In 2009, a small group of Quakers from Philadelphia decided to do something about climate change. Calling themselves the “Earth Quaker Action Team,” they took on one of the largest banks in the country. 5 years and 125 actions later, PNC Bank decided to change its policy of funding mountaintop removal coal mining. How did they do it?
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Eileen Flanagan: It was actually one of our young non-Quaker members who made the suggestion. This young member said, “Let’s have Quaker-style worship in bank lobbies.” And so we started doing that and many people found it to be an extremely profound experience of prayer, sitting on the floor… even if the manager is calling security.
How a Small Group of Quaker Activists Took on PNC Bank and Won
George Lakey: Quakers in my yearly meeting, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, had for years been struggling with the challenge of a climate that’s going increasingly out of control.
Ingrid Lakey: There was a gathering of Philadelphia-area Quakers in the summer of 2009 when everyone was abuzz around, “what do we do about climate change? What does stewardship mean to us as Friends?” And so out of that, people started meeting in living rooms. It was mostly Quakers who were meeting, though not all, saying, “what would it look like for us to draw on this legacy of being very powerful people who were disrupting a system that’s harming us?” And so out of that was born this group, Earth Quaker Action Team.
Choosing a Target
Matthew Armstead: The Earth Quaker Action Team tried to figure out where to start if we had this passion about doing something to shift the environment. Also there was this analysis growing that the economy is wrapped up in what we do with the environment. So in looking around and sampling potential places to start, PNC showed up.
Lina Blount: PNC Bank was a bank that a lot of Quaker organizations had money with because they were originally founded by this merger of a Quaker bank and an additional bank. As a target it made a lot of sense because there was this connection to a number of different Quaker organizations and communities that had their money with PNC. Our demand to PNC was that they stop funding mountaintop removal coal mining.
The Impacts of Mountaintop Removal
Hannah Jeffrey: Mountaintop removal coal mining is not your typical coal mining. You are razing the top of a mountain. You are blowing it up and going in and picking out the little bits of coal.
Matthew Armstead: It takes very few jobs. The entire mountain can get taken apart by 18 people. So where traditional coal mining was hundreds to thousands of jobs, this was reducing jobs to about 18. The downside on top of just coal mining is that the top of that mountain gets pushed into the valley next to the mountain, which is where the water beds are. And so people’s water sources get poisoned by minerals that are in the ground that get activated by the dynamite process and the moving process.
Ingrid Lakey: It’s a lot of machinery; it’s very capital-intensive. So banks have been pretty majorly part of the ability to do this kind of coal mining. And what we found is that PNC Bank was a major funder of mountaintop-removal coal mining in Appalachia.
George Lakey: So any way you look at it, this is an offense against the planet. It’s an offense against people. It’s where economic justice and climate justice coincide. Let’s tackle it.
Ingrid Lakey: This bank that had Quaker roots, this bank that called itself the greenest bank in the business was in fact blowing up mountains to get coal which is a major contributor to climate change. So we thought, “that’s not cool! We can’t let that slide.” Calling on our own belief in our integrity, we decided to call them out on it.
Taking Direct Action
George Lakey: So we looked at each other and said, “Who better than Quakers to tackle a formerly Quaker bank and tell it, ‘Stop doing this nasty thing.’?” So we went and saw the regional president and said, “Stop doing this nasty thing.” And he was visibly angry with us for the sheer arrogance of telling a bank what to do, because bankers like to think that they are in charge of the universe. So we understood that it’s going to take a lot of pressure and so we embarked on a campaign that increasingly damaged the brand of that bank.
Matthew Armstead: It went from writing letters, speaking out at shareholders meetings—like going to the Q&A session and saying there’s a problem here. From there, we kept going. We said, “You can’t stop us from sharing the truth with people.” And so there came a point where people were going into bank lobbies and holding meeting for worship and really praying for PNC to shift to the values that it declared it had.
Lina Blount: We walked from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh across Pennsylvania, we held worship in PNC’s shareholders meeting. At one point we shut down a shareholders’ meeting in about 15 minutes and then the next year PNC scheduled their shareholder meeting in Tampa, Florida, and it was through a rich network of Quakers that we showed up in Tampa, Florida, and some Florida Quakers showed up and disrupted the shareholders’ meeting there.
George Lakey: We did 125 actions during this campaign. It involved a 200-mile walk across Pennsylvania to confront them in their headquarters in Pittsburgh. We grew the campaign from a living-room size to 13 states. It became very clear to the top leadership of PNC by year 4 that there was no stopping us.
Ingrid Lakey: It was just incredibly powerful to see people stepping up and finding out that as strange as it may seem to have Quaker meeting in the lobby of a bank, there’s something incredibly powerful about that—that we actually get to be in spaces that corporations want us to think we can’t, it’s not our place—when in fact, it is our place. It is our place.
PNC Changes Its Policy
Lina Blount: Toward the end of the “Bank Like Appalachia Matters” campaign—like the last 3 or 4 months—our allies who knew more about investment and were watching PNC started to give us word that they were probably going to stop. I don’t think any of us quite really believed it. I know I didn’t quite believe it.
Eileen Flanagan: After 5 years and over 125 actions, PNC changed their policy on mountaintop removal coal mining. Part of what’s dramatic about that is to realize that this is a bank that nets over 4 billion dollars a year, and our little group had an annual budget of about $100,000.
Hannah Jeffrey: It’s incredibly satisfying to know that you’ve come so far. We came from taking on this task that seems a bit impossible: taking on a large corporate bank and making demands that they didn’t want to meet and actively did not meet for 4 or 5 years, and then them yielding to us. That’s a very powerful feeling.
Matthew Armstead: For me, the success of challenging PNC is more a success not for Earth Quaker Action Team but for people fighting for justice. Being able to have that story, to share that story with others and to remember that we actually can win is huge.
Lina Blount: It was just sort of this moment of gratitude for everyone who had committed to the campaign, and for me just clarity that we can’t accept the world the way it is. It can be changed, so we have to set ourselves to that task.
Lessons from the Campaign
George Lakey: Five years. 125 actions. It was a very very exciting campaign. People learned so much from it. That it’s possible to tackle the 7th largest bank in the country when you’re an organization that’s big enough to fit in a living room. It takes persistence. And it takes, also, tremendous concentration of effort on the part of the participants. What we found was that by focusing on a particular target with a particular demand, and then as individuals focusing our energy on one campaign, we were able to move a kind of mountain. The bank was.
Hannah Jeffrey: I never felt hate in my heart for anyone at PNC Bank. I think what I felt was conviction. I felt that this was the most important thing I could be doing in that moment.
Lina Blount: Holding a bank accountable for destruction was a pretty powerful way to bring love into the world. To me, there was an integrity in using our actions and not just our words to say, “This isn’t acceptable. And we know and believe that you can do better.”
Ingrid Lakey: We Quakers actually have in our legacy, in our history—it’s in our DNA to take on, directly, the power systems. We can be troublemakers again, and in fact we must be troublemakers again.
Hannah Jeffrey: Because we worship in silence and we use passive resistance and all of these things, we forget that Quakers are very bold and pretty outspoken and like to raise a lot of hell. That’s what EQAT does. That’s what they did with the PNC bank campaign. That’s what they continue to do. And I think that’s a really important role for Quakers to play in society. I think that Quakers need to cause a ruckus and do the right thing.
- What lessons do you take from the story of Earth Quaker Action Team’s campaign against PNC bank?
- Ingrid Lakey says that it’s in our DNA as Quakers to directly take on systems of power. Hannah Jeffrey says that Quakers need to “cause a ruckus.” What would you like to see Quakers make a ruckus over?
- George Lakey cautions that it’s only by focusing on a particular target with a particular demand that EQAT was able to have this kind of success. What are some specific targets you could imagine Quakers having success against in the future?
The views expressed in this video are of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views of Friends Journal or its collaborators.