Creating Space and Structure for Leadership

Friends and Education

To meet with Walter Hjelt Sullivan, Quaker Affairs Director at Haverford College, is to crack a window on the “lived realities” of faith in action. But to work with him and be a student engaged in Quaker action at the College is to have a door swing wide open into one’s self even as it opens outward to the world.

There are, Sullivan says, deeply moral issues that students can explore within a Quaker school or college, and be prompted to do something about. If his programs succeed at Haverford, it is because students catch on and shape important outcomes by their effort, concern, and leadership.

Whether this means spending time in rural coal-belt towns grappling with the effects of strip mining, or attending Quaker-in-Residence Marcelle Martin’s classes on the Quaker spiritual journey, the effect is the same. Students are minded to think and act on their own because they have learned how to access the moral imperatives within themselves.

The administration at Haverford College recognizes that students need to talk about moral issues, and Sullivan sees his job as making those discussions possible. “I have brought new interest to (issues of) social justice, non-violent direct action, and climate change,” he says, and those issues have lead students to invest themselves in good work.

For example, Quaker and non-Quaker students made a trip to West Virginia last fall with Sullivan, and followed up with their own return trip the next spring. They made time to do more than visit mining sites, they listened to the life stories of Appalachian residents, learned more about the push and pull of employment within the mining industry, the medical care issues that arise from mining, and the cycles of family poverty that force families to seek work with what is often the only industry in town. They have learned that you cannot just remove the strip mining business and solve the ecological problems; the economic problems absent mining must be dealt with as well.

In addition to focusing on issues of social or eco-justice, Haverford students are also taking ownership of initiatives that speak to the quality of their community’s religious life.

Imagine the surprise of nearby Haverford Monthly Meeting members and attenders as they discovered the handful of Haverford and Bryn Mawr students attending Meeting for Worship each First Day last year had grown to be almost a third of the people counted in Meeting each week this year. These 20 or more students not only take part in the life of the Meeting, but they invite the Meeting to be part of Haverford College – each week hosting an open “Quaker Brunch” for all who care to attend.

There is no doubt that the thoughtful intensity of action that surrounds Walter Sullivan’s office at Haverford – and spills out into the student (and Meeting) community – is growing. Yet the credit, he says, must go to the “enthusiastic cohort” of students now coalescing at Haverford. While 5-7% of Haverford’s population does have some sort of Quaker background, Sullivan has a strong fondness for nurturing students who arrive at Haverford with no experience of Quakerism at all.

A child raised overseas by Foreign Service parents, Sullivan’s first real encounter with Quakerism was as a Haverford Freshman. He notices that many prospective students are drawn to Haverford for “the intangible respectfulness that is present on campus, … (and) my job is to be noticing that intangible mysterious piece” and “to be nurturing it.”

With about half of the new members of Meetings coming through educational institutions rooted in Quakerism, the work that Sullivan is doing is indeed creating the next generation of Quaker leaders.

Schools and Colleges simply awaken students to the possibilities of the “Inner Light”, and make room for its growth.

This lesson can be applied in any school or Meeting, and to students of any age. It is just about 325 years since Quaker education in America was officially “chartered” by William Penn. That “intangible” aspect of respectfulness on the Haverford campus is equally present in the 40 kindergarten, elementary, boarding, and PreK-to-grade-12 Quaker schools now active in the PYM region.

It is seen in the collaborative work done by William Penn Charter School students at 10 different public schools in the City: it is present in the Inter-Session programs that shine a light on global issues each January at Friends Select. At the four Quaker schools for students with learning differences you see it create passionate and creative students who understand what it takes to be successful in their communities. In three centuries our Quaker schools have become local educational leaders in delivering financial aid, achieving diversity, and modeling a quiet but effective social activism – all of that comes from being attuned to the internal moral prompts and the needs of the surrounding community.

On October 11th I attended the opening of the first new Meetinghouse built in the PYM region within decades (by Chestnut Hill Monthly Meeting). It incorporates the artwork of James Turrell – also a Friend – in a “skyspace” that opens to the heavens, often in the twilight before dawn or dusk. When the roof slipped back to reveal an open window into the damp arch of clouds above, the play of fuchsia, then gold, orange, blue, or purple light cut against the deep neutrality of the night sky. As the rectangular window poured cool fresh air into the Meetinghouse the sky felt alive with a divine presence.

Like this skyspace at Chestnut Hill Meeting, or the programmatic work done by Walter Hjelt Sullivan at Haverford College, or the thoughtful mentoring teachers have offered throughout 325 years of Quaker education, student leadership is certain to infuse new life into communities when room is made for fresh ideas and student-developed initiatives. We Friends are blessed with a Faith that is not frozen in time; it always responds to the light within.

By Grace Sharples Cooke, Committee on Friends Education (CoFE) 

Note –  In the spring edition of this Education Threadletter there will be more information about upcoming events that celebrate 325 years of Quaker education.