Joanna Brandt, 1966 Kentucky and Now

What did you learn at the Encampment?

It gave me a perspective about another culture. As a city dweller, attending the Encampment in the hills of Kentucky was eye-opening. We encountered racism, subtle and overt. (There was a drive-by shooting one evening.) Fellow Encampers from Kentucky talked about feuds (still!) and moonshine-making (still!). Seeing the poverty — kids existing on Coke and baloney-on-white-bread sandwiches — still breaks my heart.

What is your favorite memory or story from the Encampment?

Living in the “Holler” with a local family was the high point. Our host lived in a block of modest bungalows built by the War on Poverty program. However, because the folks up the block disliked our hosts for their support of integration, they cut off the water supply, so the tiny bathroom was used as a closet and our hosts had to haul water on the hood of their car, just like before the new homes were built. The day we arrived in the Holler, I got excited to see a stream running behind the houses. I ran up to it to get my feet wet, innocently picturing a pristine country stream. “Don’t go in,” I was admonished. “That stream backs up to the outhouses.” Sure enough, most of the homes still used the outhouses, for the reason just stated.

On the plus side, our hosts were lovely people. I was amazed by the wife’s ability to make delicious biscuits without measuring. Life was just so different from living in Brooklyn.

What community service projects do you remember?

We volunteered at the school/community center, leading programs for the children.

Tell us about your involvement with the work of the Baltimore Ethical Society (BES).

I am a yoga teacher certified in trauma-centered yoga therapy. I understand yoga as a healing modality that has the potential to transform individuals and society. This is how I have been involved in racial justice — working in integrated settings to create loving community, including teaching yoga and meditation to incarcerated individuals. However, for many years, I was not associated with a local ethical society.

Living in Baltimore in 2015 when Freddie Gray was killed, the injustice of his death and the community reaction spurred me to become more politically active. I started attending the Baltimore Ethical Society, where I knew ethical action was a priority. They hosted a politically oriented documentary series, offered powerful weekly platforms and collaborated with local liberal activist organizations.

I soon joined the board, am now vice president and am running for the presidency next April. Currently, our Ethical Action Committee is focused on combating climate change and fostering racial justice, from countering micro-aggression to unraveling systemic racism.

I am drawn to creating inclusive and self-aware community, so I am especially excited by the new wave of Ethical Leaders-in-Training. It’s a coming-together of what I have promoted my whole life. This multi-ethnic and multi-gendered generation of Ethical’s upcoming leaders espouses universal approaches that include [using] spirituality and the arts to address injustice. As a yoga teacher, what is especially meaningful for me is an emphasis on embodiment — for example, referencing My Grandmother’s Hands by Resmaa Menakem, which addresses social trauma as expressed in our bodies. [Editor’s note: This was also a curriculum resource in the 2020 EFC virtual program.]

I’m also excited about recent efforts to connect the ethical societies — to create a larger community. Many societies take “road trips” by Zoom to join other Ethical Communities — and about the leadership of Bart Worden (executive director of the American Ethical Union) in creating monthly all-society Platforms, among other initiatives.

Why is the EFC important now?

The projects and training you are giving young activists inspires me. Their vision and energy is a response to the need of the times. The upcoming generation are inheritors of 1960s activism. They grew up experiencing racial integration, gay rights, women’s empowerment, a Black president, etc., so they see the benefits of liberties that have only recently become widespread. It is the perfect time to revive the Encampment.

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