Quaker house on Capitol Hill at risk
William Penn House in Washington, D.C., a Quaker boarding house, hospitality center, and nonprofit educational organization, is at risk of losing its property tax exemption, which will cost WPH $18,000 per year in taxes. This news was delivered a few months ago in a letter from the D.C. tax office revoking most of WPH’s tax-exempt status.
“It could force us into making strategic changes of possibly selling the property and moving outside the district,” executive director Byron Sandford told a local NBC news affiliate after learning of the decision.
Since 1966, William Penn House has been providing room and board for church and school groups to do charity work as part of their education or ministry. The center, which has a total of 30 beds available at rates of $30 to $50 a night (including breakfast), considers itself to be a church, and like other churches, has been exempt from paying property taxes.
The house was purchased and started by a committee formed by Friends Meeting of Washington (D.C.) “to seek property on Capitol Hill to provide lodging and seminars for Quaker activists working with Friends Committee on National Legislation,” according to the organization’s website. This committee eventually became the board of trustees for William Penn House, and in 1993 filed for and was granted independent incorporated status in the District of Columbia. The House also received IRS status as a nonprofit educational 501(c)(3) organization, and the William Penn House Corporation was formed, officially transferring the property from Friends Meeting of Washington.
William Penn House holds worship seven days a week and offers a number of spiritual programs and activities every month. However, the D.C. Office of Tax and Revenue has stated that because the vast majority of the building operates as a hotel renting out beds, the portion of the property used for public lodging cannot be exempt from paying property taxes. The change does not affect the organization’s sales tax exemption or status to accept donations for charitable or religious purposes.
William Penn House could sue the city in an attempt to influence the D.C. government, or the D.C. Council could step in and give a special exemption. Sanford has said the House can’t afford to sue and so far no council member has offered to help. Learn more about William Penn House at williampennhouse.org.
Quaker student leaders gather
Tandem Friends School and Virginia Beach Friends School hosted the eighteenth annual Quaker Youth Leadership Conference February 5–7 at Tandem Friends School in Charlottesville, Va. Around 200 students and faculty members from Friends schools worldwide gathered for the three-day event of learning, service, worship, and fun.
This year’s theme was Art and Social Change Inspiring Peace and Justice: “through art we can challenge assumptions, spark new ideas, provoke critical thinking, and motivate action.” The group explored “how the Quaker testimonies of peace and justice are represented and encouraged through the visual arts, music, theater, and creative writing … and the skills artists use to create change: risk-taking, imagination, collaboration, authenticity, and honesty.”
Special guest band David Wax Museum performed a concert on the first night of the conference. Band members David Wax, who has worked with American Friends Service Committee in Mexico, and Suz Slezak, Tandem Friends School alum and attender of the very first QYLC, also led a workshop meant to inspire and educate about the power of music to promote social change. Learn more about the QYLC at qylc.org.
Quaker-founded peace awards project honors students
For the past 11 years, the Student Peace Awards of Fairfax County, Va., has recognized and publicized the accomplishments of young peacemakers in the community. Formerly called the Northern Virginia Student Peace Awards, the project was founded in 2005 by Margaret Fisher and Margaret Rogers, both members of Herndon (Va.) Meeting’s Peace and Social Concerns Committee.
Fisher and Rogers wanted to create a youth-focused initiative with broad support from local organizations to demonstrate that people from all backgrounds support peace. The first award was offered at one high school. Gradually more schools were invited to participate, and a special subcommittee was formed to handle outreach, correspondence, and logistics. For the 2014–2015 school year, 33 schools (30 public and 3 private) were invited to select a Peace Award recipient, and 23 schools responded. Schools are asked to select a junior or senior student or a group that “has made a substantial contribution to peacemaking and/or conflict resolution.”
The following criteria is offered for selection of a recipient: engages in activities that strive to end conflict, either locally or globally; seeks to discuss or otherwise resolve potentially controversial issues within the school or community to bring about positive resolutions; promotes the understanding of divisive issues and situations to bridge language, ethnic, racial, religious, gender, sexual orientation, or class differences; and works to resolve conflicts among students or members of the community who feel isolated or alienated.
This year, 20 individual students and three groups have been selected to receive a Student Peace Award. The recipients and their families have been invited to a public reception to take place on March 1. At the event, each recipient is to be introduced and presented with a check for $150 and the opportunity to select a charity to receive a $100 donation in his or her name (recipients are encouraged choose an organization that operates in a spirit in keeping with the Peace Awards). There will also be a presentation from keynote speaker Vickie Shoap, a restorative justice specialist for Fairfax County Public Schools. Past keynote speakers have come from a variety of peace organizations, including Peace Corps, Nonviolence International, and Seeds of Peace.
The award money is partially funded by the project’s sponsors, who are asked for a small financial contribution. The size of the award has varied over the years, as it depends on participation from and number of sponsors. Today, the awards are sponsored by 15 religious and nonprofit secular organizations, including three Friends meetings, two rotary clubs, a Unitarian Universalist church, a Christian Science church, a Mennonite church, a Catholic church, a Jewish temple, the Stewart R. Mott Foundation, and the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution of George Mason University.
Although the founders and organizers of the project do not plan to expand beyond Fairfax County, they hope people in other school districts and across the country might create their own Student Peace Awards. They welcome the opportunity to share their experience and advice and have posted many of their working documents at herndonfriends.org/peaceawards.
Friends school to transform vacant lot
Frankford Friends School in Philadelphia, Pa., is planning to construct a natural playscape outdoor classroom on a vacant lot across the street from the school, as announced in a December 2014 press release. Natural playscapes (or natural playgrounds) create a space for the public to enjoy using as little man-made components as possible. The outdoor classroom will be a natural green space where children can play, explore, and be surrounded by growing things: native plants and trees; fruit and vegetable gardens; and urban wildlife like birds, salamanders, and butterflies. The area will also have raised bed gardens where students and their families can grow food. Funds permitting, the outdoor classroom will be open to neighborhood families for gardening and play on weekends and in the summer.
The school’s principal, Penny Colgan-Davis, shared a favorite saying of those who love working with children in nature: “If we want our children to grow up protecting the natural environment, they must learn to love it, and in order to learn to love it, they must spend plenty of time in it.” She hopes the space “will afford FFS students and, hopefully, neighborhood children lots and lots of time falling in love with nature.”
An old stone Central United Methodist Church once stood on the corner lot, but was demolished by the City of Philadelphia in September 2011 due to safety hazards from a deteriorating wall after the nonprofit that owned the church did not have the resources to repair it. The vacant lot that remains, nearly half an acre in size, was donated to Frankford Meeting for the use of the affiliated school; the donation of the property was made possible by the support of Philadelphia councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, who envisions the lot becoming “an intergenerational learning green space in Frankford.”
The school will receive a stormwater management design for the outdoor classroom and the entire campus through a grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s Growing Greener program, helping to reduce the load on the city’s combined sewer system and protecting the watershed. Additional support for the project comes from the Tyson Memorial Fund, the Connelly Foundation, the William B. Dietrich Foundation, and a number of private donors. More than $100,000 has been raised. The school continues to seek donations to close a final $20,000 budget gap, and hopes to open the outdoor classroom in time for the start of school in September. Learn more about Frankford Friends School at frankfordfriendsschool.org.