Criminal justice

Leader to Leader: Emma Jordan-Simpson

A Q&A with the Executive Director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation.

Emma Jordan-Simpson, the executive director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation.

Emma Jordan-Simpson, the executive director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. Submitted

The past couple of weeks have been painful ones for those who care about American race relations. On the heels of the slayings of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, I sought out someone who could help me make sense of the current moment.

I turned to Emma Jordan-Simpson, the executive director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation.

More than a century old, FOR was founded as an anti-war organization. Over the years, the agency’s commitment to pacifism has expanded to include addressing the root causes of violence, including injustice and inequality. Among other achievements, the organization played an important role in the civil rights movement, helping to advise and support Martin Luther King Jr. at several key junctures. 

Emma has led FOR since 2018. A pastor at the Concord Baptist Church of Christ in Brooklyn, Emma’s career has combined ministry with nonprofit management. Prior to joining FOR, she served in leadership roles at a number of high-profile organizations, including Girls Incorporated, Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, and Children’s Defense Fund.

I talked to Emma by phone on May 28, not long after protests erupted in Minneapolis and other cities. The following transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Berman: I want to dive right into the deep end. At the risk of oversharing, I was born in 1967. I think we've seen enormous improvements for black Americans in my lifetime in terms of educational and political and cultural representation, and yet, here we are with Minneapolis in flames. It feels at some emotional level like very little progress has been made. I'm curious about where you think we are in terms of living up to our ideals of equality.

Jordan-Simpson: 1967 was a pivotal year for me because that year marked the riots, the uprising, in Newark, New Jersey. I was not yet five years old and I remember the violence. It marked me. I had an experience of seeing the National Guard and their guns and the violence in the streets and seeing black adult men cry, frustrated. I saw my mother, who opened the doors of her house to let people who were in the street come in because it was dangerous. For days we had people in our home who we didn't know. When it was all over, I think we had one can of Campbell's Tomato Soup left. That experience shaped the path that I've chosen in life. From an early age, I’ve been aware of state-sponsored violence, of frustration and the violence of the unheard.

Progress is relative. I don't think that we have made the kind of progress that is enduring. A lot of what we have done has been at the surface level. We have not come to grips with what it means to have a race of people living in our country who were former slaves and who for years provided the free labor that others now benefit from, generations after slavery. We have not come to grips – and not just for African Americans, but for Native Americans as well – with what it has meant to establish a country with this birth defect of racism and white supremacy. Until we have a movement around that kind of thing, I think a lot of what we will do will be the superficial policy here, the superficial policy there, but no real systemic resolution.

I think that relationships between individuals have changed, but racism is not about relationships, it's about systems and power. Policing in this country is still very much experienced by black Americans as a violent enterprise. There are people who will never call the police when they need help because the message that we have received is that policing is not about our safety.

Berman: You say that we haven't truly reckoned with the birth defect of racism, which is a nice turn of phrase. Do you have a vision of what it might look like if we were to try to have that kind of reckoning?

Jordan-Simpson: There are other places in the world that have attempted and been successful with truth telling and reconciliation conversations. It is not a single event. It is a decision to walk a certain way. We first need come to some understanding of what the facts were, of what our history has been. We need to engage in fearless dialogue where people are at tables and their humanity is respected, where we are listening and learning together. I believe in people enough to know that there's something wonderful that could come out of that. But it has to begin with a very painful addressing of what is the truth.

There is a wonderful organization that just finished a project in Pennsylvania where they helped an entire town walk through their story of racism. The way that they did it was about humanizing everyone, black and white, and engaging people in sharing their stories and listening to their truth. 

I'm hopeful that efforts which begin with the truth can be effective. There are so many people who have experienced a great deal of cynicism around the work of system reform. I spent five years working with the most amazing organization, Children's Defense Fund, and my efforts there were focused on system reform. When I would go into youth detention centers, I looked in the faces of those children, 11 and 12 years old, and I quickly grew impatient with system reform. I don't want system reform. I want revolution. I want transformation.

Berman: Just to put my cards on the table, I think of the work that I have done as system reform. That's the space that I live in. I certainly know many people who share your desire for transformation. But from my perspective, it feels like sometimes the perfect becomes the enemy of the good and that people dismiss what are actually pretty significant changes. Maybe you would be on the other side of that argument from me.

Jordan-Simpson: I believe that is where the tension lives. We have practical, everyday concerns, but we can’t stop asking fundamental questions about the system. If no one is hurting, gradual change is great. But when people are hurting, gradual change is an enemy. That was Martin King's sense of urgency.

I gave testimony for the Close Rikers Campaign.In my testimony, I said, yes, we must close Rikers, but I also said we must not open any new prisons. A woman asked me, “Well, how are we going to do that? If we can't build any new prisons, then we're going to keep Rikers open.” I said, let me help you understand something. In the economy of leadership for change, everybody has a role to play. We need people who can figure out how to move these things, how to close these prisons. But we also need people like me to say it's not enough and to keep pushing. I accept my responsibility to use my voice in that way. That is not meant as a dismissal of the incredible reform work that is happening and how important it is. But my role is to say we're not finished. We're not done.

Berman: Given FOR’s commitment to nonviolence, do the disturbances in Minneapolis put you in a tricky position? Obviously, you want to stand with the protestors for racial justice, but do you also feel like you have to condemn destructive behavior?

Jordan-Simpson: It is easy to see the reaction of people in the street as violent. We don't see what drove them into the streets as violence and that's a problem. I had a conversation with some of our members in Minneapolis and one of them said that the match that helped things to blow up was the image of this police officer wearing a hat that said “Make whites great again.” That was on his baseball cap. This officer has been empowered by a president who has said to police unions, there’s no need for you to be careful when you're dealing with these protesters. There's no need for you to be careful when you're dealing with these communities. That's violence. So for us to focus on what the response is, I think that is one-sided and it's what has happened repeatedly in the history of uprisings in this country. We say to people, “Be nonviolent.” That is unacceptable.

Berman: Recently in this column, I have talked to several leaders of what I would call legacy organizations. These are organizations that have long and storied histories. I would certainly put FOR on this list. What is your relationship to the organization’s history? It obviously gives you a platform to stand on, but I can imagine it also presents some challenges as you attempt to attract new members or adapt to changing conditions.

Jordan-Simpson: Last fall, I went to Hamline University to lead a conversation around reparations and restorative justice. Afterwards, I sat in the room with these young college students talking about climate justice. They were making connections between the way that we have treated the planet and the way that developing countries are struggling with war and poverty. They saw that as an issue of peace and justice and nonviolence. For me, it is important to listen to what is driving people to make a commitment to pursue justice. FOR showed up in the 1950s and '60s with the civil rights movement and then the war in Vietnam. All of those things were important but what they taught us is not this is how you do something. What they taught us is this is how you listen and this is how you engage people in the work of justice. Peace and reconciliation are not obtainable without justice. That's what keeps us relevant. When I talk to members across the country, the challenge for us is about expanding. I think we need to do what I was doing when I went to talk with those college students, which was to listen. It's not about inviting young people to our space. It is about us showing up in their spaces and amplifying their effort. That's what I'm trying to do.

Berman: Speaking of listening, I'm curious whether you think that FOR has a role to play in bridging our current political polarization?

Jordan-Simpson: Yes. We are incredibly polarized. It's not just racial. It is across the board. We don't listen to each other and we don't see each other. On the West Coast and the East Coast, we spend a lot of time talking to ourselves and nobody talks to the middle of the country. If we are going to bridge the divide that we have now, I think it's going to have to happen locally. I do think that FOR has a role to play in that, but I don't think that any of it will be done by Friday at 5:00. Its going to take time. I don’t think that there is a silver wand that will take care of this problem.

Berman: That actually brings to mind another question that I had for you. The goals that your organization has articulated are pretty ambitious and yet you're a small team. So there's a gap between your ambitions and the resources that you have to bring to bear. How do you think about that and how do you ensure that the organization ... I hate to use this metaphor because it's probably inappropriate for a nonviolent organization, but how do you ensure that the organization punches over its weight?

Jordan-Simpson: In terms of staffing, we are a small team, but the work of the organization is carried out by chapters across the country with thousands of local volunteers. I think that's where the real work happens. It is our job to organize it and inspire it and push it.

I think this is a big challenge. I've done a lot of things in my life, but at this point in my life, I am looking in a very particular way at how we deal with violence. Trauma is real. As a pastor, when I sit and talk with people, with mothers, with fathers, with women, with LGBTQ people, with younger people, what I'm hearing is violence. Sometimes the violence happened at home. Sometimes the violence happens in communities. Sometimes it is about violent encounters with police officers. How do we move people toward healing? The core issue is acknowledging how hurt people are. We can't expect people to embrace principles of peace and all the lofty stuff that we talk about when we are not addressing the places where they hurt most deeply and intimately. We have raised generations to ignore the pain and ignore the hurt and it just keeps growing. We have to have what Martin King called a revolution of values. And I believe that begins with an examination of one's self and dealing with one's own trauma and making the commitment not to extend that trauma into the next generation. 

Berman: I wonder if you could talk a bit about the role that faith has played in your life, particularly in helping you lead FOR.

Jordan-Simpson: When I was first ordained in 1989, it became very clear to me that I wanted to have one integrated life and that life is sacred. When I say sacred, I don’t mean crosses and all that. I mean honoring humanity and honoring a vision of justice for all of us. So that is how I have tried to offer leadership. It is certainly how I bring leadership to FOR. FOR in the United States is interfaith. It is people of conscience. It is people who have no religious leanings. It is all of us. I'm not trying to be a quote, unquote Christian leader. I'm trying to show up authentically as myself and I am guided and fed by faith in the process.

Berman: You are both an executive director and a pastor. I can only imagine how challenging the current crisis must be for you. That's a lot of people to minister to. I'm wondering what you are doing in terms of self-care. How are you managing these days?

Jordan-Simpson: One of the things that I do to take care of myself is that I protect joy. Not having good times is not an excuse not to be human, not to live and move and engage. Joy helps us to do that. For me, joy is seeing the effort that people make to take care of one another. Joy is having incredibly fulfilling relationships with family, with friends, with neighbors. Joy is finding something to laugh about at the most ridiculous times. Joy is in our music. No one can take joy from us. That's how I take care of myself.

Since the pandemic began, I have begun and ended every day the same way – in tears. In the middle of the day, I have been doing what I can to live and breathe and work for the kind of future that I want to see. On the face of it, it looks like a really horrible time, but I have also found some joy in this.

Berman: Thank you for that. I do want to end on a joyful note. What's one thing that you're looking forward to doing when this pandemic crisis is all over?

Jordan-Simpson: Oh my goodness. I'm just looking forward to fellowship. I'm looking forward to barbecues. I want to smell food barbecuing in the park. I want to see children out having a good time. I want to go to a restaurant. I'm looking forward to my neighbors being employed. That's what I'm looking forward to.