AFSC After “The Day The Movement Died”

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 at 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.

Our bus to Washington, The Day The Movement Died.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

The March for Science, Raleigh NC

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:

Advancement

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.

24 thoughts on “AFSC After “The Day The Movement Died””

      1. Quaker voluntary service used to be the foundation of AFSC. Now, and over the last 40 years, I have felt dismissed.

        1. You were dismissed, dissed, and delisted… unless you were on the major donors’ list.
          Even as a volunteer —let alone applying to earn a living by working for P&J— my Quakerism was held against me. Local executives and boards refused to dialog. They threw out our carefully developed plans, our networks & communities, as well as the work of our volunteers as if it were spilled toilet paper, without even a thank-you.

        2. Yup, dismissed. After 55 years of involvement as a Friend in AFSC, starting with work camps in Philly, and the last 20 most intensively in immigration/refugee advocacy, First Nation and disaster relief work, I “stepped back” [resigned, essentially] since I felt very much the way Chuck Fager laid it out — the cultural appropriation, staff direction of volunteers focused on getting funding and bodies at rallies [and attending the panoply of “training workshops” where non-Q staff tell Qs how to do Q work], declining Quaker character and influence in decisions on policy, strategy and tactics. No place in the hyper-woke “dismantling racism and white supremacy” AFSC world for an old cis-gendered guy, Q or not. Weary after years of being discounted and disrespected. Plenty of other places to put my energy.
          And importantly, there is so much great work being done by younger folx [including a lot of what local AFSC staff do], that I know the work will go on in such good ways. So maybe the passing of the torch to those other orgs and movement sectors [including of course all of the immigrant and other “most affected” members of our communities] is timely. Maybe recognizing that AFSC is no longer a Q org is overdue — maybe Friends will find new avenues for “mending the world” — maybe we already have. And AFSC can re-brand as whatever it is, that it has become, and will be. Godspeed, right?
          Would love to hear more from Chuck on the “Q hot mess” — how do we as Friends rise up out of that, and move forward in this new Century to turn our Q heritage and spiritual grounding and faith community energy and other resources into a potent force for good in the world?

    1. Catholic Community Services
      Lutheran Immigration Services
      Mennonite Disaster Service
      Sabeel
      FCNL
      etc etc etc
      Which congregations [denomination irrelevant] and service orgs in your community are organizing volunteers and doing the work? How is your Meeting tied into those focal points for action?

  1. QINO. Thanks, again, Chuck for your reporting. We’re all getting old; hope there’s a Chuck in training. Or is what you do also obsolete?

    1. You ask good questions, Errol. The only sure answer I have is to agree with you that we’re all getting old. I hope there’s somebody about to graduate from the Advanced Gadfly Program at a community college, in the “Guaranteed Not To Be Profitable Career Paths” Department, foolish enough to pick up where I’ll one of these days leave off. But one other thing I’m reasonably sure of: as long as there are Quakers, there will be grist for this or another such mill. Always good to hear from thee.

  2. I still want to know who AFSC’s top ten donors are, and whether they are players in all of this. Any strings attached?

    Both AFSC and the Duncanites seem opaque on this.

  3. Had hope when people like Lucy Duncan began working for AFSC that there would be a change for good. Looking over the current projects, I can see why fundraising is a problem. Using terms like defined the police do not sit well with most folks. Sure, I would like to see police budgets include funding for social workers.

    Would like to see more work in conflict resolution programs in our schools and communities.

    1. AFSC’s SE Region we had a very popular program called “Help increase the Peace” or HIP I know the Middle Atlantic Region also had one. It went into mostly High Schools and did one day workshops modeled after AVP (a very successful organization that offers workshop on how to use Alternatives to Violence.

      Our HIP ptogram had as its program director one of my son’s best friends in HS. I heard it was shut down because of a budget cut that reqitlred closing HIP or a very old program that helped people avoid Militarty Draft (i imagine that you, Chuck) had heard of both programs. One was being invited into HS by faculty and school administrators. The other was not allowed into schools. Guess which was defunded?

      What a dumb move. I am not sure if we still had a military draft (late 1990’s).

      I have too many stories like this one.

      Our current staff here in Atlanta does not even communicate with former board members and YM reps on those boards.

  4. Thanks for that background information about the past and present rise of many rallying organizations with new, important human rights/human-respect goals. Some younger critics of the reorg. plan are not aware of how finances and anti-a-war goals and the US recession inflicted a great financial hit. Of necessity, it changed AFSC and closed many of its “action nodes” around the US.
    But many of those excellent action sites do persist and are supported by the organization. Though some critics, in fact, seem to be speaking for a transformation of this still huge international organization into total management somehow by those enthusiastic on-the-ground workers.
    AFSC certainly does support them. They are important social helpers. And the active overseas AFSC workers also are supported. The AFSC web site and outreach staff also are doing human-helpful actions in and with Quakers and our Meetings. I find them very helpful. And the expanded goals, too, are well worth supporting.
    Let us not undermine this work. I urge that we back this existing, reputational, contributing organization, whose leaders are following Quaker practices of deep listening and responding. AFSC cannot be everything to everybody, but it has much still to give.

    1. Anne –

      That’s fine, but do we know if donors left because AFSC was anti-war??? Sounds weird. But new class of donors.

      I still have no idea who those big donors are, and whether they carry carrots or sticks.

      My organization does work with some AFSC offices abroad (and they seem grossly inefficient, though I am not inside enough to really tell.)

    2. I agree that AFSC is a worthwhile organization. One of it’s original missions, Quaker service, has been neglected or dropped.

  5. Chuck has hit the nail on the head! For decades the only time AFSC has wanted Quakers around is for fund-raising. The tone of its website and communications has been steadily secularized until you can’t tell it from any other NGO of leftist persuasion. When my daughter graduated from Guilford, she was interested in working for AFSC and inquired about how to write an effective resume and I was told point blank, delete any reference to her being a birthright Quaker, her CV with the MM or YM, and try to find somebody of color in your family tree!

    1. Yeah. Over the past 10 or 15 years, I was told three times – once at Philadelphia when I was a YM Corporation member, twice locally in the Iowa and then San Diego-based regions, that I was not the person they were looking for [for the Board, or Regional committees that had pro-formally asked for volunteers from the Q volunteer and Meeting base] because I was white, old and cis-gender male. Of course that was phrased as, we need to be diverse, or something equally nice to say. So kind of like Chuck alluded to, you can be 95-99% non-Quaker staff, or you can be a Q org — not both. Qs are, like it or not, mostly white, and largely of the getting on in years persuasion. If AFSC leadership/staff has a problem with that, and so have a problem with mining the whole pool of candidates for service/leadership/staff positions in the org, then AFSC has a problem with Quakers. IJS.

  6. Bye bye ms afsc pie … good comments Mr F! Let it go… its not yr mom’s AFSC any more, has not been for a long time. when McNish was head of AfSC I often asked where in their agenda was that of God in everyone? Quakers can change the world and we need to stop looking back for help to an organization that is no longer part of us….the levee is dry….

    1. When the Quakers tried to (re)take the field/The other band refused to yield/Do You recall what was revealed/The Day “The Movement” Died? . . . I met a girl who sang the blues/and I asked her for some happy news/But she just smiled and turned away . . . .

      1. The Movement died the day Obama started bombing people of color and world heritage sites. Seven countries in eight years. There was no longer a place for a service organization built on a prophetic tradition. The lights went out.

  7. The Chicago AFSC office with Jennifer Bing is doing some great work on support for legislation to end US military funding that enables the Israeli military to detain and harm Palestinian children, hundreds each year. Bing et al do fine zoom presentations in Yearly Friends Meetings. Book one for yours! These lead to action minutes. A new extra focus on the suffering in Gaza is coming shortly. Check the AFSC web site. Please, Friends, join in and work for Palestinian human rights and freedom.
    Frankly, I believe there are many other AFSC regional and national offices doing excellent work. Support with hearts and voices. AFSC still has much to give.

  8. I was appalled to learn, in connection with the restructuring controversy, that AFSC staff had found it necessary to organize in order to protect their interests. (I take it this is actually old news, but it was new to me.)

    I see this as a huge red flag. While I have long supported the right of labor to organize, I have also felt that — given enlightened and fair-minded management — labor should not need to organize; and AFSC of all organizations ought to have enlightened and fair-minded management.

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