Three forces in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (PHYM) are on a collision course, and unless there is a major new development they are due to meet head-on Saturday March 25, at the spring yearly meeting session.
On one track is the self-styled Undoing Racism Group (URG), which is determined to “hold accountable” the YM, its staff & structures in a drive to “decenter whiteness” & uproot what it sees as an entrenched culture of “white supremacy.”
On another track are those in the YM who are uneasy with the URG. Everyone insists they want to banish racism; but some question whether URG is the best vehicle for this work. Its assertive/aggressive style, some doubt the wisdom of its proposals, some are troubled by both.
This mix is volatile enough. Then on March 4, the third train hove into view in the form of the PYM General Secretary, Christie Duncan-Tessmer. She announced several staff changes, abolishing four job slots, and downgrading another.
[Photo below: Christie Duncan-Tessmer, General Secretary, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting.]
Job cuts are always hard. As Zach Dutton, PHYM Associate Secretary for Program and Religious Life, put it on March 6, 2017:
Laying down the four coordinator positions that make up the Youth & Young Adult Programs Team allows us to create space for the expansion of the current set of programs we offer. I know that this seems counter-intuitive. It also hurts the Friends who work in these positions to lose their jobs. It hurts the communities they serve to lose relationships with their coordinators. This fact bears repeating and holding up. There is nothing about laying down the positions that isn’t painful and that doesn’t make life hard in the short term. We are doing everything we can to ensure that the coming transitions are as smooth and supportive as humanly possible.
Philadelphia Yearly Meeting has had to absorb many in recent years;at the turn of this century, it had over 50 full-time staff; after the changes it will be about 25. And this time the impact of the changes could be explosive, because they include a demotion for the one Friend of color on the YM staff. (There are several other staff of color, non-Friends.) Further, the person demoted, Marille Heallis, is Executive Assistant to General Secretary Duncan-Tessmer. And the reaction to this move among URG stalwarts has been harsh.
In 2015, the YM listed work against racism as one of its corporate goals. URG came together as an informal, volunteer group, to pursue this work. It has conducted numerous workshops and made various presentations.
It has also made proposals to become a formal ongoing part of the PHYM structure. Here it has hit a wall. It asked to be made a formal YM committee, but the idea was rejected. Then it prepared a detailed plan for incorporating its efforts across all PHYM structures. They took this plan to the Implementation Committee for the Strategic goals. The Implementation Committee turned down this plan also.
But the URG was not ready to take no for an answer. At last summer’s annual session, after the plan was read, described for information only, several URG supporters walked to the front and surrounded the Clerk’s table, and prevented the body from moving on to its next agenda item (revisions of Faith & Practice), insisting that the URG proposal be discussed and then acted upon.
They got their wish. Faith & Practice was set aside, and the URG plan was extensively debated (some Friends might object to the term “debate,” but I’ll let it stand.) And in the end, the URG got its wish, but didn’t reach its goal. When the Clerk asked for approval, there were also numerous voices raised in disapproval, and the Clerk properly noted that there was no unity and the plan was set aside.
Did the “blockade” of the Clerk’s table (some URG supporters called it “eldering”) & the disruption of the session spark this opposition? To some extent it seems likely. Even URG leader Lucy Duncan, who helped present the plan, later wrote that “Though it felt as though there was urgency and spirit moving, I can see how some would interpret this as pushing too hard, perhaps even bullying.” (Facebook August 4, 2016)
It would also hardly be a surprise if some resolved not to reward such behavior but to rebuke it.
Furthermore, the plan’s rhetoric reportedly alienated some. It spoke repeatedly of the YM as embodying & supporting “white supremacy” and “racism.” Yet, for me at least, trying to see PHYM in a larger social perspective makes this terminology problematic. As the PHYM session gathered, the larger society was in the midst of a turbulent political campaign in which avowedly white nationalist groups were being mainstreamed and openly bigoted attitudes were being articulated by leading candidates. (This “mainstreaming” has continued since the November election.)
“White supremacy” and “racism” seem quite correct applied to them and their agendas (& still do). But using the same terminology to describe PHYM? Certainly this nearly all-white Quaker body needs work. But to some at least, hearing it lumped into the same rhetorical category as those giving Nazi salutes, reviving the Klan, and vowing to rid the country of Muslims and Latinos (not to mention the ominous anti-semitic stirrings) would seem at least inaccurate if not downright offensive. After all, PHYM has many faults; but it is also the body that produced John Woolman, Lucretia Mott, and Bayard Rustin. It is not the Klan, or The Daily Stormer.
Yet there were also substantive objections, which to my mind deserve careful attention. Let’s look first at the URG proposal. The full text is here, but this excerpt and this diagram that came with it makes its thrust visible:
From URG Plan, submitted at PYM annual session 2016
“Proposed Structure and Leadership for the Undoing Racism Group of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting” (Excerpt)
In order for PYM to fully live out its commitment to ending racism in our midst, it will be essential for the body to understand that unless we are actively resisting racism, a majority white body will perpetuate the racism and white supremacy.
We believe it is essential that the Undoing Racism Group also be placed within the structure of PYM in such a way that it has the responsibility to hold the yearly meeting accountable to its corporate witness around racism.
Our primary purpose and goal is to eliminate racism and white supremacy in our Yearly Meeting. We will achieve our purpose by:
• forming a Care Committee, consisting of Friends of Color dedicated to the service of holding the Yearly Meeting and our clerks accountable in a loving and faithful manner
In sum, the plan would have given the URG an all-pervasive status, with a seat at every PHYM table, a finger in every pie, a voice in every deliberation & hiring choice, and the mandate to “hold accountable” all of it, according to standards they would define & set. Which frankly sounds like having a veto, though the term was not used. Further, the URG would be self-forming & autonomous, outside the established PHYM Nominating mechanisms. The arrangement would continue until URG felt its work was done.
Pondering this, I was not surprised that the Implementation Committee balked at it, followed by many at the 2016 annual session. And the reasons, while surrounded by layers of mushy talk, were pretty straightforward. The Committee wrote:
Our sense is that the autonomous role proposed by URG for itself in the recent proposal is not in alignment with the expectation that the work of ending racism be the work of our entire community, nor with the manner of holding authority and accountability as envisioned in the Long Range Plan approved by PYM. This creates a conflict for a group that wants to exist within the structure of the Yearly Meeting.
The URG plan, some said, seemed less to “fit into” the PYM structure, but looked more like a takeover: it would have been similar to a receivership, when an outside authority takes control of a foundering body, and is empowered to take drastic steps to revive and rescue it. And even from the distance of several hundred miles, that’s how it reads.
It may be that the URG really believes PHYM is in just such desperate shape. Or perhaps they didn’t see all these troubling implications.
Whichever, others saw them, said so, and didn’t back off. Indeed, this session marked the third time by my count that the URG has made a proposal and been rebuffed.
From my outside standpoint, it seems that URG’s repeated failures are not so much proof of ineradicable racism in PHYM, but suggest rather that they have misunderstood some key elements of the body’s history & evolution.
To explain, let me call on one of PHYM’s patron saints, Lucretia Mott. When Lucretia came into PHYM, it was nothing like the oft-praised equalitarian “spiritual democracy” frequently evoked by today’s fuzzy liberals. To the contrary, it was a strict top-down hierarchy, run by “Select Meetings” of ministers, elders & overseers.
Yes, overseers –and however unfashionable that term is today, it described them well — their task was to “See-Over” the rank & file, from their elevated perch on the facing benches (& everywhere else too), and enforce many quite specific rules. [The photo below is of the three rows of elevated facing benches at the historic Arch Street Meetinghouse in Philadelphia. For many decades, they were more than simply decorative, but expressions of power & hierarchy.]
The overseers were appointed essentially for life, and did not answer to the meetings they oversaw.
Lucretia’s ability soon gave her entry into the PYM Select Meetings. But instead of climbing the ladder, she quickly began to chafe under their weight & pettifoggery, which involved disowning people left and right.
[The photo below is of the Longwood Progressive Friends Meetinghouse, next to Longwood Gardens, Pennsylvania, 1865.]
And not one to merely talk, Lucretia was soon a leading figure in a grassroots rebellion, which became visible in the Progressive Friends movement. Lucretia and other key Progressives worked from inside PHYM (& other YMs), demanding an end to the Select Meetings, abolition of recording & snoopy overseers, and replacement of the hierarchical pyramid with a flattened congregational structure. They wanted monthly meetings to be the “center” and Quarters and Yearly Meeting were to serve, and not rule them. [Photo below is of the earlier, hierarchical Quaker church structure, which lasted more than 200 years.]
Lucretia did not live to see the achievement of the Progressive reforms, but they were in place by the of the 1920s, and were ingrained in the PHYM ethos by the time of the reunification in 1955.
Few Friends today know this history. Yet for almost a century, this congregation-centered structure has continued. In Philadelphia some of this reality was obscured by the comparatively huge PHYM central staff (peaking at 50+ full-time at the turn of this century).
But this top-heavy wheel-spinning (financed by the way, mainly with dead Quakers’ bequest income) did not replicate the old pyramid’s rule. One reason is that among the thousands of convinced Friends who joined during those decades, there were very many who had left other authoritarian churches. And they did not expect to bow to Philadelphia (well, unless they were looking for a job, a grant, or scholarships for their kids). Along the way, innocent of Friends’ history, they invented a new Testimony called Equality & inaccurately projected it back to Fox’s time.
Now comes the URG, whose plan called for setting up a new cohort of overseers in every nook and cranny of PHYM, with mysterious measuring rods and the power to call down the electric furies of “racism” on miscreants at their option.
Structurally, this would be a big step back toward a past which PHYM had long ago left behind, and many members had rejected in other settings, and were very hesitant to go through again.
Perhaps this description will be unwelcome to some in the URG. When the point was raised, according to the minutes:
Another Friend asked for clarity about what seems to be a hierarchical nature of the proposed structure. The response was that it is a relational body, not a supervisory body.
Nevertheless, the resemblances to that old order were more than a few, and all unsettling:
For one thing, the URG in the proposal was answerable only to itself, like the old Select Meetings. And like them, its jurisdiction and tenure were essentially unlimited. And there’s that freighted phrase, “hold accountable”.
Moreover, in the proposal, both “racism” and “resisting racism” are referred to in doctrinal terms: the URG asserted that it knows (best) what the one is, and how (best) to do the other. Expressing doubts about this is typically seen as evidence of racism (i. e., heresy). I don’t say the URG Friends all think this way, but that’s how it reads.
Now into this mix has been tossed the bombshell of staff changes: four positions dealing with children and young Friends are abolished. They’ll be replaced with contract workers hired by the event, overseen (there’s that word again) by one full-time office staff member.
And General Secretary Christy Duncan Tessmer’s Executive Assistant, Marille Heallis [photo at left], is being demoted: from full-time to 60 per cent time, and at a lower hourly rate. (She was also, she has written, offered a substantial severance package if she declined the demotion and left the staff.)
The youth staff cuts will be regretted and grumbled at; Marille Heallis’s demotion has already sparked outrage and calls for resistance.
Heallis has filed a discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. And she has gone public, with a lengthy blog post detailing her charges of being chronically discriminated against by her boss.
Her complaint was echoed by a former colleague, Jennie Sheeks, who was for several years PHYM’s fundraising staffer, until she left earlier this year. In a Facebook post on March 8, she was asked if she believed the demotion was an act of racist retaliation. She replied:
Jennie Sheeks [photo at left]: Yes, I’m so pained to say, that is my conclusion from what I’ve witnessed over many months and after much attempt by many people to quietly, with confidentiality, and with love help Christie. I do not say this lightly. I do not say it with any motive other than Marille’s protection from abuse. I do not say it without having exhausted other routes and means of addressing the injustice. And I didn’t want to say any of it. I’m tired of trying to fix what’s broken here. But there is no one else who had as close a vantage point as me who can speak without fear of loosing their job, so I feel bound to take on this uncomfortable and awkward role bringing the hidden to light.
(Christie Duncan-Tessmer did not return my call seeking comment.)
A key URG member, Lucy Duncan, said of this in a Facebook comment on March 20 that
if the body [of PHYM] had approved the URG structure proposed [at annual session 2016], this decision would never have been made: the proposal was intended to guard against such overt abuses of power that arise from white assumptions of superiority.
While this was an individual comment in an obscure thread, it was still notable for contradicting the statement in annual session that the URG presence would not be “relational” and not “supervisory.” Stopping the CEO of the organization from changing the status of her own assistant is pretty straight-up supervisory.
So will anything come from all this at the PHYM session on March 25?
It isn’t supposed to. Such sessions are typically very much scripted and scheduled in advance, with little time or space for anything spontaneous to happen. And the published schedule indicates that there will be some time for questions about the staff changes. But on the other hand, there have been disruptions at recent PHYM sessions, so sometime things don’t go according to plan.
But the changes will not be up for review; wise or not, fair or not, the General Secretary oversees (sic) the staff, and staffing decisions are her call. And with legal action in the offing, Duncan-Tessmer has all the more incentive to listen and say little beyond, “Thank thee Friend.”
Yet even if the lid stays on at this weekend’s session, these rumblings in PHYM are signs of a body in significant internal disarray. And frankly, with the burgeoning return of organized, high-power racism (not to mention numerous other plagues) all around it, this turmoil could not come at a more inopportune time.