Shan Cretin has been General Secretary of the American Friends Service Committee since 2010. She has been with AFSC since 2003. She is a member of Santa Monica Meeting (Pacific Yearly Meeting).
What faith did you grow up in?
Shan: I was raised Catholic, Roman Catholic. But my parents were, as I found out much later, because they practiced birth control, they didn’t go to church. They sent me to Catholic schools, it was an odd message to get, growing up in that way. I was very much a practicing Catholic through high school, but increasingly uncomfortable with the fact that the Church had such narrow and limited roles for women. When I went to college I decided that I didn’t want to be a part of Catholicism anymore, that there were too many things that seemed wrong to me about the dogma. I had always liked the mystical side of Catholicism, much more than the dogmatic side, which seemed to say, don’t think for yourself, the answers are going to come to you from somebody else.
How did you come to Quakerism?
Shan: When I got to college, and the Vietnam War was gearing up, I went to the American Friends Service Committee office in Cambridge to get some counseling, and I became a draft resister. I liked the way that Quakers protested the war. There was a lot of stuff going on, teach-ins and many other things, but the Quakers had a more consistent, peaceful way of being present. I didn’t like some of the more, I would say, violent and demonizing ways of protesting the war, so that drew me there. I didn’t join the Society of Friends, but later when I got married and had a daughter, and we were still living in Cambridge, she went to Cambridge Friends School. At that time I was attending Cambridge Meeting, and she was engaged in the school and learning about Friends, and when we moved to California, she asked that we find a Quaker meeting. So, in a way, my child kind of led me into Quaker meeting, and I joined in California.
What is important to you about Quakerism now?
Shan: There are two things that are important to me. One is the idea that we are all seekers on a journey, and if we ever believe that we have all the answers, that would be a sign that we have quit looking. That we always have something else to learn, always have something else to change about what we believe, and that we ought to be open to changing our minds about things based on experience. Including spiritual matters: that those are things you can learn from experience, and try. The other part that’s important to me a commitment to try to live your life in accordance with what you say you believe and not just have a Sunday morning faith, in which you go to church and socialize and then do whatever you were going to do.
Have you ever formally or informally left Quakerism after you joined, for a period of time, and then come back to it?
Shan: There are days when I think Quakerism needs to be grabbed by the shoulders and shook hard! But I feel like this is my spiritual home and a place where I should take responsibility for the things that I don’t think are going well, or that I think need to change-not just leave.
What feeds your spiritual life?
Shan: This is something I learned as a child in a Catholic school: that prayer is not something different from being alive. Everything you do can be a prayer; it’s a matter of how you do it. I do find that what I try to do is have that attitude about what I’m doing. It may be mundane, but if I can think of it as a prayer, if I can think of it as something to connect more deeply with other people, that’s a good thing.
Do you attend a worship service on a regular basis? What is powerful for you about that worship?
Shan: Since I have this job, I often have to travel on the weekends or be other places. I haven’t been able to, as regularly as I would like, be in one service. So sometimes I’m with another meeting. I like that ability to go and worship with new Friends, and see the different space. It’s a very different thing, I’ve come to understand, than being in a meeting in a more integral way. When I go back to my home meeting in Santa Monica, which I do maybe, 8 times a year, I really have that sense of coming home. There is a difference in being in a place where you really know everybody, and they know me; not as the General Secretary of AFSC-they’ve known me for a long, long time, and so it’s a different thing. When I go to these new places, even here-I’m a sojourning member of Central Philadelphia Monthly Meeting-but even here I feel like these people only know me in this role, and it’s harder to get them to know that you have more than that. There’s good and bad about seeing other meetings, and seeing how they do business, and understanding that just because it’s done one way in your meeting doesn’t mean that every Quaker meeting has the same idea or practice.
When you were 15, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Shan: I probably wanted to be a scientist of some sort, and I think about the time I was 15, that was probably also when I toyed with being a doctor. My parents did not go to college, but I was pretty clear I was going to go to college. I really liked math and science, and was very inspired by Marie Curie. Actually, around that time, I was also considering being a nun, and I subscribed to the Maryknoll missionary magazines. I was impressed by these pictures of women who were working in slums in Latin America and Africa, among people who were really in need of help in various places around the world, so those were kind of my directions. But I applied to a 6 year MD/bachelor’s program at the University of Texas, and MIT, Rice, and the University of Alabama, and when I got into MIT it was clear that that’s where I was going to go, so that’s what happened.
Where did you attend college? What was your major in college?
Shan: I studied mechanical engineering at MIT. I was the first woman in seven years to major in mechanical engineering, and the only woman in my class when I was there.
If you did graduate work, what degree(s) did you pursue and what were their topics?
Shan: I went from MIT to Yale, and I got a Masters in Public Health, and I was working with people who were health care managers and designing healthcare systems. I was interested in how one got the best research from medical research into practice. Then I taught for a year at Yale, with a man who was rather unusual. He was a professor at Yale, a nurse, and he didn’t have a doctorate. His wife was a surgeon, and in those days that was not a usual connection. He wanted me to go into academia, and he said, “You better get a Ph.D.” So I went back to MIT and got a Ph.D. in operations research, which is kind of mathematical modeling and decision making, models of decision making and probability. I then went on and worked in public health for about 15 years, taught at Harvard and then at UCLA, and did research on a number of things: lots of work on clinical practice guidelines, errors in medicine, and a big project on rural health care systems in the People’s Republic of China.
How would you describe your career path?
Shan: I was always looking for something that I thought was a good and moral and right thing to do that I would feel good about doing, and that got me into public health. I liked teaching. I thought that being a mentor to students was a very comforting kind of thing to be doing with your life, you could feel good about that, and then the research that we were doing in public health seemed good. But every year I would sit at yearly meeting and think about my career. From pretty early, I thought it would be great to work in a Quaker organization and actually work on things, have that be more integrated in my life.
A good friend of mine, Joe Franko, who was a math professor somewhere else, took a leave of absence and he was the AFSC Regional Director for 3 years. He really had never intended to stay that long, and he asked me whether I would apply. He felt like he had fixed some things, improved some things in the office. Around that time, September 11th happened, and that really pushed me. I had been in Seattle, doing work at a meeting, and was at the Seattle airport when I realized I wasn’t going to be able to get a plane back. I had a rental car, and I drove it back to California. It was a very weird drive, very quiet. There were no airplanes in the sky. The radio stations were muted, and it just was a time when I really reflected. I thought, “Yes, I really need to work on peace more than I need to work on health.” So when I came back I applied for this Regional Director job.
Another draw was to think about trying to run this region of the AFSC and apply the things that I thought I knew about how to work collaboratively and how to lead through what the Japanese call “playing catch-ball.” That leadership is seeing things from a high level, but you also need to check it out at the bottom, because the people at the bottom see something that you don’t see, and there needs to be a conversation back and forth that lets you understand whether you’ve heard the right things, whether the leadership you’re trying to provide is in the right direction.
Have you had trying times in your work (struggling to find work or discern what career path you should be on?), and how did you work your way through those?
Shan: The hardest times for me were finding summer jobs in engineering, when I was an undergrad. I definitely had experiences like showing up for an interview and having the interviewer say, “Oh, Shan Cretin, we thought you were a man,” and that was the end of the interview. I had a couple of those kinds of experiences. A friend of mine at MIT, a grad student when I was an undergrad-I was looking for a summer job and she was looking for a full-time job at Xerox, and she sued them! I watched her go through that and thought, “She’s doing the right thing,” but it so diverted her from everything else, to be engaged in that. I was actually more interested in a field like public health in many ways, and also I wasn’t interested in trying to fight my way into a position. My colleagues were supportive, my fellow students were supportive, but my faculty advisors didn’t really know what to do with me, and I think didn’t take me very seriously. I was not interested in being the token woman in the mechanical engineering department, having them give me an office with a window on the first floor so everybody could see they had a woman.
How would you describe your current position?
Shan: Well, to be essentially the chief executive in an international organization, one major role has to be keeping the organization going financially. You have to do fundraising. And to do fundraising, you have to love and understand and be inspired by the programs, so that you can sell them with integrity to the people that you’re asking to give you money. I do love our programs, I am inspired by them-that isn’t to say they’re perfect but there’s always good things that are happening.
I think you also have to try to set up the internal workings of the organization to really align with Quaker values, and to figure out how you’re going to connect to the Quaker roots of the organization and to Quaker meetings. When I came, I was pretty afraid. A lot of meetings had, for different reasons, fallen out of interest in AFSC, didn’t know about it much, or were upset about something we were doing. So one of the things I have done to set up mechanisms for having all of our staff, all around the world, understand what Quaker values are and what it means to be an organization that’s guided by those values.
How did you come to apply for this job? How much, if any, influence did your faith have in how you responded to applying for it?
Shan: I almost didn’t. A lot of people asked me to. It was in 2009, and the organization had laid off 50% of the staff as a result of the crunch. We were in terrible financial shape. People who were on staff and some outside of the organization were worried that an outside person would not be able to come in and understand things well enough to keep the organization from dying. So I was asked. I knew that I didn’t want to move to Philadelphia- my husband had a job and didn’t want to move-so I decided to apply, and I think I said in my application that the process needed to be a discernment about whether this was the right thing for me to do. And it was! It was really good. The search committee was very good. My husband and I worked with a clearness committee in Santa Monica Friends Meeting, and we thought about whether this was what we could do and how long we could do it. It was very much a spiritual decision to take the job, and in the end, it just felt right. The search committee was very clear that they thought I would be the right person, and I felt that I should do it. Sometimes you’re called to do things that aren’t the most comfortable things for you, and you need to do them! I do feel like I was the right person at that time because we are in much better financial shape, we’ve repaired some of our relations with Friends, I feel like I can move on and somebody else can come in.
Do you feel that your work brings your closer or further away to your faith and faithfulness?
Shan: Mostly, the vast majority of the time, closer. Although I have been known to say that the quickest way to turn a Quaker into a Methodist is to make them the head of a Quaker organization. In my view of Quaker decision-making, discernment and seeking unity-that’s meant for big decisions. God does not care what color the curtains are in the kitchen of the meetinghouse. If you try to discern on that, you’ll discern a long time. You won’t really get a lot of spiritual guidance out of that. So I think there’s a tension between recognizing that there are big decisions that we need to look at and come to unity about, but not make everything bogged down into a six-month process in order to decide something that really is not at that level and needs to just move on. I like to try things and adjust. You can try a particular way of organizing things, and then if that doesn’t work, you can change it. Sometimes from the board, there’s this, “No, no, we have to have a working group, and it has to meet seven times over two years,” and then I think, “Things are happening! We have to do it!”
Who have your mentors been?
Shan: One of my undergraduate professors in probability theory, and his wife, who was an MIT graduate: they really were my mentors. They taught me a lot of things, gave me a lot of advice along the way. Since I got to AFSC, I have had some wonderful mentors, a couple of women of color who have become friends, mentors, and helpers for me in understanding my role and my privilege and how I come across sometimes. One is a woman, Eisha Mason, who’s my associate regional director in LA. She’s a member of the Agape Church.She studied with Reverend Jim Lawson, and she just totally has nonviolence at her core. She’s a wonderful person who’s been a mentor.
What is something you wish you’d known at x, y, z points in your spiritual path and/or career?
Shan: That question kind of goes against my personality. I am not a person who looks back and says, “Oh, if only.” It just isn’t in me. There are lots of choices in life and I think I’ve always felt, “Don’t agonize over them. Make a choice and make it work.” So it’s hard for me to think of something in that way-what do I wish I had known then-would it have changed something. I feel like I’ve been really lucky. I wouldn’t have changed anything. If I am giving somebody else advice who’s agonizing over things, one of the things I say is, “If a decision is hard, it’s a sign that it doesn’t matter what you choose.” Easy decisions are when this is obviously what you need to do. If you can’t decide, because it could be this or that, it’s not a big deal, pick one!