Americorps/HFH monthly notes for March 2001

The third installment of the Accomplishments and Challenges notes from my previous Americorps year of service.

Accomplishments and Challenges:

This has been a month of transition at the Durham affiliate. New staff have come in, 4 houses were dedicated and the weather has turned nice (YAY!!!) As with all transitions, these have thrown up their share of troubles and adjustments. We have a new project director (or manager, I forget which!) and getting used to doing things a little differently has, of course, not come without some amount of stress. I believe that once everyone adjusts to each other, the road will smooth out.

There has been a greater than normal amount of frustration welling up in the ‘corps lately, but to my older (and somewhat lazier!) mind, it feels to me like a cross between spring fever and “senior-itis.” The end is in site and like a hourse headed towards home, the urge to gallop through the remaining weeks is getting harder to resist. Money problems, internal politics and garden variety grumpiness are all on everyone’s mind lately. But I have a tactic that helps me move on:

Whenever I feel these types of stresses – rent’s due, taxes due (!!!), car breaks down, cats need shots (or just plain shot!) – I just try and remember that this is a decision, a choice. Unlike most of the people we help, I can leave my financial woes behind at will. I just choose not to for now. I could drop the ‘corps and get “real” work at a moment’s notice if a true need should develop – and my decision not to continually reinforces the fact that although I may be in WANT, I amd not (yet!) in NEED. Namaste.

Reflections:

This was a particularly trying time for our team, because although we never really connected with the HFH admin staff (we were all on the build sites every day, all day), it was still tough getting a new project head halfway through the year when we had finally got things running almost on autopilot. To compound this issue, we really didn’t like the new guy. It wasn’t just “new guy” issues – although there were plenty of those – he genuinely had a slightly “off” personality and although no one could really identify what it was that was off, we all agreed that we felt something not quite right when we were around him. (I’m not saying he was evil, mind. Just that none of us were comfortable being around him, for reasons we couldn’t quite put a finger on, which made it doubly weird.)

None the less, we were determined to make it work as best we could. I don’t think any of us ever got to a comfortable place with the new project head, but we did each come to terms with working with him in a functional manner. That’s one thing people don’t often think about when they think of Americorps – the fact that they’ll be going into real organizations run by real, everyday people. And just as in every organization, for or not for profit, there are politics, personality quirks and other problems that you not only have to deal with, but find a way to work around.

Our group never bonded with the office staff who were running HFH, probably because we never saw them except at meetings and dedications (of if there were problems, in which case their presence was unpleasant). This created a serious “us vs them” rift which was not helpful and which caused all manner of problems which could have (and should have) been prevented by taking tangible steps to create stronger connections between the Americorps build team and the staff, and the respective work we all did.

As is was, we often felt like the “hired help” (which, of course, we were) and that the office staff had no clue about what was going on onsite and how their decisions (which appeared out of context from “on high,” as it were) created sometimes serious problems when we had to implement them in the field. It didn’t help that such orders usually came from more than one source and were often conflicting or even mutually exclusive.

At the same time, we also felt very little connection with the decisions being made that affected us directly, and although we were required to be at a certain number of meetings and were being at least superficially asked for our opinions, we usually came away with the impression that we were being told, rather than consulted, about what was going to happen and in what manner and that our opinions were simply being asked for pro forma rather than from any real interest in what we had to say.

Now, not being part of the staff, I don’t know how much of what we felt was actually the case. But that hardly matters, in the practical scheme of things. It felt real to us, and we acted on that reality.

Lessons learned: Sometimes little issues (a disconnect between the office and the field, for example) left unattended can spread and grow and have far-reaching consequences. Take every opportunity you can to make real connections with the people who will be directing your life for the next year, and find ways to get involved at the highest levels possible. But realize that sometimes, crap happens despite your best efforts. Internal politics, infighting, personality conflicts, serious infrastructure issues, stress, bad attitudes and plain old, everyday spite can and does happen, even in what should be the least likely places – organizations devoted to serving the greater good. Because orgs are just people. And people are people, no matter where you go.

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