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Research on Nonviolent Direct Action as it Intersects with Race and Class at Bryn Mawr: A Narrative

jo's picture

On Saturday, the Earth Quaker Action Team (EQAT) organized a Day of Action made up of 16 different actions at PNC Banks across 6 sates in the region, part of their campaign agains PNC's investments in companies that practice mountaintop removal coal mining. Bryn Mawr College had a very large role in this event, as the Bryn Mawr Earth Justice League's action was one of the largest with over 25 people attending. In our own little group (EJL) it sometimes feels like we're the only ones on campus doing this kind of activism, that Bryn Mawr as an institution, in its propoganda about fostering desire to make a meaningful contribution to the world, does not inspire in us while we are in college. We get the sense that, for the majority of the campus, academia far outweighs activism in importance, and we can put time into making the world a better place once we've graduated.

Of course this isn't true of everyone. Many women are very involved with different civic engagement and social justice projects. Still, until this semester, we in the Earth Justice League had been feeling a vaccuum on campus where nonviolent direct action is concerned that we were desperately trying to fill with the 10 or so of us that came to meetings regularly. Perhaps it is important to explain what I mean by direct action, also known as nonviolent action. George Lakey, acclaimed activist and sociologist and founder of EQAT, describes nonviolent direct action as "a technique of struggle that goes beyond institutionalized conflict procedures like law courts and voting, procedures common in many countries." It can encompass many sorts of tactics, sit-ins, occupation, marches, street theater, boycotts, etc, and the emphasis is that it is not the mainstream, accepted methods of creating change like writing letters, lobbying, petitioning, or service work.

As frustrated as I and many members in my group were feeling, I was surprised and pleased when the buzz around Perry House began to feel more like the beginnings of direct action than anything I had experienced. I was also surprised and interested to hear that Perry House originally became what it represents today through a sit-in, a prime example of the effect direct action can have and the way it gives power to those who are not given power by our patriarchal society.

The sit-in took place on March 13, 1970 and it consisted of "35 black students that received the support of 45 white Bryn Mawr students." (Bruder 266) The sit-in accompanied a list of 10 demands compiled by Sisterhood and presented to President Katharine McBride, almost all of which were met in some form or another within the next two years. An African American house and cultural center was one of the demands, of course, and others included appointment of more African American faculty members in various departments, encouragement of black students to apply to Bryn Mawr, and more respecful treatment of the maids and porters (almost all of whom were black). (Bruder 267)

I was fascinated by this instance of a fairly successful direct action campaign at Bryn Mawr and realized there must be others throughout the college's history. Indeed, Bryn Mawr students played a large part in several other movements throughout history that involved participation in nonviolent action including the Anti-Vietnam War struggle in the 1960's and 70's, the Civil Rights Movement in the 50's and 60's, and the labor union movement of the 20's and 30's. Researching these instances of escalated activism by Bryn Mawr students at and around the college and thinking about how difficult it feels to combat apathy currently in my own experience at this predominately white middle-upper middle class institution, I began to form some questions and hypotheses about how class upbringing and identity (as they intersect with race) affect activist climate.

I found George Lakey's writings and articles helpful in dealing with these questions (until they ultimately further complicated my thinking). In his extensive work with activist organizations and direct action movements made up of people from diverse class backgrounds and races, Lakey has developed interesting ideas on how the personality types often determined by class upbringing influence the way individuals go about activism and organizing in groups and communities. In his article "Opening ourselves to the realities of class" from Waging Nonviolence, Lakey details self-descriptions of owning class, middle class, and working class people that are composites of statements made at class workshops.

Owning class people are described as having a "sense of big of learning" and being "brought up to develop a big picture of what’s going on, and interest in the wider world, even globally." Some more negative traits: "I sometimes talk too much, I’m opinionated, I often have a patronizing tone, I’m confident that I know something even when I don’t." I would add that owning class people often feel entitled to what they need and want, and often don't feel like they have to fight for their rights or desires.

Middle class people are " be hopeful, and...carry a belief that we can change things and it’s worthwhile persisting because individuals can make a difference." They "usually bring a confidence that we can think our way through things" and "value a lot the process of thinking, reasoning, discussing." However, they've "been trained to be obsessed with 'appropriateness.'" They (ok we) shy away from conflict and don't like to rock the boat.

Being brought up working class "encourages [people] to be direct and not beat around the bush." They feel that "conflict is usually okay... because conflict brings out the truths that folks often hide underneath. Honesty matters, because then we know what we can count on. Solidarity is basic because life is a struggle, and if we don’t stick together we’re lost." At the same time, they say, "I’m angry about my oppression; sometimes it erupts when folks aren’t ready for it..." Lakey also talks about how working class people often don't feel as much confidence in their abilities to lead or be visionary and think about the big picture.

How does this apply to Bryn Mawr? As is clear from Dan, Hummingbird, and Michaela's beautiful zine, "Class History", Bryn Mawr started as a very intentionally wealthy, elite, institution, attended almost exlusively at first by members of the owning class I haven't done enough research about activism during this time but my instinct is the only noteable movement taken on by the community was the Women's Suffrage Movement. As explained in a section of Offerings to Athena from the Alumnae Bulletin in Fall of 1984, "'We were interested because Miss [M. Carey] Thomas was,' said Mary Case Pevear '11". (Bruder, 70) Thus, the initiative came from the President, not the students.

It wasn't until the 1920's during the Bryn Mawr Summer School for Working Women that students became involved with direct action of their own accord. These working class women who felt incredibly fortunate to be learning labor economics at a collegiate level became incredibly involved with the grater Labor Union Movement that was going on at the time, attending protests, marches and strikes, sometimes accompanied by professors. (The Women of Summer) Many of these working class women, like Carmen Luccia, went on to be union organizers. I can't help but conclude that the fact that Bryn Mawr was teaching working class students for the first time must have had some impact on the start of this direct activism.

Still, the regular college was overwhelmingly wealthy and white, and I have found few accounts of activism until the Civil Rights Movement and the Anti-Vietnam War Movement. At this point, it's safe to assume that the college had begun to admit some students from more varied class backgrounds and even a few African American students. However, I haven't found enough information about class (as it is incredibly hard to determine and document) and I can't make any conclusions.

It is interesting to think about how the probable intersection between race and class affected the use of direct action for the first Perry House movement. However, though in our country it is common for black people to be more working class, there is no documentation of the class of the people involved. Still, I draw on Lakey. His overall thesis is about the importance of multi-leveled movements, saying that struggles are always much stronger when people from all class backgrounds and races are represented. Using Bryn Mawr's history as a case study, this would seem to prove true. Since its founding, Bryn Mawr has slowly been growing more and more diverse in all aspects. We are still predominantly white and middle class, and I think the apathy in regards to activism has a lot to do with that - so many of us are afraid to do something that would create tension or conflict, even to address disagreements in non-passive-agressive ways. And at the same time, we've come a long way since 1885, and I am even noticing differences in awareness and involvement since my first year on campus.

And in the end we all need to work together to demonstrate student power not only here in "the Bubble" but in the greater world, which is why I'm so excited for the opportunity that the Perry House fight is providing us to work across divides of race and class.

Works Cited

Bruder, Anne L. Offerings to Athena: 125 Years at Bryn Mawr College. Bryn Mawr, PA: Friends of the Bryn Mawr College Library, 2010. Print.

Lakey, George. "Nonviolent Action Defined." Global Nonviolent Action Database. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Web. 03 Dec. 2012. <>.

Lakey, George. "Opening Ourselves to the Realities of Class." Waging Nonviolence (2012): n. pag. Waging Nonviolence. 04 Sept. 2012. Web. 01 Dec. 2012. <>.

Perkins, Linda M. "The African American Female Elite: The Early History of African American Women in the Seven Sister Colleges, 1880-1960." Minding Women: Reshaping the Educational Realm. By Christine A. Woyshner and Holly S. Gelfond. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Educational Review, 1998. 291-329. Print.

Ricketts, Whitney. "Black at Bryn Mawr." The Bi-College News [Bryn Mawr and Haverford College] 04 Feb. 2004: n. pag. Web. 01 Dec. 2012. <>.

The Women of Summer an Unknown Chapter of American Social History. Dir. Suzanne Bauman and Rita Heller. Filmakers Library, 1985. DVD.



jccohen's picture

action within and beyond walls


I appreciate your beginning with the direct action you and others on campus had just participated in, and also your framing of this kind of action through the work of Lakey.  Your comments that on the one hand Bryn Mawr seems to suggest that students should  “make the world a better place once we've graduated” and, on the other hand, that “the emphasis (of direct action) is that it is not the mainstream, accepted methods of creating change” raises an interesting question/dilemma for educational institutions regarding “academia” and “activism”:  In what ways (if at all) might direct action be implemented as an institutionally engaged response, or might direct action inherently be something that groups within and across institutions would engage in (sometimes to protest an institutional stance, as with the sit-in you mention)?

I’d like to hear more about the results of that sit-in.  You mention that almost all the demands were met; did that include hiring more African American faculty, for instance, and if so, in what departments?  And was this particular action part of a more institutionalized way of addressing this issue over time?  And in general I wish you’d been able to find more in the research dimension of this project.

You do use your findings to raise rich questions: “I began to form some questions and hypotheses about how class upbringing and identity (as they intersect with race) affect activist climate,” and this seems to me a promising line of research and thought to pursue, especially given Lakey’s claim about “the importance of multi-leveled movements, saying that struggles are always much stronger when people from all class backgrounds and races are represented.”  Others have also written about class and activism, e.g. check out this site  Part of what I find intriguing and important about your hypothesizing here and Lakey’s claim is the question of what this idea about ‘multi-leveled movements’ suggests for how to go about organizing movements and actions and how that might apply to the work you and others are trying to do at and from Bryn Mawr.  If we buy the notion that “class matters” when it comes to how people see themselves/act, what are the implications for educators as activists in schools and colleges, e.g. is this something we want to make visible, question with our students, challenge and also work with to make change?