Reunion: A special, one-time American Friends Service Committee podcast featuring Quaker leaders from the U.S. and United Kingdom gathering and sharing insights about how Quaker organizations are activating Quaker values for a just world. The podcast was recorded at the April 2023 gathering in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, by Marisa Mazria Katz and features Joyce Ajlouny, general secretary of AFSC; Bridget Moix, general secretary of the Friends Committee on National Legislation; Oliver Robertson, head of Witness and Worship with Quakers in Britain; and Sarah Clarke, director of the Quaker United Nations Office in New York City.
Read the full transcript.
MARISA MAZRIA KATZ: For Quakers, the word “meeting” isn’t just about a chance encounter…it's a religious endeavor… a call for worship and togetherness. For three years, a pandemic restricted the ritual… which is one of the most fundamental in Quaker faith and practice.
Today, we are going to tell the story of a meeting...but not just any meeting…this one was also a reunion. For the first time after a pandemic shut the world down, Quaker leaders from around the globe reunited in the Philadelphia 19th century Race Street Meeting House…to pray…and to talk…About a world that looked vastly different from the last time each of them met…a world defined by a brutal new war, the invasion of Ukraine.
A migration crisis.
Violent uprisings in the American capital.
And throughout this reunion there were questions: Like how do Quakers--who are dedicated to non-violence--respond to an even more violent world. How does one react to crises when your values are put to a test?
JOYCE AJLOUNY: We believe that those most impacted have the solutions and we need to be guided by them.
BRIDGET MOIX: The only antidote we see to our failing democracy is more engagement, not less.
SARAH CLARKE: Transformation comes by being able to engage with people who have different experiences and who may see a problem in a different way than we do.
OLIVER ROBERTSON: Looking ahead and trying to prepare for the future before it comes is one of the things that Quakers can usefully do, and in their best we do.
MARISA MAZRIA KATZ: This is “Reunion” a special podcast from the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker peace and justice organization based in Philadelphia promoting a world free of violence, inequality, and oppression.
I’m your host Marisa Mazria Katz. I am a journalist based in Rhode Island.
In this program I will speak with four Quaker leaders who were at the reunion about how they’re navigating this moment--and how they do this with their Quaker values intact.
First up is Joyce Ajlouny. She’s the general secretary of the American Friends Service Committee. She’s a Palestinian-American who has worked on issues like education, gender equality, economic development, and humanitarian support. Joyce invited the Quaker leaders to come to the Meeting House for their annual gathering of Quaker representatives from across the world.
Since her arrival she has worked with her team to help support peace and justice efforts in communities facing oppression. In America that has included farmworkers in Miami and California’s Central Valley, and abroad in Jerusalem, Gaza, Guatemala and Somalia– where so many face barriers to economic, political and social equality.
MARISA MAZRIA KATZ: If you could start by just introducing yourself.
JOYCE AJLOUNY: I’m Joyce Ajlouny and I am the general secretary of the American Friends Service Committee based in Philadelphia.
MARISA MAZRIA KATZ: Joyce I want to start off by asking you what are the most impactful things Quakers are doing in the world?
JOYCE AJLOUNY: I think Quakers have a particular approach to peace and social justice work. The main thing about the work is that we don't come with our own solutions and we believe that those most impacted have the solutions. And we need to be guided by them.
So wherever we work in the world, we see our role as a facilitator, more than a leader. And so, our job is to give voice to those who are really on the front lines doing the hard work. So, whether we work in the US on promoting just migration policies, or around the world, promoting peace, the approach is to be led by those who are most impacted. Because it's those people who are going through the oppression that are coming up with a solution. And so we have seen that happen time and time again. But what they don't have is the links to the policymakers and the decision makers--so our job is to take their voices to take their messages to the policymakers and ensure that their voice is heard. And I think all along that has been what has really strengthened their work.
Additionally, Quakers do a lot of quiet work, you know, we're doing a lot of the behind the scene work. It's never about us, really, and whether we are at the UN, influencing the UN system, or on the Hill influencing legislators, the opening spaces for off-the-record, behind the scenes conversations, bringing people together has shown us time and time again, that is how change happens is to change the hearts and minds of those in power. And we take that role seriously.
MARISA MAZRIA KATZ: So we're thinking about things like just migration, and you mentioned, the idea that Quakers believe that the people who are, let's say, enduring [these issues and struggling with them are the ones to come up with the solutions for them. How do you do that, perhaps in the current situation at the border? How do you come up with some of these solutions? And do you have any off the top of your mind that you could talk about that have been implemented and you have seen have real-world impact?
JOYCE AJLOUNY: The one thing about how we work as well, is that a lot of our staff come from these communities that are impacted. So, one example comes to mind in Florida. A detention Center for Children was called Homestead Detention Center. It put children behind bars. And for years, we had a community effort to ensure that the detention center is closed.
And so, we worked on many fronts with other faith groups, faith-based groups, with community members advocating on the Hill. We had hundreds of signatories. I remember, us, you know, carrying them stacked up, taking them to the policymakers in Washington, DC. A petition to ensure that this detention center is closed and because of that pressure, the Detention Center Homestead was closed. And so that is one way of ensuring that we, you know, we walk the talk and that there is real the results at the end of some of our efforts.
MARISA MAZRIA KATZ: Thinking through the past few years. How do you think Quaker groups have responded to the pandemic?
Do Quaker groups respond differently to Global challenges than other groups?
JOYCE AJLOUNY: So we had a responsibility to take care of our own. So to speak first, you know, communities, where we work. In Gaza, for example, we provided hygiene kits things that we know are inaccessible to the Gazan communities. In Florida, we provided material aid and so it took different shapes and I think the wonderful thing is that we're able to pivot, and that shows a lot of agility in the organization that our staff are ready to go and meet the immediate needs of communities and the pandemic brought real needs. And so they pivoted and for months that's all we did.
You know, on the other side because we are linked to policymakers and we have an office in Washington, D.C. We also did a lot of work around accessibility of the vaccine and we worked on several legislations pushing for equal access. As you know, pharmaceutical companies, were not sharing their patents across the world and in Africa. And so we did a lot of work with Others are especially faith-based communities on ensuring that these pharmaceutical companies release the rights for those formulas for the vaccines so anyone can, can produce them. And so that is the other level of the work that we did.
MARISA MAZRIA KATZ: Next up is Bridget Moix. She’s the General Secretary of the Friends Committee on National Legislation and a partner of the AFSC. Together we talked about deeply fractured politics in America’s capital and how she draws on the power of Quakerism as a tool for change in a world with such unsettling political realities.
MARISA MAZRIA KATZ: Okay so if you could introduce yourself…
BRIDGET MOIX: Hi, my name is Bridget Moix and I'm General Secretary of the Friends Committee on National Legislation
MARISA MAZRIA KATZ: It's interesting to think about national politics and national legislation right now. We have hyperactive media that, lets say, covers even the most mundane of laws being passed or legislation in the works. And so what you have often, as a result, is a sort of supercharged response to things that otherwise may never have gotten any attention, therefore detracts from the process from working. And then also gives rise to really divisive kinds of politics. How do you see yourself in this very newish landscape, right? This is kind of a decade-long problem. How do you act as the antidote to that?
BRIDGET MOIX: That's a great question. And absolutely, we are in the midst of extremely divisive politics in Washington, but also, our whole country is very deeply divided along party lines, and polarization around politics and party is sort of the wedge on any issue. Any issue that you care about suddenly becomes, are you Democrat or Republican? And that then categorizes you in one camp or the other. FCNL and Quakers, have always been a nonpartisan voice in Washington. And have always worked very hard to make sure that we are both listening to anyone that we engage with Congressional, office member of Congress from any political perspective, in a way that's respectful in a way that's seeking to understand where they're coming from.
And that is then seeking solutions trying to find common ground, trying to find ways that we can work together. That kind of approach is] really hard. It's getting harder. It's certainly challenging for us in this environment and yet I think it's also what's urgently needed. There's a hunger that we sense, certainly among the public but also with Congress, to be able to function again.
A lot of people are checking out of politics. They're giving up on Washington. We hear it a lot, you know, Congress is broken, it's hard to say, that's not true when so little happens in Congress and so much is polarized. But, at the same time, the only antidote that we see to our failing democracy is more engagement, not less, and so the voice of people coming to their lawmakers. And saying, this is what we expect you to do for us. This is our perspective, this is our position, listening and creating space where people can start to talk across those deep divides of partisanship is fundamental to I think a Quaker Role in the political system.
MARISA MAZRIA KATZ: Has anything happened recently in which you and your staff had to pivot really quickly and find a way to adapt and respond. And I'm thinking here about anything, whether it be laws that have been passed, wars that have been started , issues at our border, what has happened directly with you and your staff, in which you had to say: We need to do something right now.
BRIDGET MOIX: The war in Ukraine, obviously was a critical moment for the entire world and certainly our office in Washington. Had been watching the warnings, the threats coming from Russia. The predictions that the invasion might happen and trying to figure out what would we do? We did not have any expertise on staff at the time. To be working on Ukraine and Russia US relations. And so we really had to when an invasion happened. We really had to figure out what can we do in terms of a congress, which was fully behind a very strong military response. Given Quaker testimony for non-violent response to conflict and peace building. So it was a very challenging moment for us and part of what we did was consult with and we had been having conversations with these other Quaker agencies at the UN, AFSC and others and in Europe as well, to try to understand what should a Quaker response be.
And in terms of Congress, there was actually very little, we could do at the time legislatively, but we knew we could at least mobilize and work with the faith community to try to be a voice that would say, war is not the answer. This is an illegal and unjust invasion but we need to focus on: How do we help end the wars as quickly as possible and try to find a way of ensuring security for everyone in Ukraine and Europe going forward. And so we could do that work a little bit in Washington. But being able to also talk with Quaker colleagues who were actually going to visit some of the refugees and people who were moving out of Ukraine into other parts of Europe. Some of our colleagues went to visit Poland and Estonia and see what was happening there. And seeing even what small efforts Quakers were making was able to show us.
We can help heal the wounds of war, we can address conflict in ways that are not going to fuel further escalation in violence. And so, being able to talk about the Practical experience that Quakers in Europe were what their response was. There was alternatives to violence programming, there was humanitarian response. Understanding and listening to the realities that Ukrainians were facing-- And they were very small group of Ukrainian Quakers and also listening and understanding to Russian Quakers, and there is a long-standing Russian organization Quaker organization called Friend's House Moscow, which we also were having conversations with throughout to understand all the perspectives and also what the peace movements in both Ukraine and Russia were doing what they would like to see happen to then inform the policy advocacy that we were doing in Washington, focusing on really being a voice for a diplomatic, political solution out, a de-escalation and an attention to the root causes behind the war.
MARISA MAZRIA KATZ: Putting faith into action is what guides Oliver Robertson. He is the head of Witness and Worship with Quakers in Britain. When we met, he first talked about now he pivoted quickly to deal with COVID-19 and its impact on his operations. He says he sees the pacifism at the heart of Quakerism as a moral obligation, especially in times of war.
MARISA MAZRIA KATZ: The past few years have been difficult for everybody because of COVID and I'm curious how in your mind you felt your organization, the Quakers, responded to the crisis and do you think it will change the way you think about and address Global crises in the future?
OLIVER ROBERTSON: When the covid-19 pandemic hit then we acted very quickly as Quakers in Britain. Both in terms of moving to being working from home being able to continue but also in terms of repurposing a lot of our work, and I think it's very noticeable when you've got a crisis about things which you keep going on and things which you don't.
Some of the stuff which, which continued actually was some of the most impactful things we were doing. And a lot of the things which kept going were ones which had connections beyond the Quaker World where there are others who are going to be directly affected. So there was still staff doing work around peace education. And one of the things that happened as we built back…is a greater awareness of the value of having those connections and be
I think of the value of having of having, those of having they have seen those connections and being able to communicate and collaborate across borders, literal borders, and boundaries and I think the... but also realizing in a deeper way the added benefit that can be when you have that in-person connection… In terms of what this means in terms of future challenges and how we might respond to crises in the future...But then also being aware of and responsive to immediate crises when they come up. And I'd hope that more of our areas of work are able to do that rapid response.
One of the things that I was very impressed with early on, in the year, after the war in Ukraine began was that the peace education team realized that there were very few resources if any around Ukraine and rapidly produce something about will you fight, would you fight in Ukraine and teachers lapped it up because they were looking for anything to help children think through the issues around this. And I think that's opportunism in the best way, the seeing an opportunity and taking use of it, making use of it so that you can respond to those needs as they arise.
MARISA MAZRIA KATZ: As a pacifist and as a pacifist organization, how do you see working in countries that are undergoing war or are dealing with a very destabilized government?
OLIVER ROBERTSON: I think that Quakers and pacifists are needed possibly more in places where there's current war ongoing. And I think that's for a couple of reasons. One of them is that where there is conflict then because that's partly what we're trying to avoid. Then I think we've got a real moral obligation to try to minimize or limit the harm and the suffering. And that's indeed what I think a lot of peace related work in wartime is about medical support, and that care for people.
But also even when a war is started from the noblest motives then, it can be very easy to fall into seeing the other side as the enemy as and dehumanizing them and having a voice which says that there are other options, there are different ways of thinking about this and responding to it and which raises up the humanity of everyone, I think is really important for people on all sides to know and to remember. I think it's one of the key roles that things like chaplains, that Army chaplains have to remind fighting people of the sort of the humanity of everyone. And when the war finishes, which all wars do in one way or another, then there's going to be something afterwards, something that we need to peace back together again, and the less hatred and bitterness there is the easier that's going to be.
MARISA MAZRIA KATZ: Why do this work? Why keep doing this work? It's not easy work. And this idea of not finding the easy answer, not placing the blame at what person's, sorry, the not placing the blame at one person's foot, the idea of creating a space that sort of safe for all that is hard. Why are you doing it?
OLIVER ROBERTSON: I create ...I keep working to create those safe spaces. Those peaceful places partly because my faith tells me that that's what should happen and my experience tells that's what should happen if we have....nobody does that then actually we will all be in a worse situation but also because when you do that and you can see the change and the transformation it makes and you can see people who mistrusted each other perhaps having that moment of connection.
MARISA MAZRIA KATZ: For our final conversation, I sat down with Sarah Clarke. Sarah is the United Nations Representative and Director of the Quaker UN Office. She talked about how Quakers were one of the first Civil Society organizations to gain accreditation at the UN back in 1948. She says her office creates quiet spaces away from the formality of UN meeting rooms. She says these much-needed spaces are a place where diplomats, officials, and civil society members can really come together and relate to each other — as human beings. And, most importantly, Sarah explains, it's a space that relies on and holds up the Quaker practice of listening.
MARISA MAZRIA KATZ: How do you put a spotlight on countries that don't often get the attention that they deserve at the United Nations? Whether they are dealing with issues around climate change, or undergoing war or dealing with authoritarianism. How do you make it your priority that people are listening to their concerns and that they're being addressed?
SARAH CLARKE: I think that's a great question and actually I think there are two aspects that that come to mind. As I think about your question, one is our actual countries member states and, you know, in New York often times we end up focusing so much and very much I think there's a there's a lot of media attention on the big, organs of the UN, for instance, the UN Security Council and the UN Security Council ends up being a body of the UN that is often shaped and dominated by big power competition. And so that's what a lot of times that's what we think of as the UN, and the UN in New York, the reality is that if we look a little bit further, there's also there are a lot of, there's a lot of other work that's happening at the UN in which those big power those big global powers are not the ones that are actually leading processes forward and I think that often times we as observers and and also the way that media cycle works, we don't necessarily give those, those other kinds of processes and that leadership role as much recognition. I'm thinking, particularly about the recent UN treaty that was agreed on the high seas. It's a fabulous example of work that took place over a very long period of time.
And that was really an agreement that was brought about because of leadership. That was not by Major Global Powers. But instead it was actually by much smaller countries who were certainly countries and sometimes who were countries that had the most at stake in terms of thinking about taking care of our global oceans as a resource.
So I think that one aspect of the work that we do is thinking about how the work of the UN goes much further than just those those instances. Where a few major global powers are competing at again, or amongst each other. That the UN is also the place where a tremendous diversity of member states can come together and sometimes achieve amazing things.
MARISA MAZRIA KATZ: In your role at the UN, how do you see Quaker values coming into practice?
SARAH CLARKE: So Quaker values are really at the heart of all of our work and I mean, they're the reason why we are present at the UN. We really incorporate, you know, the Quaker focus on being able to listen, but being able to also listen and engage with people who we might not agree with and to really recognize that transformation comes by being able to engage with people who have different experiences and who may see a problem in a different way than we do and certainly the space that we provide and we did most of our work.
And in New York, it takes place at Quaker House. The space itself, I often think of it as almost as a Quaker Meetinghouse. Almost. I mean, that it's a place where a diversity of different individual stakeholders come together and I really are given the space away from the formality of UN meeting rooms and very much where they're invited to be there in their personal capacity rather than solely operating following instructions from capital to create relationships. And it's those relationships that really bring around the opportunity to build the possibility of transformation and change.
So I think that's one of the ways in which we really, we hold onto those Quaker principles as a heart of the way that we do our work and they're really what informs the way our approach in connecting with the UN community.
MARISA MAZRIA KATZ: That was Joyce Ajlouny, Bridget Moix, Oliver Robertson and Sarah Clarke speaking with me for “Reunion,” a special podcast from the American Friends Service Committee. I’m your host Marisa Mazria Katz. Thank you for listening.