Embattled AFSC Diversity Officer to Leave Organization

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.

8 thoughts on “Embattled AFSC Diversity Officer to Leave Organization

  1. One of the things that concerns me about Saraswati’s unnamed accusers is their readiness to play the “guilt by ideological association” card: “Ooh, she’s been on Fox News, she must be bad!” In doing so, they may be demonstrating a blinkered perspective of their own, especially when they condemn Saraswati for being in the employ of “Irshad Manji, one of the world’s most infamous Islamophobes.”

    Now, granted, it’s been over a decade and a half since I last looked at The Trouble with Islam, but my recollection, roughly confirmed by a spot check of the web, is that Irshad Manji was writing as a faithful Muslim searching for a way to reconcile what she saw as the best values of Islam with what she saw as the best values of Western liberalism, and that she was calling for, as the book’s promotional copy put it, a rejection of Muslim fundamentalism in favor of “a reformation that empowers women, promotes respect for religious minorities, and fosters a competition of ideas.”

    Furthermore, a Google search for “Irshad Manji Islamophobe” turns up nothing, at least not up front, about her being an Islamophobe; in fact, where the person and the prejudice were linked, it’s because Manji was warning of the danger of rising Islamophobia in the Western world.

    It’s enough to make me suspect Saraswati’s anonymous accusers got Manji confused with the right wing atheist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who came to prominence around the time Manji did but was much more vehement in her criticisms of Islam; among other things, she called it an inherently misogynist religion.

    1. You are correct that Irshad Manji is by no means an Islamophobe – e.g. here she is on a podcast speaking about preventing Islamophobia: https://foreignpolicy.com/podcasts/global-reboot/irshad-manji-and-shadi-hamid-on-preventing-islamophobia-around-the-world/

      I don’t think it is an accident, nor do I think that they got her confused with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, since they went to the work of providing a citation, presumably to support the assertion, even though it absolutely doesn’t: https://vancouversun.com/news/staff-blogs/the-trouble-with-irshad-manji

      Is she controversial? Sure. Do some Muslims dislike her or think that her criticism is harmful? Sure, and you could have said the same about Benjamin Lay. Doesn’t make her “one of the world’s most notorious Islamophobes.” Neither does appearing on Fox News. My cousin appeared on Bill O’Reilly once, representing the pro bono work he’d been doing for the ACLU on behalf of formerly incarcerated individuals. O’Reilly criticized him, but the viewers got to hear another side of the story.

      Manji could easily sue the authors of the open letter for libel IF they weren’t anonymous, which is why it’s pretty ironic that they talk about the “commitment to integrity.” It’s probably worth FJ making a clarification in the article above based on fact-checking, rather than just repeating the association of Manji with Islamophobia. AFSC seems like a pretty nasty place to work. It’s fairly apparent that the organization should be laid down and the resources donated to something more worthy.

      1. Oh, I still think it’s possible the anonymous letter writers confused Irshad Manji with Ayaan Hirsi Ali. What I meant when I said it the first time is this: They may have seen that Saraswati had worked with Manji, along with seeing the title of her book, and, with a dim recollection of Ayaan Hirsi Ali and the controversy around HER book, dim enough that they might not have actually remembered Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s name, mentally conflated the two women and convinced themselves that Saraswati had worked for “one of the world’s most infamous Islamophobes.”

        It’s not a hypothesis that says much in their favor, but then neither would actually believing Irshad Manji is an Islamophobe, let alone an infamous one.

  2. “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.”

    This is getting stranger and stranger. He is saying none of these concerns prove that she misrepresented herself, he claims her legal right to privacy after going so public with a narrative that would be career if not life-ending, and now this.

    Did she SAY she is Latina in the interview he “viewed” but was not present for? Can anyone verify this with AFSC?

    1. So… how do they investigate, and how does she prove, that she is “Latinx”?

      Does she need to provide a DNA sample for them to analyze, to determine whether she has sufficient biological basis to make valid her claim to Latinx identity? What threshold is sufficient (1%, 5%, 25% based on what Ancestry.com itself only calls an “ethnicity estimate”)? If they ask for such a sample, it would probably result in a rock-solid claim under EEO laws.

      Was her claimed multiethnic identity their reason for hiring her (and should it even be a factor), or was her hire based on her body of work and how she was able to respond to interview questions?

      OMB defines “Hispanic or Latino” as a person of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture or origin regardless of race.


      She has claimed “native or bilingual” fluency in Spanish, which is something that could easily be objectively tested as a skill without having to do some kind of bizarre “ethnicity” inquest. It’s also difficult to obtain that level of fluency without having been engaged in a Spanish-speaking culture to some level.

  3. It’s incredibly hilarious to me that she was given the job because of her race rather than her competence, and it turns out she was lying.

    Who are we supposed to sympathize with here? The racists who hired her, or the con artist who lied to get a job?

    I find myself ambivalent. Try not hiring someone due to their (perceived, in this case) skin color, and perhaps you won’t have this problem in the future.

  4. The question is if she said it at all. It sounds like she said one thing but Oskar heard another.

    An email went out to staff listing some of Raquel’s accomplishments:
    – Championing language justice across the organization
    – Serving on the conflict resolution team
    – Supporting COVID guideline development centering those with disabilities
    – Created spaces for people to grieve in times of tragedy
    – Created affinity gatherings
    – DEI audit
    – Wrote a new non-discrimination policy
    – Wrote a new bereavement policy
    – Wrote a new policy against Sexual Harassment, Exploitation and Abuse
    – Increased inclusion for staff from diverse faith traditions
    – Increased resource support and access
    – Conflict resolution facilitation

    Etc etc

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