A few other Oregon Quakers and I were in an online book group. We read We Cry Justice: Reading the Bible with the Poor People’s Campaign. This book consists of fifty-three essays, each just two or three pages long, each including Scriptural references. It’s by and for people who are working towards more dignity for poor people – by challenging the ways that our institutions keep people in poverty. This book makes one thing clear to me – local government policies and actions have been major drivers of economic inequity throughout the history of our nation, especially in terms of housing inequality. It also seems clear to me that this level of democracy – the local level – is a critical place for us to work to make a positive impact on these issues.
In August 2021, Western Friend hosted an online discussion with a panel of Friends who have worked in public office at state and local levels. These Friends were: DeAnne Butterfield (staff of governor of Colorado; city council of Boulder, CO), George Gastil (city council of Lemon Grove, CA), Jasmine Krotkov (legislature of Montana), and Kathy Hyzy (city council of Milwaukie, OR).
Below are some comments by these panelists that struck me as especially hopeful statements about our democracy at work. These quotations have been lightly edited for length and clarity. The panelists were responding to the question, “What would you say to someone who tells you that Quakers shouldn’t be involved in politics?”
DeAnne Butterfield: I’ve been involved in politics my whole career, working on public policy since grad school. When I was working in the governor’s office, I started looking at elected officials and thinking, “I could do that,” or “I could do better.” And I didn’t like having those thoughts because I really respected the people I was working with. So, I decided I needed to run for city council, since I needed to have that experience of putting myself on the line.
And it was the values and experiences I brought as a Quaker that were the things that got me elected. And they helped me be effective in office.
I work a lot with the Friends Committee on National Legislation. They have a vision statement called “The World We Seek,” and I think Friends work on public policy because we have a vision of a better world. And it helps that we usually come at this work with some humility.
Actually, I was hired by the governor because I was a Quaker. He’d been in office for three terms and had a horrific record of bitter conflict with the Legislature. I had worked with him in another capacity as a mediator, and he called me up and said, “I kind of like your style. Have you ever tried lobbying?”
To me, it’s a great gift that practicing Quakers can step up into public policy in a variety of ways. Certainly, serving as an elected official is one of those ways.
George Gastil: Politics is the process that human beings use to make group decisions. If you see it that way, then it really isn’t a choice as to whether Friends should be involved in politics. Often when people raise this as a concern, they’re thinking of corrupt aspects of our political system, and that’s a valid consideration. The world is flawed, and politics is part of the world. But we don’t really have a choice fundamentally about whether to be involved in politics. How we approach politics is really the question.
I currently serve on a city council. In the past, I’ve served on a school board, and I’ve also worked as an aide for two legislators in their district-level offices. I’m active in Friends Committee on Legislation of California (FCLCA), a wonderful organization that’s the longest-running cause lobby in California, going back to the 1950s. There are cause lobbies that are much larger, that are younger, and they have learned from FCLCA along the way. FCLCA has a lot to do in today’s world, and they’re able to accomplish a lot through coalition-building with larger organizations. We can do great work in politics as long as we keep sticking to our values, keep listening, being patient, and making sure that we’re really reaching people in ways that are meaningful.
Jasmine Krotkov: What we do as Quakers, as John Lewis put it, is that we get into good trouble. When I joined the Legislature for that first session, when we were choosing which committees to put in for, I put in for the Judiciary Committee. And the leadership said, “Oh my, yes, we need a Quaker on Judiciary Committee.” So, now I’m thinking, when the conversation comes to the death penalty, they are going to say, “Thank goodness there’s a Quaker here.”
When I first considered running for office, I went through a very rigorous clearness committee. Then when I did get elected, I stayed with an anchor committee, and I felt really strongly grounded and supported by my Quaker Friends. Staying constantly grounded in Spirit gave me something to offer that I may not have had if I didn’t have other Quakers working with me.
As a Quaker, I consider it my duty to get involved in politics because I feel like I have something to offer. I’ve been strongly influenced by my work with the Friends Committee on National Legislation. Hearing people speak the truth about that of God in everyone and speak it in a way that is inclusive of people who disagree with them, yet being firm on that – I think this makes Quakers uniquely well-suited to politics.
Kathy Hyzy: When I moved from working for change by lobbying from the advocate-activist side, which I’d been on my whole life, to being on the other side of the dais, to being a decision maker, I was struck by how different the roles are. I was wearing a different hat; I had a different role to play in the grand process that is shaping the world we want to live in. My sense is that many Friends are discomfited by the fact that these roles are so different.
Working as a public official, you have to be willing to compromise. As a member of a city council, you have to think about a whole host of different issues. Suddenly I care about trash rates and pipes. Suddenly I have a lot of responsibilities that I didn’t have as an activist or lobbyist. It’s a balancing act, and it’s hard, and it’s also the most rewarding work I’ve ever done.
And I think it’s work that Friends are particularly well suited for. You have to stay grounded. And those practical questions about pipes and roads help you stay grounded. In a sense, it’s an experience that’s less “pure” than activism is, but I feel like we, as elected officials, do absolutely bring to the public a singular capacity for really hearing the stories that people are sharing. That’s an exceedingly rare gift – to bring your full and loving attention to someone else’s experience.
I think that’s the single greatest gift we bring as Friends to politics. That’s what greases the wheels for making change in the world – being able to hear each other’s stories. It’s the way you can manifest Spirit, the way you can manifest love in the universe. ~~~
Kate McClellan is a member of Palo Alto Friends Meeting (PacYM). Since February 2020 she has resided full time at her property in Florence, Oregon, and is active in the Florence Area Worship Group under the care of Eugene Friends Meeting (NPYM).