We Must Ask Ourselves Which Side of History Do We Want To Be On?

A continued discussion on Quakers and sustainability by Christen Clougherty

When pondering sustainability, I have found a great guidance from the Great Law of the Iroquois - which holds appropriate to think seven generations ahead (about 140 years into the future) and decide whether the decisions they make today would benefit their children seven generations into the future. What are the consequences of my actions? But not just tomorrow or the next day, week, month, or year – but 140 years from now?

140 years - what does that look like? I'm 36 years old, I have a 4 year old son, and my only living grandparent is my 97-year-old grandmother. I joke that my grandmother is so old that she was alive before Pluto was a planet and alive still after it was demoted. But is amazing to me is listening to her stories about what the world was like, what changes or progress that has been made, but at what cost and to what harm we have caused. My grandmother has a life like Forest Gump’s. She was in the right place at very interesting times. She was born in 1917 at the end of WWI and lived through the depression and WWII. She saw the Lindbergh and Hindenburg take off and explode. She was the third car to drive through the Lincoln Tunnel. She was a docent at the world’s fair and toured around Eleanor Roosevelt and Jacky Cooper. Her mother worked for Teddy Roosevelt at his summer office in Oyster Bay, NY. She saw Helen Keller speak and when she asked for someone in the audience to play the piano for her, my grandmother volunteered. And then while pursuing a masters in mathematics she took a seminar with Albert Einstein. She then married my grandfather who ran a second-generation funeral home and had fourteen children together. And now has 36 grandchildren, and 30 great-grandchildren. But in addition to these remarkable moments in her quite privileged life, she saw remarkable change in the world. Countless wars, the atomic bomb, civil rights riots in her town, a son drafted into Vietnam, the connectivity of technology, and the impacts of globalization on travel, food, imports and exports, and knowledge. But my grandmother’s lifetime of nearly 100 years still is shy of 140.

Next year is the 150th anniversary of the Civil War – this is a legacy of seven generations. A legacy that was followed by continued systematic oppression of Americans from African descent that continues today. Living in the South, I’m often asked by visitors if the South is still upset about losing the Civil War? I would say that upset is not the right word, but there is a frequent reference to “the war of Northern Aggression.” And in many ways I’m an advocate for talking about the Civil War more as the impact of the war is very much alive today. It is alive in the way our schools were created around an agricultural calendar with summers off. And it is alive in the way our economy moved towards industrialization and then to globalization. It is alive in the way that we think of race in the US as a black and white issue while completely ignoring the numerous other groups of color who share our democracy. And this week in particular, I am very aware of how it is alive in Ferguson, MO and across the nation.

I'm left asking, what is my responsibility as a Friend? as an educator? as an American?

I was at the Friends Council on Education and Friends Association of Higher Education Conference in June and attended an interesting session where the presenter asked us consider how Friends have been on the wrong side of history. Examples included Friends involvement with Native American children and boarding schools with the intention of “civilizing” the children. Quakers also invented solitary confinement; although it was never meant to be used in the way that it is currently. And Friends now actively are trying to end its use. And early on the Quaker’s view towards abolition was a long struggle by a few courageous Friends, some of whom were ostracized by their meeting communities for taking such a stance. And the presenter asked us to then consider where Friends actions today may be on the wrong side of history? Now that is sustainable thinking. And I will ask you now... what choices are you making in your life, in your classroom? And where might we collectively be dragging our heels or showing our approval with inaction?


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