To meet Sarah Willie-LeBreton, Ph.D. is to encounter an exceptionally grounded Friend with a deep knowledge of human societies. Currently Swarthmore College’s Provost and Dean of the Faculty since 2018, Sarah was appointed after having chaired the Department of Sociology & Anthropology (2009-2018), chaired the President’s Task Force on Sexual Misconduct (2013-14), served as Associate Provost (2005-8), and coordinated the Black Studies Program on and off for more than a decade beginning in 1998. Somehow, as she does all this, she has still found time to be present in leading PYM towards growth in important areas.For years Sarah supported PYM in building up the Quaker College Fair, turning what was a keynote talk followed by student and parent visits with college representatives into interactive panel discussions that were much more beneficial to students. Her work on the Fair for some four years helped define how PYM supports a Quaker college search for young Friends as well as interested Sophomores, Juniors and seniors at Independent and Friends Schools.
She provided strong leadership with Inspira Williams at the 2017 Annual Sessions, helping our community embark on growing Quaker skills to address racism. As if this weren’t enough, she just worked with Oskar Castro and Tenaja Henson to lead the anti-Blackness Thread gathering PYM offered in February 2021.
Being a Friend, and practicing the Quaker Faith, can be tested and strengthened by the “uncomfortable conversations” and challenges to discover relationships that Sarah mentions below in this interview.
It is a hope, that Friend Sarah’s thoughts and wisdoms will help support other Friends as they lean into the journey of addressing anti-Blackness and rebuilding our politically divided, socially-distanced communities and nation.
What led you study Sociology; did growing up as a Quaker intertwine with your scope of studies?
I grew up in the Episcopal Church where I was baptized, confirmed and married.
My parents married across color lines in 1962 and celebrate their 59th wedding anniversary in March. My father is a sociologist, and I was drawn to it for at least two reasons. Our dinner table conversations were about the issues of the day, his work, and about our neighbors and the place we lived. He was always able to bring keen insight and a sense of agency to any and every space he occupied.
His deep confidence and ability to navigate conflict were remarkable given that he is a dark skinned African American who grew up working class in the Deep South. He seemed to have the power to make sense of a world full of injustice and contradictions as well as appreciation for things that work well and life’s unexpected symphonies.
He and my mother, who is white, saw volunteer work with their communities to be duties of human citizenship and to be intrinsically rewarding.
My mother is a musician and the complementary and mutuality of art and science were compelling sirens for me. My father was also deeply hopeful that I would follow in his disciplinary footsteps. That was the foundation on which wonderful teachers, mentors, and professors built.
How has Quakerism influenced your life? Have you noticed anything in the year 2020? How has the faith changed or stayed the same?
Some of my mother’s ancestors were American Baptists, others were Scottish Presbyterians; several arrived as early British Colonists.
My father’s people were African Americans and Indigenous Americans. He grew up in the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church (which changed its name to Christian Methodist Episcopal Church after the Civil Rights Movement).
My husband’s skills honed over years as a university library administrator have been a boon to our family’s genealogical discoveries. We now know, for example, that some of my maternal ancestors enslaved other people and others were Philadelphia Friends.
To the best of my knowledge, the pacifism of my maternal grandfather was influenced by the Quakers. But I was introduced to the practice of silent worship while an undergraduate at Haverford College.
Between the courage of my parents’ and grandparents’ convictions that war is an inhumane and unhelpful way to solve human problems, I found myself searching for a faith community after the terrorist attacks of 9/11/01 that was as appalled as I was at the violence and skape-goating of our national response to that tragedy.
I moved to Media five years after I began teaching at Swarthmore and drove past Providence Friends Meeting on my way to work. I kept seeing a large, beautiful sign, bearing A.J. Muste’s famous interpretation of Ghandi’s insight: “There is no way to peace, peace is the way.”
Together with the 11 o’clock gathering time on First Day, and the welcome I received from my husband’s Haverford classmate, Parker Snowe, who was then serving as Clerk, the rest is history! I soon became convinced and applied for membership in the Meeting.
As a community what is your hope for people in 2021?
My hope for the community of humans in 2021 is no different than my hope for each year—to face at (least some of) our fears of difference in order to give ourselves the opportunity to grow into communion with others.
We can hammer out some disagreements and learn to live with others if we affirm that our voices all count, that universe—or the Divine—is in each of us and we are in it, if we consider kindness and mutuality, self reflection and enlightenment worthy pursuits for us as individuals and groups.
Your post for AFSC, Out of the silvery silence: The prophetic call of Black Lives Matters in 2016 was profound in exploring the Spirit in the BLM movement. What are your reflections post 2020, how do you view change? What change lessons would you most like to share with people?
My approach to social change is as a social scientist, someone raised in the Christian tradition, and one who has chosen Quakerism as an adult.
As a social scientist, I have come to appreciate that both change and stasis are necessary elements of human community. We depend on institutions, but that should not keep us from discovering ways of interrupting stasis that diminish any of us, just as we should also be on the lookout for the nefarious changes that increase human inequality and suffering.
The Black Lives Matter movement does just this: it vocally, locally, loudly and non-violently interrupts the cruel stasis that diminishes African Americans. In a society founded on white supremacy, I consider it nothing short of a prophetic movement.
As a person who takes Christian religious teachings seriously, I appreciate that sometimes it takes more courage, conviction and energy to love those we are raised to hate, to find abundance in lives that are parochial and hard, and to give generously when we have been raised to accumulate and keep for ourselves.
Jesus’s message continues to help people discover that we can find abundance in poverty, freedom in imprisonment, and life in death. I know that I’ll have some folks who are in profound disagreement with me, but I don’t interpret those things as capitulation to or excuses for injustice; I don’t interpret them as magic; and I don’t believe they even depend on belief in God.
Jesus’s message proclaimed that not even poverty can interrupt our joy; not even enslavement or imprisonment can curtail our imaginations or our ability to love, and not even the threat of death—our own or that of our beloveds—can undermine our ability to protest, protect, create, and love.
As a person who has become convinced of Quakerism in her adult life and found (at least one!) wonderful community of Friends with whom to worship, I have been moved by several practices and ideas central to it.
For example, many Quakers believe that the meanings of Scripture are continually revealed. I love that concept and have seen it wonderfully expanded to appreciate that rules and identities, laws and habits are always revealing themselves to us.
Quaker worship has modeled the power of prayerful contemplation in silent community, holding the assumption that there is that of God in everyone. This approach has been a powerful antidote to a life that is often busy, noisy, demanding, and loud, and I believe it is an approach that can be incorporated into secular decision-making to foster thoughtful, considered process, openness and exchange with the assumption that co-creation, fulsome communication, and deep consideration bring about better decisions.
Of course, these habits and goals are often very challenging to keep in spaces where decision-making assumptions are hierarchical and the cultural expectation is that decisions be made quickly. But they can inform how we lean into our roles and how we interpret our contributions, slowing us down and encouraging alternatives
Sarah’s words five years ago still resonate today and seem to be a fitting bookend to this interview. Below is an except from the full article:
Out of a kind of societal silence, the #BlackLivesMatter campaign has emerged. Like other social movements, it is of our time and unlike other movements that have preceded it. Its co-founders have observed that an ideology of white supremacy drives much state-sponsored violence and they have suggested that to undermine the ideology and stem the violence, the movement must remain both decentralized, non-violent, insistent and organized.
They have refused to deny the complexity of African Americans—naming and celebrating our multiple and sometimes overlapping identities as Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, atheists and agnostics.
We are cisgender, queer and trans, poor, middle class, and affluent; we are teachers, physicians, carpenters, artists and actors, police officers and congressional representatives, pacifists, soldiers, engineers, veterans, dentists, scholars, architects, librarians, janitors, and people seeking work; we are plumbers and lawyers; carnivores and vegetarians; we speak many languages; we have ancestors who were indigenous to the Americas, traveled on the Mayflower, and were brought here in chains; we are many colors.
My own search is regularly undermined when I’m overcome with body-shaking anger over people recently killed or killers (who) are legally exonerated; when tears of mourning well up without warning when I’m teaching a class, at a faculty meeting, or in line at the grocery store; when fear for my son’s life overwhelms me; when my impatience with the pace of change warps any tendencies I have toward kindness and generosity; when I want to walk away from Jesus’ teachings to turn the other cheek and love my enemies.
In what I consider my good moments, I can appreciate that the advice to offer the other cheek when struck is an asymmetrical strategy of response, undermining the inevitability of continued violence.
In those good moments, I understand that loving my enemies is not mutually exclusive with either refusing to cooperate in my own oppression or being the ally of those resisting theirs. When I’ve had enough sleep or been surrounded by the wisdom of fellow travelers, I can hold both the nightmares and the work ahead. I sometimes feel as fragile as I feel grounded and clear at other times.
In my moments of despair, I don’t think about the nourishment that I receive along the way; I don’t remember the inspiration of those who struggled for justice before me; I’m blind to those who stand next to me now, and I lose faith that others will carry these struggles into the future.
In my moments of euphoria, I am just as likely to be entirely caught up in the present.
But in the quiet ritual of Meeting for Silent Worship I hear the call to my better self, I see the model of love in action; I’m engaged in uncomfortable conversations and challenged to discover relationships that I can sustain.