Tales of a wandering lesbian

Second chances

Lately, I’ve been taking some time to consider what I’ve learned from the pieces of my life that I’m leaving behind.  Both from the successes and from the failures.  It really is the failures that teach the most.   I try really hard to learn from situations that I could have handled better, and I’m grateful when I’m given challenges that afforded me the opportunity to test what I’ve learned.    This week I had a couple of those challenges – and and I found that I chose different ways  to handle them this time.  Yay for me!

Today, I started scheduling out my last week of work.  I sent out an email to the office letting folks know that, if they had anything they would like me to do before I leave, they should schedule with me asap, as it will really be difficult for me to address requests on-the-fly next week, and I am determined to leave my position with as little clean-up left as possible.  I set boundaries for the new work I could take on and communicated it.  That prompted my boss to question what, exactly, I would be doing with my time next week.

This was the first challenge – the first opportunity to see what I’ve learned.

There was a time, not long before I left my last office job, when my then boss asked for a similar accounting, wondering why I wasn’t making as many phone calls as he wanted, and asking if, at the end of the campaign, I would be able to say that I did everything possible to advance the cause.  Now, given that I had left my job as a lawyer, thereby giving up my health insurance and retirement benefits, and incurred significant consumer debt in order to advance the cause, I didn’t appreciate the question.  I believe I started shaking so violently that Leigh came from across the room to try to settle me down.  Over the phone, I responded with something to the effect of “who the hell do you think you are.  Don’t you EVER question my commitment or loyalty to this issue.”  That only led to a very strict accounting of my time at the end of every day.  That didn’t so much make me happy.

When my boss today asked me what I was doing with my time instead of (incidentally) making phone calls, I flashed back to that moment at my kitchen table five years ago when I wanted to destroy the person questioning me.  Then, I took a step back, took a deep breath, and calmly responded with my schedule for the week.  True, I’m leaving soon, but it was nice to recognize that I can respond to a question that I don’t like without seeing it as a personal attack.  It might sound easy, but it hasn’t always been.

The other thing that came up was a little broader in scope.  The issue of volunteer leadership is a big one for a community organizer.  That’s what I’ve been, in different capacities for the last 5 years – an organizer.  When you’re relying on volunteers for the work that you do, it’s hugely important to have a core of dependable, loyal, committed volunteers.  What I learned is that the who and what they are loyal to really speaks to whether or not I’ve done a good job.

When I worked as a GLBT organizer in Salem, I depended on a crew of about 100 volunteers to do some incredibly difficult things.  I asked people to knock on doors in conservative neighborhoods, come out to whomever was at the door and then talk with them about how they felt about gay people.   And my volunteers did that – for almost a year.  A group of us sat outside the capitol building every morning for a month, talking with legislators as they drove into the parking garage.  I asked people to make thousands of phone calls to people who called them names and told them they didn’t believe in my volunteers’ rights.

And they did it.

I was a good organizer because I believed deeply in the cause – and also because I believed deeply in my volunteers.  I paid attention to why each of them was there, and I made sure they got what they needed in order for them to keep showing up, whether that was a meal, something to believe in, or someone to talk to.  I was loyal to them and I knew they were loyal to me.  That’s a pretty excellent feeling, to know that people are showing up to do really hard work, in part because you are the one asking them to do it.   It’s a great feeling, but it’s not leadership.

When I left that position, I knew I had failed.  My volunteers had done some really amazing work and had come together as a true community.  But it wasn’t sustainable.  Despite expressing my concerns to my bosses, trying to identify potential volunteer leaders, encouraging volunteers to continue the work, and even handing the torch publicly to a successor, I knew many of the volunteers wouldn’t continue, because of their loyalty to me. They had done everything I had asked of them, and yet the momentum we had gained would be lost.  And that was my great failure.

But now, this time, as I’m handing over my files and my contacts, I know that I have succeeded as an organizer.  I know that my volunteers are intact. No matter how much they like me, no matter how much they wish I was staying, or how much they couldn’t stand me, they will return.  Their loyalty is to the cause.  And, because their loyalty lies with a cause and not with a person, the work that I did, and that we did, is sustainable.   It will carry on.

That’s pretty cool.

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September 19, 2009   1 Comment