Interviewing the next head of AFSC

This week's Friends Journal feature is my interview with Joyce Ajlouny, who is leaving her role as head of the Ramallah Friends School to become the next general secretary for American Friends Service Committee.

I interviewed her by phone from my back porch on a snowy day and very much enjoyed conversation. I’m fascinated by the challenges of an organization like AFSC—one that has to balance strong roots in a religious tradition while largely working outside of it. How do you balancing the conflicting identities? It’s not unlike the challenge of a Friends school like Ramallah's.

I was also particularly moved by the genuine enthusiasm in her voice as she talked about engaging in honest conversations with people with whom we have strong disagreements. In this polarized age, it’s tempting to try to stay in the safety our bubbles. Joyce seems to thrive stepping out of that comfort zone:

I think we’ve learned from this last U.S. election that we need to listen more. This can often be a challenge for people who are very passionate about the positions they take. Sometimes the passion is so overwhelming that it sort of overrides that willingness to listen to other narratives. This is something that we really need to work much harder on. Truth is always incomplete. We always have to look for other truths. We need to break through some of these boundaries that we’ve put around ourselves and seek a wider spectrum of perspectives.

I think AFSC will be in good hands with Ajlouny.

Why would a Quaker do a crazy thing like that?

Look­ing back at Friends’ respons­es to the Chris­tian Peace­mak­er hostages

When four Chris­tian Peace­mak­ers were tak­en hostage in Iraq late last Novem­ber, a lot of Quak­er orga­ni­za­tions stum­bled in their respon­se. With Tom Fox we were con­front­ed by a full-on lib­er­al Quak­er Chris­tian wit­ness again­st war, yet who stepped up to explain this modern-day prophet­ic wit­ness? AFSC? FCNL? FGC? Nope, nope and nope. There were too many orga­ni­za­tions that couldn’t man­age any­thing beyond the boil­er­plate social jus­tice press release. I held my tongue while the hostages were still in cap­tiv­i­ty but through­out the ordeal I was mad at the exposed frac­ture lines between reli­gious wit­ness and social activism.

When­ev­er a sit­u­a­tion involv­ing inter­na­tion­al issues of peace and wit­ness hap­pens, the Quak­er insti­tu­tions I’m clos­est to auto­mat­i­cal­ly defer to the more polit­i­cal Quak­er orga­ni­za­tions: for exam­ple, the head of Friends Gen­er­al Con­fer­ence told staff to direct out­siders inquir­ing about Tom Fox to AFSC even though Fox had been an active lead­er of FGC-sponsored events and was well known as a com­mit­ted vol­un­teer. The Amer­i­can Friends Ser­vice Com­mit­tee and Friends Com­mit­tee on Nation­al Leg­is­la­tion have knowl­edge­able and com­mit­ted staff, but their insti­tu­tion­al cul­ture doesn’t allow them to talk Quak­erism except to say we’re a nice bunch of social-justice-loving peo­ple. I appre­ci­ate that the­se orga­ni­za­tions have a strong, vital iden­ti­ty and I accept that with­in those con­fines they do impor­tant work and employ many faith­ful Friends. It’s just that they lack the lan­guage to explain why a gro­cery store employ­ee with a love of youth reli­gious edu­ca­tion would go unarmed to Badg­dad in the name of Chris­tian wit­ness.

The wider blo­gos­phere was total­ly abuzz with news of Chris­tian Peace­mak­er Team hostages (Google blogsearch lists over 6000 posts on the top­ic). There were hun­dreds of posts and com­ments, includ­ing long dis­cus­sions on the biggest (and most right-leaning) sites. Almost every­one won­dered why the CPT work­ers were there and while the opin­ions weren’t always friend­ly (the hostages were often paint­ed as naïve ide­al­ists or disin­geneous ter­ror­ist sym­pa­thiz­ers), even the doubters were moti­vat­ed by a pro­found curios­i­ty and desire to under­stand.

The CPT hostages were the talk of the blo­gos­phere, yet where could we find a Quak­er respon­se and expla­na­tion? The AFSC respond­ed by pub­li­ciz­ing the state­ments of mod­er­ate Mus­lim lead­ers (call­ing for the hostages’ release; I emailed back a sug­ges­tion about list­ing Quak­er respons­es but nev­er got a reply). Friends Unit­ed Meet­ing put togeth­er a nice enough what-you-can-do page that was tar­get­ed toward Friends. The CPT site was full of infor­ma­tion of course, and there were plen­ty of sto­ries on the lefty-leaning sites like Elec­tron­i­cI­raq and the UK site Ekkle­sia. But Friends explain­ing this to the world?

The Quak­er blog­gers did their part. On Decem­ber 2 I quick­ly re-jiggered the tech­nol­o­gy behind Quak​erQuak​er​.org to provide a Chris­tian Peace­mak­er watch on both Non​vi​o​lence​.org and Quak­erQuak­er (same list­ings, mere­ly rebrand­ed for slightly-separate audi­ences, announced on the post It’s Wit­ness Time). The­se pages got lots of views over the course of the hostage sit­u­a­tion and includ­ed many posts from the Quak­er blog­ger com­mu­ni­ty that had recent­ly con­gealed.

But here’s the inter­est­ing part: I was able to do this only because there was an active Quak­er blog­ging com­mu­ni­ty. We already had gath­ered togeth­er as a group of Friends who were will­ing to write about spir­i­tu­al­i­ty and wit­ness. Our con­ver­sa­tions had been small and inti­mate but now we were ready to speak to the world. I some­times get paint­ed as some sort of fun­da­men­tal­ist Quak­er, but the truth is that I’ve want­ed to build a com­mu­ni­ty that would wrestle with the­se issues, fig­ur­ing the wrestling was more impor­tant than the lan­guage of the answers. I had already thought about how to encour­age blog­gers and knit a blog­ging com­mu­ni­ty togeth­er and was able to use the­se tech­niques to quick­ly build a Quak­er CPT respon­se.

Two oth­er Quak­ers who went out of their way to explain the sto­ry of Tom Fox: his per­son­al friends John Stephens and Chuck Fager. Their Freethe​cap​tives​now​.org site was put togeth­er impres­sive­ly fast and con­tained a lot of good links to news, resources and com­men­tary. But like me, they were over-worked blog­gers doing this in their non-existant spare time (Chuck is direc­tor of Quak­er House but he nev­er said this was part of the work).

After an ini­tial few qui­et days, Tom’s meet­ing Lan­g­ley Hill put togeth­er a great web­site of links and news. That makes it the only offi­cial Quak­er orga­ni­za­tion that pulled togeth­er a sus­tained cam­paign to sup­port Tom Fox.

Lessons?

So what’s up with all this? Should we be hap­py that all this good work hap­pened by vol­un­teers? Johan Mau­r­er has a very inter­est­ing post, Are Quak­ers Mar­gin­al that points to my ear­lier com­ment on the Chris­tian Peace­mak­ers and doubts whether our avoid­ance of “hireling priests” has given us a more effec­tive voice. Let’s remem­ber that insti­tu­tion­al Quak­erism began as sup­port of mem­bers in jail for their reli­gious wit­ness; among our ear­li­est com­mit­tee gath­er­ings were meet­ings for suf­fer­ings – busi­ness meet­ings focused on pub­li­ciz­ing the plight of the jailed and sup­port the fam­i­ly and meet­ings left behind.

I nev­er met Tom Fox but it’s clear to me that he was an excep­tion­al Friend. He was able to bridge the all-too-common divide between Quak­er faith and social action. Tom was a heal­er, a wit­ness not just to Iraqis but to Friends. But I won­der if it was this very whole­ness that made his work hard to cat­e­go­rize and sup­port. Did he sim­ply fall through the insti­tu­tion­al cracks? When you play base­ball on a dis­or­ga­nized team you miss a lot of easy catch­es sim­ply because all the out­field­ers think the next guy is going to go for the ball. Is that what hap­pened? And is this what would hap­pen again?

Visioning the Future of Young Adult Friends (1997)

This is a vision­ing essay I wrote in March of 1997, for Friends Insti­tute (FI), the Philadelphia-area Young Adult Friends (YAF, rough­ly 18 – 35 year olds) group I was very involved with at the time. I repost it now because many of the­se same issues con­tin­u­al­ly come up in Quak­er groups. See the bot­tom for the sto­ry on this essay, includ­ing the con­tro­ver­sy it kicked up.

I think the YAF/FI chal­lenges can be rough­ly divid­ed into three cat­e­gories. They are intro­duced in the next para­graph, then elab­o­rat­ed on in turn. They are:

  • *Account­abil­i­ty*. Com­mu­ni­ca­tion and group process with­in YAF/FI has nev­er been very good. We can change that, revi­tal­iz­ing the role of Busi­ness Meet­ing as set­ter of the vision and forum for sub­com­mit­tee feed­back and pol­i­cy set­ting.
  • *Out­reach*. Who Do We Serve? YAF/FI has done no out­reach to newly-convinced Friends and the plan­ning of events has shown an insen­si­tiv­i­ty to the needs of this group.
  • *Activ­i­ties*. We’ve had a lot of con­fer­ences with medioc­re pro­grams that have lit­tle spir­i­tu­al or Quak­er focus. We can set year­ly themes as a group in advance, giv­ing Steer­ing Com­mit­tee guid­ance for par­tic­u­lar pro­grams.

ACCOUNTABILITY:

PYM/FI has not been an orga­ni­za­tion with good com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills, group process or account­abil­i­ty. Busi­ness meet­ings have been thought of as a nec­es­sary and begrudged task where half the par­tic­i­pants fall asleep.

Busi­ness Meet­ings should have clear, advance agen­da. The YAF clerk should call for agen­da items by email two weeks before the meet­ing (phon­ing promi­nent mem­bers who don’t have access to email), and send out a draft agen­da the week before. Basic agen­da items should include vari­a­tion on the fol­low­ing (my facil­i­ta­tion expe­ri­ence comes from Quaker-inspired but not Quak­er process, so some of the­se tasks might need to be turned into Quak­ere­se):

  • silent wor­ship;
  • agen­da review;
  • reports from all sub­com­mit­tees (treasurer’s report, steer­ing com­mit­tee report, dis­tri­b­u­tion com­mit­tee report, email/web report);
  • two sub­stan­tive issues;
  • set­ting next date;
  • eval­u­a­tion of meet­ing;

All reports should be writ­ten (ide­al­ly dis­trib­ut­ed by email before­hand and with a dozen copies at the meet­ing) and should include activ­i­ty, fis­cal activ­i­ty, pol­i­cy ques­tions need­ing busi­ness meet­ing input, approval of future tasks. Every deci­sion should have speci­fic peo­ple as liaisons for follow-up, and part of the next Busi­ness Meet­ing should be review­ing pro­gress on the­se tasks.

OUTREACH: WHO DO WE SERVE?

I have a very large con­cern that the offi­cial YAF/FI orga­ni­za­tion does not do exten­sive out­reach and that it hasn’t always been sen­si­tive to the needs of all YAFs.

As a con­vinced Friend who first ven­tured forth to a Quak­er Meet­ing at age 20, I spent years look­ing for YAFs and not find­ing them. The only out­reach that YAF/FI does is to grad­u­at­ing Young Friends (the high school pro­gram). Our out­reach to new­ly con­vince Friends has been nonex­is­tent.

Oth­er under­rep­re­sent­ed YAFs: the Cen­tral Phi­la. MM group, thirty-something YAFs, YAFs of col­or, les/bi/gay YAFs (our Pres­i­dent Day’s gath­er­ing con­flicts with the pop­u­lar mid-winter FLGC gath­er­ing, an unfor­tu­nate mes­sage we’re send­ing), YAFs with chil­dren.

Some of the out­reach chal­lenges for YAF/FI include:

  • Cliquish­ness. Many plugged-in YAFs know each oth­er from high school days and it can be intim­i­dat­ing to jump into such a group. There’s also a reluc­tance to review assump­tions brought down from the Young Friends (high school) pro­gram;
  • The poor com­mu­ni­ca­tion in YAF/FI keeps many dis­en­fran­chised YAFs from hav­ing a forum in which to express their con­cerns and needs. We can reach out to under-represented YAFs and ask them what a age-fellowship could provide them;
  • Single-type events: the week­end gath­er­ings keep away many YAFs with respon­si­bil­i­ty. The tenor of YAF/FI events often keeps away the more mature YAFs. I doubt one type of event could sat­is­fy all types of YAFs. We should be open to sup­port the lead­er­ship of dis­en­fran­chised YAFs by pro­vid­ing them the mon­ey, resources and insti­tu­tion­al sup­port to address their com­mu­ni­ties’ need (keep­ing in mind YAF events should be open to all).

ACTIVITIES

YAF events have had their prob­lems. The­mat­i­cal­ly, they usu­al­ly have not had Quak­er themes, they have not been geared toward spir­i­tu­al growth (usu­al­ly First Day’s Meet­ing for Wor­ship is the only spir­i­tu­al com­po­nent). They have fol­lowed the pat­terns of Young Friends events (3 day gath­er­ings), even though this for­mat excludes many (most?) YAFs.

We could eas­i­ly have more of a mix of events. Some could be the tra­di­tion­al week­end events, some could be day events, like the suc­cess­ful apple-picking expe­di­tion and Swarth­more gath­er­ing a few years ago orga­nized by Friends Center-employed YAFs.

As far as I’ve known, there has nev­er been any Busi­ness Meet­ing brain­storm­ing for themes, and each event has been orga­nized in an ad hoc man­ner by a small group of peo­ple with­out feed­back from the gen­er­al YAF pop­u­la­tion. This is part­ly a result of the need for con­fer­ence orga­niz­ers to have a con­fer­ence planned long in advance.

I pro­pose that we set Year-Long Themes, a process that some groups employ to inter­est­ing effect. In the fall, there could be a Busi­ness Meet­ing to decide the next cal­en­dar year’s the­me; Steer­ing Com­mit­tee could then orga­nize all of the pro­gram­mat­ic events around this top­ic. This would give large YAF input into the selec­tion process and also provide an inter­est­ing uni­ty to top­ics. Each top­ic should be broad enough to allow for an inter­est­ing mix of pro­grams and each top­ic should have a speci­fic Quak­er focus. One ped­a­gog­i­cal moti­va­tion behind the­se events should be to intro­duce and rein­force Friends’ his­to­ry and cul­ture.

Themes that I’d love to see:

  • Spir­i­tu­al and his­tor­i­cal roots of Quak­erism. (Bec­ca Grunko, Mar­garet Hope Bacon, Peg­gy Mor­sheck might be good resource peo­ple). Events could include a look at the fiery birth of Quak­erism and an his­tor­i­cal explo­ration of Friends Insti­tute itself (found­ed in the 1880s, FI played a role in uni­fy­ing the Hicksite/Orthodox schism in PYM and pro­vid­ed key assis­tance to the ear­ly AFSC; Gen­nyfer Dav­en­port is hot on the trail of this his­to­ry!).
  • Quak­ers in the world. a look at vol­un­teerism, and wit­ness and min­istry. An obvi­ous event would be to par­tic­i­pate in a week- or weekend-long PYM work­camp.
  • Neat Quak­er fig­ures (may­be even neat PYM fig­ures!). Con­fer­ences that look at the his­to­ry of folks like John Wool­man, William Penn, Lucre­tia Mott, per­haps cur­rent fig­ures like the Willoughby’s.
  • Quak­er Lifestyle and the Tes­ti­monies. Egads, we could read Faith and Prac­tice! For those of you who haven’t, it’s real­ly an inter­est­ing book. Not all events should be the­mat­ic, of course. The ear­ly Decem­ber Christ­mas gath­er­ing doesn’t need to be; nei­ther does some of the day long events (i.e., the apple-picking expe­di­tion was a fun the­me in itelf!).

This essay writ­ten Third Mon­th 21, 1997 by Mar­t­in Kel­ley


 

The Sto­ry of this essay (writ­ten fall of 2003)

I wrote for Friends Insti­tute, the Philadelphia-area young adult Friends group, back in March of 1997. I was very involved with the group at the time, serv­ing for­mal­ly as trea­sur­er and web­mas­ter and infor­mal­ly as the de-facto out­reach coör­di­na­tor. We had a vision­ing retreat com­ing up in a few months and I wrote this as a strengths / weak­ness­es / oppor­tu­ni­ties piece to get the ideas rolling. I thought we had some work to do around the issues of cliquish­ness, and I also thought we could become more thought­ful and spiritually-focused but I tried to find a sen­si­tive way to talk about this issues.

I got a lot of reac­tions to this essay. Some peo­ple real­ly real­ly loved it, espe­cial­ly those out­side the Philadel­phia insid­ers group: “Thanks for the insight­ful analy­sis! You real­ly did a won­der­ful job of objec­tive­ly explain­ing the frus­tra­tions that some PYM YAF’s (myself includ­ed) have with FI” and “I was so inspired by your essay ‘YAF vision for future’ that we are hop­ing bring it for­ward and cir­cu­late it here in among Aus­tralian YAF.”

But some of the insid­ers felt chal­lenged. One didn’t even like me talk­ing about cliques: “I think that as a group we have all been aware for some time of the prob­lems plagu­ing Friends Insti­tute… I don’t like the word clique because it makes me think of an exclu­sion­ary snob­bish group of peo­ple that looks down on oth­ers.” (of course this was my point).

As if to prove my analy­sis cor­rect, the insid­ers imme­di­ate­ly start­ed talk­ing amongst them­selves. With­in two weeks of email­ing this essay, both of my for­mal posi­tions in the orga­ni­za­tion were being chal­lenged. One insid­er wrote a request to the year­ly meet­ing to set up a com­pet­ing Friends Insti­tute web­site; oth­ers start­ed won­der­ing aloud whether it prop­er for an atten­der to be Friends Insti­tute trea­sur­er. No one ever ques­tioned my ded­i­ca­tion, hon­esty and good work. I was more active­ly involved in Quak­erism and my meet­ing than most of the birthright mem­bers who par­tic­i­pat­ed in FI, and I was the most con­sci­en­tious trea­sur­er and web­mas­ter the group ever had. My essay had obvi­ous­ly hit a nerve and the wag­ons were cir­cling in again­st the out­sider threat. Real­iz­ing just how ingrained the­se issues were and to what extent the insid­ers would go to pro­tect their pow­er, I even­tu­al­ly left Friends Insti­tute to focus again on my month­ly meeting’s thriv­ing twenty- and thirty-something scene.

The essay con­tin­ued to have a life of its own. The May 1997 vision­ing retreat focused on noth­ing at all and sub­se­quent busi­ness meet­ings dropped to a hand­ful of peo­ple. But the issues of the high-school focus, cliquish­ness, and unfriend­li­ness to new­com­ers came to the fore­front again a few months lat­er, after some sex­u­al assaults took place in the young adult com­mu­ni­ty. A con­fer­ence on “sex­u­al bound­aries” pro­duced an epistle that hit some of the same top­ics as my vision­ing essay:

We iden­ti­fied a num­ber of habits and issues in our young adult com­mu­ni­ty that tend to bring up dan­ger­ous sit­u­a­tions. For exam­ple, some of our sex­u­al bound­aries car­ry over from our expe­ri­ence as high-school aged Young Friends… New­com­ers become “fresh meat” for peo­ple who come to gath­er­ings look­ing to find quick con­nec­tions… Peo­ple get lost espe­cial­ly when we have larg­er gath­er­ings, and we don’t watch out for each oth­er.

Friends Insti­tute drift­ed for a few years. By the sum­mer of 2000, a con­vince Friend became clerk and tried to revive the group. She found my essay and emailed me: “I’ve been look­ing over the FI archives and am impressed by your con­tri­bu­tion. Do you have any advice, sug­ges­tions, or time to become active again in FI?” Sad to say this attempt to revive Friends Insti­tute also had a lot of prob­lems.

I repost this essay here in 2003 part­ly to have a ongo­ing record of my Quak­er writ­ings here on my web­site. But I sus­pect the­se same issues con­tin­ue in var­i­ous young adult friends groups. Per­haps some­one else can see this essay and be inspired, but a warn­ing that I’ve seen the­se dynam­ics in many dif­fer­ent young adult friends groups and seri­ous­ly won­der whether reform or revival is impos­si­ble.
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