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Beyond charity, toward justice

Beyond charity, toward justice

Published: May 18, 2015

Mar Vista Gardens housing project in Los Angeles, where AFSC intern Carlos “Elmo” Gomez helped establish a community garden.

Photo: AFSC / AFSC

“We are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” 
—Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.


In 1917, as the United States entered World War I, Quakers founded the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) out of a conviction that opposed all wars and sought paths to serve peace. Rufus Jones said about the founders, “They were inwardly pledged to a way of life which, if extended through the world, would eliminate the seeds of war and would bring new and higher forces into operation within the fabric of society.”

Hundreds of Quakers and others went to France through AFSC to drive ambulances and bind the wounds of war. They stayed after the armistice to rebuild war-ravaged communities. Having seen such devastation, they returned with a renewed commitment to address the seeds of war— poverty, economic exploitation, racism, ethnic and religious discrimination, and militarism—which often arise in response to real or manipulated fears of being victims in war.

Over 98 years, AFSC learned what works to build peace and what does not work. We have experienced the truth of Dr. King’s observation that charity is not a sufficient response to crisis. Today, AFSC’s approach to building peace is to transform the road to Jericho. We partner with communities most impacted by war and oppression. People who understand that violence begets violence. We accompany them, honoring their insights about how best to heal broken people and create systems to build sustainable peace.

In Zimbabwe, as a result of a massive “clean-up” operation by the government, over 700,000 people’s homes or businesses were destroyed, and they were left understandably mistrustful of neighbors. AFSC worked with displaced Zimbabweans in Hatcliffe Extension, helping them develop skills to supply goods and services needed in the community. We supported social cohesion by teaching conflict-resolution skills, and we helped build bridges to government agencies that could support the ongoing economic recovery and reintegration of the community.

Last year, AFSC raised enough funds for a “factory shell” workspace in Hatcliffe Extension. Planned by the residents and supported by the government that once displaced them, it offers clean, well-lit space to practice trades such as welding, hairdressing, carpentry, and peanut butter production. The factory shell exemplifies our approach—providing resources so Zimbabweans can support themselves.

Transformative change is AFSC’s focus in the United States, too. In Los Angeles, young people in urban food deserts learn how to garden and feed themselves, and also learn to analyze—and change—the system. Carlos “Elmo” Gomez, an AFSC intern, was inspired to plant a garden in his yard in the Mar Vista Gardens housing project. After the housing authority pulled it up, citing federal regulations, he worked to establish a community garden with nine raised beds in the middle of Mar Vista Gardens.

“If we can change our world here, that can have an impact beyond this place,” Elmo says. “We are trying to change the policy about growing food here. Planting seeds and the gardens are instruments to organize the community. Once a garden is planted, we the people have experienced shifting something, doing something in the hood.’”

Changing Mar Vista Gardens also means undoing the impact of a constant police presence. Police regularly stop and arrest residents, especially young men of color. “After getting harassed this way all the time, it becomes hard to be motivated to come out of your home,” Elmo says. “The prison is around you, but it’s built in you, too. It takes a lot to work against that. We didn’t choose this situation, someone placed us in it. Even so, we can work to change it.

“Just like you can internalize the prison, you can internalize the garden, too. I am a person of practice. Consciousness and action come out of the garden. I have a vision of a wholly changed social structure with the garden at the center.”

The wholly changed social structure that AFSC envisions is one in which people like the Hatcliffe Extension residents in Zimbabwe and Elmo and the other gardeners in Mar Vista Gardens are cultivating peaceful and resilient communities. Our role is to offer support, resources, and assistance for the short term, so people can change their lives and the lives of their neighbors for the long term. Our role is to support those we work with in laying the foundation from which peace with justice can arise.

I value your commitment to that vision and your ongoing support to make it real in Zimbabwe, in Los Angeles, and around the world.

In peace,

Shan Cretin 
General Secretary