“The essence of the work I do is to love.”
I know George through various activist projects in the Philadelphia area. I’ve even gone to “folk sings” at his home in West Philly–one of my unfulfilled goals is to join him in singing Handel’s Messiah. But things changed when I attended my first Training for Social Action Trainers (TSAT). George went from a friend and colleague to a mentor. My wife is also a TSAT grad, and as trainers and activists George taught us new ways to think and to create learning opportunities on the spot. We’ve both participated in more of his workshops and seldom leave an encounter with George without finding ourselves creatively stretched. We joke about wearing WWGD bracelets–What Would George Do?
In a family tree of activists for peace and justice, George Lakey is surely a common mentor for people in many different movements in countries around the world. He has facilitated over 1,500 workshops on five continents. At the Training for Change center in Philadelphia they have regularly hosted people to be trained in facilitating experiential education for social transformation.
As a bread baker, Lakey enjoys the image of yeast. Mass movements begin with the fermenting work of a small group. Like yeast, visionary minorities have the capacity to make a huge difference in the larger group. How to enable such small groups, and then the growing movements they engender, to make a difference—that has been Lakey’s work as a trainer of trainers.
As a college student Lakey discovered the Quakers and became a pacifist. Quaker Christian spirituality has continued to be a major source of self-awareness, guidance and strength for him in his peacemaking journey. He attributes prayer as the most reliable means of getting results in his life, especially the prayer “Please, God, help me to see this from a different point of view.” He says that prayer is always answered, which as an activist and as a facilitator of group learning allows him to be personally transformed and then to be a transformative agent.
Lakey jumped into the anti-war and civil rights movements in the late 1950s and 1960s. He taught at the Martin Luther King School for Social Change, beginning the training work that would be refined through the years. As an activist he co-founded the Movement for a New Society and then founded and directed the Philadelphia Jobs with Peace Campaign. He wanted to be more than anti-war, but pro-justice, for a conversion from the war industry to jobs in an economy that was life-affirming and just. He also engaged in international activities, taking a ship, the Phoenix, with medical supplies to assist Buddhist anti-war activists in South Vietnam and later becoming a nonviolent bodyguard for human rights activists targeted for assassination in Sri Lanka. He also was a founder of Men Against Patriarchy, a pioneering men’s anti-sexism movement.
Alongside his activism and workshops Lakey wrote a number of books. His A Manual for Direct Action was often called the “Bible” of direct action by civil rights activists. He also taught peace studies at Philadelphia area colleges and universities, boosting these programs though the dynamic ways he taught.
In 1992 Lakey founded Training for Change, an organization to train leaders and groups to stand up for peace, justice and the environment through strategic nonviolent action. Lakey turned his spacious Victorian home into a training center, producing weekend Training for Social Action Trainer (TSAT) workshops that revolutionized the way many activists taught and trained. He designed a three week “Super-T” program that included the TSAT as well as workshops in Creative Workshop Design, Adventure-Based Learning, and an advanced workshop on emergent design and group process. Besides training trainers he established workshops on nonviolent struggle, undoing racism, sexism and classism, developing strategies and transformational training. He utilized the experiential education model that begins with an experience, reflects on the experience, then generalizes and applies what is learned to develop a new experience. Through it all he modeled a willing vulnerability that encouraged self-awareness for the trainer/activist.
Whether held in Philadelphia or taken around the world George Lakey’s workshops empowered as diverse a span of people as can be imagined: coal miners, therapists, homeless people and prisoners, lesbians and gays in Russia, Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka, ethnic insurgent rebels in Burma, anti-apartheid activists in South Africa. He and one of the younger activists he has mentored, Daniel Hunter, developed the initial 3-week training to help launch the International Nonviolent Peace Force. Activist leaders from almost every global struggle one can imagine have come to Training for Change to refine their skills in transformative education, nonviolence, leadership, strategizing and group work.
But all that sounds like work, and doesn’t breathe with the essence of George Lakey. He said, “The essence of the work I do is to love.” Through his personal journey of spirituality and activism he has found a place that can welcome both the griefs and the joys of the world. In his training programs through his own openness to groups he invites participants into that place with tears and laughter. He can rage with righteous anger at the injustices people experience without losing the center of love that can turn that anger into positive energy for mindful transformative work. He can become playful in a way that saps the power of oppressions inside a person and in the structures around us. George Lakey teaches not just the principles and tools of peacemaking, but becomes a role model for the being of a peacemaker.
In 2016 George Lakey published a new book (his ninth) that drew more attention across the country and internationally than any of his earlier works. Viking Economics: How the Scandinavians Got It Right–and How We Can, Too explores the economic vision and practices of the Nordic country and how a vision-led campaign rather the protests could move the U.S. to an economy with more equality, individual freedom, and abundance.
Here’s George giving a talk related to “Viking Economics”: