On a warm, sticky Wednesday evening, over fifty individuals—Swarthmore students, professors, administrators, and community members alike—crowded into the Scheuer Room of Kohlberg Hall to listen to a man who has truly made history: Edgar Cahn ’56. Sponsored by the Lang Center for Civic & Social Responsibility and the Political Science Department, the Swarthmore alum’s presentation took place on September 9, one day before he was to be honored as the first recipient of the Education Works Social Justice Award at the National Constitution Center for his life work as a lawyer, speechwriter, and social activist.
Cahn began his story with a simple investigation of what we hold true. In our society where money defines value by price, and price defines value by the interactions between supply and demand, he explained, scarcity causes items to be expensive, and great abundance results in worthlessness. It follows then that human beings, by this same logic, are worthless.
Though he presented this epistemology as a jumping-off point for his discourse, Cahn ultimately disagrees with this. He called upon the audience to “understand that there are domains that are not about money,” and to place value on what we ought to, such as the contributions that all people can bring to the table.
Having piqued the interest of his politically-conscious and engaged listeners, Cahn began to discuss his experiences at Swarthmore during the 1950s. Inspired by his father’s words that “justice as an abstraction […] is too perfect for humans to comprehend,” and that all are “endowed with a sense of injustice,” Cahn set to work at Swarthmore to fix the injustices as an advocate for the oppressed and staunch ally in the fight for equality. It was during this time at Swarthmore that he met his wife, Jean Camper ‘57, who worked towards justice alongside him.
Cahn’s discussion continued onto explaining his time at Yale, at Cambridge as a Fulbright Scholar, and once again at Yale where he finished law school. He then segued into an internship with the Department of Health Education and Welfare, where he was able to make full use of his degree in the humanities, eventually leading to his recruitment as Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy’s speechwriter. At one particular point, Cahn was forced to address lawyers that were “zealously” defending clients such as the Ku Klux Klan by proposing limits to the landmark Supreme Court decision Brown vs. Board of Education. He informed them that as lawyers, or officers of the court, their duty was to ensure that society follows the rules that were established, and therefore should support the full implementation of the Brown ruling. In a discussion with Kennedy after he submitted the draft for that address, he was tasked to eliminate all instances of the first person pronoun “I,” as well as to explain the term “race judicatory” to Kennedy.
Continuing his story, Cahn documented instances where his interracial marriage was met with scorn and prejudice from community members, as well as experiences with Sergeant Shriver, Lyndon B. Johnson, and the War on Poverty.
Ultimately, Cahn discussed his experiences in establishing the following: the Antioch School of Law, which initially required students to live with their clients for a period of time; The Washington D.C. youth court system designed to interrupt the “school-to-prison pipeline” after which the Chester Youth Courts that are frequented by Lang Center volunteers are modeled; the Homecomers Academy, which reintegrates former prisoners into society in mind, body, and spirit in the hopes of reducing the crippling effects of institutional discrimination; and his unique system of time banking.
Time banking, for those unaware, is a novel system by which the scarcity and seemingly all-encompassing impacts of money are eliminated through the trading of services. The beauty of the system lies in the fact that it recognizes all people have valuable skills which they can contribute to a community. Cahn utilized the metaphor of the various blood vessels in one’s body to explain further. The veins and arteries, which transport nutrients, can be equated to public sector infrastructure—an essential part of any society. Without capillaries, though, or without “co-producers,” willing to transfer goods and services throughout a given region, the importance of arteries and veins and infrastructure is naught. Thus, in encouraging community members to advertise and exchange their own specialties and services—be they food preparing, paper editing, babysitting, or what have you—a collective economy independent from the influences of money can be established, thereby empowering people through the recognition of their own incredible potentials.
After delving into the system of time banking, Cahn concluded with a question-and-answer session which resulted in a call for “a new academic course of study in changemaking,” in “genuinely knowing that human beings are awesome creatures.” Among other engaging answers, when asked what he wanted readers of The Daily Gazette to remember, he responded that there are three core truths which all change makers must accept: 1) “all [people] are assets;” 2) “we have what we need if we use what we have;” and finally 3) “trust is the bottom line.” This triune belief illustrates the crucial message of Edgar Cahn’s discussion on his own experiences of enacting change: if one truly sees the value in every person, accepts the incredible resources which exist in every community, and actively places faith in those people and those communities, then, as Edgar Cahn clearly did, one can change the world.
Featured image courtesy of Swarthmore College.