No sooner had the AFSC’s Centennial bash gotten underway in spring of 2017, when somebody rained on their parade: another multi-million budget shortfall was acknowledged, with the expected fallout of more job and program cuts.
This was getting to be an all-too familiar story; almost as familiar as the empty promises to “re-connect” AFSC with actual living Quakers.
The biggest cuts had come in 2008-2009, when years of mismanagement and profligacy combined with the larger economic crash to force over a hundred staff layoffs, and the closing of dozens of offices and programs. Yet that big rush of cuts wasn’t the first, nor would it be the last. Regional offices, once at 13, imploded to a skeletal four.
What had happened?
In marketing talk, the answer is straightforward: besides foolishly wasting millions of dollars, AFSC had trashed and squandered its brand, and is paying the price.
And what was that brand?
Look at the name: It wasn’t “American.”
“Service” was closer, but not the key.
And by god, it wasn’t “Committee.”
It was “Friends.”
And more than that: the “Society of Friends.”
Still more; the “Religious Society of Friends.”
An internal AFSC audit in 2002 acknowledged this:
“AFSC’s ties to the Religious Society of Friends [RSOF] have become strained in places over the last several decades because of the organizational shift from direct service to advocacy and activism, a lack of opportunities for Quakers to connect with AFSC in a way that is meaningful to them, and less of an AFSC presence in the quotidian of Quaker life.’” (Greg Barnes, A Centennial History of AFSC, Chapter 17)
What’s all this got to do with Quaker theology?
In particular, it has everything to do with the new issue of Quaker Theology, #32, which is just out.
In this issue, forty years of observation, research and writing on AFSC is compiled and summarized. The thesis drawn from this compilation is that it is theology – or whatever is behind that term — which makes Quakerism real, and this difficult-to-pin-down “quotidian” (aka, real Quakerism’s everyday community and spiritual life) is what animates Quaker witness and service; and that without it, the service is fatally compromised.
Further, that AFSC, in cutting loose from the RSOF, in all its messy “quotidian” (yet through which somehow the Spirit seems to work; after all, it birthed AFSC) has undermined the most precious aspect of its brand: its authenticity. Marketing experts agree that without that, a brand is like a cut flower, the roots severed. You can put the stems in a vase, change the water & add Floralife, but the blossoms are still mortally wounded, and will eventually wither or stiffen, fade and crumble.
This impulse for amputation is not a new phenomenon. As shown in the issue, Clarence Pickett, its most revered Director, said as far back as 1945 that “there is no legal connection between the S[ociety] of F[riends] and the AFSC.” He added that “Theoretically, the AFSC could become composed of non-Friends entirely.”
As, in practice – not theoretically – AFSC almost entirely has become (details in the issue).
As the audit statement also indicated, AFSC’s financial troubles didn’t start with the 2008 debacle. We can look all the way back to 1971 for telltale signals:
In that year, AFSC’s budget was $2 million larger than that of World Vision, an evangelical service group with many programs that somewhat paralleled those of AFSC’s service days. But by 1980, World Vision’s budget had jumped to 400 percent more than AFSC. (A Friendly Letter [AFL] #33)
Also in the 1980s, according to a report delivered to the Board, AFSC’s income was flat, and lost ground to inflation. The board clerk, Dulany Bennett, referring to the report spoke a great truth, that “many Quakers have a real revulsion about things financial.” And verily, the Board hardly discussed the report at all. Even so, the trend was there, for those who had eyes to see. (AFL #127)
Eventually, this organizational habit of avoidance came back & — to borrow an unrefined phrase — bit them in the butt bigtime. Last year, by the way, on the eve of AFSC’s centennial round of layoffs, World Vision’s income topped $1 billion.
What had happened? As one Board member put it in 1991,
“If you look down the list of major donors, people say again and again, ‘I’m giving money to AFSC because it’s a Quaker organization and when Quakers do peace work, they do it right. . . .’” (AFL #127)
Well, maybe they once did it right. But right or wrong, in AFSC, Quakers are not doing it anymore. Besides eliminating actual Quakers, Quakerism itself has been redefined in AFSC as something found in jars on a kitchen shelf, a set of SPICES.
(SPICES is yet another unfortunate branding move. The letters denote abstract, secular and utterly vacuous platitudes, and leave the newcomer wondering if AFSC is trying to compete with McCormick’s red-topped bottles of oregano, or, if old enough, peddling an aftershave). SPICES has all the brand identity of, say, oatmeal.
Again, noting this vacuity is not new. In-house critic Dan Seeger, in the 1970s, privately lamented “the essential malady” of AFSC as —“a lack of a compelling and clearly relevant vision, a grasp of animating values.” He was isolated, but not alone: when I composed an open letter of concern to the AFSC Board at the 1979 FGC Gathering, 140 Friends lined up to add their signatures.
Sensing that something is seriously wrong, the last several general secretaries, executive directors, executive secretaries (the name keeps getting tweaked) began or juiced up major reorganizations. Apparently the hope was that twisting a Rubik’s Cube of boxes on the organizational chart would yield a way to fill, or at least hide the emptiness at the center.
It hasn’t really worked. But the newest CEO is now trying again, in what is billed as a (yet another) thorough rethink. Doubtless, as I write, high-priced consultants are on their way, full of agile talent, ready to tap tablets, serve up surveys, and claim buy-in for their wordsmithed deliverables, remembering to drop “transformation” into every paragraph, and never neglecting the chargeables.
But is this time, the charm? (Spoiler alert: I doubt it.)
As described in Quaker Theology, Quaker historian H. Larry Ingle & I stumbled into this assignment in the summer of 1979, when an impromptu discussion of AFSC unexpectedly broke loose.
I was the convener, Larry an enthusiastic participant. We’ve been on this unfolding case ever since, often working jointly, otherwise in parallel. This collection brings together most of the major pieces we have produced.
To Larry and Friends in his yearly meeting, SAYMA (the full name is in the issue) goes credit for what may be the biggest scoop thus far turned up on this beat. That came in 2011, when SAYMA made bold to ask AFSC to furnish them with the number of actual enrolled Friends then in their workforce.
Such data had been furnished before without fanfare: in 1962, 55 per cent of AFSC staff were reported as Friends; in 1981, it had dropped to 20 per cent. (AFL #7)
But by 2011, AFSC had “evolved” to the place where such interrogation was not even to be entertained. When a mere yearly meeting, even one of unimpeachable liberal character, dared to ask for current figures, the national Board clerk’s lofty refusal to even be questioned by such impertinent upstarts was truly an epic of supercilious haughtiness. And we’ve got it here, unexpurgated.
We’ve also got the latest available percentage figure of Quakers on the AFSC staff. How low can it go? Not much farther: take the last number listed above; divide by 40, and you’re getting close to understanding why I often speak of the “de-Quakerization” of AFSC.
But maybe I have a claim to second place in the scoop sweepstakes, from 1991, in which a once-leading candidate to become executive secretary graciously explained to a session of Intermountain Yearly Meeting how AFSC, while “building on its experiences in the Vietnam war. . . special operational frameworks, languages, assumptions and styles of the AFSC have evolved.”
Such that “The AFSC has become a ‘refined’ experiment in Quakerism, one which may have diminishing overlap with the experience of other parts of the Society of Friends. . . . Friends,” he said, “have a hard time fitting into the ‘operational style’ of the AFSC, developed through the years of struggling with social issues not familiar to many Friends.” (AFL #127)
Ah, yes – those ordinary non-AFSC Friends (of a certain age) must somehow have missed the Vietnam War (though it sure didn’t seem like it at the time), and are so hopelessly unfamiliar with other “social issues” (since he said that, it must be true), we were and are simply incapable of the “refinement” AFSC had attained.
Rather than “refined,” I think of it as “homeopathic Quakerism,” a tincture so diluted that the original ingredient is barely detectable, if at all.
Yet somehow, many of us unrefined Friends have figured out what the “social issues” we are deemed hopelessly inept about must be. AFSC’s designated historian Greg Barnes put it this way:
“[O]ne of the constant themes in AFSC history for half a century needs validation: the Committee’s constant attention to its Affirmative Action program. In effect, the AFSC has prioritized the Quaker testimony of equality over the formal Quaker identity of its staff. The refinement of Committee policies and application of standards for fair play and equality show no sign of ending at the centennial.” (Barnes, Coda)
“No sign” indeed, and no “in effect” about it; the priority is very clear, and there’s that word “refinement” again. This cluster of issues has gone by evolving names over time in AFSC: affirmative action in the ‘70s, then diversity, anti-racism, inclusion (except of course not inclusion for Quakers). For those who are old enough, it can even be recalled as integration & desegregation, or Black Power. But naturally, those don’t really count anymore; nor do we.
Reading Barnes’s book chronicling AFSC’s first century and AFSC internal documents, it looks more and more like AFSC’s leadership decided several decades ago that “work for (their version of) equality” and actual Quakerism were mutually exclusive, even antagonistic categories, and if the one was coming, the other had to go.
That is certainly how it’s turned out: this self-defined “anti-oppression” thrust has indeed displaced “the formal Quaker identity” in the organization’s sacred center. And undeniably this proposition has been endlessly useful in internal politics. As one exasperated CEO put it in 2008 in an uncharacteristically candid moment: “There is a culture of white guilt in this organization that is stifling and patronizing.” (Barnes, Chapter 18.) And the clerk of a “Clearness Committee” on the subject noted that some staff members “consciously or unconsciously attribute these disputes over styles to racism because it makes it harder for the establishment to defend itself.” (Barnes, Chapter 13)
Really? Who knew?
But what if this exaltation is misplaced? What if Quakerism actually has real value, particularly in developing Quaker “service.”?? What if the legacy of racism is a problem to be worked on rather than the successor to Quakerism as the group’s religious and operational center?
And what has happened when a culture’s sacred has been vacuumed out of its collective vessel, replaced with a farrago of imported and shifting notions, handed over to outsiders, and the vessel is then paraded around to collect money from the credulous?
Here’s what has happened: it’s cultural appropriation, of a blatantly vulgar and exploitive sort. I am persuaded that’s what Friends who take Quaker faith seriously confront in today’s 99+% non-Quaker SPICY-flavored AFSC. And it seems many former donors are not so credulous any longer.
Larry and I are aware that our work has not endeared us to many at the top levels of AFSC’s rickety staff ladder, and likely frightened some at lower rungs who fear for their jobs (probably rightly, but not on our account). It has been a kind of consolation to find in its records evidence that some higher-ups have occasionally put in serious effort at finding ways to avoid taking care & our concerns seriously; I mean, beyond composing catty doggerel, of which we have a telling sample. No doubt our most egregious continuing offense is that we have insisted, unlike almost all the internal reshufflers and reformers, in doing our work openly, in the public prints, and online.
And in Quaker Theology #32, here we are, doing it again.
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