Thursday, April 10, 2014

Being the Change

For the record, I do enormously admire the work that many non-profit organizations, NGOs, and kind government programs do. The road to hell may be paved with good intentions, but in so many ways, the roads to clean water, safe housing, healthy ecosystems, full-bellied people, respected forbearers and just, informed, societies are also cobbled with all of the sweet best hopes, prayers, actions and intentions. Great things are being done, being planned, and good people are finding various ways to grow, graft, and transplant truly helpful and exciting ideas in the gaps and gulfs of life on our miraculous planet.

Yet, in the last week alone, I have had three different exchanges with three different people about the problems with non-profit organizations. One person finds it impossible to make a living wage in environmental education and with a graduate degree. One takes issue with their effectiveness in carrying out their purported missions, as if their backbones got lost in compromises. One has found them to treat their employees worse than corporate companies, with public face replacing private kindness out of financial desperation. When I mentioned this trio of chats to others, more folks chimed in that they, too, had come to question the overall efficacy of the non-profit sector. (A lot of these critiques apply to the wild world of education as well, I believe.)

My overall concern is that these systems are built on the idea that altruism and the journey of doing the “right” thing will be reward enough. One goes into work in nonprofits or education because, generally, one wants to make a difference, one wants to inspire students to be creative and engaged thinkers, one wants to save elephants or stop domestic violence or make alternative energy more accessible.

We do this work because we love the world and want it to be better. We hunger to put our shoulders, blood, sweat, tears, and waking hours into the salvation and celebration of what we love and the prevention of what we fear. We, in our bones, hope to be the change we want to see in the world by doing these jobs.

And so, we find ourselves sitting in cubicles in office buildings, working on presentations and spreadsheets and donor lists. We find ourselves pumped full of expensive education and working seasonal jobs at just barely above poverty level in order to gain experience in the field, to later be funneled into some management position where too much will be asked of any human who doesn’t wish to give their full life to their employment. We find that we are enmeshed in politics, clicking across marble floors in high heels or being choked by neckties as we lobby for the beliefs of our heart in the halls of government. We work buried under feathery mountains of file folders and bound reports, inside in tiny rooms with groaning bookshelves, trying to keep tar sands oil out of drinking water, protect endangered species of tree frogs, or stop genital mutilation a world away from this office.

Before we got to these places, there was a why. Something or some things happened to us—moments when the bonfires within us were first lit by small sparks. We all have moments where, after, nothing was ever the same. Personally, I came back from the mountains, from islands, from the woods, from the beauty and the slums of Kenya, from post-Katrina Biloxi, with pieces of my soul seeming to keen ever more urgently with Ghandi’s advice. 

I have been trained as an ecologist. I can recognize a system, the inputs and the outputs, the need for all things to work in even unconscious concert with each other for maximum functioning. And yet, when I have found myself confronted the sort of work that many non-profits provide, I am left cold. Plugging data into a spreadsheet, tweaking a mission statement to qualify for grants, doing community outreach, researching liability insurance, lobbying against groups with deeper, more nefarious pockets…these, often, are not the change I wish to see in the world. With the offices and the computers and the pettiness and the indoors and the business trips and the tedious power-struggle meetings, it seems too much like the world we are trying to build away from with our deep-buried “whys,” with our hearts and our loves and fears. But we don’t know how to build, except to follow traditional business models, only we substitute adherence to mission for profit. Truly, I believe that adherence to mission is a better bottom line to strive for, but in that we are caught in such similar structures and dynamics and priorities, I fear it is not a much changed world we make and remake.

I am idealistic and I am impatient. My skin is thin, my heart is ever on my sleeve and I cannot seem to hide a single emotion. I am passionately opinionated. I do not play the political-power games of bureaucracy. This has all burnt me many times, and will continue to do so in all facets of life, I imagine. I am also selfish—I want to be able to see that I am having some impact on the challenges I seek, that I am protecting some of what I love from some of what I fear. That comes from a sense of gratitude—I feel I owe the world the best I can give in thanks for all that I have seen.

While I have sweetly witnessed it a few times, I do not often see that efficacy in much of the non-profit world. We are there because we love something, but that love is exploited, hardened, by the tenor of the work itself, by the lack of effect we personally have, or, many of us, have not. We burn out, we get cynical, we lose the spark that drew us in. It is emotional work, giving work, but the reward of being part of the solution grows very thin on the ground sometimes. I have frequently felt like a supplementary cog in part of a large and sluggish machine, slowly churning towards a compromise that might be effective.

What I love deserves better. I suspected I could feel more connected to and satisfied by other labors of love in service to my hopes for a better world. I am willing to make many alterations and sacrifices to an expected and traditional life in pursuit of my ideals, but I refuse to give up on feeling useful and connected to what I love.

Non-profits are a step between the world as it is and the world as we’re working to make it. The pay is often low, the hours almost always the wrong number to sustain life, and the tasks can be tedious as often as they are magnificent. We must divorce our identities and our understanding of what it means to be the change from our non-profit jobs. Certainly, we must continue the good work of these organizations—I do believe in the work—but we must stop expecting so much from the work. The job is not what will change the world, the job is not the change the world needs.

What the world needs is us to truly and honestly be the change—in how we live, in what we value, in how we spend our time and our far less precious currencies. To expect all our impact on and satisfaction in the world to come from one place—our job—is to ask too much and to ask too easily. We must be the change. How we each and together do this, that is the harder question.

But I suspect the answers we become will be more satisfying, more effective than any other.

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