Continuing Revolution: Young Adult Friends at the Intersection of Faith and Action


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‚Äźneeded change in the face of today‚Äôs daunting set of social challenges. The result is often true inspiration from times past but a lack of concrete, forward‚Äźthinking 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‚Äźequipped. 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‚ÄĒinstitutionally or informally‚ÄĒof young adult Friends around social justice work or in social movements. Gatherings that I had been involved in felt fragmented, often superficial, and short‚Äźlived.

I observed other faith traditions‚ÄĒranging from Judaism to Islam, to Christian denominations and ecumenical organizations‚ÄĒpouring time and resources into the development of faith‚Äźbased young adult justice‚Äźoriented networks. I wondered what that might look like for Friends and why we didn‚Äôt 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‚Äźvisitation and cross‚Äźbranch fellowship amongst Friends. The twenty‚Äźfirst century has brought innovative new iterations of social justice oriented Quaker programs such as Quaker Voluntary Service (a year‚Äźlong residential program started in 2012). However, I could not find any present‚Äźday young adult Quaker conference or other short‚Äźterm forum designed to organize, train, and prepare our generation to play an effective role in the massive movement‚Äźbuilding 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 coordinator, a role I have been fortunate enough to hold ever since. The annual conference, also known as YAFCON, is a six‚Äźday 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‚Äôs vision statement‚ÄĒ‚Äúto foster peace with justice in the world by transforming lives‚ÄĚ‚ÄĒserves 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.

14420444775_a9edb7c283_oThe conference receives funding support from a variety of Quaker organizations, whose investment re‚Äźaffirms 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‚Äźcreating a new model of gathering together. The program relies on the participants to select each annual conference theme‚ÄĒa 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‚Äôs 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‚Äźtaking opportunities. Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, we provide opportunities for peer‚Äźto‚Äźpeer learning and teaching, with young adult program leaders such as Tai Amri Spann‚ÄźWilson, 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‚Äôs 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‚ÄĒthat it is a privilege to be challenged by the daunting and never‚Äźbefore‚Äźseen set of problems darkening our collective doorstep. Furthermore, we are recognizing that it is a privilege to co‚Äźcreate the innovative and radical root‚Äźlevel 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‚Äźchanging 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‚Äźoriented 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‚Äź or 30‚Äźsomething 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‚Äźbuilding 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, ‚Äúbe the change they want to see in the world.‚ÄĚ

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‚Äźneeded 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‚Äźpollinate 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.‚Ķ 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‚ÄĒas 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‚Äôs 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 ‚ÄúElla‚Äôs Song‚ÄĚ (as performed by Sweet Honey in the Rock on the 1988 album Breaths). The song‚Äôs 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: ‚ÄúWe who believe in freedom cannot rest. We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.‚ÄĚ


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.

Emily Higgs lives in San Francisco, Calif., where she is currently working toward a policy-oriented MSW at University of California, Berkeley. She has served as the Continuing Revolution conference coordinator at Pendle Hill study center in Wallingford, Pa., since 2012. Emily is a member of Lancaster (Pa.) Meeting.

Posted in: Features, September 2014

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3 thoughts on “Continuing Revolution: Young Adult Friends at the Intersection of Faith and Action

  1. Richard Grossman says:

    City & State
    Bayfield, CO
    Emily, this is a wonderful article! Reading it makes me proud to be a Friend, as you remind me of our long history of leading social change. I wish that I had attended a session as you have organized at Pendle Hill 50 years ago.
    Thank you for your leadership!

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