“These value are important. They are not values that are automatically transferred without study, dialogue and experience. Opportunities to study Quakerism are needed in order to understand this particular heritage. Young people need exposure to Quaker process to understand both the vitality of Friends procedures and the patience required to solve personal and institutional problems through group deliberation. Leaders at all levels of Quaker organization need renewal in understanding enduring insights with fresh vision.” -Judith Weller Harvey (Founding Director of the Friends Center at Guilford College - 1982)
In the previous issue of the newsletter
, I called for a moratorium on values language within Quaker founded institutions or at least de-centering this language in favor of a more robust set of practices that can help shape these institutions. I believe this is needed because values language, for whatever good reasons they might have been adopted, they have run their course.*
My argument is that “values” are too simplistic, too rootless, and inadequate to guide communities in this time. They are too cheap in a time when “costly discipleship” is what is called for. Besides living through COVID19, we live in the midst of crumbling imperialism, crushing poverty, climate devastation like we have never seen, deeply divisive politics, ongoing and constant devaluing of African-Americans and people of color’s lives, all due to the distorted narrative of the religion of empire. “Simplistic, rootless, cheap” are not words that come to mind when I reflect on what it means to survive and resist in this time
(link to my book Resisting Empire
This is the reality (and future) we face.
This is what our children and our students are living through, growing up in, and will be graduating and going out into the world to change. Telling them we have the value of “stewardship” or “peace,” and putting it on a poster or a flag somewhere will do little to collectively stand up against the religion and liturgies of empire
These secular values are not strong enough or robust enough to challenge the ideological machinations of empire, because they are themselves used, distorted, and weaponized by the religion of empire. If our communities are to resist and change our world for the better, we need a more potent and robust set of strategies and practices. When I say to resist I mean very deliberately communities that are non-violent, non-reactionary, not caught up in the rivalries, ploys, and plots of empire. To resist is to create alternative communities: what Revelation calls the Multitude and what we call in the Poor People’s Campaign a Fusion Coalition.
Here there are five suggestions for helping institutions with a Quaker heritage recover more than a flimsy link between past and present in order to help renew and revive these institutions in these times: Understand and interrogate history, discern new and appropriate business models and size, create robust onboarding procedures, recover and teach regularly core stories, develop and focus on core practices.
Understand and Interrogate history
There is a history to be told about each institution and the compromises, adaptations, advances and retreats in its rich identity of being “Quaker.” There was a time before these institutions adopted values language. Was it that they had no values prior to this? How did the school function in a way that was more or less in line with the Quaker tradition prior to values language? What were the creation and adoption of values in response to?
I think one of the most interesting and challenging questions is: what does it mean to call a school or an organization “Quaker,” or “Mennonite,” or “Catholic?” Can institutions themselves be one of these things? If so how and why and when might that ever change or be called into question?
There is not time nor space here for that question, but how would you begin to answer this? And can institutions be more or less Quaker? If so, how? In what ways? Is the only option, the thinnest possible version of the tradition or is there another way?
This reminds me of the work of Baptist theologian James Wm. McClendon Jr
. who writes about this from a Christian perspective but I believe the sentiment is useful beyond that tradition:
“Governments are not all as wicked as they can be, though all exercise power. Not all churches, nor all religious rites, are beneficent, and they are powers, too.”
“If we discard the mythical (and unbiblical) idea that all the powers "fell” in some timeless prehistoric catastrophe, then we are free to inquire, instead about the actual history of a particular power: the degree to which its politics and claims are functions of the creative and redemption power of God in Christ, and the degree to which these are corruptions of that power.“
At Guilford it was only since the early 2000s that this language was adopted, signaling the end of a long era of decline in the institution in terms of its adherence to Quaker identity. I’d posit that the adoption of values was a last-ditch effort to shore up some kind of Quaker(ish)ness in the college in the face of dramatic decline of Quaker students, staff, and faculty, and an overall assumed understanding and practice of the tradition.
Beyond knowing the history of the institution’s relationship to its tradition overtime, consider also race, class, and other social aspects of its history. Again, at Guilford, many of us have been working together to interrogate our history (and mythology) around race and the Underground Railroad in conjunction with our painfully slow integration of African and African-American students. Knowing this history and speaking truthfully about it challenges some of the Quaker myth embedded within our institutions and forces us to more meaningfully own up to the whole story. Slapping "values” on the wall is a very cheap way of dealing with major injustices and complex histories. Fighting over who holds the key to the values falls prey to the distorted mythology while not getting to the root of the issues.
Discern Appropriate Size and Business Structure
“Size alone, however, has seldom mattered to Friends. Instead, they have sought to be witnesses of truth.” -New England Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice
I’m struck by the lack of creativity in terms of business models I witness from many of these institutions. It seems that when looking at how Quaker-founded institutions work from a business perspective they are not much, if any, different from other private schools built on the growth treadmill. If the main goal - as it is for many businesses in late-stage capitalism - is growth-at-all-costs coupled with lowering expenses (especially labor expenses), then these institutions are not going to look any different. They will be private schools with a “Quaker” sheen.
Why not use the constraints within the tradition to explore and even create new models of business? What is the history of Quaker business practices? Is there any creative insight to draw on there? Adjusting to appropriate, smaller sizes that are more likely to be sustainable given the disruptive future we all face. Consider Triple B Corps, Co-Op models, employee owned businesses like Bob’s Red Mill, and even lessons from unique tech companies like Basecamp
that aim to remain small and do what they do well creating a cap on how much they will do and take on. Why hasn’t (and couldn’t) a Quaker institution write a book like “It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work?
” When I look at so many of Quaker institutions it is clear that business as usual is failing. It is time to allow the wisdom of the Quaker tradition and insights from alternative models of business to guide in this area.
In the past, Quakers seldom prioritized size and growth, especially when that got in the way of Truth and the needs of the community. We need to apprentice and hire leaders who believe the truth of this deep down in their bones, who are willing to get creative and rethink entire business models and reject the economic system that continues to disadvantage everyone except those at the very top.
Create Compelling Onboarding Procedures (with the purposes of fostering deep participation)
One of the challenges with many Quaker institutions from schools and non-profits, and even meetings and churches, is that when they operate under a model rooted in birthright culture
they lack any kind of serious onboarding procedures that help bring people fully into the community.
works from the assumption that those in the community are family, have shared cultural experiences, and already know
what is expected of them. This may have been largely true for Friends back when everyone in the meeting was born Quaker, however, Friends institutions today need to shift to a new model and outlook on what counts as Quaker.
Alternatively, convincement model
expects that there will be new people interested in participating in these institutions - they will not have the pedigree or the right last names and cannot name their family’s legacies - and yet this kind of culture is ready and prepared to bring new people fully in as true (new) insiders. Convincement culture isn’t about trying to convert people to its ways, it is interested in making the resources of the tradition as widely available and accessible as possible so transformation can happen from within. This allows for each person - regardless of background, experience, and identity - the ability to take ownership over the tradition along with the rest of their community. This approach understands that new people have very little to no understanding of the tradition (starting out) but are, in most cases, are here because they want to be a part of this larger story and community.