EIGHT: Another False Dawn: AFSC, 1991-1992

A Friendly Letter, Written & published by Chuck Fager, Issue #127, 12th Month 1991

As the Corporation and Board of the American Friends Service Committee gathered for its annual meeting on 11/15-17, AFSC was on the brink of important change: A new Board clerk has taken hold. A new Executive Secretary, the most pivotal Quaker staff appointment of the decade, will soon be named (1/24/92 is the target date). And a major strategic planning process is underway.

For those Friends who have been calling for a redirection of AFSC, for its reweaving into the fabric of the Society of Friends, which created it and from which it draws its legitimacy, this time of transition is a season of hope. The prospects for constructive change seem better than they have for a generation. But will the impending changes be constructive and daring, or will they result in no more than a streamlined version of AFSC’s status quo? That is the question of the hour.


Another mark of change at the meeting was in the rhetoric: again and again, expressions of concern were voiced about Disaffected Friends,” (DFs for short), specifically Quakers who had long supported AFSC but do so no more, or only with considerable criticism. Though specifics were scarce, many pledges were made that AFSC is determined to repair its relationships with DFs, and with the Society of Friends generally.

Yet another indicator came in a ten-year summary and analysis of AFSC’s financial performance. This sobering report deserves a closer look. It showed that through the 1980s AFSC’s real income was basically flat, keeping up with inflation but little more. More disturbing, the report included a chart showing the average real income growth in the 1980s of two sets of groups somewhat like AFSC: One set, a batch of “public benefit” (Le., peace) groups, was up 69% for the 1980s, while the other, “human services” group was up by 29%.

These comparisons were unsettling enough, but there was more to the financial picture than that. For two years and more, from AFSC sources around the country, I have been hearing of budget and staff cuts. More surfaced at the annual meeting. These are so consistent and widespread that they cast doubt on whether the official portrayal of keeping up with inflation is really the whole story.

Against this background, one might think the 10-year report would have hit like a bombshell. But when she introduced it, National Board clerk Dulany Bennett commented that “many Quakers have a real revulsion about things financial.” This was prescient: After a few desultory questions, the group wanted to move on.

The supremely concrete question of money relates directly, if dialectically, to the highly abstract question of AFSC’s frayed relationship with the Society of Friends, DFs in particular. That’s because the record shows that its donors, especially big donors, give money because of the reputation, deserved or not, of Friends. As one Board member put it, “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. . . .’”


Many other mainline church agencies are in financial trouble, largely due to losses in legitimacy in the eyes of their rank and file. Presbyterians, Lutherans, the National Council of Churches, even the Catholic bishops– all have felt the pinch. This is a trend that AFSC ignores at its peril.

Nor was this erosion of legitimacy a hypothetical question at the annual meeting, due to two letters from yearly meetings which were read early on. The most significant was from Indiana Yearly Meeting, announcing the severing of all ties with AFSC. This decision had been expected (see AFL #119), and in fact elicited little reaction beyond expressions of regret. It seemed to fall into the same well of denial as the financial report.

The letters deserved more attention. Despite its many warts, Indiana is the heartland of midwestern Quakerism. Its loss should have rung like a fire bell in the night. Without it, any group with “American Friends” in its name has sprung a big leak in its Quaker identity and credibility.

Much the same could be said of the other letter, from Ohio Conservative YM. While maintaining formal ties, Ohio has taken AFSC out of its budget, after contributing almost since its inception 74 years ago. The money involved is hardly a drop in AFSC’s $25 million bucket; and Ohio YM has only a few hundred members. But it is important beyond its size: Ohio is the principal outpost of a crucial, if currently neglected, Quaker stream, the plain, Wilburite tradition. A Quaker body out of meaningful touch with it has lost another major piece of a Quaker identity.


At the political level, the differences between AFSC and these two groups of DFs center on issues for which there is no easy remedy, such as gay rights and abortion. AFSC has long been on one side of these, and the two YMs have increasingly been moving toward the other. But at a deeper level, their alienation is the predictable result of long neglect: Both YMs spoke of a broader loss of a sense of connection. And the hard truth is that after years of paying them little attention, AFSC is now reaping what it sowed.

Still, perhaps the DFs’ harping on these old patterns has had some effect, because there seemed to be growing awareness at the annual meeting that they had to change. And if the right person is selected as Executive Secretary, the momentum for change could become irresistible.

A Search Committee has been at work since summer, and reported that it had narrowed its work to a group of six candidates. Its clerk, Stephanie Judson, a teacher at Friends Select School in Philadelphia, emphasized that the Committee was determined to find a candidate who would pay attention to the AFSC’s relationship to Friends and DFs in particular.

This oft-repeated declaration was undercut, however, by a committee mailing to meetings dated 9/27, soliciting nominations for the post and including a two-page summary job description. Nowhere in it was there any mention of dealing with Friends.

When asked, several Search Committee members were all nonplussed by the omission, and could explain it only as an inadvertent oversight. But to DF readers, it looked more like a telling Freudian slip; such oversights have been all too common with AFSC, and reveal an attitude of taking Friends for granted, or simply ignoring them. One committee member later showed me a revised, even longer job description; it included a single sentence about relating to Friends. This was better, but not by much.


DF misgivings about the search were sharpened when Judson told the corporation of her deep sadness that the pool, despite the committee’s best efforts, did not meet AFSC’s affirmative action standards. It included women, but no nonwhites or open gays and lesbians. They had done the best they could, she said, given the deficiencies of American Friends.

Her abjectly apologetic tone did not protect Judson from sharp questioning by some Corporation members, who demanded to know how the Search Committee could go forward with such a deficient pool. Judson repeated that they had done their best. Here Dulany Bennett said she had asked the Board last spring if they wished to permit the hiring of a non-Friend, in order to surface the question. Although the Board decided that “this was not the time” to be considering the question, comments from the floor made it clear there would be some support for such a change.

One Search Committee member, an openly gay man, said they had sought out Friends who met the affirmative action criteria, but they were not available to apply. (Since the meeting, Judson reported that the “final pool” had been expanded to eight, but was still all straight and white.)

One category well represented in the pool, however, is AFSC staff. And while the committee’s work is confidential, there was much informal speculation doubting the likelihood of a non-status quo appointment. DFs point to the presence of two staff members on the search Committee as decreasing the chances of an adventurous, change-oriented selection.

We will see how that goes; but numerous Friends who know AFSC well staff, former staff, Board and committee members have told me they believe the front runner is Warren Witte, now Associate Executive secretary for Information Services. Given what Stephanie Judson said the Search Committee is seeking, this speculation makes sense. (For the record, Witte declined to be interviewed on this topic, refusing to confirm or deny whether he had even applied for the job.)


Witte is well-positioned as an inside candidate. He has travelled widely as AFSC’s main public relations man; his job keeps him well-informed about most AFSC activities. His AFSC career began in Iowa and includes a stint as regional executive in Seattle. He is a certified Friend, attending at Philadelphia’s Chestnut Hill Meeting. Last summer he was at the Friends World Conference in Kenya, along with Dulany Bennett, on behalf of AFSC.

Perhaps even more useful, in view of the talk about placating the DFs, Witte has been sent on Quaker fence-mending missions at least twice. Once was last year, to the Friends United Meeting Triennial in Indiana. This foray did not amount to much: when he held a meeting to hear concerns and answer questions, almost no one showed up, though they packed an independent session to hear grievances.

More successful, and more revealing, was a troubleshooting mission to Intermountain Yearly Meeting. Intermountain is home to several distinguished “Disaffected Friends,” including Kenneth Boulding, Jack Powelson, and others. Some of them, having repeatedly failed to get their concerns heard and engaged informally, had raised the question of whether Intermountain should cut ties to AFSC, as Indiana has now done.

A retreat was held with Albuquerque Meeting in 1/1988 for extended threshing of the issue. There Dulany Bennett (then Clerk of AFSC’s Personnel Committee), along with Witte and other key committee and staff people, made their case.

A detailed report of the retreat was circulated among IYM meetings. In it was a lengthy summary of Witte’s presentation, which undertook to explain why the number of Quakers on the AFSC staff is so low, about 15 per cent. He made perhaps as good a presentation of AFSC’s notions on this matter as one could hope to find. What it comes down to is this:


Building on its experiences in the Vietnam war, the civil rights movement and other “powerful events and processes,” Witte said that “AFSC has been challenged to build relationships with other communities ….Special operational frameworks, languages, assumptions and styles of the AFSC have evolved from attempts to do this. 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 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.”

While this is delicately, even elegantly phrased, its essentially condescending and patronizmg character is unmistakable. The message delivered, more baldly stated, comes down to this: AFSC has attained a degree of enlightenment and political virtue that is simply out of the league of Quakers, who are so provincial, unenlightened, and bourgeois that only a select few can attain the level of illumination that qualifies them for employment therein.

Give me a break. Perhaps Witte shouldn’t be criticized too harshly for mouthing this claptrap; it was AFSC doctrine, and defending it was his job. But no matter how politely expressed, such malarkey makes a DF’s blood boil. Yet in the short run, the Albuquerque mission succeeded; Intermountain retained its ties to AFSC. But few of its DFs were mollified, as many have told me since. And in the past two years, events like the loss of Indiana have made the longer term damage being done by such blatant institutional conceit increasingly difficult to ignore.

The defects of this attitude are legion. One of the most egregious is its massive ignorance of the real Society of Friends, its variety and experience in the world. In place of real Quakerism there has been enshrined a version of political correctness. This is predictable given the narrow range of Quaker experience reflected in AFSC’s inner circles, and the scarcity of Friends on its staff. Another is the presumption that, to the extent there is any truth in their description of the hopelessly benighted condition of real Quakers (and there is not much), that the proper response is to exclude them. Yet a third is its confirmation of the DFs’ charge that AFSC has come to see itself as not merely having transcended ordinary Quakerism, but as having become the superior arbiter of Quaker authenticity – certainly superior to those donors who naively believe that their $25 million is going to “the Quakers.” A “refined experiment” indeed.


Strong echoes from Albuquerque could still be heard at the 1991 annual meeting, particularly when some staff began talking of AFSC’s “responsibilities” to its “constituencies.” In such parlance, Quakers are reduced to merely one constituency among many, with only marginal significance.

Do I exaggerate? Not much. Consider Witte’s account in Albuquerque of the consultations for AFSC’s mid-1980s statement on Central America, which lasted nine months:

“The following perspectives were taken account of in formulating the statement: that of the AFSC staff in Central America; the AFSC Peace education staff around the US; the AFSC Native American Concerns staff; AFSC Third World Coalition, the AFSC women’s program, the AFSC Board itself, and, through the Board, the diversity of views among Friends in various Yearly Meetings.”

Note here that Friends came last, after five (mostly non-Quaker) staff groups, and Quaker views were “taken account of” at second hand, via an unrepresentative board which does not consult its base. In nine months, there was not time to consult with, say, the clerks of Peace and Social Concern in the affiliated YMs. Doubtless they lacked the “refinement” and “style” to offer useful input. You get the idea.

In 1991 one could dare to hope that such arrogance has lately been on the defensive, as the destructive impact of this archaic orthodoxy has begun to become evident. Thus the scent of change in the air. But again, the “constituency talk” leaves in doubt whether it will be only cosmetic, a matter of better public relations and damage control, or something more substantial. The Search Committee’s choice will be one crucial bellwether.


Yet it may not be possible to quickly gauge the impact of its appointment. After all, Warren Witte may have learned something since 1988, and like Nixon going to China, perhaps he could help turn AFSC toward genuine, respectful interaction with its Quaker base community. These criticisms of his Albuquerque talk are not meant as a condemnation of his presumed candidacy; there will be no endorsements here.

But if neutral as to names, I am partisan about priorities. The Search Committee, and the Board which must approve its nominee, need to take affirmative action to ensure that such offensive attitudes are not perpetuated by AFSC’s new chief executive; in fact, she or he should be explicitly charged with overcoming them. Such a change of institutional attitude cannot be taken for granted; it requires a mandate, and real leadership.

Such leadership should not come only from the Executive Secretary. The Board clerk has often been a key figure in AFSC’s evolution (See AFL#80 for reflections on Henry Cadbury’s role as clerk). In Dulany Bennett, AFSC has a clerk who clearly intends to leave her mark on it. She was very much in charge at the annual meeting: poised, astute in her clerking, and displaying a sure grasp of the dynamics of AFSC’s organizational leviathan.

Bennett also showed every intention of shaking up its ossified status quo. Her principal vehicle is to be a Planning Committee she persuaded the Board to establish over the summer. Its task, as part of the impending 75th anniversary observances, is to examine AFSC from top to bottom and prepare a set of recommendations for change to present to the Board in early 1993.

Further, as originator and ex-officio member of the committee, Bennett has already set much of its agenda. She explained to the Corporation that in her first year as clerk she had travelled widely among AFSC regions. Her journeys had convinced her that important changes were needed. She then laid out a lengthy list of concerns and problems:


  • AFSC’s organizational structure lacks clarity, simplicity and coherence; it probably is attempting to do much more than it efficiently can, with an inadequate sense of organizational priorities;
  • There is a widespread sense of a financial crunch overtaking programs and staff;
  • Tensions between national and regional offices, burnout and turnover among regional secretaries, and the relationship with the Society of Friends are all crying out for attention;
  • There is a high level of stress and tension, even mistrust, among staff, and between staff and committees.

Although she carefully prefaced this list with fulsome praise for the dedication of staff and committees, and the high overall quality of their work, Bennett’s catalog of difficulties was more lengthy, trenchant, and candid.

As this list suggests, any serious self-examination is sure to beget conflict inside AFSC, as priorities are questioned, structures realigned and budget cuts made. Conflict will be more intense if it dares to challenge to some of the obsolete leftist shibboleths that have long been AFSC dogma.

In that case, can Dulany Bennett take the heat? Does she have backbone? Her history contains an intriguing indicator: In 1988, when she was head of the Wilmington Delaware) Friends School, there was an ugly racial incident which, she concluded, involved the threat of violence against a black student by four white seniors. She expelled the four whites, then faced down a storm of protest from outraged parents, who took their case to the local press and the school’s board.

The board waffled, but Bennett didn’t. She told them she would resign unless they backed her up; eventually they did. (Bennett hastens to add, in recounting this story, that she helped the expelled students find places in other schools and get into the colleges they had applied to.)


So it seems she can be tough. There was an initial public display of her determination at the annual meeting in a debate over whether to create a 3-person adjunct to the Planning Committee, specifically to ferret out the views of DFs, so they could be included in its deliberations.

This modest proposal came from Tom Angell, a retiring Corporation member from New York YM. Angell has been a persistent, if lonely, voice questioning AFSC’s status quo. He noted that of the Planning Committee’s 20-plus members, half were staff, and only seven were Friends. He doubted whether such an inside-dominated group could be counted on to seek out and include the views of Friends outside AFSC, and DFs in particular.

Bennett saw to it that the proposal was threshed and brought back to the floor. Then she kept it alive despite comments like the one from a California corporation member, who opined flatly, in the finest Albuquerque manner, “I don’t see why we should include anybody in this process who disagrees with us.” The 3-member advisory group was finally approved, as “a confidence-building measure.” It has yet to be appointed, and could in its turn be stacked with insiders and staff; but it was a positive gesture all the same, and we shall see.

So Dulany Bennett has skill and backbone. But then we come to perhaps the most telling questions about her as part of AFSC’s new leadership: does she have vision, an idea of where she wants AFSC to go? Above all, does she intend to re-connect AFSC with its base constituency, the Society of Friends? Or will her tenure be that of a skilled technocrat, simply making AFSC somewhat “leaner and meaner” and more deft in public relations?

Here the jury is still out. Her background is vintage Philadelphia: Swarthmore College, teaching in Friends schools around the city, and working with AFSC; that about sums up her career. This is an authentic brand of Quakerism, but one that tends, to put it mildly, to be very provincial.


For instance, Bennett was still a bit fuzzy last month as to just how many yearly meetings there are in North Carolina–the state with the largest Quaker population. (Admittedly, the answer is complex: four YMs are represented there, plus the Piedmont Friends Fellowship, an ecumenical quasi-yearly meeting, and two unaffiliated monthly meetings.) Confusion on such points may be tolerable in you or me; but the Clerk of the American Friends Service Committee should have them down pat.

In this regard, Bennett had the good luck last year to move to Portland, Oregon where her husband found a job. There she is in close proximity to the finest flower of Evangelical Quakerism, at George Fox College in Newberg and at Portland’s Reedwood Friends Church. Thus she has the chance, if she will only take it, to develop a sense of Quakerism far beyond the insular, insulting notions displayed in Albuquerque.

Bennett says she has been to Reedwood, but not yet to George Fox, and is in a women’s study group with several evangelicals. Even this much contact probably puts her ahead of most of her predecessors at AFSC; but it is still only a beginning. The same goes for her visit to the Kenya Friends World Conference last summer; it was her first extended exposure to African and British Friends. The wider understanding of Quakerism which she has within her grasp would be an invaluable asset in guiding the planning process she has initiated. It is what could make her tenure at the helm not merely effective, but wise.

Bennett says she knows this, and plans to pursue it. She announced one future foray at the annual meeting: When Ohio’s letter was read, Bennett told the Corporation that the clerk who signed it, Susan Smith, was a Swarthmore classmate of hers, and she intended to visit Smith and see if they could come to some understanding.


Such a visit will be an eye-opener. Susan Smith, once a successful professor, abandoned all to turn Wilburite and move with her family to a farm in Harrisonburg, Virginia. There her plain dress blends in among the many Amish in the area. Like Bennett, Smith is an accomplished clerk, but in the distinctly different Ohio Wilburite style. In AFL #113 we described the breathtaking moment when Smith confronted Asia Bennett at Ohio Yearly Meeting and asked, of her and AFSC, “Can you change?” Smith’s Quaker experience is a far cry from the bland variety in AFSC’s Philadelphia.

As these reflections indicate, skepticism of AFSC’s seriousness about re-rooting itself in Quakerism runs deep among DFs. But caveats aside, with Bennett’s accession and a new Executive Secretary, AFSC has a chance to address a tide of inescapable change in ways that could begin to move it toward being what it started out to be, a vibrant expression of the religious experience of the Society of Friends in the form of service in the world. The hope for this is precarious and possibly fleeting, but it is real, at last.

* * * * *

(NOTE: In early 1992, AFSC chose Kara Newell, a Friend with an Evangelical background, as its next Executive Secretary. Despite high hopes that Newell’s and Dulany Bennett’s terms would mark a time of major reform for AFSC, the secularization, deflection of “DF” Quaker concerns, and the downward financial trajectory continued through and beyond them.)

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