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Eight things we learned at Quaker Activist Gathering 2017

Suki Ferguson distils some of the inspirational lessons that emerged from the annual day of skill-development, discussion and new connections organised by Quaker Peace & Social Witness.

Participants at the close of the Quaker Activist Gathering 2017. Photo: BYM
Participants at the close of the Quaker Activist Gathering 2017. Photo: BYM

There has been a groundswell of activism in 2017, as people respond to threats to women's rights, freedom of movement and our climate, among many other things. As the government are caught up in the detail of enacting Brexit, we're seeing a shift away from lobbying towards less conventional means of influencing Britain's course.

Quakers have been rolling up their sleeves and getting stuck in with being the change they wish to see, by running drop-ins for refugees, disrupting the world's biggest arms fair, and divesting from fossil fuels.

With so many important acts of witness happening within the yearly meeting, the 2017 edition of the annual Quaker Activist Gathering was always going to be a special event. Held in London over the course of a single day, more than 60 Friends met to refresh their activism and make new connections. Here is what we learned.

1. The greatest breakthroughs in social change have been made during times of the greatest social polarisation

Our world and our communities are so divided, it is easy to feel despondent and 'stuck'. However, our speaker George Lakey pointed out that radical change throughout history has often occurred when societies have become polarised. His examples included the New Deal in the USA, and the nonconformist church movement during the English Civil War. Such times can be dangerous, but also create opportunities for change that are impossible in calmer times.

2. Have a positive vision

A vision of what you do want (as opposed to protesting what you don't want) attracts more people to your cause, and they are likely to stay part of it in the long term. Look at what other campaign groups are doing to generate new possibilities and make a positive impact. You can do the same - it shows people that your vision is credible.

3. Speak clearly and widely

What message do you want people to remember about your issue? Who hasn't heard that message yet? Why is that? Answering these difficult questions helps in the long run. Those already convinced can amplify a clear message, and you'll work out a way to reach those unfamiliar with your cause, and speak to their truth too.

4. Share personal stories

If you have experience with an issue, share your story if you can. It helps make the issue real for those who don't share that experience, and creates a bond with those who do.

5. Form alliances

Small campaign groups often have shared concerns. For example, those campaigning for the rights of non-EU family members, EU citizens resident in the UK, and refugees and asylum seekers are all seeking changes in immigration law. Acting in alliance where those interests intersect makes it harder for those in power to ignore.

6. Make the most of Quakerly forms of action

Quakers often create change by 'disturbing the peace' with stillness and spiritual conviction. For example, in 2017 Quakers have met in worship whilst physically blocking access to fracking sites and an arms fair. A vigil in the local park is easy to ignore; a vigil in an AGM, job centre or business headquarters is news.

7. Quakers have a history of suffering for God

At the last Meeting for Sufferings nine names were added to the court and prison register, to record the cost of their faith-led civil disobedience. Suffering can be part of creating much-longed-for social change. Every now and then, we must ask ourselves: how are we suffering for the truth?

8. Quakers contain multitudes

Friends brought concerns to the gathering around gender and LGBT+ rights, keeping fossil fuels in the ground, ending the arms trade, hunger and poverty, poor housing, financial inequality and many more issues besides. There was a breadth of vision and action for a better world.

Speaking for the staff team, we left the day feeling solidarity with those gathered and replenished in our commitment to work for change.

If you feel an interest in attending the one-day 2018 Quaker Activist Gathering, be sure to email BYMevents@quaker.org.uk and we'll let you know when bookings go live next year. For now, why not check out our Skilling up for the new economy weekend in November a free training for Friends who wish to build an economy that puts people and the planet before profit.

Find out more about Quaker events