A Conversation with George Lakey
George Lakey, a member of Central Philadelphia (Pa.) Meeting, has been an activist, organizer, leader, and trainer in the Civil Rights Movement, with unions, and in the movement for LGBTQ rights. He was a founder of Earth Quaker Action Team (EQAT): a group of Quaker environmentalists who led a campaign that stopped PNC Bank from financing the destructive practice of mountaintop removal coal mining in the Appalachian Mountains. He has authored ten books, including Viking Economics: How the Scandinavians Got It Right—and How We Can, Too and How We Win: A Guide to Nonviolent Direct Action Campaigning. A sociologist, he held an endowed professorship in social change at Swarthmore College until he retired from academia. He has not retired from activism.
Don: Could you say a little about your idea that Quakerism has been captured by the middle class, and how that affects the Quaker decision-making process?
George: I’m concerned that Quakerism has been captured by a professional middle-class preoccupation with process. I was brought up working-class and felt that whether you get a result or not matters. And because I went from the working class to the middle class, I also learned to pay attention to how we get a result. I appreciate some attention to process, but I’m not willing to put up with so much that it blocks the objective. The story of a meeting spending a year to get agreement on the color of the new carpet, although hopefully not true, exaggerates to make the point.
In my monthly meeting, I somehow manage to be a member in good-standing but not because I go to meeting for business. I’ve been worn out by prioritizing process over result. I take to heart Jesus’s reminder that the Sabbath was made for people rather than the other way around.
I ask whether middle-class cultural primacy in the Society of Friends distances us from working-class people and people like farmers. There used to be a lot of Quaker farmers in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, and in the spring I doubt that they went to pray each day to ask God to tell them when to plough, or whether to pick the ripening apples. Farming is a craft, and that’s how I see Quaker activism. You learn a craft, and you practice it. It’s plenty challenging, and I often lean on Spirit for inspiration and to get through the hard parts, but the craft of activism is already there to be used.
Waiting for a leading might be right, and support in discernment, especially for high-risk action, can be useful, but not because waiting and discernment are themselves holy activities meant to delay or add a glow to the action. Slowing things down in business meeting is only a positive if it’s actually needed; it diminishes us when it’s not needed. Slowing things down may have become a go-to for Friends because our culture has become conflict-averse.
It’s very middle-class, professional behavior to mince words, not to tell the truth that’s uncomfortable, and to avoid conflict. Managers aren’t likely to get promoted if they have conflict in their department. Teachers aren’t likely to get praise from supervisors for classrooms that support conflict. Middle-class professions tend to reward smoothness.
Don: When I became a Quaker, I got the impression that all anger and conflict was unquakerly. Then I watched a video about the life of George Fox and realized: hey, wait a minute, he got really angry sometimes!
George: That’s right. George Fox didn’t organize a professional middle-class religious society. Among early Quakers there was real conflict and expression of a range of human emotion. But over the centuries, we became conflict-averse.
We also became reluctant to state hard truths. There is solid research that shows that there is a ruling class in America and that they are running things, but it’s still very, very hard for Quakers to say that. That wasn’t true of early Quakers: they were willing to call things as they saw them, being chiefly concerned to be faithful to the truth even at considerable cost.
The nature of classism isn’t our fault, any more than racism or sexism is. We just absorb it, growing up. Any dominance structure endures by creating a culture in which basic human characteristics are divvied up through socialization. According to the sexist script, women are supposed to be fascinated by the arts, and men by the sciences. Where the patriarchy still reigns supreme, its linking of basic human characteristics as “natural” to the different genders is obvious. Here we’re seeing more and more brave souls contradicting all that.
Classism operates the same way, although, like sexism, it’s not as strong now as it used to be. Still, we do live in a class society and see the parceling out of human characteristics through socialization. Studies have shown one place this happens is in schools that serve different classes. Whatever class we’re born into, we’re encouraged and rewarded from childhood to adopt the characteristics that go with that class.
A class society assigns the job of envisioning to the owning class. After all, the owning class’s job is to project a vision of the direction that the collectivity is going in: the big picture of what we’re aiming for. They own the ships, for example. The captain and first mate are the middle class, supervising the working-class crew. The crew’s job is not to wonder why but to get cracking.
In the twentieth century, owners became scarce in the Society of Friends, as well as workers and farmers, leaving an opening to the professional middle class to shape Quaker culture. Vision skills became harder to find, same with working-class concern for practicality, forthrightness, and being okay with a good argument.
The Society of Friends as I experienced it as a young man was more interested in vision than it is now, which was then reflected in our institutions like American Friends Service Committee and Quaker schools. Social action nowadays often seems divorced from a vision, reacting to evils but not projecting a big picture of what the good, peaceful, and just way would look like. Witness therefore replaces action that has any chance of making a sizable difference in conditions being witnessed about.
Don: In one monthly meeting, I suggested we try to come up with some ideas about what we want the meeting to look like in the future by asking these questions: What is our mission? What are we actually trying to accomplish? Judging by the reaction, you would’ve thought I had suggested we start worshiping Satan.
George: Exactly. A good symphony orchestra board does answer those questions, same with an art museum. That’s because their boards are usually controlled by the owning class, and they want a vision. When owning-class board members can’t be bothered to create a vision of their own, they like to hire a director who is a prestigious visionary whose vision they like.
Don: I wrote an article about shrinking membership in Quakerism: “Can Quakerism Survive?” (FJ Feb. 2018), and I mentioned our need for a vision in order for us to grow. I realized that I had no idea what the vision of the future of Quakerism was or if there even was one.
George: There are Quakers brought up middle- and working-class who, stubbornly enough, are visionaries. Humans aren’t always easily programmed, even by mainstream culture. We need Quakers with envisioning capacity, whatever their class background happens to be, but if they are squelched by the process controllers, I hope they won’t take it personally. It’s likely to be invisible class dynamics at work.
Don: I don’t think I’ve ever heard of an alternative to the process-obsessed way of doing things in Quakerism. What would an alternative look like?
George: Well, Earth Quaker Action Team (EQAT) invented an alternative that worked for us as an action organization, which I describe step by step in the book How We Win. When we won our first campaign—stopping a major U.S. bank from financing mountaintop removal coal mining—we paused to envision our next goal. We reminded ourselves of our founding mission. We prayed and sang—nothing new there—and encouraged visions to come forward, and a number of visions emerged, each with a small group of boosters. We then discerned among them, with plenty of research, dialogue, and disagreement. We chose “the last one standing,” having tested it in all kinds of ways. The community strengthened as a result; good strong conflict can strengthen groups.
Another organization with a different mission might invent a different model, but isn’t it time for invention? It may be time for Quakers to innovate and find ways forward that don’t rely on our present decision-making structure.
I understand that the theology of consensus isn’t about counting the nods of agreement; it’s really about responding to the Spirit, which is believed to be animating the whole body in the room when we are under the weight of that concern. I understand the theology of it, but it seems to have become routine. When routinized, class dynamics rule, it’s really hard to keep the spirit of it alive. I have experienced Friends business meetings when Spirit was a liberating force and enabled us to transcend the limitations that we allow the class system to put on ourselves. Those meetings, by the way, were also in periods of open conflict.
Don: How does Earth Quaker Action Team make decisions?
George: EQAT creates short-term core teams to do a lot of the work and a monthly general meeting so the board can keep taking the pulse. The EQAT Board reaches for consensus but decides anyway when that’s lacking, because our mission requires nimbleness. And that’s key for a nonviolent direct action campaign. When you’re up against an opponent that wants to rub you out, it’s useful to be nimble.
The board is about a dozen people, and they know from everybody having spoken where the weight is. If they can’t reach consensus, they go with the weight.
Don: How does class restrict us?
George: For years my work with the Society of Friends was to try to help us become class conscious enough, aware enough, that we could be liberated from the constraints that class puts upon us. That’s what I’ve been into: liberation from all oppressions that use differences like class, race, gender, and age to hurt and limit us. As our power is freed up, we can make more of a difference in dealing with the climate crisis, for example.
Why do I care so much about class? Class limits us. God is love. What’s more basic than to love each other, wanting all of us to be able to live more fully into our potential?