Updated 11 a.m. EST
A diversity officer at American Friends Service Committee will leave her post and sever ties with the organization after published accusations that she mischaracterized her heritage and lived experience emerged last week. “AFSC’s Chief Equity, Inclusion, and Culture Officer, Raquel Saraswati, who is facing public allegations that she misrepresented her background and past associations, has informed us of her intention to separate from the organization. AFSC supports her in this difficult decision,” Mark Graham, AFSC’s chief marketing and communications officer, wrote in a February 22 email to Friends Journal.
Reached by Friends Journal on Thursday morning, Saraswati declined to comment at this time but is considering a future statement.
AFSC plans to continue prioritizing equity and inclusion, according to Graham. “We acknowledge that the public allegations against Raquel have brought to the surface many critical issues that warrant further discussion and this situation has been difficult and distressing for many AFSC staff and community members. AFSC has processes for staff and volunteers to confidentially raise their concerns and share their suggestions, and we are committed to listening carefully to that input, discerning, and moving forward on a path of healing for all,” Graham wrote.
On February 16, The Intercept, a nonprofit news organization founded in 2014, reported that “members” of American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) have accused the organization’s chief equity, inclusion, and culture officer of posing as a Person of Color when, in fact, she is White and traces her heritage to Europe on both the maternal and paternal sides. Friends Journal has independently verified that the allegations were made. The article asserts that Raquel Evita Saraswati, who began working with AFSC in June 2021, presented herself as Latina, Arab, and South Asian. The article states that Saraswati’s birth name was Rachel Elizabeth Seidel.
Saraswati is the subject of a February 10 open letter published on Medium. The anonymous authors of the letter identify themselves as “a group of individuals who care deeply about AFSC” and explain that they have chosen to remain anonymous “for protection from any potential retribution.” The Intercept claims to have verified the authors are “AFSC members,” though doesn’t specify what that means. The authors of the letter claim that staff, volunteers, and donors have expressed concern about Saraswati identifying herself as South Asian, Arab, and Latina. They also accuse Saraswati of supporting Islamophobia by appearing in the 2013 documentary Honor Diaries, which concerns the status of females in Islamic countries, and working as an assistant to author Irshad Manji, who wrote the 2003 book The Trouble With Islam Today: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith among other volumes.
When asked for comment on the allegations, Mark Graham, AFSC’s chief marketing and communications officer, emailed Friends Journal this statement:
We are in receipt of the documentation alleging that our Chief Equity, Inclusion, and Culture Officer, Raquel Saraswati, has been misrepresenting her identity. AFSC has given Raquel the opportunity to address the allegations against her, and Raquel stands by her identity. Raquel also assures us that she remains loyal to AFSC’s mission, which we firmly believe.
AFSC does not require any employee to “prove” their heritage as a condition of their employment, or in order to be valued as a member of our team. We are committed to an inclusive workplace free of discrimination and prejudices.
The open letter could reflect the authors’ belief that leaders of AFSC have not adequately investigated long-standing concerns about Saraswati’s identity, said Oskar Castro, who was speaking in his personal capacity and not representing Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, where he works as the director of human resources and inclusion. Castro said that opening an investigation as soon as internal rumors started would have benefited AFSC.
AFSC could consult with its lawyers and inquire into the allegations while respecting Saraswati’s legal right to privacy, Castro said. The existence of concerns about Saraswati’s identity and activities does not in itself prove that she misrepresented herself, he said.
“The challenge, of course, is always veracity,” Castro said.
Castro assisted the AFSC team that interviewed Saraswati, but the ultimate hiring decision rested with the organization’s leaders. Saraswati made the short list of candidates, all of whom were strong, according to Castro. Saraswati presented herself as multiethnic, and Castro felt glad that a Latinx person would be in the position. Castro viewed the recording of the video conference hiring interview with Saraswati but was not present for the conversation. All those responsible for hiring had a favorable impression of her, according to Castro.
“She had a strong sense of equity and inclusion work,” Castro said of Saraswati.
Updated 11 a.m. EST to clarify Saraswati’s interest in providing a future statement.
Parts of this story originally reported February 17, 2023.