At the age of 12, George Lakey unwittingly took his first stand as a Quaker activist. He had been invited by his church elders to give the Sunday sermon at meeting, and after much prayerful contemplation, decided to tell his meeting that God was for racial equality.
“That was 1949,” Lakey said in an e-mail. “It was the last time the elders offered me the pulpit.”
Some sixty-two years later, Lakey—now a research associate at Swarthmore’s Lang Center for Civic Responsibility—is the founder of Training for Change, an organization devoted to teaching techniques of nonviolent social action. A Quaker active in the Philadelphia meeting and a longtime advocate for civic responsibility, Lakey stands at the intersection of two important Swarthmore traditions: Quakerism and activism.
These days, this intersection is becoming increasingly visible. Swarthmore’s Quakers are taking a lead role in calls for students and faculty to live by the principles of social action outlined in the college’s mission. At a time when the Occupy movement and the lead-up to the 2012 elections are dominating national headlines—and more locally, at a time when Swarthmore’s ongoing Strategic Planning efforts continue to drive campus debate—Lakey and some members of the student group Quakers on Campus are making an argument that Swarthmore’s Quaker past may just be the key to galvanize its future.
Swarthmore’s Quaker roots, dutifully recited by tour guides and outlined in Admissions brochures, date back to the college’s founding in 1860. In accordance with their belief in the equality of the sexes, the liberal Hicksite founders of the college incorporated it as a co-educational institution. Among Swarthmore’s earliest supporters was Lucretia Mott, a renowned abolitionist, suffragist and peace activist. Alice Paul ‘01, a suffragist and founder of the National Women’s Party, carried the tradition of Quaker activism through the turn of the century.
While Swarthmore may still be a center for direct action, with a recent Newsweek/The Daily Beast poll ranking the college first among the top schools for activists, this tradition now is no longer explicitly Quaker in its goals.
When the Strategic Planning website debuted last fall, discussions among Will Hopkins ’11, Kylin Navarro ’11, and Erik Heaney ’14 started to bridge this seeming disconnect between the college’s Quaker heritage and activist reputation. Collaborating with Protestant adviser Reverend Joyce Tompkins and other students, they started Quakers on Campus, a group that holds weekly silent worship in the Swarthmore Quaker Meeting House.
Quakers on Campus co-clerk Samantha Griggs ‘12 said the club is a major way for her to connect to the world outside of Swarthmore. “It reminds me that life is bigger than this bubble, and that is really important to me,” she said in an e-mail, noting the lectures, retreats and presentations she became aware of through Philadelphia Yearly Meeting and her Quaker friends at Haverford College.
An alumni panel of Quaker activists earlier this month presented another opportunity for Quaker students to connect with the campus community. With reflections by Meg Perry ’08, Mark Kharas ’08, Cynthia Richie Terrell ’86 and John Braxton ’70, the panel sought to highlight the individual causes of the alums while relating their activist experience to their faith.
But have the Strategic Planning comments, alumni connections and club meetings paid off in a more vibrant commitment to Quaker principles and action? During the alumni panel, Perry suggested that some of the reluctance to embrace faith-based social action is a part of Swarthmore’s intellectual zeitgeist.
“So often the things we talk about at Swarthmore involve evidence and examples in support of arguments and theories, while mine is a story of direct communication of truth experienced on a physical and emotional level,” Perry said.
Ben Goosen ’13, another founding member of Quakers on Campus, proposed a complete exchange of these values. “Most students consider the role of the college to be primarily academic, while values and activism are only secondarily important. This dynamic should be reversed,” Goosen said in an e-mail. And while the alumni panel is a good first step, Goosen is disappointed with relatively low student turnout. “The event was organized and mainly attended by Joyce Tompkins and the SPC [Swarthmore Progressive Christians],” he wrote.
Hopkins does not see a conflict between promoting explicitly Quaker ideas and supporting Swarthmore’s secular academic and ethical objectives. “I think the basic ideals of justice, fairness, and peace aren’t limited to Quakers by any means,” Hopkins said in an e-mail. Goosen agrees, and would even like to see Swarthmore use this ethical perspective to stand out among other liberal arts colleges and attract likeminded students.
But for Goosen, there’s more at stake than just Swarthmore’s future. “Change will never occur if traditionally activist colleges like Swarthmore remain silent,” he said, calling on students and administration to use the college’s academic reputation to take a more vocal, Quaker-aligned position “about peace, war, and ethics.”
George Lakey expressed a similar view, recalling a speech he made upon President Obama’s election in 2008. “I pointed out that without edgy, risk-taking activist movements by Swatties and others, to confront the forces that would hold Obama hostage, Swarthmore progressives were condemned to have their hopes dashed,” Lakey said. While he now sees his speech as “a prophetic utterance,” the Occupy movement has renewed his hopes for Swarthmore’s activists to take a more decisive stand.
For many of Swarthmore’s Quakers, the principles of their faith are the natural framework for the college to utilize to strengthen its social action. This was something Perry discovered at a young age, when she learned about the Equality Testimony, the Quaker belief that all people are equal in the eyes of God. Believing that she was better than no one, and that no one was better than her, Perry started raising money to support the Bosque Eterno de los Niños (Children’s Eternal Rainforest) in Costa. Perry said she had realized she “was just as deserving of attention and respect as any adult.”
Lakey points to Quakerism’s decentralized structure as another source of strength for activists. “Activism includes a complex and nuanced set of skills, if one is to be fully effective, and nothing speeds up learning complexity like having a mentor,” said Lakey. By favoring a peer-to-peer structure over a formal hierarchy, Lakey said Quakerism lends itself to mentorship.
Through his guidance and the guidance of others in the Quaker community, Lakey said he hopes Swarthmore will take up the pulpit he was denied at his meeting so long ago. He said Quakerism’s idea of an inner Light should embolden Swatties.
“Early Friends sometimes substituted for the metaphor of ‘Light’ the word ‘Power’,” he said. “I don’t find Swarthmore to be a place where people are very aware of their Power, so I wouldn’t at all mind if we began to lift up in ourselves and each other the Power within.”