and move toward Beloved Community. 

I helped to start a reparations committee at Green Street Friends Meeting, which ended up budgeting $50,000 per year for ten years toward reparations with the Black members determining the distribution of the funds. We started with a free legal clinic to support Black Germantown homeowners to clear deeds and obtain wills, and with $25,000 secured $11,000,000 worth of Black housing wealth. We are continuing with other foci including Black maternal health, and possibly supporting community farms and gardens.

In part inspired by Green Street, I am working with the Philadelphia Mayor’s Commission for Faith-Based and Interfaith Affairs, for which I serve as co-chair, on a campaign to support 100 white majority congregations in Philadelphia in doing sincere reparations work alongside Black churches and grassroots organizations. The vision is huge wealth redistribution in the city fueled by the faith community with other governmental initiatives being pushed and inspired by the faith efforts in the city. Four Quaker meetings were among those that participated in a course for 87 faith leaders in January, and as far as I can tell these meetings/congregations are serious about the work and continuing to organize in their congregations.

Rob and I share a Fellowship with the Truth Telling Project, which is seeding support through us for the local faith and secular reparationist ecosystem, to support collaboration and interweaving of efforts and to keep us all connected. 

As we have worked in these various ways and contexts, it’s become clear that conflict is inevitable and support for its metabolization and healthy resolution is key to living into our visions by practicing healing and repair in the relationships in the movement. The Green Street Reparations Committee had many conflicts in the last year partly arising from the intensity of our work. We had a retreat that was not facilitated by an outside facilitator and remarkably worked through and aired the tender feelings and perspectives that had arisen over the past year. It was quite remarkable the way folks brought their vulnerable selves to the conversation and worked through 360-degree truth telling. As we work for reparations writ large, it is elemental work that we do relational healing and repair among ourselves. We have already made investments to provide support to repair relationships among reparationists, and we envision starting a healing justice fund to provide ongoing support for moments in the local movement when conflict intensifies, and healing and repair are required for us to continue walking down the reparationist road.



Lest you think that we are anti-white supremacy superheros (or that we think that of ourselves), we will share that one of our main go-to conceptual tools was born from a frustrating situation in reparationWorks’ early days, where we found that we had drifted into a self-defeating traditional, professional, market-based, consulting relationship with a client.

We found that even though the client did sincerely want to build their capacity to be good allies and co-conspirators, they still defaulted to expectations and behaviors that felt extractive and counterproductive to our liberatory goal. And we found ourselves meeting them there and struggling to find a different shape of relationship suitable to the different path we all say we are looking for.

To shift that relationship, and with the hope to avoid drifting again into such stagnant waters, we developed a concept of Return on Divestment—that is Return on Divestment from White Supremacy. The notion being that in single bottom-line reasoning, maximizing financial profit is the priority and externalizing costs onto others is a virtue.

Return on Divestment (RoD) offers an equation that attends to concerns beyond the domain of money. The conceptual frame of RoD rests on assertions that have arisen for us in the course of our thinking and action at reparationWorks:

  1. Reparations is action that promotes healing and repair (from chattel slavery and colonialism and their afterlives).
  2. This healing and repair is the goal, and the measure of value for actions and investments can be measured in the extent they (a) foster meaningful healing and repair, and (b) meaningfully interrupt white supremacy and systemic racism.
  3. Resources, Relationships, and Spirit are the components of the reparations molecule. You can’t have water without hydrogen and oxygen dancing with each other in a specific proportion and relationship. Meaningful healing and repair is only possible when it engages, yes, financial resources, but also other resources (e.g., land, knowledge, time, and attention; anything that can be hoarded or shared) and the domains of relationship and spirit.

Our ideal is that every relationship we build, every getting-to-know-you conversation that we have with potential collaborators, allies, or clients, takes place within the frame of Return on Divestment. We are experimenting to see how hard we can lean on RoD as a conceptual frame and an interface for relationship.

So far we have been doing pretty well:

  • We have built a coaching relationship with a person who will be inheriting family wealth and leading a family foundation.
  • We have developed a relationship with a philanthropy that is moving towards funding repWorks.
  • And in spite of Quaker abhorrence for “hireling ministers,” we just reached agreement with a Quaker meeting to design and facilitate a reparations capacity-building workshop.

In all of these instances the flow of money has been an important above-the-board component of the conversation. The reciprocal flow of other resources besides money, valuing authentic and trusting relationship, and inviting spirit, have all been inextricably woven into the fabric of those relationships.


It was exciting for us to read Rediker’s description of Lay’s commitment to embody ideas in public action and “immediatism.” (My colloquial translation of immediatism is that “there is no lallygagging or half-stepping on the road to New Jerusalem.)

We share a taste for immediatism. We believe that we all have the capacity to cultivate reparationist consciousness and reparationist action. And that we have the power to move toward Beloved Community right now, leveraging our current influence and resources.

Last year Lucy asked the question: If micro-aggressions are small, everyday behaviors that bolster white supremacy and other forms of systemic oppression, what might micro-reparations look like?

Can we imagine and test behaviors that interrupt white supremacy, and promote healing and repair? In the weave of our daily lives, can we practice identifying harm and instigating repair?

In past work I developed the habit of applying design methods to collaboratively pursue social change opportunities. I was the cofounder of the Design Studio for Social Intervention, where we borrowed, hot-wired, and fabricated design and innovation know-how to support social-change leaders to dance more elegantly with their most vexing and intractable problems. And as a partner in the consultancy The Action Mill (now Common Practice), we drew on the principles of Gandhian nonviolent strategy and methods from participatory and human-centered design to get at challenges that required authentic engagement, intrinsic motivation, an understanding of where one sits within larger systems, and some behavior change. So, I have developed the reflex to immediately, and collaboratively, try to explore what’s possible with experiments.

Along those lines, last winter Lucy and I had an impromptu opportunity to take micro-reparations design out for a test drive. We attended Beyond Diversity 101: Race, a five-day intensive racial justice retreat where participants were challenged and supported to name and transform internalized, interpersonal, and structural patterns of white supremacy, racism, and colonialism.

Participants alternated between full-group sessions, and spending time in Black, Latinx, and white affinity groups. On the penultimate day of the retreat, an elder visited us and, considering each affinity group, offered her perspective on what the best role and the highest potential was for each group, and what the biggest obstacle was for each.

That evening, the facilitators challenged us: Now that you have done all this good work, we would like you to tangibly put what you have learned into practice. Here. Right now.

The participants balked, with a few people of color suggesting that was a lot to ask of us. There was a general air of hopelessness in the room.

This was a dynamic set of people who do great work in the world beyond the retreat, and had built some trust and mutual understanding over the course of the retreat. I almost crawled out of my skin. I thought: “I’ll be damned if we are all just going to sit here. Each group had its marching orders for what role it should play to best move us down the road toward fully Beloved Community. We had our design brief. Now was the time to prototype antiracist community.” 

I addressed the people of color in the room, suggesting that, “We have a perfectly good set of white people here. They are committed. We have all spent a few days building a shared understanding of where we all sit within systemic racism. Where are we going to find a better set of white people to work with to do something different?” And then to prove my hypothesis, I invited the white folks, if they were so inclined, and physically able to do so, to stand on one foot. And they all did. 

(One person jumped up on a chair and stood on one foot in the crane pose from the Karate Kid movie. Who says the absurdity of living in the evil twin of Beloved Community and the work of antiracism can’t occasionally be a good time?)

I shared with the group that Lucy and I have been itching to do some collaborative micro-reparation design, and asked if anyone had felt or noticed a harm that we might want to address. A Black woman shared that over the course of the week, when the affinity groups disband and all of the retreat participants were walking through hallways and eating meals, she noticed that white people wouldn’t make eye contact with her and other people of color. And she noted that left her feeling a “certain kind of way,” feeling that her humanity wasn’t being met and fully recognized. A white person shared that they left the white affinity group gatherings feeling shame and self-consciousness. The group came to understand that the white participants had trouble recognizing the full humanity of the people of color because the white folks weren’t able to accept their own full humanity, warts and all. Lucy helped the white folks explore how white supremacy harms them. I heard later from some people of color that was the first time they had heard white people reflect on the thoughts and feelings they have as they grapple with race in social space. 

The group agreed that the next day white people would practice making eye contact with people of color; and with the depth and nuance of the conversation the white folks understood that, just because they were now ready to make eye contact and engage, didn’t mean that the BIPOC participants would always be able and willing to reciprocate. Unbeknownst to me until much later, the white people took this behavioral prototyping project very seriously, and spent time that evening practicing looking each other in the eye. The next day, there did seem to be less tension in the air, and we did see more and warmer interactions between white people and people of color.

In January, Lucy and I facilitated a workshop sponsored by the Quaker retreat and learning centers Pendle Hill in Pennsylvania and the Woodbrooke Centre in the UK. The focus was exploring the Quaker commitment to reparative justice. We shared an overview of the Return on Divestment model, letting them know our reasons for creating it and how we have been using it. And then we shared the notion of designing and testing micro-reparations as a way, one very small step at a time, to move tangibly towards Beloved Community and life as a reparationist. After the workshop, one participant shared that, “The concept of micro-reparations is wonderful! I plan to make it part of my spiritual practice and hope it becomes a lens through which I can live my life.”


I would like to take a few minutes and invite you to imagine a micro-reparation. If you are up for it, speak with a person that is sitting near you—maybe someone that you don’t know or don’t know well:

  • Choose a harm that stems from, or supports, white supremacy. (A small harm? Is there such a thing as a small harm? Perhaps a relatively low-stakes harm.) It can be something that you were directly or indirectly responsible for causing, or it could be a harm done to you. 
  • What is an action that the perpetrator of that specific harm, or that type of harm, could do to promote healing and repair?

Ghosts to Ancestors / Caterpillars to Butterflies


Okay, now you have a little glimmer of how you can walk in the energetics of reparations every day. Take the tool and use it with your folks, within your meetings. 

We need to transform our ghosts into ancestors (as Nichols and Connolly asserted in the quote with which we opened) with the medicine of the truth and reparations. We also need to transmute our social body, and reparations is an excellent tool for that.

White supremacy is a deep sickness within the social body, not just here, but globally as colonialism. It runs so deep and is so interwoven in the interstitial tissues that healing the body as it exists may not be enough—that may just end up creating, as George Fox proposed, doing a “more mild and gentle” slavery / white supremacy. In order to cure it, we need deeper transmutation. Just as I question whether the revolutionary faith we Quakers have understood that we inhabit may never have existed, I think the new social body and formation may also not have existed before. That’s not to say that indigeneity does not have a lot to teach us, but perhaps we are being asked to transform into a creation that has not existed yet. Just healing the body, which has been so deformed by white supremacy, is not enough. 

Many racial justice prophets (including Vanessa Julye) reference the transformation of caterpillars into butterflies as an apt metaphor for the depth of transmutation that is needed, both within each of us, and also within the social body. We can’t just reform white supremacy toward justice, we need a whole new kind of creature. After a period of ravenous consumption, the caterpillar finds an appropriate perch and forms a chrysalis. A kind of cell that has been dormant emerges, the imaginal cell or disk. At first each imaginal cell, which contains the blueprint of the butterfly, operates, as Benjamin Lay did, as an independent single-cell organism. They are regarded as threats by the caterpillar’s immune system and are attacked, as Lay was. But they persist, multiply, and clump together. They begin to vibrate at the same frequency of the butterfly. They begin acting not as discrete cells but as a multicellular organism, until the butterfly emerges from the chrysalis and takes flight. 

Perhaps Benjamin Lay was an imaginal cell centuries ago, and the Quaker abolitionists like Woolman and Benezet were able to follow in his vibrational pattern and create the conditions that collectively moved toward abolition among Friends. What does it mean for us, today, to take on the next stage of this vibrational, visioning work? What does it mean to refuse to be a cell within the caterpillar of white supremacy any more? What does the reparationist social body look like? How do we vibrate at its frequency and teach one another how to transmute into the entirely new multicellular organism that subverts white supremacy and paves the way for the New Jerusalem?

Thriving West Philly: A Vision

I want to close with a vision of community that animates our work, and that could emerge from collectively vibrating at the frequency of the vision we seek to manifest. I wrote the first version of this at a Beyond Diversity 101 in January of 2022, and we have revised it to reflect the vision we both hold. It is the basis for a story collection project in which we are asking our neighbors about their experiences of West Philly and their vision for its future. This is a reparationist dream for the future of our community. It animates our work, and evolves as we and our neighbors share our dreams and cultivate a collective vision.

We envision/dream a West Philly where porches are portals to story and connection, where parks invite the flying of kites and gatherings in light and making. We dream of west Philly where there are sumptuous community dinners in the graveyard, where folks weekly gather to share stories and dance and make music together. We dream a west Philly where the real estate developers are supplanted by giant and small land trusts and there are acres and acres of community gardens. We dream a west Philly where all the businesses are co-ops and the language of collective business-running and discernment is a common language. We dream a west Philly where solar is on every house and the neighborhood produces enough electricity for Parkside and Germantown. We dream a west Philly where reparations have transformed the spiritual and wealth landscape and there is a culture of dignity in housing, food access, and community care/well-being. We dream a west Philly where Mill Creek runs through the neighborhood again and becomes a center of life and imagining, where folks canoe and lallygag and build giant puppets and eat pawpaws on the banks of Mill Creek.

We dream a west Philly where the Lenni Lenape have land back and their knowings are centered and honored, and people remember the stories of the land before dispossession but also the the story of the taking so that we remember that enough to resist the colonial urge still in our muscles. We dream a west Philly where there are no cops and circle practice is how we lean into conflict and harm, and healing and repair is how we live, how we connect. That healing practice / body practice is in every park and porch and library. 

We dream a west Philly where when people walk down the street it takes hours because folks stop and greet one another and there is no rushing, connection is the currency, relationship the religion. We dream a west Philly when qi gong and dancing circles are everywhere. We dream a west Philly where the library offers books but also records and welcomes the stories of the community to be told, embodied or in video or danced or in murals. We dream a west Philly where paintings of our community vision are on every block like the Zapatistas’ vision of the restoration of the commons, as we look and see the vision being realized. 

We dream a west Philly where each block gathers monthly and shares celebration, concerns, needs, and dreams; and we wonder and imagine together, leaning in to care for one another and celebrate our becoming.  

We dream a west Philly where the community is invited to turn every trolley into an art trolley, and there are annual trolley-decorating days where people turn the trolleys into the visions they carry for their lives and depict the community and their spiritual selves.

We dream a west Philly where we make plays of our own stories and teach each other how to perform them. We dream a west Philly where no one is a stranger. We dream a west Philly where study circles come together to learn skills, remember the ancestors, read and learn from each other and consider what that means for the community.

We dream a west Philly where when someone visits they feel the wholeness, they can sense and taste the ease and welcome. We dream a west Philly where what one loves becomes what one can share and offer, and being is the basis for thriving. 

About Lucy and Rob

Lucy Duncan, a co-founder of the think/do lab of reparationWorks, helped found a reparations committee at Green Street Friends Meeting (of which she is a member), which successfully inspired the community to budget $50,000 per year for ten years toward reparations, the initial project of which was a free legal clinic to secure Black housing wealth in Germantown, Philadelphia. As co-chair of the Mayor’s Commission for Faith-based and Interfaith Affairs, Lucy is co-leading a campaign to invite 100 majority-white congregations in Philadelphia to sincerely engage in reparations accountable to grassroots Black-led organizations and small Black churches. She serves as a Truth and Reparations Fellow for the Truth Telling Project, which is the organizational holder of the Grassroots Reparations Campaign. She has been a professional storyteller for 25 years, co-founded the storytelling troupe The Five Bright Chicks, and has worked with Quaker meeting members and attenders on telling their stories of spiritual experience.

Rob Peagler is a reparationWorks co-founder and co-conspirator. He co-founded the Design Studio for Social Intervention (DS4SI) at MIT to help social change leaders imagine new ways to dance with their most intractable and vexing challenges. As a partner in design firm/social practice art collective The Action Mill, he and his colleagues drew on the principles of Gandhian nonviolent strategy to facilitate systems-change efforts for state and federal health agencies and national advocacy organizations, and participated as artists in the Manifesta European Biennial of Contemporary Art. More recently he co-designed an experiential learning environment for employers seeking to build their capacity to forge relationships across differences in social identity and social location—the kind of relationships required to create workplaces and cultures that foster the humanity and nurture the development of all people.

About Benjamin Lay

Benjamin Lay, painted likely without his knowledge in 1758 by William Williams, Sr., commissioned by Deborah Franklin as a gift to her husband Benjamin Franklin, who anonymously edited the first edition of Benjamin Lay’s book.

Benjamin and Sarah Lay were English Quakers or Friends, who about 300 years ago moved to Barbados, an island with 9000 Europeans and more than 70,000 enslaved Africans. From Benjamin’s book: 

“My dear wife has often spoke of a passage . . . in Barbados, going hastily into a very plain-coat-outside Friend’s house.  There hung up a Negro stark naked, trembling and shivering, with such a flood of blood under him, that so surprised the little woman she could scarce contain. But at last a little recovering, she says to some in the family, “What’s here to do?” They began exclaiming against the poor, miserable creature for absconding a day or two—maybe by reason of his cruel usage, as by this barbarity we may imagine.”

You see, Quakers were no different than other whites on Barbados in 1718.  By the way, Benjamin called Sarah “the little woman” and himself “little Benjamin” because they were both about four feet tall.  Benjamin and Sarah became some of the first white abolitionists, and devoted their lives to convincing white Friends of the holy Truth that slavery is evil and amends have to be made.

They moved to Pennsylvania, became members of the Monthly Meeting of Friends of Philadelphia, and later transferred membership to Abington Monthly Meeting. Sarah died in 1735. In 1737, slaveholding leaders succeeded in having the Philadelphia Meeting disown Benjamin; and on January 30, 1738, slaveholding leaders of Abington Meeting similarly prevailed, with the Meeting minuting: “It is ordered that Benjamin Lay be kept out of our meetings for business, he being no member but is a frequent disturber thereof.” Faithfully, Benjamin continued attending worship at Abington and laboring to convince hearts of the Truth.

In 2017, Abington Meeting recorded “although we may not reinstate membership for someone who is deceased, we recognize Benjamin Lay as a Friend of the Truth.”

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