Nell Durfee received a grant from the Greening Haverford Fund. Below are her reflections of her experience.
I’m just now back to Block Island after spending about a week a way—the first five days at Pendle Hill, a Quaker retreat center near Haverford, for a conference on Quakerism, activism, and environmental concerns, and the next seeing family. I’ve been having a lot of trouble translating my experience into words—this might be because this year the conference, an annual young adult delegation, was condensed from seven weeks into five days. The effect was to super-charge an inspiring conference into a five-day crash course into how to be an activist. I’m leaving feeling like I was just read a mini-manifesto on environmental activism—and understanding that we not only have to stop fueling climate change, but that we can. An inspiring conference, indeed.
A word of wisdom: never pass up an opportunity to go to Pendle Hill. You will be filled with delicious, local, healthy food, given a private room looking out onto gorgeous grounds, and surrounded by inspiring and grounded people who will challenge you to be your best self. If you’re lucky, you’ll also get Emily Higgs to design a conference for you packed with Quaker environmental activists so that you can not only be taught a solid framework for conceptualizing activism as part of a constructive presence on the planet, but also given tools to do this activism by the EarthQuaker Action Team and numerous other visionaries. And should you feel ready to get a move on, she’ll have brought twenty other young adults, too, who are trying to figure out their role in activism and who want to work together to solve so many pressing problems, not just environmental. I tend to be a little environment-centric in my thinking, so it was really great not only to talk with them, but also to have the mantra of the conference beaten into my head a bit (don’t worry, in a Quakerly way): in the words of the Pachamama Alliance, we need to work for a “socially just, environmentally sustainable, and spiritually fulfilled” world. Essentially, those three things need to work together for activism to have meaning beyond winning the good fight. It’s not just the environment that needs attention; it’s the economy, it’s women’s health, it’s anything and everything you care about.
Since this was a Quaker conference, it was essentially rooted in spirituality, and suggested that a strong spiritual practice is an important part of activism. For the conference, this meant feeling led to do certain work; having that work nurture your relationship to yourself, other people, and the world; and using your spirituality as a way to discern whether you are on the right track morally and strategically. If you are wary of religion and any reference to spirituality, I think that you can still find important meaning from these ideas. Spirituality here doesn’t have to be “God”–in my opinion, I think that it’s just as meaningful if you consider spirituality as a way of referring to a connection to yourself and your community. I was surprised to find myself leaving, though, feeling much more comfortable with the idea of religion—the idea of being “Spirit-led” had never seemed so powerful until I considered it in the context of activism.
A crucial part of this idea of “Spirit-led” activism was creativity. We did a number of exercises to envision communities that we truly wanted to be a part of, and then listened to so many different people talk about their creative solutions to problems they saw around them. Activism didn’t seem like a thing anymore; it seemed like a natural out-growth of participating in your world. How can you make life better for yourself and for your community? What changes do you want to see? What are your strengths? How can you be most useful? One of my favorite parts of the conference was meeting with people who were activists in surprising but really wonderful ways that really made use of their strengths and that really made an impact on the world. The first was a concert by Evalyn Parry, an absolutely incredible Canadian singer-songwriter/guitar and water bottle and crazy-random-awesome humming-instrument-I-can’t-remember-the-name-of player. Although she played a number of songs that were simply beautiful and emotionally moving, she also created beautiful music with a message. When I was little, I remember my mom reading me books with really obvious and annoying messages like “eat your vegetables” or “do your chores”–not that I didn’t want to do either of those things, but being told in such an obvious way when all I wanted was a good read was not at all appealing. “Music with a message” seems like it is heading dangerously in that direction—but Evalyn Parry used her gifts as a performer and as a generally incredible person to make sure it was not that way at all. Later in the week, we met with Spiral Q, an organization in Philly that makes puppets. I had heard about Spiral Q during the school year and had been highly skeptical. Really? I thought. Puppets, of all things? But these are not finger puppets, and my visions of Spiral Q hosting finger puppet political dramas were entirely unfounded and cruel. Instead, they work with activists to create art to represent campaigns, political messages, any and all of their idealism. I was blown away—the founders had found an incredibly meaningful way to use their skills as artists and their passion as activists to bolster their community and the dreams of the people inside it.
I think that everything was really brought home to me when I, well, went home. My hometown in upstate New York has seen a series of floods over the past few years that has completely knocked it flat. I was still living at home when the first one hit; it was supposed to be a five hundred year flood, a freak event, something that wouldn’t happen again in our lifetimes. Instead, the floods keep coming back, and the people keep leaving, many of whom have lost everything they had. To me, this is a direct indication of climate change, and also a warning of how far we have to go in terms of environmental awareness and activism. Coming out of the conference, it was impossible not to think of everything we had learned, and to realize this is not localized to just where I live—these are problems that are affecting everyone. Car culture, reliance on enormous corporations, lack of community involvement—how can we form communities that choose different ways of life? That respond to problems with creative solutions that utilize personal skills? How can we create systems that work for people not just locally, but globally? How can we ensure that our impact on this planet is a good one, personally and environmentally? This conference was all about using creativity and working together to envision something different—knowing that change is possible, and that, simply, we can do it.