2022 Public Comments on Proposed Bylaws Amendments
Click here to view submitted comments and, for a deeper dive, see Additional Context, Rationale, and Debate
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Elliott Oring January 17, 2023 6:52 PM
The purpose of the AFS Board is to see that the Society fulfills its mission: to stimulate research in folklore, disseminate the results of such research, to advocate for the teaching of folklore and the establishment of folklore curricula and programs, and to enhance the professional opportunities of folklorists. The membership should elect to the Board those they believe will craft effective policies and judiciously employ the resources of the Society in the fulfillment of that mission.
The American Folklore Society is a membership society, i.e., its officers are chosen by the membership. The Board of the AFS is not like the Board of an arts council, museum, or the American Red Cross. Those are not membership societies. AFS members should nominate and elect Board officers because of their demonstrated commitment to the AFS, their knowledge of the field of folklore, their industry, and their abilities in working to craft effective policy. These are the criteria for nominating and electing members of the Board, and candidates for office should be ready and willing to demonstrate that they possess the requisite qualifications.
The changes to Bylaws were originally justified in terms of getting expertise and perspective that is needed on the Board. A broad spectrum of expertise and perspective is already available to the Board from its standing and ad hoc committees and its membership. The Board can even hire expertise when necessary. Reading the various comments in favor of the changes to the Bylaws on the website and those put forth in the Town Halls, it now seems that the original intention of the proposals is diverted to other matters: the full range of possible identities in the membership are not represented in the candidates for office, people lose elections and are discouraged, candidates shouldn’t be asked to run against one another, candidates for office are interrogated by the membership in the Candidates’ Forum, elections are not really democratic since candidates are selected by a nominating committee (overlooking the fact that any ten members can nominate a candidate for office).
No Board of 9 or 12 or 15 members will represent all the diversity in the Society. But that is not what a Board is about, nor should it be. It is about conceiving of and taking actions that further the stated collective goals of the Society. Certainly, one of those goals has not been met: maintaining and furthering the development of folklore programs. The last decades have witnessed the death or severe erosion of programs across the country. If the Board cannot figure out a strategy to effectively strengthen and increase folklore programs in the United States, in another few decades, folklorists will have nothing at all to worry about. There will be no field of folklore, no professional folklorists whose careers need enhancement, no one to carry out professional research and see to its dissemination, and no one qualified to promote the teaching of folklore at any level of our educational system.
So let us get serious. We should not nominate people who are not committed enough to come to meetings (for whatever reason), who do not publish in the field, who cannot withstand questioning on their vision statements and qualifications, who cannot stand to lose an election, and who do not understand the serious matters that face the field. And the membership should not surrender to the Board its rights to determine the future of the Society and the field of folklore. I recommend you vote against the changes in the Bylaws.
Paddy Bowman December 16, 2022 4:59 PM
Since serving on the Nominating Committee 2000-2003, I’ve been reluctant to ask colleagues to stand for office. Is it really democratic to ask people to compete against one another and be subjected to grilling in the candidates’ forum? I’d like to see a slate put forward by the Nominating Committee and the Board, as many academic societies do. I fully support the proposed bylaw changes.
Jim Leary December 16, 2022 11:17 AM
As one who urged (unsuccessfully) that the purported Fellows of the American Folklore Society actually be elected by the members of the American Folklore Society, I was initially surprised that AFS leadership would propose the selection of 1/4 of board members by the board itself. But I was more surprised, and considerably irked, that some Fellows opposed to “the masses” participating in Fellows elections would invoke inclusive democracy in rationalizing opposition to proposed AFS bylaws changes.
Pondering how to vote regarding changes, I conferred with recent members of the AFS nominating committee and current & former AFS board members to get their perspectives. I also drew on decades of experience serving on numerous boards (e.g. several non-profit presenting organizations, a day care center, a public library, plus two three-year terms on the AFS board). Of all the boards I’ve served on, only the AFS board is elected. All of the boards I’ve served on have needed members with special skills and constituencies necessary to anticipate and address known and unforeseen challenges and opportunities. Frequently the boards I’ve served on have recruited new members capable of providing critical expertise otherwise lacking.
The AFS bylaws changes, consequently, strike me as timely and necessary to sustain both AFS’s democratic traditions and adapt quickly to whatever comes. I fully support all proposed changes.
Anika Wilson December 8, 2022 6:39 PM
I support the proposed bylaws changes. As my colleagues –Lisa Rathje, Lisa Gilman, and Sarah Gordon–have so eloquently expressed, to have long-lasting, substantive change sometimes requires structural transformations. Current AFS elections have a tendency to reify certain patterns in leadership (and thus membership) because of the nature of elections which makes the most visible members (often those with more resources in their professions for attending meetings or publishing) more likely to be elected. The leadership, in turn, may then end up playing a role in perpetuating inequities in the membership itself when there is little or no representation in leadership from the missing or underrepresented demographics. This means that in the long run the society will not learn what it takes to accommodate not only BIPOC members, but also members in precarious employment, members in non-academic roles, practitioner-folklorists, etc. The bylaws changes make it possible, as Sarah stated, for the Board to invite leaders to the table that have a lot to contribute but may be overlooked by the current way the society functions.
Yes, in recent years the leadership has been more diverse. This is because the society elected leaders who had concerns about making AFS an inclusive society who worked to prioritize inclusivity. These efforts are not about performative diversity but really making room for a variety of perspectives to transform the way AFS functions and who feels welcome. These changes are about creating a healthy society that can meet the challenges of a changing field by bringing together their professional experience and wisdom to the table. These efforts are about building mechanisms for sustainable change in the society by putting in place a structure in which the board (which would be 2/3rds by direct election) is empowered to seek expertise by electing further members.
While this may not be the way AFS has done it in the past, it is by no means a rare type of procedure across similar societies as Lisa Rathje explained during the first townhall.
The Nominating Committee and the Executive Board researched and considered different models of Board structures for comparable societies to determine some of the tools AFS might employ for sustainable transformation. Empowering an elected Board to make further elections was one such tool which has great potential.
And as Lisa has stated, if we try these changes and find they don’t suit then bylaws can be amended. But to my mind I think it’s worth giving these changes a shot in order to grow an increasingly dynamic and nimble leadership and society.
Diane Goldstein December 7, 2022 4:41 PM
Many of the comments posted here and made during the town hall zoom meetings articulate the understanding that the addition of these positions are intended to create greater diversity and equity on the board. This was certainly the case with the creation of the current representational appointed position on the board developed roughly fifteen years ago. I was on the board at that time and wholeheartedly supported the creation of that position. It is far less clear to me that the positions suggested here are intended to create greater diversity. The language used in this proposal (with diversity mentioned only once and far greater emphasis placed on “need”, “experience”, “perspective”, and “skills”) suggests that the board desires the ability to appoint individuals that bring a knowledge base to the board not necessarily related to diversity or equity issues. A link provided by AFS in response to the comments by the members titled “a deeper dive,” (https://docs.google.com/document/d/11zdsbacZvaMqT3vJ-4TLwhuDepbIRhxvEXYqMqgHj5Y/edit#heading=h.2bb4l57xcy5z) provided examples that made it clear that this was largely about expertise, knowledge, and skills. They note, “some prospective board members may have professional expertise and represent stakeholders (eg university or government leaders) who can add to the effectiveness of the Board. This model is used effectively in other organizations.” This in itself is not problematic, but neither does it necessitate an intrusion into the democratic process of members electing their board. As noted by numerous commentators, the board has the entire membership as well as others to consult for skills and knowledge without overriding open elections. Further, the board has a representative on the nominating committee for the precise purpose of acting as a liaison between the board and the committee. In my recent time on the nominating committee, the liaison (who was a terrific committee member) never in our three years together brought to our attention nomination needs or concerns from the board. Further, the board has not used for more than a decade the many mechanisms (such as the annual business meeting) for educating the membership about its needs.
The original appointed position on the board was about increasing diversity in representation when our elections didn’t lead to that diversity. This does not seem to be what motivates the current initiative. Our current procedures allow numerous ways to avail ourselves of skills, perspectives, and knowledge from those both inside and outside the organization. We need not threaten our members’ sense of AFS as a democratic organization (and clearly some are perceiving a threat) to avail ourselves of that knowledge base. If the position is actually about increasing diversity and equity the proposal should be altered to make that clear. I suspect several votes will hinge on that clarity.
Sarah Gordon December 5, 2022 8:36 PM
I support these amendments. Many of my reasons are wonderfully articulated by Lisa Gilman and Lisa Rathje below, but I have a few additions.
The goal of these amendments is to empower the board to identify its gaps in knowledge and experience and to fill those gaps. The assumption in much of this conversation is that power will be used to identify and fill gaps in BIPOC representation on the board, and that would indeed be among the amendments’ most valuable uses. But it is not the only potential use. If the board, following an election, were to find itself without (for example) adequate representation from , say, public folklorists, the appointment could be used to fill that need. If the board found itself lacking in a particular skillset, they could appoint someone with the skill that’s missing.
Diversity is a quality inherent to groups, not individuals. To consider a group of people to be made up of a ratio of “diverse” members to “non-diverse” members implies that the term “diversity” is being used to elide a clearer articulation of those members various positionalities. Is “diverse” being used to refer to BIPOC? How about queer or gender-diverse people? How about women? Un-, under-, or precariously-employed people?
But even if the appointment were used exclusively to ensure adequate representation from minoritized groups on the Board, this would be a worthwhile endeavor. The AFS Board of Directors has indeed seen a vast increase in BIPOC membership in recent years, but this has been due to active decisions on the part of the Nominating Committee (of which I have been a member since 2021) to build slates geared toward this outcome. In the 2020 election, the Nom Com ensured the addition of four new BIPOC board members by putting forward a slate of eight outstanding BIPOC candidates for those positions, including the Presidency. But right now, with the exception of the single existing board-elected position, the only avenue to guarantee election outcomes that rectify gaps in perspective, experience, or skill on the board is for the NC to build a slate disproportionately weighted toward filling that gap in a way that is not always feasible.
Say the Board has a gap in Quality X. Quality X may be any quality you can think of: professional standing, race or ethnic group, gender or gender identity, or a particular skillset. As things stand, the Board communicates this need to the Nominating Committee, who then factors Quality X into their recruitment plan. They identify five potential candidates who have Quality X, but only two agree to run; if math serves me right, that gives 1/3 odds that the board will actually be able to fill its identified gap. And that’s not accounting for the popularity factor that may drive the odds far lower.
This system does not serve the board well, nor does it enable the building of the best possible candidate slate because it forces the consideration of a single issue across as many candidates as possible. And then it removes those people from consideration for several subsequent years, because out of respect for the electorate’s decision and for the losing candidates themselves, the Nom Com generally does not ask losing candidates to run again for several years.
As Lisa Gilman mentions, bylaws can be changed and changed again. But I am of the strong opinion that this bylaw change will improve the effectiveness and strength of our leadership.
Lisa Gilman December 5, 2022 9:18 AM
I appreciate all the thoughtful perspectives of everyone who has chimed in regarding the proposed changes to the bylaws and agree with much of what both sides have to offer. That said, I support the proposed changes in the bylaws (4 and 5).
I do not agree that the proposal reduces the democratic process in the society—maybe because I’m not exactly sure what we mean by “democracy” here.
Tim and Barbara are right that the board has been more diverse in the past few years due to the strategic efforts of the nominating committee, board, AFS presidents, and AFS executive directors. In recent years, AFS nominating committees have worked hard to put together slates that would ensure that diverse members are elected (based on understanding what Lisa Rathje has explained for why AFS elections often favor certain types of people). Some could argue that this is not really a “democratic” process; for example, if the nominating committee puts together a slate of all white people to ensure white dominance, or alternately, puts together a slate of all BIPOC people to ensure that BIPOC people are represented—the fact that some percentage of the membership vote doesn’t diminish the original power of the nominating committee in selecting the slate. This process puts a lot of pressure on and power within the nominating committee. Members of the nominating committee have not necessarily served on the board or in a leadership capacity within the society, and their priorities and strategies may or may not be what the general membership most values. Yet, we vote on the people they offer—democracy? The bylaws proposal shifts some of this pressure and strategizing from the nominating committee to the board, whose members are the most engaged with what’s going on in the society at the time, understand the current make-up of the board, know what priorities and initiatives are at stake, and so forth.
The board is us. Our board is made up of our membership who serve short terms. We are the board—what makes the board “special” or empowered to make decisions for us is that the members are charged with and are in a position to pay attention to the needs and leadership of the society during their short term in the position. They are the members at any given time who are most aware of what is going on in the society and what the society needs. Tasking the board with assessing what the critical needs are for representation on the board at any given time is really asking those people amongst ourselves who are currently paying the most attention to thoughtfully consider where the gaps are at any given time. While the increased representation of BIPOC people to the board has been the priority in recent years, hopefully the efforts that we are making will produce real structural change so that soon the board will be diverse racially and ethnically not through these special efforts but because we have created a more inclusive and equitable society. In other words, the board will necessarily at different times recognize different critical gaps: students, community scholars, people with disabilities, people who know how to make money, etc. So those against the change in the bylaws who are focusing on the fact that we have already increased the racial and ethnic diversity (through a lot of strategic work) of the board in recent years through current processes are not fully addressing the purpose of the bylaws change, which is not just about race and ethnicity.
Our board does a lot more than lead the society. Speaking for myself, I was a pretty uninvolved member of the society before being elected. I came to conferences, sometimes attended business meetings, occasionally voted (and wasn’t really sure about the criteria), and really didn’t recognize the value or importance of the society to the field (beyond the conferences). I also did not pay attention to what was going in terms of the society’s initiatives, priorities, problems, etc. It was when I joined the board that I became invested, took ownership, felt empowered, and started tracking what was going on in the society. Realistically, I was not the best positioned to make decisions about what the board needed before I had served. This information about me, which I assume might be similar for at least some others, is important for several reasons. 1) Being selected for the broad produces more committed members of the society. Thus being strategic about filling gaps in the board can produce a more fully empowered membership across diverse peoples, expertise, interests, positions, etc. (in as a much as it produces an effective leadership team), 2) it is when serving on the board that members tend to understand the most about what is going on and thus what the gaps might be, 3) back to the we are the board: asking the elected members to elect people to fill in the gap—is just an extension of asking the board to make important decisions for the society. It is still we doing work for us—what I think is at the core of democracy.
A final note—bylaws will be bylaws—if we make the change, and the need for the change recedes, or the society is suddenly terribly flawed, change can always happen again.
Tim and Barbara Lloyd December 4, 2022 3:17 PM
We oppose the proposed AFS Bylaws amendments 4 and 5—which together will increase the number of members of the AFS Executive Board (amendment 4), and diminish the ability of AFS members to directly elect their leaders (amendment 5)—for three reasons:
1. The diversity of the AFS membership has increased significantly in the past 20 years, though there is still more to be done to meet AFS-wide diversity, equity, and inclusion goals.
Data: In the 2002 member survey, 11% of AFS members self-designated as diverse, while by the 2016 member survey that percentage had increased to 22%. (Data from the 2022 member survey, now underway, are not yet available.)
Over that same time, through the dedicated efforts of Nominating Committees and Executive Boards, the existing system of nominating, electing, and appointing Board members has led to a body that is significantly more diverse than the membership, embodying at least part of the Board’s vision of what the AFS as a whole ought to become.
Data: From 2002 to 2022, the diversity of the AFS Executive Board has increased from 9% (1 of 11 members) to 58% (7 of 12 members).
Diversity, equity, and inclusion goals for AFS leadership and the Society as a whole are extremely important, and AFS has taken a number of steps over the past two decades to articulate and work toward those goals, including but not limited to the current system of nominating, electing, and appointing members of the Board. That system in particular appears to have been successful.
2. As has been noted by several other commenters, even without these proposed Bylaws amendments the Executive Board always has the ability to invite and engage with perspectives, experiences, and insights from throughout the membership and beyond so that it can have the most and best information available to it as it considers its decisions and actions.
3. Technically, amendments 4 and 5 are separate, and members will vote on them as such. But AFS has linked them by saying that amendment 4, if approved, will increase (from 12 members to 15) the size of the Board to the point where board meetings and communications would strain Society finances, and would, according to the Board, “weigh on the process of deliberation and decision-making” (although this seems at odds with the Board’s other statement that this increase will “round out the Board’s composition to address current needs”). Thus the Board also proposes amendment 5, which will keep the Board at its present size by reducing the number of Board members directly elected by the membership from three to two each year.
Why should the ability of AFS members to directly elect their leaders be diminished in order to solve a problem that the existing system is already solving?
Lisa Rathje December 2, 2022 11:07 AM
Over the past 5+ years, the nominating committee has dedicated a number of meetings and did a brief field scan of other professional membership organizations to evaluate our nominations and elections process through an equity lens. While I was serving on this committee (2019-2021), and building upon the work of previous Nominating Committee members, we identified that an elections process that introduces a slate with two candidates for each open slot has often contributed to real and perceived inequities within AFS leadership.
While additional analysis could be done to understand all the contributing factors, our hypothesis largely coalesced around issues of candidate “popularity;” namely,
1) elections may encode bias towards folklorists who have travel and conference budgets to attend AFS meetings frequently, and
2) AFS’s active welcoming of folklorists and traditional artists who may not have training in the academy in folklore has increased in recent years, so candidates from these groups may not be as well-known, yet they have important experience and perspectives for AFS leadership.
The 2021 Nominating Committee shared our recommendations with the board because we wanted to intentionally promote anti-racist practices in our elections. The proposed bylaws amendments not only offer clarifying language that should be adapted, but offer an important compromise position that maintains an election process while also creating opportunities for our leadership to reflect an inclusive vision for AFS.
Juwen Zhang November 30, 2022 10:42 PM
If the Proposal (4) is passed, the future reality will be: besides the nine or six (depending on whether Proposal 5 is passed) Board members (excluding President and Elect/Past President) elected by the membership, there will be three more Board members who have the same voting rights as the other elected members, who are not elected by the membership but are chosen by the Board (without the knowledge of anyone outside the Board), and who are to fill in the needs of the Board.
The written text about this proposal (to have three members on the Board who are not elected by the membership) is to bring “the knowledge, experience, and/or perspective needed” on the Board with the “aims to create an opportunity to adapt more nimbly and strategically to challenges as they arise.” But the oral narrative is “to diversify the Board and its membership” (as Steve and Amanda Zeitlin mentioned in their first paragraph above). So, what is really needed on the Board, and in our Society? Are they needing the same thing?
I interpret both the written and oral versions to have one goal, to increase diversity! I am all for it, 100%. But, if what the Board needs is not what the Society elects (so the rationale of the Proposal indicates), where do we find the root of the problem and fix it?
In our short-term memory (last year’s election), two of the six names on the ballot for the Board election were long-term (more than twenty years) active (in publication and meetings) Asian American folklorists, but neither were elected by the membership. As a result, the Board elected another member to the Board as a needed representative of AAPI.
I consider this is a way of putting patches to ease the pain, rather than finding the root of the problem and fix it. In my opinion if the Board needs diversity, but the membership elects something different, the problem is in educating the membership with proper information and facts to showcase who are doing what for our society and field. I see it is a problem of communication within our society because AFS members, I belief, also like to see diversity of all kinds in our Society. Therefore, if we only use the power/authority of the Board/President to diversify the Board, it will not bring healthy diversity within our Society.
Steve and Amanda Zeitlin November 29, 2022 4:37 PM
We are pleased to write in favor of the bylaws change which we believe will help push forward the decades-old struggle of AFS to diversify the board and its membership. As members of the Society since 1973, we have watched time and again candidates of color nominated to the board lose elections and drift away from the Society. The nominating committee has often resorted to nominating a slate where people of color are the majority to assure that at least one will win, or even an entire slate of persons of color to help ensure a more diverse board.
More than a decade ago, the Society amended its by-laws to allow the board to elect one additional candidate to the board every three years. This builds on that successful change by allowing the board to elect one additional candidate not once every three years but each year to assure diverse representation on the board of a Society whose mission itself is to support the cultural forms of diverse groups. Please note the word ELECT. Having the board elect a candidate is not undemocratic. The board votes. Many democracies around the world, including Great Britain, have elected representatives elect others for leadership positions.
As stated in the accompanying bylaws ballot notes, this proposition will also expand the size of the board by one member each year for two years and beyond. A larger board can be an asset to the Society providing it with more human power, greater opportunities for financial contributions, more and diverse perspectives, and expanded advocacy for the field.
The nature of the Society, which meets only once a year, makes it difficult for new members and younger members to become sufficiently well known to win election to the board. Our Society needs to do all it can to diversify its membership, and a key step is ensuring that the board is more diverse. We have moved in that direction over the past decade, and we urge the Society to take this next step.
Elliott Oring November 29, 2022 2:48 PM
The AFS Board is proposing to appoint members to the Board on its own authority (Proposal 4) and to reduce the participation of the membership in the election of Board members. The Board intends to appoint a total of three members to the Board (in addition to any replacements they appoint for those Board members who for various reasons cannot complete their terms of office). So at least 20% of the Board will be appointed by the Board. If the number of Members at Large nominated by the membership is reduced to two a year (Proposal 5) so that the total Board is comprised of 12 members, the appointed members will constitute at least 25% of the Board.
The reason for the changes (particularly relevant to Proposals 4 and 5) is to increase “knowledge, expertise and perspective” on the Board. The Board has numerous standing committees it can consult for knowledge, expertise, and perspective. It can consult with anyone in and outside the Society. It can even pay for expert advice when necessary. There is no reason to appoint people to acquire such resources.
The proposal for changes in the Bylaws is fundamentally undemocratic as they put more power in the hands of the Board while taking it away from the membership. Even the proposal to change the words “appoint” to “elect” (Proposal 1) is not benign. What the Board is doing is appointing Board members in the same way it appoints editors and archivists. They are not in any sense being “elected.” There are no competing candidates, and there is no electorate other than the Board.
These proposals are essentially inimical to the functioning of a democratic, scholarly society. They should all be rejected by the membership at this time. It would be better, however, if the Board simply decided to withdraw them