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.

The demise of online subcultures?

An interesting profile of a niche community affected by the shift of attention from community-led sites to Facebook, “How Facebook – the Wal-Mart of the internet – dismantled online subcultures.”

Over time, these challenges to the BME community became increasingly problematic. Members deleted accounts or stopped posting. By 2015, the main community forum – which used to have hundreds of posts a day – went without a single comment for over six months.

Having predicted many of the web’s functions and features, BME failed to anticipate its own demise.

It’s definitely something I’ve seen in my niche world of Quakers. I started QuakerQuaker as an independent site in part because I didn’t want Google and Facebook and Beliefnet to determine who we are. There’s the obvious problems—Beliefnet hiring a programmer to make a “What Religion Are You?” test based on a few books picked up the library one afternoon.

But there’s also more subtle problems. On Facebook anyone can start or join a group and start talking authoritatively about Quakers without actually being an active community member. I can think of a number of online characters who had never even visiting a Friends meeting or church.

Our tradition built up ways of defining our spokespeople though the practices of recorded ministers and elders, and of clarifying shared beliefs though documents like Faith and Practice. I’ll be the first to argue that this process has produced mixed results. But if it is to be adapted or reformed, I’d like the work to be done by us in a thoughtful, inclusive manner. Instead, the form of our discussions are now invisibly imposed by an outside algorithm that is optimized for obsessive engagement and advertising delivery. Facebook process is not Quaker process, yet it is largely what we use when we talk about Quakers outside of Sunday morning.

I think Facebook has helped alternative communities form. I’m grateful for the pop-up communities of interest I’m part of. And there are sites with more user generated content like Wikipedia and Reddit that hold an interesting middle-ground and where information is generally more accurate. But there’s still a critical role for self-organized independent publications, a niche that I think is continuing to be overshadowed in our current attention ecosystem.

Edward Tufte and classical intellectual inquiry

Near the begin­ning of Edward Tufte’s Beau­ti­ful Evi­dence, he writes “My books are self-exemplifying: the objects them­selves embody the ideas writ­ten about.” The same could be true of his presentations.

On a recent Tues­day, Friends Jour­nal spon­sored me to attend one of Tufte’s one-day work­shops. He’s most well-known for his beau­ti­ful books on data visu­al­iza­tions but his work­shop touched on a num­ber of fas­ci­nat­ing top­ics. “The world is way too inter­est­ing to have dis­ci­pli­nary bound­aries,” he said at one point as he took us from music to maps to space shut­tles to magi­cians. The range was pur­pose­ful. He was teach­ing us how to think.

I esti­mat­ed a crowd of maybe 450. A large per­cent­age were low-level cor­po­rate types (I over­heard one say “I was not expect­ing that he’d bash Pow­er­Point so much”; this slack­er obvi­ous­ly hadn’t even tak­en five min­utes to skim Tufte’s Wikipedia page). There were small­er mix­es of techie, cre­atives, and design pro­fes­sion­als, some of whom were there after fawn­ing over his books for years. Bonus if you go: part of the work­shop reg­is­tra­tion fee is gratis copies of his books!

I have 13 pages of notes. Some high­lights for me:

  • The heart of much of the work­shop was crit­i­cal think­ing. Tufte dis­sect­ed var­i­ous news web­sites to take us through the ways they gave attri­bu­tion and pre­sent­ed data. He also went through stud­ies and gave var­i­ous point­ers to sniff out when ver­i­fy­ing data was being withheld.
  • “Pro­duc­ing a good pre­sen­ta­tion is a moral and eth­i­cal act.” (dit­to for being an good audi­ence mem­ber). There is a form of civic respon­si­bil­i­ty to inquiry.
  • Tufte is a big believ­er in meet­ings that begin with read­ing. The highest-resolution device most of us have is paper. Peo­ple can read 2 – 3 times faster than a pre­sen­ter can talk. By let­ting peo­ple go at their own pace they can tai­lor the pre­sen­ta­tion to their own needs.
  • Data pre­sen­ta­tion: A theme through­out the work­shop was “doc­u­ments not decks,” an empha­sis on flat, web-like pre­sen­ta­tions that allow read­ers to con­trol scrolling. He con­tin­u­al­ly called out “flat sur­faces” and mate­r­i­al that is “adja­cent in space” to give an almost the­o­log­i­cal argu­ment for their supe­ri­or­i­ty over deck-like pre­sen­ta­tions (think Pow­er­Point) that can obscure impor­tant data.
  • He urged us not to pan­der to our audi­ence: Con­sumer sites show that data can be pop­u­lar: the New York Times’s web­site has 450 links; ESPN’s has tables atop tables and yet peo­ple read these sites every day. Why can’t we have the same lev­el of data-rich acces­si­bil­i­ty in our work lives? “Have we sud­den­ly becomes stu­pid just because we’ve comes to work?” He urged the mid-level execs in the audi­ence to demand good pre­sen­ta­tions. We should push back against the low-expectations of their boss­es to ask “Why can’t we live up to ESPN?”
  • Data as beau­ty. From gor­geous maps to graph­i­cal music nota­tion (below), Tufte loves design and data that come togeth­er in beau­ty. It is amazing.

One of my favorite parts of the work­shop was an after­noon digres­sion from strict data that he intro­duced by say­ing, “It’s time for a heart to heart.” It began with a ser­mon­ette on cred­i­bil­i­ty: how to make your­self account­able and just other’s arguments.

Then he talked about how to respond when some­one chal­lenges your work. I could tell there must be a long list of per­son­al sto­ries inform­ing this part of the work­shop – lessons learned, yes, but sure­ly oppor­tu­ni­ties lost too. Tufte told us it was only nat­ur­al to respond in defen­sive­ness and anger and coun­seled us to not be too quick to dis­miss cri­tique. You’ve got to do the hard work to see whether your chal­lenger might be correct.

He remind­ed us that when we’re in a room full of peers, every­one present has been fil­tered and select­ed over the years. You should assume the room will be just as smart as you are. “How dare you think your motives are bet­ter than those of your col­leagues!” he thun­dered at an emo­tion­al crescen­do. He admit­ted that this self-doubt is a hard pos­ture to adopt. He’s polled pub­lic fig­ures he respects and even the thickest-skinned are stung by challenge.

He said he had learned to back off, go slow, and con­tem­plate when he’s chal­lenged. Just when I thought he had found some super-human abil­i­ty to ratio­nal­ly con­sid­er things, he told us it could took him three to five years to real­ly accept the valid­i­ty of dis­sent­ing views.

This was a much-needed ser­mon for me and I nod­ded along along. As some­one who pro­fes­sion­al­ly ampli­fies opin­ion, I’m often in the mid­dle of peo­ple in debate (I’ve been an actor in these con­flicts in the past, though these days I gen­er­al­ly play a role some­where between an agent and medi­a­tor). It’s good to see intel­lec­tu­al debate as a process and to remem­ber that it can take years. “This con­cludes the ther­a­peu­tic por­tion of today’s course”, he con­clud­ed, before going back to visualizations.

He end­ed by show­ing us time­less first-editions of beau­ti­ful sci­en­tif­ic works by Galileo and Euclid. He felt a gen­uine appre­ci­a­tion of being part of an intel­lec­tu­al tra­di­tion. He was a mas­ter and for this day we in the audi­ence were his appren­tices. “In life we need tools that last for­ev­er and give us clear lever­age in clear thinking.”

 

Update: appar­ent­ly some num­ber of data visu­al­iza­tion peo­ple have dis­liked his work­shops. What I found fas­ci­nat­ing­ly wide-ranging they found ram­bling. Per­haps Tufte has tight­ened his pre­sen­ta­tion or I caught him on a good day. More like­ly, I think they came look­ing for a more tech­ni­cal dis­cus­sion of data visu­al­iza­tion and was sur­prised that Tufte focused so much on crit­i­cal think­ing and com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills. I have a par­tic­u­lar soft spot for quirky and opin­ion­at­ed peo­ple who don’t fol­low scripts and Tufte’s detours all made a cer­tain sense to me. But then I’m a phi­los­o­phy major turned do-gooder writer/publisher. Your mileage may vary.

What does it mean to be a Quaker?

Craig Bar­nett tries to define Friends:

“I want to sug­gest that there is a liv­ing tra­di­tion of spir­i­tu­al teach­ing and prac­tice that makes up the Quak­er Way, which is not defined by a par­tic­u­lar social group, behav­iour­al norms, or even val­ues and beliefs.”

As usu­al Craig clear­ly artic­u­lates his premise: that Friends have become some­thing of a content-less, lowest-common-denominator group that fears mak­ing belief state­ments that some of our mem­ber­ship would object to.

I agree with most of his analy­sis, though I would add some pieces. I don’t think one can under­stand what it means to be a Quak­er today with­out look­ing at dif­fer­ent types of def­i­n­i­tions. Belief and prac­tices is one part but so is self-identification (which is not nec­es­sar­i­ly mem­ber­ship). We are who we are but we also aren’t. There’s a deep­er real­i­ty in not being able to sep­a­rate Quak­er phi­los­o­phy from the peo­ple who are Quaker.

In this light, I do wish that Craig hadn’t resort­ed to using the jar­gony “Quak­er Way” ten times in a short piece. For those who haven’t got­ten the memo, lib­er­al Friends are no longer sup­posed to say “Quak­erism” (which implies a tra­di­tion and prac­tice that is not nec­es­sar­i­ly the denom­i­na­tor of our member’s indi­vid­ual the­olo­gies) but instead use the vaguer “Quak­er Way.” In my obser­va­tion, it’s most­ly a bureau­crat­ic pref­er­ence: we want to imply there is sub­stance but don’t want to actu­al­ly name it for fear of start­ing a fight. Con­tent­less lan­guage has become its own art form, one that can suck the air out of robust dis­cus­sions. A truly-vital liv­ing tra­di­tion should be able to speak in dif­fer­ent accents.

Normcore and the new-old Quaker plain

In the last few weeks, the fashion segment of the Internet has gone all a-buzz over new term "Normcore." Normal, everyday, clothing is apparently showing up in downtown Manhattan—gasp! Like many trendy terms, it's not really so new: back in the nineties and early oughts, Gap ruled the retail world with posters showing celebrities and artists wearing t-shirts and jeans available at the local mall store. "Normcore" is just the leading edge of the utterly-predicable 20-year fashion industry pendulum swing.

It also perhaps signals a cultural shift away from snobbery and into embracing roots. One of the most popular posts on the New York Times's website last year celebrated regional accents (apparently Philadelphians are allowed to talk like Philadelphians again).

An analogue to this fashion trend has been occuring among Friends for a little while now. The "New Plain" discussion have revolved around reclaiming an attitude, not a uniform.

If you read the old Quaker guide books (called "Books of Discipline" then, now more often called "Faith and Practice"), you'll see that unlike other plain-dressing American groups like the Amish, Quakers didn't intend their clothes to be a uniform showing group conformity. Instead, plainness is framed in terms of interior motivations. Avoiding fashion trends helped Friends remember that they were all equal before God. It also spoke to our continuing testimony of integrity, in that Friends were to dress the same way in different contexts and so vouchsafe for a single identity.

When I began feeling the tug of a leading toward plainness it was for what I began calling "Sears Plain," indicating that I wore clothes that I could find in any box store or mall. I developed a low-maintenance approach to fashion that freed up my time from shopping and the morning dressing ritual. Modern plainness can lesson the temptation to show off in in clothes and it can reduce the overall wardrobe size and thus reduce our impact on the environment and with exploited labor. But all this is nothing new and it never really disappeared. If you looked around a room of modern Quakers you'll often see a trend of sartorial boringness; I was simply naming this and putting it in the context of our tradition.

image

Over time I found that these motivations were more prevalent in the wider culture, especially in the minimalist techie scene. Steve Jobs famously sported a uniform of black turtleneck, jeans, and New Balance sneakers (explained in 2011). In a 2012 profile, Barack Obama talked about limiting his clothes to two colors of suits so that he could free up his decision-making energies on more important issues (I wrote about his fashion in "Plain like Barack").

Non-celebrities also seem interested in working out their relationship with fashion. My articles on modern plainness have always been a big draw on my blog. While my fellow Quakers are sometimes mildly embarrassed by our historic peculiarities, outsiders often eat this stuff up. They're looking for what the techies would call "life hacks" that can help them prioritize life essentials. If we can communicate our values in a real way that isn't propped by appeals to the authority of tradition, then we can reach these seekers.

So now that "Normcore" is appearing in places like Huffington Post , the New York Times and fashion magazines, will Friends be able to talk more about it? Do we still have a collective witness in regards to the materialism and ego-centricity of fashion marketing?

Invisible Quaker Misfits

This week I received an email from a young seek­er in the Philadel­phia area who found my 2005 arti­cle “Wit­ness of Our Lost Twenty-Somethings” pub­lished in FGCon­nec­tions. She’s a for­mer youth min­istries leader from a Pen­te­costal tra­di­tion, strong­ly attract­ed to Friends beliefs but not quite fit­ting in with the local meet­ings she’s been try­ing. Some­where she found my arti­cle and asks if I have any insights. 

The 2005 arti­cle was large­ly pes­simistic, focused on the “com­mit­ted, inter­est­ing and bold twenty-something Friends
I knew ten years ago” who had left Friends and blam­ing “an insti­tu­tion­al Quak­erism that neglect­ed them and
its own future” but my hope para­graph was optimistic:

There is hope… A great peo­ple might pos­si­bly be gath­ered from
the emer­gent church move­ment and the inter­net is full of amaz­ing conversations
from new Friends and seek­ers. There are pock­ets in our branch of Quakerism
where old­er Friends have con­tin­ued to men­tor and encour­age mean­ing­ful and
inte­grat­ed youth lead­er­ship, and some of my peers have hung on with me. Most
hope­ful­ly, there’s a whole new gen­er­a­tion of twenty- some­thing Friends
on the scene with strong gifts that could be nur­tured and harnessed. 

Hard to imag­ine that only three years ago I was an iso­lat­ed FGC staffer left to pur­sue out­reach and youth min­istry work on my own time by an insti­tu­tion indif­fer­ent to either pur­suit. Both func­tions have become major staff pro­grams, but I’m no longer involved, which is prob­a­bly just as well, as nei­ther pro­gram has decid­ed to focus on the kind of work I had hoped it might. The more things change the more they stay the same, right? The most inter­est­ing work is still large­ly invisible. 

Some of this work has been tak­en up by the new blog­gers and by some sort of alt-network that seems to be con­geal­ing around all the blogs, Twit­ter net­works, Face­book friend­ships, inter­vis­i­ta­tions and IM chats. Many of us asso­ci­at­ed with Quak​erQuak​er​.org have some sort of reg­u­lar cor­re­spon­dence or par­tic­i­pa­tion with the Emerg­ing Church move­ment, we reg­u­lar­ly high­light “amaz­ing con­ver­sa­tions” from new Friends and seek­ers and there’s a lot of inter-generational work going on. We’ve got a name for it in Con­ver­gent Friends, which reflects in part that “we” aren’t just the lib­er­al Friends I imag­ined in 2005, but a wide swath of Friends from all the Quak­er flavors.

But we end up with a prob­lem that’s become the cen­tral one for me and a lot of oth­ers: what can we tell a new seek­er who should be able to find a home in real-world Friends but doesn’t fit? I could point this week’s cor­re­spon­dent to meet­ings and church­es hun­dreds of miles from her house, or encour­age her to start a blog, or com­pile a list of work­shops or gath­er­ings she might attend. But none of these are real­ly sat­is­fac­to­ry answers. 

Else­where:

Gath­er­ing in Light Wess sent an email around last night about a book review done by his PhD advi­sor Ryan Bol­ger that talks about tribe-style lead­er­ship and a new kind of church iden­ti­ty that uses the instant com­mu­ni­ca­tion tools of the inter­net to forge a com­mu­ni­ty that’s not nec­es­sar­i­ly lim­it­ed to local­i­ty. Bolger’s and his research part­ner report that they see “emerg­ing ini­tia­tives with­in tra­di­tion­al church­es as the next
hori­zon for the spread of emerg­ing church prac­tices in the Unit­ed States
.” More links from Wess’ arti­cle on emerg­ing church­es and denom­i­na­tions.