Having read and pondered the lengthy memo from General Secretary Joyce Aljouny laying out the plans for the latest AFSC Restructure, I think I’ve figured out what’s going on there.
It has little to do with the current effort to stoke a staff rebellion, so we’ll deal with that only in passing. Its roots, I think, go back years before, fourteen in fact, to January 27, 2007, which is better remembered as, “The Day The Movement Died.”
I remember that day well, because I was there too.
Before dawn that morning I helped fill a bus in Fayetteville, North Carolina, headed north on I-95. We got off the bus near the Mall in Washington, and joined a big antiwar rally.
How big? One estimate said 500,000, another sniffed it was merely “thousands.” I don’t know, but it was big. There were banners and flags and speeches and music and all that. It was aimed at building pressure on Congress, newly taken over by Democrats, to stop the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The umbrella sponsor for the rally was, as noted by the Washington Post: “United for Peace and Justice, which describes itself as a coalition of 1,400 local and national organizations. Among them are the National Organization for Women, United Church of Christ, the American Friends Service Committee, True Majority, Military Families Speak Out, Iraq Veterans Against the War, Farms Not Arms, CODEPINK, MoveOn.org and September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows.
While AFSC was third among the groups listed above, it was among the top in UFPJ by internal weight. It had staff; it had money; it had a web of ten regional offices and thousands of contacts; and it carried an air of respectability which had been ratified by a Nobel Peace Prize in 1947.
While not large as Washington lobbies went, AFSC’s activist clout dwarfed that of most of the peace groups on the UFPJ roster. Further, AFSC had held this unofficial but key position for decades, ever since the national “peace movement” surged out of the civil rights struggles and onto the streets of Washington and New York in 1965, during the escalation of the Vietnam War, and then spread across the country.
Spirits were high that January 2007 rally day. Hopes also. Former U. S. Senate majority leader Tom Daschle told a reporter of the rally, “Its primary value is that it keeps up the pressure. There is a sense that by summer, a march like this will be two or three times as large.”
Our Fayetteville busload was hopeful too. In fact, we were planning to quickly ratchet up the pressure from our little base in flyover country, with a follow-up rally seven weeks hence, on the doleful anniversary of the Iraq invasion.
It would be our fourth annual observance, events which had included by far the largest protests in Fayetteville’s history. We passed out hundreds of flyers for it in Washington.
By late afternoon, as the big crowd dispersed, we headed back to the bus, tired but exhilarated with a sense of momentum and initiative. The movement, we felt, was on the move.
Except, it wasn’t.
Our first contrary signal came abruptly, like a cold slap in the face, on March 17: our Fayetteville peace rally, which we had worked on, refined and promoted for months, was a miserable failure; only a few hundred showed up. The police, military and civilian, who had eyed our thousands so warily in earlier years, had trouble hiding the snickers under their plastic face masks surveying our long rows of vacant folding chairs.
At the time, I was Director of Quaker House in Fayetteville, a peace project near Fort Bragg, one of the largest U.S. military bases. We still had work to do, including mounting small local antiwar vigils, as we had done for years. But 2007 was our last big local rally.
UFPJ’s hopes for national follow-up actions also dissipated like smoke on a windy day, in internal squabbles and departures. Within a few months, its 1400-member coalition had scattered like handfuls of confetti tossed from an upper story office window.
In truth, the big January rally, so optimistic in its rhetoric, was not the prelude to bigger, more forceful peace mobilizations. Instead, it was actually the very last one of a forty-year string, the swan song and final spasm of “the movement.” It took awhile for us to face it, but that’s what it was.
And what of AFSC? At the beginning of the Iraq war, its General Secretary, was not shy about boasting of its movement stature:
AFSC “experienced another landmark year in 2003. The philosophy we’ve lived by became the engine for a nationwide movement: . . . Since 1917, AFSC has been building partnerships, establishing friendships, earning trust and respect. That history, based on fairness and justice, put us at the forefront of the national peace campaign. We’ve been eager to reach out to new participants in our activities and provide inspiration and encouragement for others to take action.” (2003 Annual Report)
Two years later she was just as ebullient:
“This year, the growing peace movement inspired actions against the war in Iraq on the part of people in this country, putting our concerns squarely in the public spotlight. Mass mobilizations and public protests are not new to AFSC. Our archives are filled with successful strategies and programs going back to the Vietnam War and even earlier.” (2005 Annual Report)
However, the 2007 Annual Report, and later ones, still reported “peacebuilding” work, but were silent about “the movement.” That’s because it was over.
What happened to it?
I don’t know of any authoritative analysis, but here’s my take. The end of “The Movement” involved:
- Aging. AFSC’s movement grew out of the civil rights drive, as the Vietnam war bombed its way to the center of public attention, beginning in mid-1965. I was part of that, starting at age 23. In 2007, I was 42 years older, eligible for Medicare, with Social Security on the horizon. So were the other surviving early activists. Generational churn happens.
- Other movements: feminists, LGBTQs, environmental, Blacks, etc., once “intersectional” to “The Movement,” had matured and were charting their own paths, with their own agendas, leadership and constituencies.
- Within a fortnight of the big January rally, Barack Obama announced his candidacy for president. And Hillary Clinton had announced two weeks before it. These two campaigns sucked up enormous amounts of enthusiasm, organizing and cash from Movement-aligned folks, almost all of whom were Democrats, of voting age. There went the troops and the bucks.
- Not least, by April of 2007, an economic slump began which soon spiraled into the worst crash in nearly 80 years. Among the millions left unemployed, homeless, crippled or staggering in its wake was — the American Friends Service Committee.
How bad was it for AFSC? The Philadelphia Inquirer summed up the impact of the crash:
The toll has been dramatic: Revenue dropped 31 percent from 2007 ($42.5 million) to 2009 ($29.3 million). With an operating budget of $43.8 million, that left a gaping deficit last year of $14.5 million.
. . . Ultimately, the staff was cut [by 40%] to 208 employees from 347. Programming was cut 30 percent as well.”
Moreover, the 2007-08 cuts were only the first round. They were followed by additional forced cuts in three more years, including at the time of AFSC’s much ballyhooed 2017 centennial.
Moreover, beyond staff and program cuts, office consolidation was brutal: in 1977, AFSC had thirteen regional offices, from Massachusetts to southern California. After 2011 it was down to four, and the restructure memo hints broadly that these may soon be on the block as well.
So let’s sum up: In the pivotal years of 2007-08, AFSC lost “the movement” which had been its main operational turf and corporate identity, and in which it had been a central weighty force for forty years. Then the energy and attention of most rising activists were drawn away by other well-established (and often better-funded) issue groups, or seemingly pathbreaking political figures. And besides, it soon suffered financial reverses which left it drastically shrunken in personnel, footprint and budget.
Any one of these would have been traumatic enough; the combination must have left many in (or now out of) AFSC with serious PTSD. Yet its lingering effects provide outsiders with a better understanding of the direction of the restructuring plan, as envisioned in the April 2021 memo.
At least it does for me.
What I see in the documents is a turnaround program. AFSC is like any number of companies battered by bad management and/or adverse market conditions, scrambling to survive. For such turnarounds, a new “leadership team” is hired, and lays out a scheme for recovering its “market share” (i.e., reclaiming hegemony in “the movement”), and [above all else, though for internal reasons it’s not at the top of the list] increasing “sales,” that is, raising more money – a lot more money. As Aljouny candidly puts it, near the end of the April Memo:
All of these timelines are aspirational and depend on the available resources and the organization’s fiscal status [her emphasis]. . . . I am committed to having any reorganization put AFSC on strong financial footing, in both the short-and long-term. Staff must be able to make informed choices about the resources they will have available to them, and the organization must take every possible step to avoid hiring for positions that resources cannot ultimately sustain.
“Aspirational,” is a good word, but tricky. It slyly reduces a “plan” to more of a “hope,” or even a wish list. The fact is that raising more money for AFSC has proven to be (trigger warning: more corporate buzzwords) a real “challenge,” which has faced strong “headwinds.” (Aka, a hard slog.)
That’s why the 2007-2009 mass layoffs were followed by others (and maybe more to come). This downsizing was not, despite the cries of staff insurgents, the result of some mean NGO hierarchs’ plot; AFSC simply didn’t have the money to support the existing staff and programs.
And IRL no money trumps handwringing, every time.
My sense is that the fundraising difficulties have been worsened by the disappearance of “the movement,” because AFSC had made it their focus since the early 1970s. But it’s now been gone for fourteen years, which have also been hard years for AFSC. The plan and the Memo show it has never been replaced; AFSC — both “leadership team” and field activists — still yearn for the old days. So it’s facing a triple deficit: fewer dollars, a shrinking constituency to collect them from, and no compelling story to move the hearts and reopen the wallets.
The Strategic Plan appears to recognize this. Five times it speaks of the restructure as aiming not only to rebuild AFSC itself, but also to spur “movement building” on a broad “intersectional” (that is, multi-issue) basis.
So they’re setting out not only to reconstruct the organization and recapture its diminished prestige, but also to replicate the social-political context in which that stature was maintained.
That’s a big ambition; maybe too big. And maybe worse, obsolete.
After all, while “the movement” has gone, there has still been plenty of mass activism since: think of the enormous women’s rally after Trump’s inauguration. Or the marches for science. And of course, the ongoing Black Lives Matter reckoning. Plus climate agitation; and same sex marriage.
Surely AFSC had staff and supporters involved in them; but in none was it a central player, as it so confidently was when we came to Washington in January 2007.
The activist world has changed, along with everything else. Reflecting on the Strategic/Restructure plans, I wonder if AFSC is not now more like a “legacy” automaker, rolling out a new model which gets more miles per gallon of gas – at the moment when the industry (and the world) is turning to electric vehicles.
Or like (if anyone now remembers it) Blockbuster Video, whose 9000 stores stuffed with VHS tapes and DVDs once ruled the movie rental market. But it turned out that their video revolution would not in fact be televised – it was streamed (as, for that matter, was a later uprising, on January 6, 2021 at the U.S. Capitol); movies are still here, but Blockbuster, which didn’t adjust, is now long gone.
Another, sadder reality is clarified in the restructure/plan: When AFSC turned to “the movement:” in the early 1970s, it dumped Quakers. Not implicitly, but overtly. As its historian, Gregory Barnes, put it,
. . . one 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. (Barnes, Gregory. A Centennial History of the American Friends Service Committee, Chapter 20.)
The staff soon became and has long remained an almost entirely “Quaker-free zone,” (95-99% non-Quaker, depending on your figure). In a Zoom call about the recent staff kerfuffle, one participant, insisting she was a longtime supporter, wondered how AFSC could square its claims to be a “Quaker” organization, with the fact of employing almost none, now for decades?
She didn’t know how. Neither do I.
But I can tell you how the Restructure plan does it.
It puts Quakers, and connections with them, in a section near the end, “Advancement,” which means, more plainly, publicity and fundraising. To wit:
Over a 10-year horizon and consistent with the Strategic Plan, the advancement unit seeks to support greater fundraising for all of AFSC, greater visibility for the organization and its programs, and greater constituent engagement, including Friends, alumni, and young people, on advocacy goals.”
That is, Quakers will be tapped for support for (AFSC’s choice of) “advocacy goals” and (AFSC’s need for) fundraising (sign here, and write a check) and to otherwise buttress AFSC’s publicity efforts (for itself –Remember the Nobel Prize!).
I don’t doubt the “Leadership Team’s” sincerity. And I thank them for making the “connection” plain: But the hard truth is that AFSC’s version of Quakerism today is cultural appropriation pure and simple. Further, the relationship is colonial and extractive: you Quakers provide US with legitimacy, fundraising heft, and a few more bodies for vigils when we call. From us you get, basically, bupkis: nothing of substance. The Restructure plan intends to make some major changes in AFSC. That is not one of them.
Will the Restructure and Strategic Plan succeed? The leadership team thinks so. Aljouny’s Memo notes that among the “key factors” auguring for its success is that:
Many of the largest US institutional donors are looking to achieve systemic impact and to fund on an issue basis, rather than a geographic basis. AFSC would be better prepared to sustain a full range [of] US programs through the proposed reorganization.
Or more briefly, that’s where (they think) the future big money will be, and that’s where they’re aiming. Hey, maybe they’re right.
In any event, the current “resistance” by some staff intends to stop the plan, by talking it to death.
The Board will decide that. My predictions here are of a different stripe: that if the uprising succeeds, AFSC will soon be looking for a new “leadership team,” which will not challenge its shrinking status quo, and that will take a long time. Meanwhile fundraising will remain a serious “challenge.” And that “the movement” will not be coming back, either way. Nor will significant support from Quakers.
Oh, one more: despite the above, Quakerism, though a sprawling hot mess of its own, will survive its abandonment and exploitation by AFSC.
As, Friends, it already has. Since long before The Day The Movement Died.