From the depth of need and despair, people can work together, can organize themselves to solve their own problems and fill their own needs with dignity and strength. — Cesar Chavez
In 1695, Quaker economic reformer John Bellers advocated for universal health care, vocational training, and sustainable employment.* Bellers saw that everyone paid a price when some communities were trapped in a cycle of poverty, poor health, and ignorance.
He argued that improving the economic well-being of the poor would impact all of society by alleviating the social disorder and violence that accompanied poverty then as they do now.
Bellers’ proposals arose from the Quaker idea of “right relationship”—that our well-being is connected with the well-being of others and with the earth. Bellers did not succeed in persuading the English Parliament or the upper classes of his day to adopt his proposals. However, his ideas influenced Robert Owen and other critics of the Industrial Revolution. They encouraged cooperatively owned and managed businesses as a vital alternative to the prevalent model that exploited and undervalued workers.
For many decades, AFSC has been guided by this same understanding of right relationship as we work with marginalized communities struggling for economic security. Sometimes this work begins with providing for basic needs, as we did with the families of West Virginia coal miners during the Great Depression or with the Zimbabweans who were displaced from their home villages to bare, open fields at the edge of Harare.
But finding right relationship always requires much more than a handout.
Our best work supports people in developing their own means to sustain themselves and overcome injustice. In West Virginia, the feeding program for miners’ families quickly grew into the Mountaineers’ Craftsmen Cooperative, where miners produced chairs, tables, and other traditional Appalachian crafts for sale (for more, see page 11). In Zimbabwe at the Hatcliffe Extension, we helped neighbors form cooperatives to learn woodworking, welding, and other skills that allowed them to build and furnish their own houses, replacing the tents and shanties that first provided shelter with brick and cinderblock homes.
And right relationship means working to change government policies that have been stumbling blocks to economic progress. In West Virginia, AFSC continues to work to ensure mine safety regulations are in place and enforced. In Zimbabwe, AFSC stood with residents of Hatcliffe Extension as they successfully petitioned the Ministry of Small and Medium Enterprises to bring water and electricity to a cooperative factory that would allow their new businesses to grow.
Throughout these difficult economic times, AFSC continues to be guided by the vision of an economy grounded in right relationship, sometimes developing economic alternatives, sometimes working to ensure that our public policies provide opportunities for those most in need.
In this issue of Quaker Action, we have included many stories of how AFSC works to create strong communities through working for healthy economies. As John Bellers understood more than 300 years ago, when we invest in health, education, and capacity-building, every community can fulfill its own needs with dignity and strength.