Drew Smith has served as Executive Director of Friends Council on Education since 2014. He is a member of Haddonfield Monthly Meeting (Philadelphia Monthly Meeting).
What faith did you grow up in?
Drew: Until somewhere around fourth grade, I was a Presbyterian. And then my parents–I explain it that they made us go to Quaker meeting one Sunday. So since from 4th grade on, I grew up a Quaker. And somewhere along the way, I made peace with it, when I was a kid. I grew up in Haddonfield Monthly Meeting in Haddonfield Quarter, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting.
Have you ever left (formally or informally) for a period of time and then come back to it? Tell me a bit about one of those times. What did you learn from that experience in terms of your faith and spiritual life?
Drew: No, never left. As a kid, like a lot of kids, even kids who grow up Quaker, there are things that just didn’t make any sense to me or didn’t feel particularly helpful at the time. Sitting quietly and not saying anything while I was fidgeting for an hour was complicated. I didn’t always understand, going from the Presbyterian Church to a Quaker meeting, what some of the messages the adults shared were about. But what really struck me was the level of respect and listening that older people in the meeting had for one another. I talk to people who are new to Quaker schools, in my job now, an awful lot, and can think of some messages that, on the face of it, didn’t make any sense. Watching the other people in the meeting, older people in particular–the fact that they maintained their good quiet composure, that they appeared to be listening, just like they had to others–that still resonates as an important lesson and as the sort of thing that caused me to realize that maybe this was for me, too, not just for my parents.
What is important to you now about Quakerism?
Drew: As a younger person, I always found myself kind of at odds with the way people were behaving, if I think about being in school as a kid. The thing I remember most is just not quite getting why everybody was so mean to each other where I grew up. I know there were other people who thought that, but the only place that seemed to offer any alternatives to all of that was the Quaker meeting. The older I got, and the more I read about it, the more I internalized what the Testimonies meant and what I should do with them; the more I thought, “Well, this is the team I’m going to side with”… regardless of the fact that it’s a pretty small team and most people look at us funny.
What feeds your spiritual life?
Drew: I think work feeds my spiritual life. I feel lucky that I’ve found a place where, on a regular basis, there’s something about my work that connects with my spiritual life. I feel like that’s an incredible gift that most people I know don’t actually share; I’m lucky and fortunate. I’m not a concrete thinker, but for some reason when I talk about my spiritual life, deeds and things I do and things I can work on are always the things that deepen me more than being contemplative. I don’t know why I’m that way. I’ve never been able to figure that out. I actually not only started going to Quaker meeting as a kid, but I also started working in the summer at a Shaker community up in Maine. I was working at their museum, but there were Shakers there. I think between the Shakers and the Quakers, the emphasis on “the way that you lived is who you are as a spiritual being”–I internalized that. I feel like the work that you do actually almost has to be spiritual; otherwise it doesn’t feel like the right work. It’s helping someone at a new school, maybe a new teacher or someone who’s not a Quaker who’s trying to figure it out, and somehow connecting that person with the heart of the school that they’re working at. That feels spiritual to me. The work, when I was a teacher, of helping connect kids with things that are deeply important to them, and then helping them try to figure out where that is in the world. Of all the things that I do, that’s the thing that helps me feel most deeply spiritual, and like I’m living what I profess to be living.
Do you attend a worship service on a regular basis? What is powerful for you about that worship?
Drew: I do, though ever since I became the head of a Friends School, one of the things that happens when people figure that out is that meeting becomes a place where they do business with you. So my meeting is a lot of different meetings. I travel around a lot, from meeting to meeting, and it’s mostly self-preservation more than anything else. I’m still a member at the meeting where I grew up, and I attend meetings all over the Delaware Valley. Like most Quakers, I still have to really practice at centering. I’d say the experience for me at meeting–I feel like it’s two halves every time I go, and I’m getting better and better at the second half. The first half is mostly just slowing down, and I feel like I open a drain and all of the things that have been swirling around in my head, I try to get those out of the way. What I find often is there are times when I’m really good and I can get to a place where I almost feel like inside I’m kind of glowing. It’s not like I’m seeing light. It’s like I’m feeling it. When worship’s over, I always feel kind of relieved about something. I don’t even know what it is all the time. It may just be from the hustle and bustle of the week. Maybe it’s a problem or a concern in my life that was bothering me. But it feels very relieving and comforting. It always has been, to be with members of your tribe. That has always felt like part of my worship.
What struggles do you have with being faithful, generally? Where do you find renewal?
Drew: The hardest part for me is partly maintaining the discipline of worship, and then trying not to feel guilty if I don’t go, because as Quakers know well–or should know well–there are opportunities every day, every minute, to be worshipful. I struggle with reminding myself that this is a thing that we’re all sort of acculturated with: things happen at certain times and it has to happen that way. I struggle trying to relieve myself of the guilt that I’m not practicing as well as I want to. Again, this Integrity Testimony, whatever the adults that I grew up with did–and I can’t exactly explain everything that they did–that one’s gone deep with me, too. So I constantly struggle with the choices that I make, and whether or not they reflect what I want them to, or what I think they should. It’s the never-ending quest to actually be the person who you believe you are and say you want to be. I’ve only ever really met one person, ever, who I felt I could just tell–it wasn’t just me, it was everybody in our presence–this is a person who’s actually figured that integrity piece out. That’s Sister Mildred Barker from the Sabbathday Lake Shaker community. Not a Quaker, but a person of tremendous integrity. So another struggle I have is: I have a person in my head who I measure myself against. If she was alive now, I’d ask her, “When you were 50, what was going through your head about this question of your struggles with your spirituality? Where did you see yourself falling short? Where were you succeeding? What were the important things?” I’m guessing that there were probably things she would have identified at the different points along the way, where she felt like she wasn’t living up to what she felt she should. But again, I knew her when she was pretty fully baked, and it was kind of incredible.
When you were 15, what did you did you want to be when you grew up?
Drew: When I was 15, I wanted to be an archivist. I ended up being a history major in college, and I was giving tours at the Shaker village. I wanted to work at the National Archives, and read through and categorize the letters, papers, correspondence of all the famous people we’ve read about in history, and catalogue and put them away. Part of it was the passageways and the places I imagined where these things went and were stored, kind of a peacefulness to it. It was sort of corresponding with history, but also the peace and quiet of what I imagined archival storage to be, like the warehouse at the end of the first Indiana Jones movie where they wheel the Ark of the Covenant in.
Where did you attend college, and what was your major?
Drew: I went to Earlham College, and my major was United States history. Earlham was awesome. I think at the time I was there, I felt like, “This is probably the most truly living Quaker place I’ve ever been.” It felt like a place that was really trying to live into those values, as ugly and messy as it sometimes could be. I felt like most of the professors were deeply interested in leading us along an alternate path that was deeper and more connected with human hearts than my classmates at high school experienced. I felt it while I was there. It was a great place.
If you did graduate work, what degree(s) did you pursue and what were their topics?
Drew: I went to the University of Pennsylvania and did graduate studies in Educational Leadership about 15 years after I graduated from Earlham.
How would you describe your career path?
Drew: I was going to be a lawyer when I left Earlham, but I thought, “I don’t want to go to law school now. I’ve had enough of school. So I’ll be a teacher at a Friends school for a little while!” I ended up getting a job a couple days after I graduated, at the Friends school in Mullica Hill, being a middle school social studies and language arts teacher, and very quickly realized that 13-year-old people were my wheelhouse. I feel like a lot of my career is “right place at the right time.” When I was 27, I became the the middle school director, not knowing what I was getting myself into. What it means to be a leader of peers hit pretty hard the first year I did that job. What I learned as soon as I took this next position was that, although you can be influential with people or you can be charming and friendly and maybe they’ll do what you’d like them to do or maybe you can exercise some leadership, there’s a discipline about leadership that didn’t occur to me, some thinking that I needed to do about myself.
The next move I made was to be the head of a charter school for five years, here in Philadelphia. My hope was to try to bring some of the things that we Quakers know and practice pretty well to a different setting, where Robert’s Rules of Order was the way the board operated, and people were very used to having adversarial relationships with one another. I feel like we’ve only scratched the surface as Quaker institutions in our thinking about what we’re obligated to offer back to the world. Part of the reason I’m in this job now is, I think that Quakers have a lot more to offer to the world than we’re currently offering, and we really need to get good at leading in the world.
How would you describe your current position?
Drew: Friends Council on Education is the member organization of the 80 Friends Schools in the United States. Half of those schools are in the Delaware Valley, in the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting area. We also have affiliate schools around the world, and we’re also affiliated with Quaker colleges and universities. Our job is to strengthen the Quaker nature of Friends schools, and to serve as the national voice for Friends education. I think that the most important single thing that we do is offer a two-day program for new educators that introduces them to Quakers. In fact, it hasn’t been since I taught 8th grade social studies that I’ve felt like I’ve had that kind of deep impact on groups of people. Most people are unaware of how influential Quakers have been in challenging people to think deeply to end slavery, to allow women the right to vote. They’re just completely unaware of how influential we’ve been, and again, consequently influential in the way that they’re able to live their lives. So that’s what we do right now. And I get to travel around all over the place and tell people what to do and then go away. It’s an interesting job.
How did you come to apply for the job?
Drew: I didn’t apply. Four years into my job at the charter school, I was called by the search firm that the Friends Council was using to replace Irene McHenry, and I actually remember laughing at first. “Would you be interested in applying for this job?” I said, “No! I love my job! Why would I apply for this job? I didn’t even know it was open.” After talking to that person, who I’d known before, I agreed to come over and talk to the search committee from the board at Friends Council. I remember saying to the guy, “Tell them to make it good,” because I didn’t think in a million years I’d leave. And they made it good. I think it’s time for Friends schools and organizations to think about being a much louder voice than we have been, finding ways to collaborate together instead of seeing each other as competing organizations orbiting in different ellipses. It’s time to actually start thinking about us as “a thing,” because I think we’re wasting an opportunity to make the world better. They were on board with this crazy plan of mine to do this. I’m in the process of challenging Friends schools to be a little bit more clever in the ways that they think about how they might offer what they know and what they do to kids who don’t have the opportunity, for a million different reasons, to attend a Friends School full-time. So those were the big two hooks for me. I think if the board here wanted to “stay the course,” I wouldn’t have come.
How much, if any, influence did your faith have in how you responded to that call that you got?
Drew: It was all about my faith. It’s about integrity. That’s how I felt. It’s the same thing–when I took the job at Russell Byers Charter, it felt like, “If you really believe this stuff, you should do this job. Turning it down means you’re turning away from yourself.” That’s why I’m here. It’s a real challenge to live up to your own standards. I’m fortunate, on the one hand, that I get a chance to try to do that, but on the other hand, I had to sort of heed the call,“This is what I’m supposed to do.”
Have you had trying times in your work and how did you work your way through those?
Drew: This is about me and my spiritual struggle, not anyone else, because there are always plenty of human interactions that are struggles and cause concern. It’s sort of “What does your faith call you to do?” The conflict that I have is that a significant part of my job is supporting institutions that aren’t helping a lot of kids who need it most. What I’m doing about it is this: I was very clear with my board, my bosses, that if expanding the role of Friends schools in the education of all children isn’t an important component of this job, I can’t do it. It’s a challenge to me, and to all of the schools, both. My challenge is to find the right people in Quaker education, find the right people in public education, the right people in government, to try to see ways in good conscience that we can make this happen. I’m working with a couple of Friends to figure out if it’s possible to translate the spiritual version of the way that we describe ourselves normally–is there a way to describe it secularly?–and to begin starting schools that we would consider “in the manner of Friends,” but that we can with integrity say, “This is not a religiously-based school.” Can we actually do that? We’re going to try that experiment. And in some cities, like Philadelphia, it’s possible for anyone, with the support of the local public schools, to reimagine their curriculum, to add things like mindfulness, and be a true partner in the management and running of the school. So if we can pull these things off, I’ll feel really good about taking this job.
How would you describe your leadership style?
Drew: My mom used to say to me that I can’t charm my way through life. And I used to say back to her, because I was a smart-ass, “Yes I can.” I learned pretty quickly that she’s right, and she’s wrong. I’m good at making people feel like equal partners in our enterprises, and if there are times when we’re not equal partners, then I’m clear about that. When an organization that I work in has a big decision to make, I very rarely make it by myself. I always do so in partnership with others. I hope, although I’ve never asked anyone this directly, but that part of my leadership style is trying to “walk cheerfully over the earth, answering to that of God in everyone,” which means that I feel very open to the idea that I don’t have all the answers. I think if you have that disposition that feels you can answer every question, you’re in big trouble. I like to think of myself as collegial, a good team member. I’ll stand in front of you if needed, or I’ll stand in front of the team if needed, and I’ll be as direct as possible.
How did you learn leadership skills – within the Quaker world? Outside of it? In either case, describe some of the ways you’ve learned these skills?
Drew: Sister Mildred was very much in charge at the Shaker community where I used to work during the summers. It was a small little community, about 13 people, and then about ten every summer who came and worked at the museum, of various ages. She was gentle with us, but she didn’t hesitate to be firm when she needed to be. She was a teeny-tiny person, but she carried her authority with humility, and that’s been a big important lesson for me.
There are many elders in my meeting, who are all very different characters, but were all very influential in different ways. I can trace my “be straightforward” thing that I always try to impose on myself, all the way back to Walter Darnell at Haddonfield Meeting. He was the person at business meeting who was often the one who would just cut right through the bullshit. Not in a mean, negative way, but he had a way of putting things succinctly that caused anything extraneous to fall away, and he never hesitated to do it. His wife Mona is another one of those four people who, like Sister Mildred, carried herself with sort of a gentleness, but also, like Sister Mildred, and her husband, wasn’t afraid to speak the truth or say things plainly and look you in the eye while she did so.
How well do you feel your work is understood and supported by your meeting?
Drew: Part of why I’m sort of itinerant right now is, I’m trying to answer, in my current role, what I think is a serious and important question for Quakers generally: that, in my opinion, the front door to Quakerism is, in many ways, Quaker schools. The Education Committee commissioned a poll of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting members about 10 or 15 years ago, and it turns out that about 60% of the adult members of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting found their way through a school to a Quaker meeting. And yet, I do sense amongst Quakers more broadly at the meetings that I attend that there isn’t good general support for Quaker schools, that they’re perceived–and again, I share some of their perceptions, although I think about it differently than they do–that they’re elitist, that they’re exclusive, that they’re privileged. So to answer your question in a straightforward way, I do not think in a broad sense that Quakers, generally, fully support the work of a person like me out in the world, or people who teach in Friends Schools or who work at Friends Schools who are Quakers. I feel like right now, partly why I’m moving around is I think it’s important for schools to learn the answer to this question. Does the Religious Society of Friends support its own schools? And I’m trying to decide whether or not I think it’s important for schools, and me, to start a little bit of a conflict or a fight about this. I feel like I’m going to live the rest of my life in this very complicated spiritual territory with my own faith community because of the work that I do, which is in fact inspired by that same faith.
Do you have a support committee, elder, or other structure for support and accountability in your meeting?
Drew: I do, with this board. At some point it would be good if there were a group of Quakers nationally who were formerly in the role of helping to support and evaluate me, but I don’t think we’re there yet. You planted an interesting seed in my head, that that might be something to aspire to. The members of the board–I’d say about half of them on that support group are Quakers and they know what I’m talking about and feel it themselves. The others are people–I call them fellow travelers; without these folks, we wouldn’t have Friends schools, and they actually are perplexed that this is the state of Quakers in their schools. They’re good because they help focus us Quakers on ways that we might talk about this with Quakers, that we hadn’t thought of because we’re sitting in the middle of it. I have a good support system among some Quakers who share my profession.
What is something that you wish you had known at X, Y, or Z points in your spiritual path or career?
Drew: I believe that it’s not possible for any of us to get outside our own heads. We live in our heads. There’s that David Foster Wallace guy, who gave a talk at Kenyon College that’s what it was about. I’d be disingenuous if I said I was a fully practiced master at always recognizing when I was in my own way. But I can’t say that when I was a younger person, that I was aware of that as fully as I am now. One of the beauties of a place like Earlham was it really challenged you to get out of your own way. I feel lucky that, in formative years, I did have mentors and peers who were really pushing on me to get out of my own way.
But I also remember in college–it’s interesting watching people react to Black Lives Matter right now, because it reminds me of women I went to college with who were challenging the patriarchy. First time a lot of us guys had heard all this. And I remember, my freshman and sophomore year, personalizing a lot of what they said, instead of just listening to them, which I learned to do later. Just listen to what they were trying to say. And in listening, realizing that there were personal things that I needed to wrestle with, as a man, in thinking about this. And the second piece is, while I struggled with that, there’s no reason why I couldn’t been supportive of them. As I’ve gotten older, I wish I had found the level of confidence, personal confidence, that I have now, at earlier points along the way, so that I would have been better able to get out of my own way, and more supportive of the people who worked with me and for me. That would have been a helpful thing to have been better practiced at when I was a younger person.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve gotten about spiritual/ faith journeys? What is your favorite piece of advice you like to give others about spirituality/ faithfulness?
Drew: I’m going to go back to Mona Darnell and Sister Mildred. I’ve talked about work, how important work is to me, as a spiritual person. The other piece about work–that I remember Mona speaking about a couple of times, it really stood out–is that there’s a reason why our book is called Faith & Practice, that being a person who lives what they believe takes practice.
When I was a teenager, if Sister Mildred would saw you doing your work, like cutting the grass, in a sloppy or careless way, she’d come over and give you advice: “You remember what the Shakers say: ‘Hands to work and hearts to God.’ It’s important that in your work, you’re also practicing what’s in your heart.” I think those two pieces of advice were the two most important, ever, and I still think about them. And there’s probably no more important advice that I give people in my job. When people call and say, “I’m thinking about applying to be the middle school director at School X. Do you think I can do it?” and somewhere in there, where in most cases I say “yes,” because it’s a person who’s gotten to a place where they should, it’s, “Don’t get discouraged when things get hard. Every single person that you admire in leadership has had to practice to be this person.” We’ve practiced and failed. We’ve practiced and given up on certain things because we know we probably ought to have somebody else we work with do that. Or, we practiced, and that’s what you’re seeing when you say, “I admire this, that, or the other thing.” There are very few people who come right out of the chute and can do it, at least that I’ve met. That’s the single most important piece of advice I’d give: Don’t get discouraged because you have to work at it. Practice.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve received about your career/ work path? What is your favorite advice to give to other people who seem to be or are already on similar trajectories as you are on?
Drew: I always encourage people who have questions about themselves and about whether or not they want to be leaders–it’s the Jan Brady thing, sign up for every club. Do something, because if you don’t, you won’t know. Sometimes when I say it to people, I say to them, “This is going to seem really simple, but tell me what you could do with your school right now, that you could initiate?” It’s, “Let’s figure out a way to put yourself in some positions to try.” And again, it’s part of that advice to practice. You won’t know until you’ve tried it out. The second thing I tell people who are aspiring is, I always like to connect them with someone else other than me. I’m like, “You need to talk to a few of us, and then let’s circle back around and tell me what you’ve learned.” And nine times out of 10, leaders give similar advice, “I didn’t know I could do this until I tried it,” and in a couple of cases they’ll say, “I tried it because I asked.” In some cases, you’re lucky enough to be asked, but if you’re not, you need to push and ask.
I think with me, it relates back to the “getting out of your own way.” There were a couple of teachers I hired who were my students–they graduated from school and became teachers, I was a middle school principal–who sat down with me and gave me important advice about talking less and listening more, and they were very good about it. They came together. They could see that I was trying to engage better level of conversation at our middle school staff meetings, that I was trying to get out of the way and encourage them to talk, and they helped me see that the kind of talking I was doing was kind of in the way of that, and that helped me redesign. So it was pointing out an opportunity to get out of the way, and encouraging me in ways that I could practice. It opened up a really important path that I’ve been on ever since.