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A Spark, Then Room to Grow

Since 2001, Swarthmore’s Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility has built on the pioneering vision of philanthropist Eugene M. Lang ’38, H’81. The singular goal of this son of Hungarian immigrants was to enhance the connections among coursework, fieldwork, and citizenship. His commitment to growing a more just and beautiful world continues to be cultivated—and then some.

“There are always flowers for those who want to see them,” Henri Matisse said.

Swarthmore, especially, produces these gardeners of the common good—artists and architects of a better world who see life’s beauty, not necessarily as it is, but how it might be. They are gripping ladders, scrambling to city rooftops, and converting sunlight into power. They are constructing robots in rural Ghanaian schoolrooms and tech hubs in Nepalese farming communities. They are rerouting Philadelphia’s storm water to force blooms in bare patches, harnessing steam to minimize carbon footprints, and caring for the Crum Woods to measure the forest’s health. Their vision is grounded in study and coursework so their hearts and hands can change the world. 

Much of this remarkable scholarship and service springs forth from the same place—Swarthmore College’s Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility, a light-filled building on the north end of campus.

A recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Eugene M. Lang ’38, H’81 created the “I Have a Dream” Foundation and Project Pericles.     

“Gene Lang was ahead of his time,” says Ben Berger, associate professor of political science and the Lang Center’s executive director. “He praised the connection between the liberal arts curriculum, the intensive classroom, and the pursuit of responsible citizenship. 

“The Lang Center has been refining and advancing his vision ever since.” 

Ultimately, Berger sees the center as an incubator. 

“We provide stakeholders with financial, social, and human capital,” he says. “Engaged scholarship requires funding, and we assist with that, but just as importantly, we connect students, faculty, and staff to mentors, collaborators, and community partners. Our staff provides expert advising and strategic planning to help our constituencies achieve their goals.”

The Lang Center’s success comes from recognizing the potential in students’ ideas, adds Nimesh Ghimire ’16, who received a Davis Projects for Peace Award for his work in western Nepal. And part of that success stems from giving these students, these seeds, room to grow.


After a lively start, Sedinam Worlanyo ’17 was surprised when she walked into the classroom for her all-girls robotics pilot program in rural Ghana and realized some of her students were missing. It was her third week teaching engineering, science, technology, and math concepts to 25 students at the Odoben Senior High School of Ghana. 

“I was a bit taken aback, because they had been consistently showing up to class,” says Worlanyo, who quickly learned the reason for the empty seats: The primarily agricultural community was having an important farming day.

“The missing students had to help support their parents to earn money for their tuition for the coming semester,” says Worlanyo, who grew up in metropolitan Accra, two hours from the school in Odoben. “It was a reality check that made me reflect on my own privilege.”

Worlanyo realized she wanted to make a stronger connection between her robotics lessons and her students’ daily realities. Winner of a Lang Opportunity Scholarship to study, plan, establish, and assess a sustainable project that will address community needs, she realized she wanted to make a stronger connection between her robotics lessons and her students’ daily realities.

“For the rest of the program,” she says, “I tried to emphasize that even though robotics was fun, it was a vehicle for getting them to think about issues they face every day while exposing them to wider opportunities.”

It’s this process of listening, collaborating, and learning that exemplifies what the Lang Center is all about: “responsive and responsible project design through engaged scholarship,” says Jennifer Magee, associate director of the Lang Center.

Although Worlanyo faced cultural and gender barriers in creating YenAra Odoben Robotics—YenAra means “Our Very Own” in Twi—Worlanyo’s three-month course ultimately inspired everyone involved. 

“In addition to building the EV3 robots, we had a design-thinking workshop and a leadership workshop, which our students really loved,” she says, noting that the girls became bolder and more vocal than usual in their robotics classes—and Worlanyo herself couldn’t help but feed off their excitement.

“I love facilitating workshops and connecting people with ideas,” she says. “I would always light up during my sessions with the girls.”  


Less than 24 hours after a freak midwinter deluge, Professor of Engineering and Environmental Studies Art McGarity sits at his desk peering closely at the city website that monitors sewer--runoff hot spots. 

“Those red triangles,” he says, tapping at a cluster of blinking signals, “show locations of combined sewer overflows in Philadelphia that will spill into the Delaware River, the Schuylkill River, Tacony Creek, and Cobbs Creek whenever it rains more than a quarter-
inch or so in one day.”  

The alarms are virtual evidence of an urban center’s very real aging infrastructure that includes 3,000 miles of sewers and 79,000 storm-water inlets in the Philadelphia area. Working with students, faculty, and community members to discover ways to manage those waterways winding and coursing through the Delaware River Watershed and its seven main subwatersheds is McGarity’s passion. 

“We want to inspire engineering students to make a social impact,” says McGarity. He and colleagues, including Christina Rosan of Temple University, have created projects that present Philadelphia as a model for water management. “We’re hoping the work we’re doing will become a model nationwide.” 

When McGarity learned in 2013 that he had been awarded a $1 million four-year research grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to lead water projects that would control Philadelphia’s storm-water runoff, he was ecstatic. It allowed him to create simulations so city planners can choose which green infrastructure technologies to use in public spaces and which ones to incentivize on private properties, as well as to build new alliances, including with the Overbrook Environmental Education Center (OEEC) in West Philadelphia. Arto Woodley of the Lang Center shared insights and expertise that helped to actualize some of McGarity’s community partnerships. 

“Art’s StormWise program will help us monetize and put value on storm-water management in our area,” says OEEC director Jerome Shabazz, who will work with Swarthmore students this summer. “If we want to encourage green infrastructure development, we have to be able to justify the value of open space. By pulling in academia and local stakeholders, we can get the job done.”


Early on a January Saturday, a light snow fell outside the Lang Performing Arts Center. For the most part, the campus was still. But inside the dance studio, Amelia Estrada ’17 was already in a full sweat, charging across the smooth floor demonstrating athletic leaps and scissorlike steps to her young dance troupe. In an unintended tribute to Degas, the clutch of 10-year-olds observed her in varying states of concentration. One looped herself across the long wooden bar; another gazed at her reflection in the wall of mirrors, lost in thought. 

“Step, kick—I want to see straight legs,” Estrada called out cheerily. “Try your best. Clean, straight lines. Nice!” 

Wearing T-shirts emblazened with slogans like Born2Shine and Stargazer, the girls raced to fashion their movements after Estrada’s, reflecting her distilled energy.

Since September, Estrada, an honors dance and classics major, has been leading the students every weekend under the guidance of Sharon Friedler, professor emerita of dance. The 16 girls, all members of Chester Children’s Chorus, are learning a Horton-based modern dance curriculum. The class is the core of Estrada’s honors thesis and brings to life her belief that dance—and the arts in general—can transform disenfranchised communities. 

“The act of dancing,” says Pallabi Chakravorty, associate professor and director of the dance program, “allows us to collectively imagine and then take action for a better future.”

Friedler agrees, and the retired professor so believed in Estrada that she returned to guide the student through her thesis. The two planned the dance course curriculum for eight months on a grant from the Lang Center’s Swarthmore Fund. In fact, Friedler’s outstanding career inspired the Lang Center to establish Arts and Social Action, which Chakravorty now heads, as one of four faculty-led initiatives that empower professors to innovate and collaborate in their areas of expertise—including on projects like Estrada’s.

“Amelia’s work is important for a thousand reasons,” Friedler says. “As a young woman of color, she wants to empower her students through dance. When challenges happen in their lives, they can be heard, and work through them, via the discipline of the arts.” 

Growing up in Boxborough, Mass., Estrada was one of the only Latina students in her mostly white suburban community, which heightened her awareness of race and class. Adding to her worldview was a diagnosis of dyslexia that prevented her from being able to read until third grade.

“My dyslexia is part of the reason I am creative,” says Estrada, whose parents eventually advocated for a move to a different school where she bloomed. “Dance as a release is a wonderful tool that makes me feel vulnerable and open in a positive way as opposed to being graded or judged. My students have the ability to transfer that energy.” 

As the Saturday class ended, Estrada called the young dancers to the center of the room. They joined hands in a circle, thanking each other for participating. To close the session, they began singing a well-rehearsed piece from the Children’s Chorus, their voices tied in ethereal harmony. Then, in a blur, they were through the door and out into the world.   


With 15 minutes left in her Sustainability Research Methods class, English Professor Betsy Bolton dashed a few final notes on the board. 

“It’s been remarkable,” Bolton says as her students collaborate, some with heads bent low in conversation, others exuberantly trading ideas. “This has been our first year and we’ve exceeded expectations.” 

The yearlong course is part of the President’s Sustainability Research Fellowship (PSRF)—a rigorous new program created by Bolton, Ben Berger, and Director of Sustainability Aurora Winslade, and sponsored by the President’s Office, the Lang Center, the Office of Sustainability, and the Environmental Studies Program—where students seek real-world solutions for complex sustainability issues. 

“Within the PSRF program, students learn to lead by leading,” says Bolton. With a stream of projects in motion, the work can sometimes feel frenetic. And faculty, too, accustomed to being in charge, must learn a new role of letting the students take the reins. “There are times when it can feel a little like a three-ring circus,” she laughs. “But the students are doing amazing work.”

One of those students is biology and studio art major Gavriela Mallory ’17, who hopes to pursue farm-based education after graduation. She recently led the Crum Woods Stewardship Committee to articulate best forestry practices for Swarthmore. 

“I built a document that will serve as a framework for institutional management of the woods going forward,” Mallory says. “That’s a pretty rewarding contribution to make.” 

The PSRF program has also allowed the College to implement changes beyond the classroom with the hiring of Climate Action Senior Fellow Nathan Graf ’16. Graf works closely with Aaron Metheny ’18, an economics major,  and Steve Golub, the Franklin and Betty Barr Professor of Economics, to construct a model for how the College will most effectively enact carbon charging. (This involves internal audits that “tax” each department based on their production of carbon emissions. Revenues from the charge will be applied toward renewables, efficiency, metering, and education projects.) 

Swarthmore is one of a few schools, like Yale and Vassar, leading the way on carbon charging; the College hosted a conference on the topic in January. In fact, Swarthmore has committed to being carbon-neutral by 2035. But that’s the long view. 

Meanwhile, Graf, Golub, and Metheny meet weekly in the Lang Center to discuss and develop strategies for the College’s carbon-charge blueprint. In addition to working through articles in a class-directed reading, they look at carbon pricing in the private sector. The answers are rarely simple, but the group remains optimistic. 

“It’s still a work in progress,” says Graf. “Carbon pricing is a fair, feasible, and powerful solution to the climate crisis, and Swarthmore is taking a valuable leadership role in moving that solution forward.”


On a warm spring night in 2013, a group of Swarthmore students and professors Giovanna Di Chiro and Carr Everbach made their way to North Philadelphia. The destination was Serenity House, an outreach center where they planned to share a dinner with residents and talk about ways to build sustainable practices and help reconstitute vibrancy in the struggling West Lehigh Avenue neighborhood. 

Eventually, a consensus was reached. In an effort to cut electricity costs at the center, the group decided to explore transitioning to solar power—without losing the “soul” of the community—and the Serenity Soular Project was born.  A three-year grant from the Swarthmore Project Pericles Fund, established by Eugene Lang and administered by the Lang Center, put the project on solid ground. 

Laura Rigell ’16 began working with Serenity Soular her freshman year. 

“I’ve been involved ever since,” she says. Her work with Serenity Soular helped Rigell to “figure out what climate justice means on the ground. We are working to ensure that these residents, who have faced decades of structural racism and disinvestment, are able to participate in and benefit from the growing green economy. I have learned that by working across our differences, we can create miracles.” 

Patrick Houston ’17 grew up in Hunting Park, just three miles north of Serenity House. 

“I am well-aware of the neglect that this neighborhood faces,” says Houston. “I had just moved to campus and was getting accustomed to what, to me, was this fancy institution. Then I came across this group of people with the audacity to envision that the disinvested and neglected North Philly neighborhood that I grew up in could create its own cycle of urban revitalization.” 

He was so inspired, he says, that he joined the project.

Working with community members has been extremely gratifying, adds Everbach, “because they are genuinely interested in learning about new things that would benefit their neighborhood. We have learned so much from them, too—Serenity Soular is a true partnership of mutualism, community, and love.”

In fact, two neighbors who started as apprentices, Ky Sanders and Robert Crawford, are now fully trained as solar installers. 

“We have this vision of creating a solarized community that fights the historic pattern of gentrification with a steady stream of good, green jobs,” says Di Chiro. “Through all this work we are demonstrating place-making and a step together toward sustainable economic development and against displacement of a beloved community.”


Now 81, Edgar Cahn ’56 has spent a lifetime fiercely sowing the seeds of justice. “Democracy is not a spectator sport,” says Cahn, who was a speechwriter for Robert Kennedy. (He discussed his career in a 2015 campus lecture: Still devoted to law and teaching—and still working with Lang Center students each summer on social-justice projects such as Youth Courts and Time Banking—Cahn sees Henri Matisse’s flowers and how Swarthmorean roots help them grow. 

“It’s not enough to be an elite island and citadel of learning—hope and possibility come from brainstorming how to change things we don’t want to tolerate,” says Cahn. “The meaning of what’s learned only realizes its potential if it’s radiating out, and the Lang Center seeks to bridge all worlds.”

Every fall since 1968, Cahn has hand-planted thousands of bulbs—
crocuses, irises, and tulips—in front of the Washington, D.C., house he bought with his wife, Jean Camper ’57, whom he met at Swarthmore. The racism of that era didn’t stop them from marrying—Camper was black; Cahn is white—or from embarking on careers devoted to improving access to the legal system for all Americans, especially those living in poverty. 

Camper died from breast cancer at 55. Her flowers—their flowers—make Cahn think about hope and promise. He recognizes that rare beauty—real and metaphorical—as he reflects on all he’s planted and tended over the course of his life. 

“The joy of gardening is something I learned at Swarthmore—just believing good things can happen. We are a good and caring species; it’s wired into us,” he says. “It has never occurred to me to give up. What I see is a world that is capable of producing abundance.”

That same sense of optimism also shimmers in a short film about Eugene Lang. In it, he looks into the camera and describes how, when it comes to a changing world, Swarthmore has been “a lodestar” and “remarkably constructive in considering ideas.”

During that filming decades ago, Lang likely had no idea the ways in which, on campus and beyond, his vision for the Lang Center would evolve into a stunning global reality.

Today, around the world, the scholarship and service of students, faculty, and alumni is blooming—like so many flowers.  


+ LEARN MORE about the Lang Opportunity Scholarship and the Project Pericles Fund 

Voices from the Lang Center