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Learning from experience: AFSC's work to end discrimination

Man at podium
AFSC's gay and lesbian programs were created in 1986 to better serve local community needs in Seattle and Portland. Photo: Ann Stever / AFSC
woman overlooking house
Female coal miners were among groups supported by the National Women's Program, created in 1975. Photo: Warren Witte / AFSC
group sitting around table
AFSC staff and committee members of color formed the Third World Coalition in 1971 to guide the Service Committee's work from the perspective of people of color and their struggles in the U.S. Photo: AFSC

See more photos from AFSC's work to end discrimination.

In nearly a century of working for peace and social justice, the people of AFSC have continually sought ways to dismantle discrimination. Decades of struggles against racism, sexism, homophobia, and religious discrimination have revealed lessons that pass from one era to the next.

“We’re heading in the right direction by understanding that conditions necessary for peace are really about justice—and the conditions necessary for justice mean you can’t have anyone discriminated against, marginalized, or out of the structure of the community,” Sonia Tuma, regional director for AFSC’s West region, says about a major focus of the organization’s work. The work is important but challenging, she says, because “There’s a vested interest in structures that uphold discrimination.” Opening the way to diverse, inclusive, and equitable communities requires understanding how power works, not only in societies, but also within social change movements.

A legacy of countering exclusion

After post-World-War-I relief in Europe, AFSC was known for its work to bridge gaps of understanding between peoples—to connect with those who were ostracized or seen as suspicious. At the same time, U.S. Quakers’ interest in “home service”—in U.S. communities—was growing. AFSC turned attention to issues of racism within U.S. society.

First created in 1925, the Interracial Section sought to build better understanding among the races worldwide. Its immediate charge was to address discrimination against African-Americans and people of Japanese descent, both immigrants to the U.S. and residents of Japan. In several large cities, Friends arranged “get-acquainted” dinners for black and white leaders. ASFC published “Exclusion: Its Cause and Cure,” outlining the roots of racism and the reality of Japanese-Americans’ contributions to the U.S. economy—a counter argument to the U.S.’s Immigration Act of 1924. The law showed clear discrimination against Southern and Eastern Europeans by imposing limits on immigration from specific countries, but also targeted Asians outright, completely eliminating immigration from Japan. AFSC invited Japanese students to spend a year in the U.S. to build understanding between the people of the two countries.

These ways of countering exclusionist rhetoric and bridging gaps between divided groups remained part of AFSC’s approach for decades—during struggles for school desegregation, voting rights, fair housing, and more. But people within the Service Committee also called for approaches that supported movements already existing or emerging in affected communities.

When the community sets the direction

Through the 1970s, it was AFSC work camps that helped hundreds of young people cross over social boundaries. “Young people quickly absorb the prejudices of their parents, but they lose them as quickly as they were formed with opportunities for fellowship,” Ralph Rose wrote about AFSC work camps in a 1954 pamphlet. Native American youth forged bonds with their white neighbors in Maine. Black children began to use a Washington, D.C., playground where previously only white children played. And white and black youth collaborated to show and change racial prejudice in hiring practices. Stories like these dot decades of AFSC memories. Work camps changed countless lives.

But the work camp model didn’t always serve the most marginalized people.

“Change happens at multiple levels,” Sonia says. “There have to be readiness and people to step into leadership positions.” To change the social and institutional structures that perpetuate inequality, AFSC needed to put its resources into supporting the ideas and leadership of people whose daily lives were most clearly affected by discrimination.

“Communities were challenging how we were coming in,” Keith Harvey, regional director for AFSC’s Northeast region, says, explaining pushback against the idea that poor communities needed outsiders to fix things for them.  “Communities were like: ‘We could fix it, we don’t have the resources to fix it.’ AFSC learned to not just roll in and think we can solve problems. Instead, we ask: ‘What is your all’s need?’” In Maine, where AFSC has a 50-year history working with a Native and non-Native program committee, the healing justice program took that approach.

An indigenous community of 700 people identified that something was wrong about the high rate of men going to prison—about 20 percent of their community. They asked for AFSC’s help.

“That’s when we were able to say, ‘Let’s do a research project together,’” Keith says. “We put some resources into it and had community folks be a part of the project.” Taking statements from people in prison, the project found that drug use was part of the problem, but that law enforcement’s treatment of Native youth was also working against them. “They formed commissions on prisons, and brought criminal justice perspectives in,” says Keith. “The community began to think about engaging with the Department of Corrections.”

Shifting from working in communities to supporting communities’ self-determined work has meant that the kind of expertise and support AFSC offers has changed, too.

“We end up working in communities where we have some piece of the expertise, but the community has a lot of it themselves,” says Sonia Tuma. “A lot of popular education techniques get used, respecting the experience and authority of the local community.”