This article originally appeared with minor differences as part of a discussion on the "Ending Racism Among Friends" EMail list.
The issue of what we call the committee that does what "Overseer" or "Oversight" is meant to denote has me remembering several incidents in my life as a Friend.
Most vivid is the time I was on Nominating Committee for a Friends group, and we really were hoping a certain African American Friend would be willing to serve on our Overseers Committee. The Friend in question gave me and my fellow Nominating Committee person (both of us white) a long look and then, as best I can recall, thanked us for thinking of him, expressed his affection for both the organization and the committee in question, and then said there was really no way he could even consider serving on a committee with such a name.
In an instant the light came on for me, so to speak. In that moment I think I actually saw and felt how it is that a word and its connotations -- emotional, spiritual, historical, and intellectual -- can be SO DIFFERENT for different people. Like living on different planets, really. Like when I got my first pair of glasses at age 7 and realized that people really weren't just making up their observations about there being stars in the night sky. Needless to say, Nominating reported back to Overseers our concern, shame, sense of urgency.... and the organization changed its committee name, to Ministry and Counsel if I recall correctly.
The other incident has to do with right naming itself. I would question how well the name Overseers or Oversights fits what such committees do or should do, even apart from its dual historical meaning (and to me the word's long history in the context of slavery is at least as relevant as its (presumably) long history in the context of Quakerism). What does "oversight" or "overseer" connote in various contexts today? Does it bring to mind some sort of corporate board of directors or management team? A committee of therapists and physicians attending to the health of some group? A close-up or distant group of "watchers" "watching-over"? And how about the double-edged sword of "oversight" -- as in our use of these words was just an oversight -- so let's fix it, eh?
At any rate, I served part of a term as a member of my home Meeting's Ministry and Counsel Committee, and dropped out because it just didn't feel like what I was meant to be doing. I had a good conversation with another Friend about the name and function. What we came to was that the committee was well-named -- it has 2 functions, looking after "Ministry" and looking after "Counsel" which corresponded to the traditional Friends functions of Minister and Elder. At the time, the committee was doing a lot more with "Counsel" than with"Ministry" which was why, in retrospect, I felt out of place. The other Friend, being oriented toward "Counsel" more than "Ministry," fit right in.
Finally -- and I'm sorry this is so long -- I'm reminded of the story about Chevrolet and its little car the Nova, which was so-named because of its presumed connotations of bright star, astronomical wonder, newness, that sort of thing. Great name, until they tried to sell it in Mexico, where "no va" means it doesn't go -- what a joke. If a car manufacturer can be smart enough to realize a name has unintended bad meanings for people it cares about selling to, how much more should a religious organization be smart enough to realize AND CHANGE a name that has unintended bad consequences on a group it cares about including? [I actually don't know if Chevy marketed the Nova under a different name in Spanish-speaking places, or just withdrew it from those markets, or just said too bad if they don't like our name, we know what it's supposed to mean].
OK, onward through the fog, seeking the Light.