SAYMA’s Representative Meeting gathered on Zoom the evening of July 20, and lasted amost four hours. More than forty persons were on the line. It was not an easy session.
The main agenda items were a summary review of the 2019-2020 budget, and the initial reading of the 2020-2021 proposed budget (their fiscal year begins in October). SAYMA budgets are typically presented at one business session (usually at their yearly meeting, canceled for 2020), then acted on by a later session.
While the budget was the stated main item, the elephant in the room was the URJ Committee and its Clerk, Sharon Smith, and her demand for $20,000 of SAYMA’s funds for next year. This “elephant” appeared in comments about how URJ’s reporting on how it spent funds granted this past year lacked adequate accountability and raised “integrity issues” for the body. Indeed, these concerns are broadly shared enough that some meetings (e.g., Celo and Chattanooga, here) and individuals have called for an end to any funding for URJ and its replacement after careful and searching SAYMA-wide discernment.
So the elephant made itself known frequently, but without any clear resolution.
The proposed budget includes a $2500 allocation for URJ, quite a comedown from Smith’s $20,000 demand, but still $2500 more than than some preferred. That figure was not discussed, however.
What was discussed, at length, was a proposal not in the budget, but put forth by the new Finance Committee Clerk, Geeta McGahey.
McGahey wanted to add $500 as initial funding for a new Committee on “Conflict Transformation,” which would hire a facilitator from the Friends Center for Racial Justice, a project based in Ithaca, New York. The new Committee, she explained, would begin consultations in SAYMA aimed at “transforming” the ongoing conflict over URJ and Smith.
The proposal evoked strong pushback.
It was pointed out that there was no written proposal; no description of committee structure or scope of work; no budget for it, beyond the verbal statement that the $500 was a beginning; nor had any local meetings been notified that it was coming with any time to consider, and in Quaker parlance to “season” it.
McGahey said the idea had come up quickly and consultations had been hasty, but would continue.
Objections also continued. Chuck Jones of Chattanooga said he felt a need to consult with his home meeting about it first. A former Finance Committee clerk and SAYMA Treasurer, Charles Schade, said he felt very burned by the body taking similar actions based mainly on the word of a clerk, in the case of URJ, and that if SAYMA got into another mess like that with conflict resolution, it could be counterproductive and worse.
Catherine Peck spoke of having worked for many years with nonprofits, including some major groups run by prominent persons of color.
Peck recognized the need for help with conflict resolution, but urged the body to be “very very careful here, because we have seen what happens when we are not.” She added that the conflict over URJ and Smith had left SAYMA in a condition of “stasis” (i.e, stuck or paralyzed), and the body was now seriously “at risk” of even more damage from hasty or ill-considered action.
The SAYMA Clerk, concluded there was not unity to form a new committee. Nevertheless, McGahey acted as if it had been approved anyway, and asked for personal donations so those involved could continue plans, and make arrangements with a facilitator from the Friends Center for Racial Justice.
FCRJ’s head, Angela Hopkins, was on the call, and spoke about how she was already preparing to put SAYMA through a rigorous program with “a racial lens” toward an undefined “transformation,” and that the process would take much time and strong commitment from participants and the body. It was as if, regardless of the Rep. meeting, the deal was already done.
At length, the budget’s first reading was accepted, its content to be acted on at the next Representative session; and shortly afterward, the meeting closed.
In a long “Open Letter to SAYMA Friends of Color,” sent in June 2019, Sharon Smith spoke repeatedly about the importance of “controlling the narrative” as a key to success in her version of racial justice work. For instance,
IF the goal is to undo Quaker racism, white Friends cannot be allowed to control the narrative the processes or the resources regarding that effort. It certainly is not about protecting their allegedly fragile feelings, believe me. According to all the experts, white people are supposed to be learning to sit with their fear and discomfort, instead of tone policing, pathologizing, tokenizing, victim blaming and shaming people of color who challenge their racism, conscious or not. That shit is NOT OK. It’s also abusive.
After reading widely in her various writings, and researching her record, it’s evident to me that Smith makes considerable use of this “control the narrative” tactic in dealing with SAYMA and Friends, often with much success. “Sit with,” in her usage, amounts to “shut up.”
The “narrative” in question, as she has worked to control it, comes down to this: the problems and conflicts between her and many in SAYMA are all the result of white racism. The “Root Causes,” she declared in a recent email, are: “White supremacy/racism among Friends.” Nothing else. And many of those who she says are most racist have been in leadership positions, as listed in our last blog post. In her words,
“the above list are those known to be upholding white supremacy, causing the most harm to Friends of color, particularly URJ members, through their leadership roles in SAYMA . . .” And “There are others as yet to be identified . . . .”
Her solution to the problem is “conflict resolution,” via anti-racism training and leadership, which would presumably either reprogram the most offending whites to support her views and projects, or get them out of the way.
Many white Friends are very susceptible to such claims, or have been guilt-tripped into silence by them, so much so that many entirely missed (or ignored) the fact that the main objections to Smith and her performance are actually of an entirely different character.
That is, Smith’s “controlling narrative” about SAYMA is not the only one. The other, which struggled to be heard at the Monday session, is one about “organizational integrity.” In sum, many SAYMA Friends, and some meetings, have concluded, with regret but resolve, that Smith’s words and behavior have repeatedly damaged and degraded SAYMA’s organizational integrity, making support of her work not only counterproductive but downright destructive.
In part, this view results from sketchy financial management. But it is also based on mamy non-monetary events such as her presuming to act as SAYMA’s gatekeeper and censor.
Smith has carried this self-anointed status to the point of disrupting yearly meeting sessions, shutting down approved programs, and even making physical threats, most recently against Friend Paula Palmer, because Smith does not approve of Palmer’s approach to Native American issues. Meanwhile she expects SAYMA to pay her for all this, circling back to financial concerns.
So the first key point in understanding SAYMA’s situation is that Smith’s “narrative of the the conflict is not the only one, and not even the actual one. The other description is that SAYMA’s problem is the undermining of its organizational integrity.
If there is a genuine conflict to be resolved here, it is between these “competing narratives,” or accounts of the issues, to wit:
A. SAYMA is being ruined by white racist behavior by Friends on the Enemies list, behavior aimed solely at Sharon Smith. Or
B. SAYMA’s organizational integrity is being ruined by chronic bad and abusive behavior by Sharon Smith, which must end.
This alternate vision is one that Smith has worked very hard to obfuscate, deflect or dismiss, by crying “racism” loudly and disruptively enough to “control the narrative.”
But it is there all the same, and not new. Even at the Monday evening session, the struggle over “narrative control” was hotly in play. Smith became very angry and profane at one point when the former Finance Committee Clerk, Charles Schade, carefully restated his longstanding concern that URJ’s financial behavior with grant funds left “integrity issues” unresolved.
Later Free Polazzo, who is a CPA, also tried to raise similar points. Responding to the “Conflict Transformation” idea, he said, “We are not talking about the real conflict here.” And part of the real conflict, he added, is that Smith has bullied and abused others repeatedly. And he too said he has had difficulty having his views heard.
Perhaps the most effective skeptic about the initial committee idea was Catherine Peck. She said that SAYMA was in “stasis” (i.e., paralyzed), and explained that this decay was largely the result of having approved spending large amounts of money without reporting, with no safeguards against conflicts of interest, or meaningful accountability.
She added that she had worked with many nonprofits, including a number run by people of color.
And she said she was confident that none of these groups would ever have operated in such a sloppy manner as this — because clear standards of financial probity protected not only the group, but also the people of color they funded, against attacks from the outside or corruption within. No nonprofit which wanted to stay solvent and survive, Peck said, would do what SAYMA did. “We made a mistake in not [having standards],” she concluded. “Let’s own that we made a mistake, and do better going forward.”
When she finished, the Zoom “room” echoed with many voices saying, “This Friend speaks my mind.” No other comment was met with anywhere near as much acclaim.
So the point here is that the actual conflict in SAYMA is between what could be called the “Racism” view, and on the other hand an “Integrity” perspective. Insisting that a concern for integrity is nothing more than racism is to load the dice, and rig the exercise.
And this leads to a second key point, about the proposed “Conflict Transformation Committee,” namely that its initial composition, as presented Monday, is very skewed and biased toward Smith’s “Racism” narrative.
Besides Smith herself, it includes Shannon Roberts Smith, whose lack of “conflict transformation” skills were on flagrantly embarrassing display in a caustic and vituperative blog post she wrote in attempted rebuttal to mine. What the post showed instead was her unfitness to play a constructive role in authentic conflict resolution efforts involving legitimate differences such as now exist in SAYMA. A credible effort will have to do better.
Furthermore, the current Racism “narrative,” in my judgment, sets up a false dichotomy between working to overcome racism and regaining SAYMA’s integrity.
This point was underlined by yesterday’s blog post, about 1960 the prosecution of Dr. Martin Luther King on tax fraud and perjury charges, which almost ended his career: King’s victory in the case shows that maintaining (or recovering) organizational integrity is effective anti-racist work.
For meaningful conflict resolution, the facilitators will need to be — and to be seen as — impartial, fair-minded, and knowledgeable in appropriate subject matter. Thus it was no surprise Monday that Geeta McGahey’s push for this unvetted, very off-balance committee roster and open-ended funding ran smack into a wall of doubt and unease.
The SAYMA Clerk was quite right in reporting that the group was not at all ready to accept the idea as it was. McGahey’s blithe disregard of this clarity —in spite of the clerk’s sense, she acted as if an open-ended financial deal with the Friends center from Ithaca was green-lighted— was shockingly out of good order. McGahey needs to consider whether she serves the Yearly Meeting, or if SAYMA is meant to serve her hasty, less than half-baked notions.
One other who understood that the Rep. session had not gone entirely her way was Sharon Smith.
That was evidently why she described it in a widely-forwarded email on Tuesday as “That shit show of a meeting last night . . .”
In trheory, conflict resolution work in SAYMA to bring these tensions over Racism and group Integrity together may be a good idea. The two poles are far apart now, but are not mutually exclusive. There is no reason why SAYMA can’t maintain high organizational integrity and be anti-racist. Yet bridging them here would require both much skill and visible fairness to all the parties involved.
And as far as can be seen now, neither of these is in evidence here. Not yet. I heard what sounded like a sales pitch from FCRJ’s Angela Hopkins, which looked ahead to a substantial consulting contract, but did not address the issues around integrity at all. Are they not on FCRJ’s radar screen, or in its skill set? Is the center really qualified for this particular work?
Furthermore, when the 2021 budget comes up again in the upcoming September session (the date TBA), a fair discernment will include much fuller engagement with the deep concerns about rebuilding SAYMA’s group Integrity.
Dismissing all such questioning as “white racism” is false and manipulative, and will only feed conflict, not move toward resolving it.
And not least, can such a discernment avoid the strong concerns raised by so many about the need to fundamentally rethink and recreate SAYMA’s work on racial justice issues? After George Floyd and the surge of Black Lives Matter, can the call for SAYMA to “own that we made a mistake, and do better going forward,” be put off or delayed any longer?
And will such rethinking be possible without putting a firm stop to such practices as censoring and threatening other Friends (or anyone) about their legitimate Quaker or other justice concerns?
SAYMA, Catherine Peck said, is seriously “at risk” in its current state of paralysis.
That Friend spoke my mind too.
Earlier blog posts in this series begin here.