Friends Council on Education held our second 90th Anniversary QuakerEd Talk on February 16, 2022. Entitled, Sources of Light: Quaker Activists Letting Their Lives Speak, the event featured Friends School alumni Ingrid Lakey (Friends Select School), Eileen Flanagan (Friends’ Central School), Eric Toensmeier (Plymouth Meeting Friends School and Germantown Friends School) and Laura Jackson (Carolina Friends School) along with two current Friends school students Corey Becker (Friends Select) and Elson Bankoff (Sidwell Friends School). It was a dynamic and inspirational conversation focused on the climate crisis and hope for the future.
Friends Council welcomed more than 100 people from across the country to hear insights on how we can build an informed network of people and work together to implement change. Attendees included those affiliated with Friends schools (47 Friends schools were represented!) as well as those from higher education, Quaker meetings, Quaker organizations and the small business community. Word of the event was shared through many networks and reached across the globe – as far away as Honduras!
One thing was clear throughout the evening: Friends school alums and current students working to fight the climate crisis are passionate, smart, and committed, and they are doing some amazing work! They bring intention, care, the grounding of their Quaker education, collaboration, and a focus on community. In a time when it can all feel very daunting, they each had succinct and practical advice, in the form of a one-word superpower, for how to keep going.
Ingrid Lakey, Friends Select School alum and FSS Board chair, left a thriving career in public radio to pursue environmental activism full time due to a “huge urgency to do something bigger.” She co-founded Earth Quaker Action Team (EQAT), an activist organization aimed at “building a just and sustainable economy through nonviolent direct action, drawing on a legacy of Quaker nonviolent direct action.” EQAT’s first campaign successfully convinced PNC Bank to stop financing mountaintop removal. Their next campaign was a power local green jobs campaign that directly addressed the intersection of climate, race, and class. "We learned a ton about power generation and distribution, and how entrenched our current energy model is," said Ingrid. "We also learned a lot, as a mostly white group, about the challenges of taking on our own racism as well as the systems that perpetuate racism in our society." EQAT's current campaign, Vanguard’s Very Big Climate Problem, focuses on convincing the firm to stop its major financial investment in the fuel industry. “I really feel a call to commit myself to the hard work of system change because the status quo is so clearly leading us off a cliff,” said Ingrid. When it comes to her Quaker education, “Friends Select was where I got my start as an organizer. At school the message was ‘If you feel passionate about something, if you see an injustice, do something.' So much of that was baked into what we were up to.” Ingrid’s one-word superpower recommendation is Connect. “Connect inwardly with what are your actual true feelings about this moment and connect with others so that you are not in a state of isolation.”
Eileen Flanagan, Friends’ Central School alum, author, activist trainer, and interim campaign manager for EQAT’s Vanguard campaign, also came to climate activism through a "sense of calling to the work." Eileen spoke of the importance of spiritual grounding alongside strategic action, and “a recognition that environmental issues are deeply intertwined with racial and economic justice issues and that doesn't mean we don't all have a stake.” Her engagement with Indigenous women of the Red Lake Nation fighting a pipeline in Minnesota, and her civil disobedience along side them in Washington, D.C., are are connected to her role with EQAT. "When we look at environmental injustice, Vanguard is often one of the top investors (in fossil fuels) and so EQAT is mobilizing people as part of a global coalition to put pressure on the company to change the companies they invest in and ultimately to pull out." Regarding the impact of her Quaker education, Eileen recalled that it was an FCS teacher who took her to her first protest and her first Meeting for Worship outside of school. A powerful emotion-filled moment came when Eileen recounted when several FCS classmates performed a skit using a derogatory acronym for Asian people. Senior classes were canceled and instead students were brought to the library to hear the personal story of the librarian, a Japanese American, whose family had been interned in concentration camps. “I know that wouldn't happen at every school. (FCS) made room for what was important," said Eileen. Eileen’s one-word super power is Join. “Join together with others and don’t act alone.” Action together, she said, “makes a bigger difference than what any of us can do alone.”
Eric Toensmeier, Plymouth Meeting Friends School and Germantown Friends School alum, is a permaculturalist and author who tackles our climate problems through climate change mitigation. He works on farming systems and agroforestry systems to combine trees and crops as a means of reducing the emissions from agriculture. This work, he says, is mostly done by farmers in the Tropics. “They are often the ones who have done the least to cause climate change and yet are most affected by it and so part of my goal is to shift resources towards those farmers.” Eric foresees huge atrocities on the horizon – such as more human and sex trafficking – as susceptible refugee populations swell and migrate in response to climate catastrophes around the world. On a positive note, Eric’s view is, “It's not too late to avoid catastrophic climate change” if only wealthy populations will adjust their lifestyles. When it comes to the impact of his Quaker education, Eric shared, “I'm glad to have had high expectations about language learning. I use my Spanish every day to this very day, and I've been able to do a lot more, and more interesting and more effective stuff, as a result of that.” Eric’s advice for right now is Insist!
Laura Jackson, Carolina Friends School alum, a recently retired biologist and researcher at the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) shared highlights from her 30 years of experience there. Laura talked about her research around “ecosystem services” – the benefits of nature – and her work helping to create online mapping and research tools called EnviroAtlas. She said, “Just about anyone can learn about and map and get information to help arguments about an equitable distribution of natural services that provide climate mitigation and climate adaptation.” Laura also shared insights about her educational experience. “Friends school made me the person I am today…I knew that I had to go into a service career. Also, the nature exposure, the exploring. It really does build a sense of resilience and wonder and it’s so important to the work I ended up doing with the EPA.” When it comes to actions you can take right now, Laura recommends researching and being aware of your ecological footprint, including things like your home, your car, your travel behaviors and your buying patterns; the online tool in our resource section can help.
Friends Select School senior Corey Becker spoke about the student group he founded, Student Environmental Action Sustainability Network (SEASN). Through SEASN, “first and foremost, we aim to support and encourage each other in our environmental work. Often the climate crisis can feel almost insurmountable, and so we aspire to use our collective action to amplify impact,” said Corey. Started in 2020 during the pandemic shutdown, with support from Friends Council, SEASN now has students from more than 45 high schools across the United States, Europe and China. “We've continued to be strongly guided by Quaker principles. We have found the core Quaker values to be foundational to our mission, whether it is through communal decision-making working to just uplift each other's voices, or simply acting to improve the stewardship in our schools and communities.” SEASN currently is organizing a national youth climate summit to be held in May 2022 as well as creating a series of carbon neutrality commitments for U.S. schools to sign on to. When it comes to steps to take, Corey advises “looking at what communities you are involved with and just trying to bring environmentalism to them….look at where you have influence and where you can uplift others,” he said. Also, Corey’s one-word superpower recommendation is Plan. “Take ten minutes and just think concretely, 'What can I realistically do in the next week, in the next month, in the next year?'”
Elson Bankoff, a Sidwell Friends School junior, also is involved with SEASN. Elson shared, “We are so heavily based around community, a Quaker value. We are providing this space for people to come together, and to talk and collaborate, to educate each other and share initiatives.” Elson helped launch the publication Ecosystemic , which is circulating in 100 schools with more than 100 contributors. “The purpose is to provide a platform for people to write, for people to read others’ work, and for people to just become inspired by everything that's being done,” said Elson. As youth, “We can't enter your buildings. We can't be in Congress. We can't vote. So right now, we want our members to be informed… We want to be ready for when we can be implementing change and creating organizations…we want to have this solidified network of people who are being informed. We want people to be heard and stories to be told,” said Elson. When asked what she would choose as a superpower, Elson shared, “I would completely reevaluate how educators are treated in America.” Educators are the ones working with children and young people, and schools are the perfect place to instill knowledge about environmentalism and climate change within these already compassionate people, shared Elson. "The biggest thing is for educators to educate and inspire,” she said.
We invite you to explore these resources recommended during the evening: