January 7, 2021
To My Friends in AFSC and Other Friends of AFSC,
I thank the Friends who have called attention to the perilous crossroad AFSC faces in their letter to Western Friend. [See: https://westernfriend.org/media/afsc-perilous-crossroads ] I share their deep sense of danger. What I write here grows out of my daily prayers that AFSC leadership will listen more deeply and move more creatively. I pray for an AFSC that engages Quakers with the challenges that are shaking our world. I fear an AFSC ocean liner leaving the shore to create a safe distance from the work that Friends need to be joining globally.
I speak from nearly twenty years as a volunteer with AFSC, on regional executive committees and the Board. I was a strong supporter of the strategic planning process and invested countless hours in participating. I saw Quaker engagement neglected in the early stages of the process and worked hard to help weave it integrally into the plan. While the plan did not fully depart from the decades of AFSC distancing from Quakers, I am encouraged that Quaker “engagement” is there rather than “outreach” to Quakers, as though we were not even part of the organization. Last night’s gathering clearly shows that Quakers have not abandoned full participation in the AFSC community.
Alongside the strategic planning process, AFSC was working on its own institutional racism, as many other Quaker institutions are doing. The role of Quakers and Quaker process in the organization is bound up with those issues. The question of where AFSC is positioned institutionally in a world struggling out of colonialism is linked to the same question for Quakers. AFSC is better prepared to address the question because it is not only Quaker but also multicultural, multiracial, and global in ways
U.S. Quaker communities have not yet achieved. AFSC could expand the capacity of Quakers to join the global movement for transformation and vice versa. This could be the meaning of a “Friends Service Committee” in the 21st century.
I am deeply disappointed that the proposals for implementation of the strategic plan move in the opposite direction. Coming out of the strategic planning process and leaving the Board, I felt that two changes needed to happen. One was to use the three broad program areas of the plan to set strategy across the whole organization, for impact. The other was to flatten the decision structure and move into shared decision making, including for many areas now labeled “governance.” Let me say a few words about each of these and how Quaker engagement would be affected.
One of the most striking features of the implementation proposal is that AFSC’s international programs are exempted. Only the U.S. programs are to be restructured into the three program areas. This proposal flies in the face of everything we heard in the strategic planning process about AFSC’s unique strengths as a global organization. The issues the U.S. programs are grappling with – migration, incarceration, the legacies of genocide and enslavement – are all part of a global history and global system. How can AFSC make the choices that will allow its work to have impact when it divides its brain into international and U.S. halves?
The second problem with the proposal is how the strategy is to be set. Who will be included in the discernment? Will the process be discernment at all? These are the issues that the “perilous crossroads” authors have articulated very well. Let me add my view to theirs.
In my view, the current structure of AFSC program “governance” needs to be abandoned and replaced with a shared decision-making process that includes program staff and communities along with volunteers. The Corporation should be a congress of Quaker activists who are fully prepared to accompany AFSC programs and put their shoulders to the wheels of local and global social change. The Board should represent the global movement for peace and justice broadly and include staff observers. Strategy should be set at broad program level by councils that combine staff, community, and volunteer wisdom. Deliberation at that level should draw on the wisdom of local program committees where program staff work together with communities and volunteers. Let me now explain why.
On one hand, it is deeply problematic that Quakers appear to have all the final decision-making authority in AFSC. “Governance” committees, the main place Quaker volunteers appear in the current formal structure, appear to have power-over rather than power-with the staff they work with. While the Board needs to be independent because from time to time it must deliver bad news to management, when “governance” work deals with programs, it can be undertaken collaboratively between staff and volunteers. Why not?
On the other hand, the collaboration can and should be extended further. Currently, precious little insight creeps into program “governance” processes directly from people outside AFSC who are leading the bottom-up effort to challenge oppression and transform systems. Current AFSC terminology refers to these as “communities,” even when they are global movements. These “community” voices are filtered through various staff levels and are often muffled by the time they get to committees and the Board. This problem is particularly acute in the international programs, where the staff on the ground are frequently employed by partner organizations.
AFSC needs a deep process for listening to the global movement for justice and peace, to find where we can contribute most. Quakers need to be among the listeners, so that our social change work answers that of God in everyone. If listening is at the center of AFSC and we hear Spirit in all the voices, leaders will be able to discern the way forward.
Current AFSC leadership has been clear that the implementation proposals are intended to put decisions about AFSC programs squarely in the Central Office, weakening rather than strengthening shared decision making. Current Board leadership sees the role of the Board as saying yes to management.
Unfortunately, the experience of the last few years has included too much listening without hearing and acting without a “sense of the community” -- the AFSC equivalent of the Quaker “sense of the Meeting.”
What emerges for me when I pray, then, is a vision of shared program decision making in AFSC. I see three big tables, for each of the three program areas, and many smaller ones at local level. The people at the tables are program staff, movement leaders, and Quaker activists and other volunteers, all deeply involved in understanding the challenges together and discerning the way forward. AFSC leadership listens and summarizes, but the energy and insight come from the tables and the tables carry the work back out, to change the world.
I continue to pray.
Eastside Meeting, Redmond, Washington (North Pacific Yearly Meeting)