Paul Parker is Recording Clerk of Quakers in Britain, the closest the 13,000-strong Quaker community gets to a chief executive. Based at Friends House in Euston, he is responsible for Quakers’ work on peace, social justice and sustainability, and for supporting nearly 500 Quaker meetings across Britain. Here he shares what centuries of activism has taught the organisation, and how they’re working to increase their impact.
From prison reform to the legalisation of same-sex marriage; from the first psychiatric hospitals to the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, Quakers have been at the forefront of social reform on many issues over the last 360 years here in Britain and around the world.
Some of those campaigns took more than a century to bear fruit. Meanwhile, the impact of much of our work can be hard to measure tangibly. For example, we played a part in the founding of Oxfam and in the peace process in Northern Ireland, but it would be untruthful to claim them as our successes. We can measure our contribution to the initial process, but we can’t say, for example, that we ended the Troubles. Meanwhile, the recent parliamentary vote on Trident went in favour of renewal. So does that mean that our 40 years of campaigning was wasted, or a poor use of our resources? Or did our continuous opposition over all that time help to create a public debate, sustain the wider peace movement, and help shift opinion?
We’re still learning how to develop effective theories of change for some of these slow-burn advocacy processes, and how to tell whether we are being successful. We know that doing so is fundamental to moving forward towards change. It’s all about learning and improving, and we’re pleased to see another guide from NPC, Shifting the dial: How to take an impact-focused approach to your policy change campaigns on working out the impact of campaigns. But we’ve also, by the very virtue of the fact of having been campaigning for a very long time, learned more tacit lessons about how to approach campaigning and influencing work.
Rooted in our belief in equality and justice for all people, we listen to and respect different opinions, whether we agree with them or not. And we know our values of integrity and fairness have often won trust at the very highest levels. While we rarely seek recognition for our part in the change process, trust is like gold in the bank and our long reputation means doors open for greater influence in the future—such as facilitating behind the scenes diplomacy in conflict regions and political circles.
Such influence has to be used sparingly, only when we are very sure of our ground. Generally, we speak out only when we have direct experience, sure we are acting on good authority. On same-sex marriage, we spoke from our long experience of supporting same-sex couples in their committed relationships in our worshipping communities. On divestment from fossil fuels, we speak as the first UK institution to take that important step. That authenticity definitely contributes to the impact and credibility of our advocacy work.
We seek to work collaboratively with others, where possible, to see our shared values flourish. That can be by seeding projects or helping to build organisations whose tighter remits can respond more rapidly to shifts in public opinion or to political opportunities. Meaningful collaboration takes time, though. Building partnerships means working to build trust and confidence. A group owns a decision when all feel heard and so a movement is born.
And of course tension can arise when rapidly unfolding events seem worthy of a response. But because of our long history, we know that considered decisions are more likely to bring about real change at the root of injustices. The unforeseen consequences of a quick response can slow down the outcomes we really want.
Over all, we try to see the bigger picture. Our opponents today may be our allies in the future. Because fundamentally, we are in it for the long haul.
NPC’s new guide Shifting the dial: How to take an impact-focused approach to your policy change campaigns outlines how to make impact your priority while planning, delivering and evaluating a campaign. Download it free today.
I’d like to see Quakers emphasising the positive rather than just protesting.
1. This means, for example not setting ourselves up as experts on UK defence policy or national economic policies. Stop protesting against military education in schools (which just offends people who might otherwise be sympathetic) but positively teach peace-building and mediation, which is a message which appeals to everyone.
2. Stop treating The Spirit Level as Holy Writ or espousing the politics of envy. Economic inequality is not necessarily a problem; what is a problem is deprivation. There is evidence that economic growth both increases inequality and mitigates absolute poverty. So stop equating inequality with injustice and preaching socialism; instead concentrate on what makes a real difference on the ground.
3. Collaboration means collaborating with the powers that be rather than left-wing political bodies like the Socialist Workers Party. Speaking truth to power alas usually means just shouting within the Quaker echo chamber.
Thanks, Mark, for these comments.
I think it’s possible to do both – for example on peace education, Quakers work hard to bring peace education into schools (see http://www.quaker.org.uk/our-work/peace/peace-education for more information) *and* protest about the military presence in schools (see http://www.quaker.org.uk/our-work/peace/challenging-militarism-1) – there isn’t only one way to progress with our objectives. We have often found parents, in particular, to be quite shocked when they discover just how often the military have been invited in to their children’s schools, so it doesn’t offend everyone. There will often be people who disagree with us, however.
Quakerism is not limited to a single political party or ideology – on same-sex marriage, for example, we worked with the coalition government to bring about the recognition of same-sex marriages. On nuclear disarmament we have found sympathy elsewhere in the political spectrum, especially in Scotland. Our current strategy document (http://www.quaker.org.uk/our-organisation/meeting-for-sufferings/our-faith-in-the-future) talks about ‘refusing to prejudge who is or is not an ally’. I think that’s very important.