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Q+A: Joyce Ajlouny, new AFSC general secretary

Q+A: Joyce Ajlouny, new AFSC general secretary

Published: July 3, 2017

AFSC welcomes our new general secretary, Joyce Ajlouny, who starts on Sept. 1. Joyce is a transformative Quaker leader who has held senior positions at Oxfam Great Britain and various United Nations agencies and, most recently, served as director of Ramallah Friends School in Palestine.

Q: What drew you to work at AFSC?

A: Working for a Quaker organization that upholds the values that have guided my life is very important to me. It’s where I feel most comfortable. One of the things that attracted me to AFSC is its continuous soul- and truth-searching. I also find it energizing to work in service of an organization with such an impactful history and that has touched so many lives and communities. AFSC’s mission strongly corresponds with my deep concerns on issues of racism, injustice, and oppression. Being able to work with a passionate community of staff and volunteers who are committed to circumventing these issues is a true privilege.

Q: Tell us about some of your prior experiences and how they will inform your work at AFSC.

A: At Oxfam, I was the country representative for Palestine and Israel. The main lesson for me there was that it’s not enough to work with communities for the sake of helping the few. We need to use that work as evidence to build an effective policy and advocacy program that addresses root causes of injustice at a national and international level. Before that at the United Nations, I learned about the importance of gender equality as this is where the majority of my work was targeted. I also learned how large organizations work—their systems, checks and balances.

Ramallah Friends School is where I saw firsthand the authenticity of working for a Quaker organization, where our values and spirit-led practices modeled the way. Our school community taught me about resilience. When you live under brutal military occupation, you feel hopeless at times, but when you see the accomplishments, drive, and optimism of youth, you realize that injustice can’t give way to despair. 

I will also bring to AFSC my lengthy experience in senior management, financial planning, staff relations, communications, community building, and resource mobilization.

Q: What do you see as the biggest challenge AFSC faces today?

A: Building unity and action in the midst of present-day realities. There are many players, competition, and a need for better coordination and cooperation. AFSC has a place to help communities overcome hopelessness and build on positive examples from our past and present. AFSC can help build robust coalitions among people, especially where there’s fragmentation among movements. Together, we can make truly profound changes to seemingly hopeless realities.

We need to hold on to the notion that people are inherently good. Most people believe in human rights and equality. We therefore need to continue to help people open themselves up to others’ truths. We need to look forward to engaging those with opposing views. If we don’t consider the other narrative, we’re not going to ever find common ground toward solutions.

Q: What would you consider AFSC’s greatest strengths?

A: AFSC’s longstanding programs have touched the lives of many people locally and globally. Throughout its 100-year history, it has built credibility and trust in the communities it accompanies and supports. 

AFSC is intrinsically tied to the global Quaker community—one that is remarkably committed to service and action on issues of social justice and peace. Through them, we lift up of our universal Quaker values, and offer a unique platform for bridge-building among cultures, religions, and diverse communities in a world that is struggling with racism and religious conflicts. 

AFSC is also well-suited to bring together all Friends and build on the already impressive connections being cultivated. I would like to see myself involved in nurturing these relationships with the wider Quaker community, in meetings and churches, but especially in schools and colleges. Young people—that’s where the hope is.

Lastly, what I have been most impressed with at AFSC are the people behind the work, staff and volunteers alike.  Their passion and optimism is contagious. They are knowledgeable, committed, creative, and tenacious. These are undoubtedly the ingredients for innovative and impactful work to take place. AFSC is a community that does not allow despair to take root; it will responsively and quietly pull on it like an unwelcomed weed and replace it with new seeds of hope and love. 

Q: On a more personal note, how do you keep yourself energized for all the work ahead?

A: I always argued against needing to do things for “me” in order to be energized. I argued that my work is energizing enough and it is where I want to be. This has slightly changed during the past few years, perhaps when technology took over leaving the work-life balance disturbed. I have found that powering down in solitude and with nature is what gives me energy and connects me to my inner light. My husband, children, friends, and family energize and encourage me with unwavering support; without which I would not have been able to be where I am today.  

Q: You grew up in Ramallah as a Palestinian-American with dual citizenship. It must have been quite a contrast growing up there while also being able to visit the United States. 

A: I have lived in the U.S. for nearly 12 of my adult years, so both places are dear to my heart. As many other young people, I too struggled with my identity. Through the years, I have transcended this struggle as I became more conscious of my inner self apart from national and ethnic boundaries. As I tell my children, our world is much larger and richer and we should not confine ourselves with prescribed identities—we are who we are because of our experiences and personal values. There’s a calming comfort that comes with this realization.

Q: What else should AFSC supporters know about you?

A: Some AFSC supporters know me well; others are friends I have not yet met. The engagement of supporters in AFSC’s work is crucial, and I’d love to hear their ideas as we together take AFSC into its second century.

I want them to know that I will work in service of the AFSC community, that I’m a listener. I’m an optimist, a problem solver, and very serious about building a soulful community. I’m goal-oriented, but patient. I know change takes time. And I don’t shy away from any challenge.  

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