Like many Friends who found Quakers on their own or later in life, I will never fully know whether my commitment to peace and justice led me to Quakerism, or whether my love of Quaker theology and the testimonies sparked my commitment to peace and justice. Either way, the two are deeply intertwined for me, and the answer is probably not that important. There are undeniable sources of inspiration found in our faith tradition: many giants of radical change throughout history were Quakers, and we remain renowned for our work at the forefront of many critical social change movements. On the darker side however, these giants can be a source of pride for something we are not always living up to, or into, with the same boldness and courage required for much-needed change in the face of today’s daunting set of social challenges. The result is often true inspiration from times past but a lack of concrete, forward-thinking action.
I am someone who has tiptoed around calling myself an activist. My hesitancy to identify as such never came from a lack of passion for challenging the injustices around me; rather it came from feeling ill-equipped. I felt unsure about how to be effective, asking myself questions like: How should I get involved? Where should I spend my time and energy in order to make a difference? Where on the spectrum of civil engagement would my personality and abilities be most well used? Additionally, I noticed early in my young adulthood that there was no continuous organizing—institutionally or informally—of young adult Friends around social justice work or in social movements. Gatherings that I had been involved in felt fragmented, often superficial, and short-lived.
I observed other faith traditions—ranging from Judaism to Islam, to Christian denominations and ecumenical organizations—pouring time and resources into the development of faith-based young adult justice-oriented networks. I wondered what that might look like for Friends and why we didn’t have it already. We have a history of young Friends gathering together: During the early part of the twentieth century, American Young Friends Fellowship played a role in organizing young adults for Christian service and witness in the world. After World War II, Young Friends of North America, which was active primarily from 1953 to 1985, and the World Gatherings that have come since have provided an important and transformative gathering ground for inter-visitation and cross-branch fellowship amongst Friends. The twenty-first century has brought innovative new iterations of social justice oriented Quaker programs such as Quaker Voluntary Service (a year-long residential program started in 2012). However, I could not find any present-day young adult Quaker conference or other short-term forum designed to organize, train, and prepare our generation to play an effective role in the massive movement-building and change work that is so desperately needed today.
While seeking such a forum in 2012, I came to discover that Pendle Hill, a Quaker study; retreat; and conference center in Wallingford, Pennsylvania, had been listening to the needs of young adult Friends and had begun to collaboratively envision a new annual conference for this community. I became involved in the 2012 pilot year of the Continuing Revolution conference as the conference coördinator, a role I have been fortunate enough to hold ever since. The annual conference, also known as YAFCON, is a six-day conference held at Pendle Hill each June. The event is creating a spiritually grounded space in which young adult Friends can come together in community to confront the tough challenges of today and to strengthen ourselves as Quaker activists. Pendle Hill’s vision statement—“to foster peace with justice in the world by transforming lives”—serves as the spirit of the community in which this conference takes place. We are boldly experimenting with a new kind of programming model that seeks to organize and train young adult Quakers in a broad range of activism tactics and tools to more effectively engage whatever issues most move them.
The conference receives funding support from a variety of Quaker organizations, whose investment re-affirms that there is something stirring in the Religious Society of Friends. Something is urging us forward toward bolder, more loving, and more strategic action. Perhaps it is our shared awareness that the world must fundamentally change, and considering all that history has ever taught us, it will most likely be our young adults that lead the way.
In bringing together over 40 young adults each year from a wide variety of backgrounds and geographies, we are co-creating a new model of gathering together. The program relies on the participants to select each annual conference theme—a practice that is in keeping with an overall commitment to young adult ownership and investment. This new conference model then sends us back out into the world with enhanced skills, deeper relationships, enriched spiritual rooting, and a sense of togetherness as we seek to live in right relationship (a way of life which aims to honor all of God’s creation) with one another, the wider world, and the earth.
The programming includes worship, experiential workshops, formal talks, and fellowship. Each year we evolve and deepen the gathering in response to feedback and experience. With program offerings over the years from groups like Training for Change, American Friends Service Committee, and Mural Arts Program, as well as individuals such as George Lakey, Valerie Brown, Evalyn Parry, and many more, we have developed annual programming that overflows with rich wisdom, joyful exploration, and challenging risk-taking opportunities. Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, we provide opportunities for peer-to-peer learning and teaching, with young adult program leaders such as Tai Amri Spann-Wilson, Laura Hopps, Theoneste Bizimana, Greg Elliott, and Annie Boggess. The conference is a gathering ground for those with a fire in their hearts for justice; it’s a place to challenge one another to dive into the rich work of understanding what it means to live at the intersection of faith and action.
Through the powerful gifts of wisdom shared and the community spirit built at these conferences, many of us are beginning to break through our despair. We are thawing the paralysis and harnessing the anger that are often prompted by our current social, political, and environmental landscapes. We are embracing the idea that it is a privilege to be alive today—that it is a privilege to be challenged by the daunting and never-before-seen set of problems darkening our collective doorstep. Furthermore, we are recognizing that it is a privilege to co-create the innovative and radical root-level solutions needed in this time of social, environmental, and spiritual crisis.
Norma Mendoza, a participant in the 2014 conference, articulates the hope and healing that we find together:
What made the conference a life-changing experience for me is that by meeting other folks who are putting in the time to make this a better world, I regained hope in my own ability to create positive change around me. [It has] reignited my desire to use the talents that the universe has given me to help meet the needs of the world.
Participants like Norma have gone on to actively engage in other social justice trainings, get involved (or more deeply involved) in a wide range of advocacy and direct action work, connect with and work for Quaker change-oriented organizations, make changes in their individual lives that embody right relationship to them, and successfully lead campaigns on the issues that inspire them in their own communities.
In seeking to live and work inside that feeling of being born at the right time, this conference fosters a learning community that invites us to integrate our inner and outer lives with a space in which to cultivate that kernel of joy of being a 20- or 30-something Quaker activist today. Together we learn to channel our love into bringing about systemic change and to do so with spiritual grounding.
The annual Continuing Revolution conference is but one example of the type of training ground we need to spend more time on in the Religious Society of Friends. Now is a momentous time; we as young adult Friends need concrete skill-building opportunities if we are to exercise effective leadership in overturning the systems of injustice around us. Program leader (2014) and participant Bilal Taylor emphasizes this need for training:
I think that this conference provides a critical opportunity for young adult Friends to examine the timeless messages I see at the heart of Quaker testimonies with a particular emphasis on how these testimonies can be lived out given the unique situations they confront in the present. As such, I think it is critical that the conferences retain an emphasis on training so that young adult Friends are offered tools that help them think of practical ways they can, to paraphrase Mahatma Gandhi, “be the change they want to see in the world.”
I believe that the Religious Society of Friends has the potential today, not merely in the future, to play an important and transformative role in the much-needed movements for peace and justice. Tory Smith, a participant in the 2013 and 2014 conferences, speaks to the possibility of a faith community effectively engaged in turning the tide:
This conference, by gathering together many different passionate young radical Quakers, serves to cross-pollinate and energize the radical currents within Quakerism that keep us known as a religion that takes its responsibility as one of the religious anchors of the social justice community seriously.… This conference reconfirmed something I had been hoping for: that Quakerism is capable of liberatory transformation, and that there are many other strands of work within the wider Quaker circle that are striving to live into the vision of Friends like Margaret Fell, Bayard Rustin, and John Woolman.
I have a deep conviction that young adult Friends will be leaders in challenging the wider Religious Society of Friends to live into that potential—as many already are. Young adults have so often been the prophetic voices that push us to grow, to evolve, and in many ways, to return to our core.
At this past summer’s conference, the spirit of Ella Baker (an early and prominent organizer of the Civil Rights Movement) was brought into our midst by program leader Aljosie Aldrich Harding, a civil rights activist, community organizer, and wife of the late Dr. Vincent Harding. Aljosie began her session with our gathered young adult Friends by playing “Ella’s Song” (as performed by Sweet Honey in the Rock on the 1988 album Breaths). The song’s message strikes to the heart of why it is a time of great possibility for Quakers and for the wider world. The lyrics speak to our shared hunger for ensuring that our generation is remembered as one that spoke truth to power, rose up, and sought justice: “We who believe in freedom cannot rest. We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.”
Pendle Hill appreciates the generous support of this annual conference over the years by many individuals and foundations. Grantors over the last three years include Quaker Earthcare Witness; the Thomas H. and Mary Williams Shoemaker Fund; the Clarence and Lilly Pickett Endowment; Philadelphia Yearly Meeting Young Adult Friends (YAF) Working Group; the Friends Institute Granting Group; Willistown Meeting in Newtown Square, Pa.; and the Miles White Education Fund.