September, 2010

Luddites are Boring

I find Luddites irksome.  This, by the way, is a picture of a Luddite, one of those 19th century reactionaries who violently refused to adapt to new ways of manufacturing, new ways of thinking.  Stuck.  We’ve always done it this way, ergo we must continue same.  Yuck.

So when I run into someone who says something like “I barely got used to doing email.  I can’t handle Facebook,” I roll my eyes and look for the door.  Even worse to me is the phrase, usually uttered by people who wouldn’t know busy if it sat on their lap and kissed them on the cheek, “I don’t have time to be on Facebook.” 

Ok, I think.  You have time to be irrelevant?  Time to read the 10 Commandments on the original stone tablets?  Fine.  Be that way.  I can’t be bothered. 

Me.  I like it in the 21st century.  I love my desktop, laptop, Ipod Touch, Blackberry, email, website, blogs, and Facebook.  (I’ve got a Twitter account but posting to it seems to put me in the far reaches of self absorbed, so that’s been left to go dormant.)  I love hearing about what other people are doing and thinking; I love the access to people who I otherwise would never run into and would hesitate to call; and I love the challenge of finding something in my day/work/life worth posting.

My dad, who was a role model in a lot of weird and varied ways, went from using this 1930’s something Underwood typewriter to an IMac overnight.  Honest to God.  He was 89 years old when my mother died and I watched him type her obituary on this very typewriter.  A couple of months later, in a fit of something, I bought him an IMac.  Maybe I was surprised, not sure, but within 48 hours of delivery to his doorstep in Michigan, he fired me his first email.  Then ensued a lot of back and forth.  And this from a guy that I might talk to once a year on the phone.  He chatted, made wisecracks, complained about his printer, talked about the weather, and, this is really important and wouldn’t have happened otherwise, encouraged me during very hard times with my children.

My dad was able to recognize that times had changed, that how people communicated had changed.  That if he wanted to be in the loop, he needed to change it up.  Park the Underwood.  Try the new way.  Get in the game.  And not insist that the modernizing world double back and talk to him in Underwood language.  Facebook wasn’t around when my dad was alive.  I don’t know whether he’d had taken that step — but I’m not counting it out.  He was smart, my dad, smart enough to know that you go where the action is if you want to stay in the game.  There’s a message there for a lot of my business colleagues.  It’s not cute and quaint being a Luddite.  It actually takes you out of play — out of sight, out of mind.  Now you don’t want that, do you?

Real Lady

Zella Nash always dressed to the nines.  She’d wear a long floral skirt and an eye-popping top with a big scarf wrapped around her shoulders and a couple layers of big bold jewelry.  She was always made up, lipstick and a hefty dose of rouge, and had that look — that same cagey, “I know what’s what, don’t think I don’t” look that she has in the picture that was with her death notice in today’s paper.  “Zella Nash died,” I said to my husband.  “She was a hundred and two.”  Zella died.

Nash, Zella Entered into Eternal Life at the age of 102 years, on September 14, 2010. Visitation Monday, September 20, 2010, at the Leon L. Williamson Funeral Home from 3:30 to 7 PM. Family hour 6-7PM. Combined Services Tuesday, September 21, 2010, at Tabernacle Community Baptist Church, 2500 W. Medford Ave. Visitation 10AM until Funeral Services at 11AM. Interment Wood National Cemetery.

The death notice left out the fact that she was an elected SDC (Social Development Commission) Area Council member; that she attended a million meetings representing her neighborhood; and that she had no fear of calling out fancy pants planners for having silly ideas. That Ms. Nash also rode on a bus with a hundred other SDC Area Council members to attend the National People’s Action Conference in D.C. – twice in 1993 and 1994 (when she was 85) – was also skipped.  Zella Nash was a fixture in our world at SDC.  I can see her now, sashaying out of her apartment to get into my car for a ride to the Program Committee.  She’d be swaying back and forth, graceful with her cane, but about her business, ready to go.  And always with that look on her face – raised eyebrows, little smile, happy eyes.  Ms. Nash was a sweet woman, mostly kind, but not to be underestimated or stereotyped.  I learned that one night when we were debating gun control at Program Committee and she let mention that she herself was packin’ that very minute.  As in carrying a gun?  Holy crap!  That’s what she keeps in that huge bag. Get out of town!!

Ms. Nash was one of 88 elected SDC Area Council members.  You heard right.  When Ms. Nash served, there were 8 Area Councils, each with 11 members.  Each of the members also served on a Standing Committee – like Employment or Housing, or Aging or the Coordinating Council or the Program Committee.  One was selected to serve on the Commission itself.  Community involvement back then was the absolute real deal – a manifestation of the concept of “maximum feasible participation” that was incorporated into the War on Poverty legislation enacted in the 1960’s. And it could be wild, let me tell you.  But mostly it was people like Ms. Nash trying to help people like me from making stupid mistakes.  “Honey, that won’t work.”  Or just a couple little shakes of the head. She saved my bacon more than once. 

SDC got rid of the Area Councils.  Too messy.  Too expensive to staff.  Too great a risk of an insurgency.  I guess I don’t criticize that.  Different times require different strategies.  But the anti-poverty world still needs that keepin’ it real influence and we need regular doses.  A couple of public hearings and brushing past folks at a neighborhood clean-up doesn’t cut it. 

I drove Ms. Nash in my car.  We sat in meetings together.  We discussed what we were doing.  We made decisions.  And we did it every month.  Month after month. Year after year. To me, that’s the gold standard.  I’m glad I knew Zella Nash.  Real glad.

The Right Answer is Yes

The agency director said, “We try to teach our people here that the right answer is yes.”  I was so grateful to hear this my eyes teared up.  No joke. I want to put THE RIGHT ANSWER IS YES on T-shirts and coffee mugs.  Maybe make a magnetic sign for my car.  Rent the psychedelic billboard on I-94 West and have the morning exodus wondering “What does that mean?”  “Say yes to what?”

Can you help me?  Will you help me?  Can I be helped?  Am I worth helping?

This is my rookie year in actually trying to help a human being maneuver the human service system.  Yeah, yeah, I have a lot of years of experience talking about systems – analyzing, critiquing, drawing new boxes and arrows on flowcharts.  Until April of this year, I had zero experience trying to get anyone services except the people in my own family, an endeavor made ridiculously simple with health insurance and a credit card.

This is what I’ve learned so far this year:

  • A person’s problems can disqualify him/her from getting help even if the problems are the reason he/she needs help.
  • Cynicism is a cancer that keeps helpers from helping and the needy from trusting help.
  • People who have a life that is a jumble of failures and mishaps won’t suddenly be cured when they walk in the door of a human services agency.
  • Agency staff often seem to think  they should parent the adults seeking help.
  • People who feel judged and diminished will flee from help.

So when my colleague, Joe Volk, head of Community Advocates, made this statement to me yesterday, it made me really happy.  First of all, it meant I wasn’t just a naive little do-gooder who couldn’t read the scorecard right.  All the barriers and rules and ways to exclude people with messed up lives from getting help really is bullshit.  And, secondly, and more importantly, it doesn’t have to be that way.

Years ago, I was at a conference and some motivational guy uttered these parting words:  “People are hurting.  It doesn’t have to be that way. We need to do something.”  And, of course, I thought, rolling my eyes, “Oh brother.”  But it’s stuck with me all this time.  Because I believe it to be true.  A lot of what I’ve seen these past few months — in my volunteer work and my professional life — has made my eyes cross and my heart ache.

I don’t believe it has to be that way.  A few weeks ago, I talked to some service providers about how they selected people for their programs.  Several providers told me about intake criteria, especially noting those things that would disqualify someone from getting help.  It was clear they’d spent a lot of time carefully constructing these barriers to make sure they got the right kind of customer in their program.  The last guy said, “No, we just take the next person in line, we don’t screen out.  The next person’s in until it looks like it won’t work for him.”  That guy gets a T-shirt and a coffee mug.

The Family Business: Learning to Work Where You Can’t Get Fired

Growing up, my family owned a dime store – just like this one – and we all worked in it.  I started working when I was 12.  Before that I would go to the store, get a bag of dimes from my Dad and ride the mechanical horse parked near the front window.  So I guess that was kind of a job — being the object of envy for all the little kids begging their moms to let them ride the horse.  I’d also do other key jobs – like feeding the little 29 cent turtles or cleaning the parakeet cages.  Never mind that the turtles were probably loaded with salmonella – nobody cared about that.  It was important to keep little Janice busy.

So when I turned 12, my Dad officially hired me.  A dollar an hour – Saturday – 10:00 to 10:00 (yes, you read that right) and Sunday 10:00 to 6:00.  If it was summer, I worked close to 40 hours a week.  I stocked shelves, took inventory, cleaned the stockroom, waited on customers, cut fabric, cut windowshades (which is possibly one of the worst tasks on earth), netted goldfish and put them in little bags, and still fed the turtles and cleaned the bird cages.  I also weighed out candy using the little metal weights and scale, loading my pockets with chocolate stars and M & M’s.  I was a sweeper, a bagger, and the person who rolled the awning up and down.  I did it all except….I never ran the cash register.  Not good enough at making change — ‘you just count up to what they give you.’ Sure.

I made a million mistakes.  “I didn’t hire you to hold up the counter,” my Dad would say when he caught me leaning against the pots and pans.  “If you see we’re running low on thread, fill it up.  Don’t just leave it.” And, my favorite, “Of course, you can do it.  I wouldn’t tell you to if you couldn’t.” 

None of my friends worked but I didn’t care.  I liked being in the family business.  I liked working with my Dad even though I was pretty scared of him.  I like the big crowds at holidays.  I liked yakking about how K-Mart was killing us.  I liked making things look good.  I liked being tired. When we left the store after a very long, 12-hour day, I looked up at that sign and thought, wow, we run a really nice store. 

Notice the we there.

I learned everything I know about work from working at the store:  Keep busy.  Don’t complain.  Smile at the customers.  Don’t wait to be asked.  Help out even it it’s not your job. Wear good shoes.  And stay til they turn the lights out.  Also, think about how things are going.  What’s selling?  What do we need to be thinking about?  What about K-Mart?  How do we outsmart them? 

My own kids had to deal with work permits and interviews and bosses who looked at them cross-eyed.  They didn’t have a family business to come up in. Most kids don’t.  They didn’t have that cocoon of the family enterprise, the  boss doling out of tasks right for their age and turning a blind eye to their stupidity. They missed the sense of importance to the family’s economic life that I had growing up.  That was a priceless gift I got from my family and our little dime store.  You’re a kid.  You don’t know how to do much.  That’s ok.  You matter.  We’ll figure out how to make something of you. 

It worked.