Progressive Christian Leader Admits to Plagiarizing Influential Poem | Sojourners

Progressive Christian Leader Admits to Plagiarizing Influential Poem

A photo of the poem Beth Strano painted on the door of The Space, an anarchist community in Phoenix, Ariz. Image via The Space / Facebook.

A poem that has been a clarion call to honest and open conversations about injustice for many in progressive Christian circles was almost entirely plagiarized.

In a Facebook post on June 25, activist Micky ScottBey Jones, who is the director of healing and resilience initiatives for the Faith Matters Network, said that she took most of the words in her influential poem, “An Invitation to Brave Space,” from a separate work by Beth Strano. Jones said that she encountered an image of Strano’s poem “years ago” but wasn’t able to find out who wrote it.

“In the image, I saw what I had been trying to articulate and practice with my own ideas of brave space, and tried to find who had put these words and phrases together,” Jones wrote on Facebook. “I didn’t do a good enough job in my search.”

Jones said that she initially shared the poem with a line indicating that it was “inspired by the words of an unknown author” but eventually dropped the line.

“People know me by these particular words, and have trusted me to share only my words or ideas or attribute things properly, and I have broken that trust,” she wrote.

Jones’ post came a day after Strano wrote about the plagiarism on Facebook and tagged the Faith Matters Network. S. Preston Duncan, an artist who described Strano as an acquaintance, tweeted about the plagiarism later that day and tagged Jones.

Strano said that she originally composed her poem and painted it on the front door of The Space, an anarchist community center in Phoenix, Ariz., that was destroyed by fire in 2016. A photo of the door that accompanied Strano and Jones’ posts did not appear to include any attribution for the poem.

“I saw my poem posted on another website and attributed to someone else,” Strano wrote in response to a comment on her post. “I thought it was an honest mistake, but then I searched and realized this woman has been claiming that she wrote this poem and publishing it and doing readings of it.”

Jones and Strano did not immediately respond to emails and messages requesting comment. An email to The Space requesting comment was returned undeliverable.

In her first Facebook post, Jones did not call what she did “plagiarism” or say how much of the poem she had lifted from Strano, though she did acknowledge “copying/pasting someone else's original thoughts.” A side-by-side comparison shows that Jones added about five lines to the original 18-line poem and lightly edited several others.

Strano said in a follow-up post on June 25 that she appreciated Jones taking public responsibility but wanted her to acknowledge her plagiarism by name. Jones did so in her own follow-up post on June 28, after both women spoke over Zoom, according to Jones.

Jones, in her role with the Faith Matters Network, also works with The People’s Supper, which has used the poem extensively in its work. The group aims to combat polarization and division by faciliating dialogue-centered meals. In a statement released shortly after Jones’ post, The People’s Supper said she had shared a draft of “An Invitation to Brave Space” with its team in early 2017 and said that the inspiration for it came from another poem she saw online.

“We did not see the original image or Beth’s original words, taking ‘inspired by’ to mean something very different from plagiarism,” the group wrote.

The statement said that The People’s Supper included the “inspired by an unknown author” when it originally shared “Invitation to Brave Space” in 2017, but it started to attribute the poem solely to Jones later that year.

“While we’re still getting to the bottom of that change, we can say it was the product of oversight, not intent,” the statement said.

The Faith Matters Network, an activist group “focused on personal and social transformation,” said in a separate statement that it wasn’t aware of the plagiarism before being informed on June 24.

The damage done

It’s not clear when Jones began to claim the poem as her own. An archived version of Jones’ personal website, which is now offline, shows that she first posted “An Invitation to Brave Space” there in June 2017 using only her own name. That post included an image of the poem, again using only her name, that appears to mimic some of the typography in Strano’s original. Jones also linked to the poem in a June 2017 article for where she cited it as her own work.

Both The People’s Supper and the Faith Matters Network said they have stopped using Jones’ version of the poem, and they both asked their supporters to stop sharing it too. In a follow-up statement on July 2, The People’s Supper asked people to use Strano’s version instead.

But the damage will be hard to undo. The poem was popular, especially in progressive Christian circles. It now lives under Jones’ name in an episode of the public radio show On Being and a booklet by the U.K.-based Amos Trust published last year. Videos of Jones reading the poem and images with it under her name still dot the web.

It will also live on under Jones’ name in at least some copies of Christian author and activist Shannon Dingle’s forthcoming book, Living Brave. In a blog post on June 30, Dingle said that Jones had given her permission to use the poem in between the introduction and the first chapter. The publisher has already corrected the e-book and subsequent printings, Dingle said, and that portion of the audiobook will be re-recorded. Dingle also said that she plans to pay Strano what she was going to pay Jones for the poem’s use.

But it’s too late to fix the copies that have already been printed and shipped.

“I hate that reality,” Dingle wrote. “I’m heartbroken my book includes my friend’s plagiarized words. I’m angry that she claimed words that weren’t hers, gave me permission to publish them in my book, and didn’t take responsibility until the book was too close to the launch for me to fix it.”

The scandal raises questions about how progressive groups can hold themselves accountable and repair the harm instead of exacting retributive punishment. In other words, how can they model internally the same values they advocate for in the public sphere?

The People’s Supper wouldn’t comment about that on the record, instead pointing Sojourners to its public statements. In an email to Sojourners, the Faith Matters Network said it is entering an “internal process” with Jones that will “likely include” The People’s Supper, too.

“We are still in the very early stages of this tender and difficult process and so are unable to answer further questions at this time,” the statement read.

In her second post about the situation, Jones said that she and Strano will pursue a restorative/transformative justice process, at Strano’s suggestion, and that they’re looking for a facilitator to guide that process. She also said that “there were lots of lovely things said” when the two spoke, and that they connected.

“She was gracious, kind, honest and committed to a way forward that embodies the words she painted on that door in 2015,” Jones wrote.