“My secretary just walked in wearing pants.… and she looks terrific!” and other mom stories

2015-08-14 12.53.23
My mother’s death notice is in today’s Philadel­phia Inquirer.

Here’s anoth­er instal­la­tion of mom sto­ries, orig­i­nal­ly writ­ten for a longer obit­u­ary than the one run­ning in today’s paper.

A sin­gle par­ent, she earned an asso­ciates degree at Rid­er Col­lege in Tren­ton and worked as a sec­re­tary at a num­ber of Philadelphia-area based, include Women’s Med­ical Col­lege and the Pres­by­ter­ian Board of Pub­li­ca­tions. In the mid-1960s she became an exec­u­tive sec­re­tary at the newly-formed Colo­nial Penn Life Insur­ance Com­pa­ny. An office fem­i­nist, she liked recount­ing the sto­ry of the day in the 1970s when the women of the office unit­ed to break the dress code by all wear­ing pant suits. A senior vice pres­i­dent was on the phone when she walked into his office and is said to have told his caller “My sec­re­tary just walked in wear­ing pants.… and she looks terrific!”

When Colo­nial Penn lat­er start­ed an in-house com­put­er pro­gram­mer train­ing pro­gram, she signed up imme­di­ate­ly and start­ed a sec­ond career. She approached pro­grams as puz­zles and was espe­cial­ly proud of her abil­i­ty to take oth­er pro­gram­mers’ poorly-written code and turn it into effi­cient, bug-free software.

In the ear­ly 1990s, she moved into her own apart­ment in Jenk­in­town, Pa. She reclaimed a short­ened form of her maid­en name and swapped “Bet­sy” for “Liz.” Dur­ing this time she became a com­mit­ted atten­der at Abing­ton Friends Meet­ing. As clerk of its peace and jus­tice com­mit­tee, she worked to build the con­sen­sus need­ed for the meet­ing to pro­duce a land­mark state­ment on repro­duc­tive rights. As soon as it was passed she said, “next up, a minute on same-sex mar­riage!” In the late 90s, that was still con­tro­ver­sial even with LGBTQ cir­cles and I imag­ine that even the pro­gres­sive folks at Abing­ton were dread­ing the thought she might put this on the agenda!

In her late 60s, she bought her first house, in Philadelphia’s Mount Airy neigh­bor­hood. She loved fix­ing it up and babysit­ting her grand­chil­dren. She nev­er made any strong con­nec­tions with any of the near­by Quak­er Meet­ings only attend­ing wor­ship spo­rad­i­cal­ly after the move. When she was diag­nosed with Alzheimer’s Dis­ease in 2010, she took the news with dig­ni­ty. She moved into an inde­pen­dent liv­ing apart­ment in Atco, N.J. and con­tin­ued an active lifestyle as long as possible.

Pareto opportunities for Friends?

Nate Sil­ver recent­ly ran a piece on Mar­co Rubio’s pres­i­den­tial chances has used the previously-unknown-to-me con­cept of the “Pare­to fron­tier” to line up poten­tial candidates:

In eco­nom­ics, there’s a con­cept known as Pare­to effi­cien­cy. It means that you ought to be able to elim­i­nate any choice if anoth­er one dom­i­nates it along every dimen­sion. The remain­ing choic­es sit along what’s called the Pare­to frontier.

Sil­ver then fol­lowed up with a real world exam­ple that speaks to my inter­est in food:

Imag­ine that in addi­tion to White Cas­tle and The French Laun­dry, there are two Ital­ian restau­rants in your neigh­bor­hood. One is the chain restau­rant Olive Gar­den. You actu­al­ly like Olive Gar­den per­fect­ly well. But down the block is a local red-sauce joint called Giovanni’s. The food is a lit­tle bet­ter there than at Olive Gar­den (although not as good as at The French Laun­dry), and it’s a lit­tle cheap­er than Olive Gar­den (although not as cheap as White Cas­tle). So you can elim­i­nate Olive Gar­den from your reper­toire; it’s dom­i­nat­ed along both dimen­sions by Giovanni’s.

These days we choose more than our din­ner des­ti­na­tions. Spir­i­tu­al­i­ty has become a mar­ket­place. While there have always been con­verts, it feels as if the pace of reli­gious lane-changing has steadi­ly quick­ened in recent times. Many peo­ple are choos­ing their reli­gious affil­i­a­tion rather than stick­ing with the faith tra­di­tions of their par­ents. For Quak­ers, this has been a net pos­i­tive, as many of our meet­ing­hous­es are full of “con­vinced” Friends who came in to our reli­gious soci­ety as adults.

Quak­ers are some­what unique in our mar­ket poten­tial. I would argue that we fall on two spots of the reli­gious “pare­to curve”:

  • The first is a kind of mass-market entry point for the “spir­i­tu­al but not reli­gious” set that wants to dip its toe into an orga­nized reli­gion that’s nei­ther very orga­nized nor reli­gious. Lib­er­al Friends don’t have min­is­ters or creeds, we don’t feel or sound too churchy, and we’re not par­tic­u­lar­ly con­cerned about what new seek­ers believe. It’s a per­fect fit for do-it-yourself seek­ers that are look­ing for non-judgmental spiritually-minded progressives.
  • Our sec­ond pare­to fron­tier beach­head is more grad-school lev­el: we’re a good spot for peo­ple who have a strong reli­gious con­vic­tions but seek a com­mu­ni­ty with less restric­tions. They’ve mem­o­rized whole sec­tions of the Bible and might have the­o­log­i­cal train­ing. They’re burned out by judg­men­tal­ism and spirit-less rou­tine and are seek­ing out a more authen­tic reli­gious com­mu­ni­ty of reli­gious peers open to dis­cus­sion and growth.

It seems we often reach out to one or the oth­er type of “pare­to” seek­er. I see that as part of the dis­cus­sion around Mic­ah Bales’s recent piece on Quak­er church plant­i­ng–do we focus on new, unaf­fil­i­at­ed seek­ers or seri­ous reli­gious dis­ci­ples look­ing for a dif­fer­ent type of com­mu­ni­ty. I’d be curi­ous to hear if any Quak­er out­reach pro­grams have tried to reach out to both simul­ta­ne­ous­ly. Is it even pos­si­ble to sucess­ful­ly mar­ket that kind of dual message?

The two-touch pare­to nature of Friends and pop spir­i­tu­al cul­ture sug­gests that meet­ings could focus their inter­nal work on being the bridge from what we might call the “pare­to entrances.” New­com­ers who have walked through the door because we’re not out­ward­ly churchy could be wel­comed into Quak­erism 101 cours­es to be intro­duced to Quak­er tech­niques for spir­i­tu­al ground­ing and growth – and so they can deter­mine whether for­mal mem­ber­ship is a good fit. Those who have come for the deep spir­i­tu­al ground­ing can join as well, but also be giv­en the oppor­tu­ni­ties for smaller-scale reli­gious con­ver­sa­tions and prac­tice, through Bible study groups, region­al extend­ed wor­ships and trips to region­al opportunities.

If you add charts you don't understand to blog posts, people will think you're extra smart.
If you add charts to blog posts, peo­ple will think you’re super-duper smart.

Outreach gets people to your meetinghouse / Hospitality keeps people returning.

Over on Twit­ter feed came a tweet (h/t revrevwine):

seo - Google SearchTo trans­late, SEO is “search engine opti­miza­tion,” the often-huckersterish art of trick­ing Google to dis­play your web­site high­er than your com­peti­tors in search results. “Usabil­i­ty” is the catch-all term for mak­ing your web­site easy to nav­i­gate and invit­ing to vis­i­tors. Com­pa­nies with deep pock­ets often want to spend a lot of mon­ey on SEO, when most of the time the most viable long-term solu­tion to rank­ing high with search engines is to pro­vide vis­i­tors with good rea­sons to vis­it your site. What if we applied these prin­ci­ples to our church­es and meet­ing­hous­es and swapped the terms?

Out­reach gets peo­ple to your meetinghouse /
Hos­pi­tal­i­ty keeps peo­ple returning.

A lot of Quak­er meet­ing­hous­es have pret­ty good “nat­ur­al SEO.” Here in the U.S. East Coast, they’re often near a major road in the mid­dle of town. If they’re lucky there are a few his­tor­i­cal mark­ers of notable Quak­ers and if they are real­ly lucky there’s a highly-respected Friends school near­by. All these meet­ings real­ly have to do is put a nice sign out front and table a few town events every year. The rest is cov­ered. Although we do get the occa­sion­al “aren’t you all Amish?” com­ments, we have a much wider rep­u­ta­tion that our num­bers would nec­es­sar­i­ly war­rant. We rank pret­ty high.

But what are the lessons of hos­pi­tal­i­ty we could work on? Do we pro­vide places where spir­i­tu­al seek­ers can both grow per­son­al­ly and engage in the impor­tant ques­tions of the faith in the mod­ern world? Are we invi­ta­tion­al, bring­ing peo­ple into our homes and into our lives for shared meals and conversations?

In my free­lance days when I was hired to work on SEO I ran through a series of sta­tis­ti­cal reports and redesigned some under­per­form­ing pages, but then turned my atten­tion to the client’s con­tent. It was in this realm that my great­est quan­tifi­able suc­cess­es occurred. At the heart of the con­tent work was ask­ing how could the site could more ful­ly engage with first-time vis­i­tors. The “usabil­i­ty con­sid­er­a­tions” on the Wikipedia page on usabil­i­ty could be eas­i­ly adapt­ed as queries:

Who are the users, what do they know, what can they learn? What do users want or need to do? What is the users’ gen­er­al back­ground? What is the users’ con­text for work­ing? What must be left to the machine? Can users eas­i­ly accom­plish intend­ed tasks at their desired speed? How much train­ing do users need? What doc­u­men­ta­tion or oth­er sup­port­ing mate­ri­als are avail­able to help the user?

I’d love to see Friends con­sid­er this more. FGC’s “New Meet­ings Tool­box” has a sec­tion on wel­com­ing new­com­ers. But I’d love to hear more sto­ries about how we’re work­ing on the “usabil­i­ty” of our spir­i­tu­al communities.

ReconRab​bi​.net

ReconRabbiReconRab­bi is a social net­work for rab­bis asso­ci­at­ed with the Recon­struc­tion­ist Rab­bini­cal Col­lege. It is designed to pro­vide ongo­ing edu­ca­tion and net­work­ing for far-flung alumni.
It’s a high­ly cus­tomized, member-only site built on the Ning plat­form. The typ­i­cal Ning fea­tures are here: video, pod­casts and mem­ber pro­files. Expand­ed areas include exten­sive train­ing mate­r­i­al for mem­bers. We record­ed and I edit­ed a series of eight screen­casts of approx­i­mate­ly five min­utes each for their Help sec­tion using Screen­flow for Mac; top­ics include sign­ing up, adding dis­cus­sions, using the cus­tomized train­ing material.
Member-only Site: http://​www​.reconrab​bi​.net/.

Movement for a New Society and the Old New Monastics

Robin wrote a lit­tle about the New Monas­tic move­ment in a plug for the Pen­dle Hill work­shop I’m doing with Wess Daniels this Fall. 

Here’s my work­ing the­o­ry: I think Lib­er­al Friends have a good claim to invent­ing the “new monas­tic” move­ment thir­ty years ago in the form of Move­ment for a New Soci­ety, a net­work of peace and anti-nuclear activists based in Philadel­phia that cod­i­fied a kind of “sec­u­lar Quak­er” decision-making process and trained thou­sands of peo­ple from around the world in a kind of engaged drop-out lifestyle that fea­tured low-cost com­mu­nal liv­ing arrange­ments in poor neigh­bor­hoods with part-time jobs that gave them flex­i­bil­i­ty to work as full-time com­mu­ni­ty activists. There are few activist cam­paigns in the 1970s and 1980s that weren’t touched by the MNS style and a less-ideological, more lived-in MNS cul­ture sur­vives today in bor­der­line neigh­bor­hoods in Philadel­phia and oth­er cities. The high-profile new monas­tics rarely seem to give any props to Quak­ers or MNS, but I’d be will­ing to bet if you sat in on any of their meet­ings the process would be much more inspired by MNS than Robert’s Rules of Order or any fif­teen cen­tu­ry monas­tic rule that might be cited.

For a decade I lived in West Philly in what I called “the ruins of the Move­ment for a New Soci­ety.” The for­mal struc­ture of MNS had dis­band­ed but many of its insti­tu­tions car­ried on in a kind of lived-in way. I worked at the remain­ing pub­lish­ing house, New Soci­ety Pub­lish­ers, lived in a land-trusted West Philly coop house, and was fed from the old neigh­bor­hood food coop and occa­sion­al­ly dropped in or helped out with Train­ing for Change, a revived train­ing cen­ter start­ed by MNS-co-founder (and Cen­tral Philadel­phia Meeting-member) George Lakey It was a tight neigh­bor­hood, with strong cross-connections, and it was able to absorb relat­ed move­ments with dif­fer­ent styles (e.g., a strong anar­chist scene that grew in the late 1980s). I don’t think it’s coin­ci­dence that some of the Philly emer­gent church projects start­ed in West Philly and is strong in the neigh­bor­hoods that have become the new ersatz West Philly as the actu­al neigh­bor­hood has gentrified.

So some ques­tions I’ll be wrestling with over the next six months and will bring to Pen­dle Hill:

  • Why haven’t more of us in the Reli­gious Soci­ety of Friends adopt­ed this engaged lifestyle?
  • Why haven’t we been good at artic­u­lat­ing it all this time?
  • Why did the for­mal struc­ture of the Quaker-ish “new monas­ti­cism” not sur­vive the 1980s?
  • Why don’t we have any younger lead­ers of the Quak­er monas­ti­cism? Why do we need oth­ers to remind us of our own recent tradition?
  • In what ways are some Friends (and some fel­low trav­el­ers) still liv­ing out the “Old New Monas­tic” expe­ri­ence, just with­out the hype and with­out the buzz?

It’s entire­ly pos­si­ble that the “new monas­ti­cism” isn’t sus­tain­able. At the very least Friends’ expe­ri­ences with it should be stud­ied to see what hap­pened. Is West Philly what the new monas­ti­cism looks like thir­ty years lat­er? The biggest dif­fer­ences between now and the hey­day of the Move­ment for a New Soci­ety is 1) the Internet’s abil­i­ty to orga­nize and stay in touch in com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent ways; and 2) the pow­er of the major Evan­gel­i­cal pub­lish­ing hous­es that are hyp­ing the new kids.

I’ll be look­ing at myself as well. After ten years, I felt I need­ed a change. I’m now in the “real world” – semi sub­ur­ban free­stand­ing house, nuclear fam­i­ly. The old new West Philly monas­ti­cism, like the “new monas­ti­cism” seems opti­mized for hip twenty-something sub­ur­ban kids who roman­ti­cized the grit­ty city. Peo­ple of oth­er demo­graph­ics often fit in, but still it was nev­er very scal­able and for many not very sus­tain­able. How do we bring these con­cerns out to a world where there are sub­urbs, fam­i­lies, etc?


RELATED READING: I first wrote about the sim­i­lar­i­ty between MNS and the Philadel­phia “New Monas­tic” move­ment six years ago in Peace and Twenty-Somethings, where I argued that Pen­dle Hill should take a seri­ous look at this new movement.