Quiet conversation, anyone?

Starbucks is a great place to be by yourself and do a little private thinking at the start of the workday. But it’s also a good venue for casual talk. The dialog needn’t be confined to people you already know. It’s possible to strike up a conversation with a stranger.

A few years ago I found myself sitting next to someone who was also a regular. I’d see him every couple of days or so, and he’d always have his head buried deep in a book on the environment, natural resources, or theology. For an interval (weeks or months?), I had respected his privacy but finally couldn’t resist, and asked him to tell me a bit about his book du jour. Come to find out (my social science friends, please take special note), he’s a card-carrying Ph.D. anthropologist, though his current day job has little to do with that background. We’ve continued to talk off and on for many months now, trading book titles, and in some cases, the books themselves, of interest.

It turns out my (now friend) and I have another connection. He’s a Christian, a member of the Society of Friends:

“Quakers (or Friends, as they refer to themselves) are members of a family of religious movements collectively known as the Religious Society of Friends. The central unifying doctrine of these movements is the priesthood of all believers, a doctrine derived from a verse in the New Testament, 1 Peter 2:9. Many Friends view themselves as members of a Christian denomination. They include those with evangelical, holiness, liberal, and traditional conservative Quaker understandings of Christianity. Unlike many other groups that emerged within Christianity, the Religious Society of Friends has actively tried to avoid creeds and hierarchical structures. As of 2007 there were approximately 359,000 adult members of Quaker meetings in the world.”

The group was founded by George Fox, and included William Penn and his crowd, who settled around what is now Philadelphia (“the city of brotherly love”; and it’s these origins that contribute to the expression “You have a friend in Pennsylvania”). I happened to know a bit about the movement from four years at a Quaker college on the outskirts of Philadelphia. Though a self-described atheist during my years there (and for a decade afterward), I picked up a bit of what the Quakers were all about and found much to admire.

Back to today. A few weeks ago, my friend said to me, “you might be interested in the FCNL”.

Really? Washington, D.C. is of course the land of acronyms; this one was a new one on me.

FCNL. Turns out FCNL stands for the Friends Committee on National Legislation. It’s a lobbying/advocacy group for the Society of Friends. I checked the FCNL website and found this statement of purpose:

We are Quakers and friends working for public policy change on Capitol Hill.

  • We seek a world free of war and the threat of war
  • We seek a society with equity and justice for all
  • We seek a community where every person’s potential may be fulfilled
  • We seek an earth restored

Here’s a little background about FCNL: Founded in 1943 by members of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), FCNL’s nonpartisan, multi-issue advocacy connects historic Quaker testimonies on peace, equality, simplicity, and truth with peace and social justice issues. FCNL fields the largest team of registered peace lobbyists in Washington, DC.

And a final bit: FCNL is part of a long tradition of Quaker advocacy. Both our policy positions and our approach to lobbying are grounded in Quaker principles of simplicity, peace, integrity, compassion and equality. Quakers across the country take part in our work with their activism and donations.

An earth restored? Sounded as if there might be some overlap in the Venn diagram showing their interests and those of AMS, so I made a field trip to their headquarters, which are right across the street from the Hart Senate Office Building. Met with three of their young staff who are focused on climate change and environmental issues. They were so gracious and hospitable to give me some time. And talk about intellect, vitality, passion! It was an energizing couple of hours. Learned quite a bit, but two things stuck with me.

First, they introduced me to yet another organization:

QUNO. This is their acronym for the Quaker United Nations Office. Think of this as FCNL on the big (international) screen. QUNO provides this history:

“We are privileged to carry forward the Quaker traditions of patient, quiet diplomacy at the United Nations, working for a more peaceful and just world. The strength of QUNO’s work lies in our long term persistence. Through perseverance, we have helped to change attitudes, create new understandings, and develop new standards.”

They have this to say about their work, in Geneva and in New York:

“QUNO staff work with people in the UN, multilateral organisations, government delegations, and non-governmental organisations, to achieve changes in international standards and practice. Quakers are known for speaking out against injustice and war – issues that are incompatible with our vision of a world in which peace and justice prevail.

Our work is rooted in the Quaker testimonies of peace, truth, justice, equality, and simplicity. We understand peace as more than the absence of war and violence, recognizing the need to look for what seeds of war there may be in all our social, political, and economic relationships.”

QUNO lists these areas of work: justice and prisons; peace-building and prevention of violent conflict; human impacts of climate change; food and sustainability; human rights and refugees.

You might be saying at this point, “’so what!’ The language they use might be slightly different, but these goals only mirror those of dozens of other NGO’s on the national and international scene.”

That brings me to the second piece. The QUNO website describes something called “Quaker House”: “QUNO maintains houses in Geneva and New York to serve as QUNO offices and meeting places close to the UN. For nearly fifty years, Quaker Houses have provided a place where UN diplomats, staff, and nongovernmental partners can work on difficult issues in a quiet, off-the-record atmosphere out of the public eye.”

If I understood my hosts at FCNL correctly, they’re providing a similar space/venue for what they call “quiet conversation” here in DC. And they use this venue, not as a place to convince or change minds of their visitors, but rather as a place where they can build understanding of diverse viewpoints, and in that way make progress in a common search for truth.

Now there’s a signature style of advocacy to be admired and emulated! It embodies Stephen Covey’s idea of seeking first to understand and only then to be understood. At the same time, it looks to be a good alternative to the debate and “convince” approach widely prevalent today that was the subject of the previous LOTRW post. And it looks to stand up well to the litmus test: if everyone adopted this technique, would it be more effective, or less?

There’s much that’s heartening about all this. First, the Quakers are serenely confident in the power and value of this approach. They’re not tempted to take shortcuts, or to be even a bit tempted to start down the road to “shrill.” And the players in the policy process respect that. It’s part of the Quaker “brand,” if you will (although use of that label seems a bit profane in this context). Second, their approach has much in common with the AMS way of doing business, and our own reputation, as captured by the 2003 NAS/NRC Fair Weather Report, which used slightly different wording but in essence suggested that AMS might provide a venue for quiet conversation among government, industry, and private-sector players in Earth observations, science, and services. Our AMS Washington Forum, the AMS Summer Community Meeting, our Policy and our Education workshops, the AMS Summer Policy Colloquium, and even our Annual Meetings have something of this flavor… and have for years.

We’re inviting our new FCNL friends over here for a get-acquainted session. I’m hoping my Starbucks friend might join us.

Stay tuned.

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