Monthly Archives: February 2007

Learning all the time…

Okay, so I went out to an after hours Chamber of Commerce networking mixer thing trying to hunt up some more rent-paying business, and in the process I’ve had just a weensy bit more wine than makes for functional typing, so I’m going to keep this to a minimum. (And no, Tammy, if you’re reading this, I wasn’t wearing Americorps gear while I did so. I went as myself.) 😀

Anyway, the big highlight for the day was being invited to attend a grant-writers’ brainstorming meeting about the FACES program. Apparently, the program is such a hit that the education folks are wanting to make it a district-wide initiative involving all the city elementary schools in some capacity and the grant-writing folks needed some more input about the problems the program will be facing and hopefully addressing, ideas for activities to meet those needs and what sort of measurable outcomes they can point to in their grant-writing process.

Now, no doubt this all sounds rather dry and boring, but I kid you not it was absolutely great! I love brainstorming and although I only participated minimally (albeit successfully – didn’t piss anyone off this time) 😀 , I did enjoy the chance to see how the grant-based program sausage is made. I got some handouts that are allowing me to peek into how grants are proposed and how programs are developed from the inside. I got to see how to run a wonderfully productive meeting (our facilitator was fantastic) and I got to see the inner workings of how these sorts of initiatives are created based on feedback and concerns from a variety of sources.

I’m probably not being as clear as I could be. Blame it on a truly excellent Cabernet. But the long and short of it is I learned a lot, got to contribute a little and had a ball for a few hours of what was otherwise a hectic and head-screwed-on-too-loosely-for-any-real-productivity kind of day.

Cool.

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Who’s afraid of the Big Bad Wolf; or Why you can’t run a tight ship with a loose cannon

Okay, a few days ago, I mentioned that upon spilling my guts about my visionary inspiration for a microenterprise center in the development to the Development Director, a local community organization board member and my site supervisor at once (well, it seemed the efficient thing to do, seeing as how everyone was there at once), my supervisor had a reaction that I found both surprising and interesting, and that after I had a chance to digest it and pick apart why it struck me as such, I would comment on it further. This is that post.

First off, some backstory.

I’ve been debating posting about this for the past week, waffling about whether or not I wanted to risk saying something that might be misunderstood as being critical, which I have no intention of being (especially on the heels of my Chevy-Chase-like pratfall into the collective community awareness at the State of Black Asheville conference) or whether I should just relax, take the chance to explore something that caught my attention and talk about what that exploration turns up in my own self, since that is the whole point of this blog – the good, the bad and the ugly of my term of service. And it was a bit weird, because I’m not used to second guessing myself about expressing my feelings, and how they affect my life.

And then it hit me. Ironically, the concern I was having was almost exactly the same sort of reaction I had gotten from my supervisor, and most likely (I would hazard to guess) stemming from more or less the same source – organizationally-generated fear. More specifically, the sort of vaguely gnawing and omnipresent worry you run across in most well-established organizations for the security and preservation of the status quo, involving worries about not rocking the boat, keeping publicity and spin positive and maintaining the approval of others outside the organization. Or, as it is more commonly put, toeing the party line.

Now, let’s stop here briefly for an organizational-grade disclaimer and reality check before I go any further. I’m treading purposefully carefully in my choice of words. I want to be clear and honest, but as I’ve said I’m not trying to be critical in the sense of dissing anyone (although I am trying to be critical in the sense of critically examining the situation and picking apart the strands that make the weave and pattern to see how the overall effect was created). But some words, such as “fear,” “status quo” and “party line” can carry a lot of negative weight. They are often used derogatorily or in a dismissive manner, to insinuate weakness or to ridicule another. These otherwise perfectly respectable bits of our common vocabulary have occasionally been known to moonlight as hot-button phrases, lobbed like grenades into the jingoistic diatribes of whatever generation feels itself to be all shiny and revolutionary and enlightened, to belittle and otherwise rhetorically drub it’s staid and ossified authoritarian opponents (often referred to in these gladiatorial arenas as “the man”).

Well, this is not a diatribe. I am not interested in belittling or dismissing anyone. And I am too damned old to be considered revolutionary (not to mention the fact that my hair is way to straight and tame to grow “credlocks,” so I can’t even pass as one in a dimly lit room).

In fact, I am thoroughly convinced that organizational fears for the status quo are quite valuable to many organizations, and can be a healthy part of the culture for organizations across the spectrum, from non-profits to Fortune 100 corporations – especially if, like our own organization, they are heavily or entirely dependent on the good will of others for their survival or they are notably conservative in nature.

I get this. I understand it. I even applaud it, where it is healthy and useful. (Of course, there are some organizations – even rather large, monolithic ones such as Adbusters, the EFF and MeetUp – that are built on the concept of rocking the boat and include grinding the status quo under their heel as part of their basic mission statement. But they are notably the exceptions that prove the rule.)

So, everyone clear on this? This is an academic discussion, not a personal one. No one is getting dissed here. Got it? Good. Moving on. (This is exactly the sort of fear I’m talking about, though, expressing itself in live and in 3-D Technicolor.)

Anyway, after I finished my gush-o-rama about my new idea (to the enthusiastic reception of both the Development Director and the board member) and they had finished up their business and parted ways, my supervisor asked me to sit down so we could discuss the discussion that had just taken place. Her issue was not with the idea itself (which she indicated that she thought was both interesting and potentially a great idea), but rather she was worried that I had not made it clear that my idea was not a Project MARCH idea and that those I was talking to might think we were sponsoring it or that it was something that was going to be done under the Project MARCH or Americorps aegis. She expressed this concern repeatedly and strongly.

And in my mind, I’m going, “Huh.”

Not “huh?” as in “WTF?” Just “Huh,” as in “didn’t see that coming.” Kinda like a dog happily and tail-waggingly following a yummy-smelling scent, only to turn a corner and come abruptly upon a wall into which the trail leads, but at which it completely ends. It just kinda makes you sit back on your haunches and tilt your head.

Huh.

Of course, I knew it wasn’t something I would be doing as a part of Project MARCH – for one thing, by the time I even come close to finishing the fact-finding about even the most basic of overviews of what is and isn’t possible and discovering who to talk to to find out what I don’t know that I don’t know that I need to know in order to proceed, I would be well out of my Americorps service. I’m also sure I mentioned at least once that this was a long-term, most likely multi-year project, which pretty much by default would take it out of the realm of anything I could do through Americorps or Project MARCH, seeing as how my term ends this summer. And I was pretty sure I had been clear about this being a “me” project – something I had come up with and that I was going to be doing on my own. Well, hopefully not on my own as in by myself, but on my own as in it’s my idea. Not to mention the fact that it has absolutely nothing to do with anything Project MARCH is even tangentially involved in. (Which is, as I picked up from our discussion, a big part of her concern.)

However, the fact is that although I felt I had been quite clear that this was a project of my own making and of my own undertaking, apparently I hadn’t said specifically enough that it wasn’t an Americorps or Project MARCH undertaking. And she felt very strongly that I very much needed to do so. (And then there’s the not-quite-unspoken, but not always well understood by members, undercurrent that anything you say or do in your gear – which of course I was wearing because it’s required whenever you’re at your site – is at risk of being confused for or misunderstood as Official Americorps Policy and Associations by others.)

What I’m getting at, in a roundabout manner, is yet another reason why I am an uncomfortable fit for ye old standard organization. I am, to put it loosely, a loose cannon. Light me up and I shoot off. Give me an idea (or, worse yet, let me come up with one on my own) and I’m off and running with it before anyone can say “exploratory feasibility committee.” I’m a see-it, do-it person. And if there’s one thing that can blow a status-quo dependent organization out of the water (or at least make them concerned about the possibility, however unlikely the reality), it’s a loose cannon.

Now, I’m guessing I’d probably fit right in with those counter-culture type orgs, like the ones I mentioned above, whose sole purpose is to take action, full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes, as opposed to getting lost in the workings of orgs that tend to process such possibilities through the mill of procedure into a finely-ground powder of homogeneous mortar with which to stack more and more identical bricks into a monolithic and consistent edifice. Tommy Hilfiger gets the fidgets if the wrong celebrities are seen on camera with their product. Comedy Central creates a viral marketing campaign that instigates a Homeland Security response. It’s the yin and yang of organizational cultures.

And the reality is, the world needs both types in order to get anything done.

The quick-acting, unpredictable activist orgs can push the envelope with relative impunity (since they often have little funding and even less respectability to lose), uncover new and exciting rabbit-holes to chase down into and provide an outlet for firebrands like myself to channel their passion into something productive, rather than destructive. These are like flash floods that push through obstacles rapidly, carving out new territory and restructuring society forcefully and quickly, and then move on to new obstacles further down the line. OTOH, the more monolithic, established orgs provide a stable base of operations from which to stage long-term campaigns, offer a sense of predictability and respectability for those who are uncomfortable giving time or money to less predictable alternatives and can generate the critical mass of funding and manpower that is vital for pounding away at big problems over a long period of time. These are like the ocean that, while predictable in its bounds and stable in its measure, eats at the shoreline and changes the face of the world one grain of sand at a time.

And my supervisor’s concerns are completely valid. It would be a real problem if those I spoke to got the idea that Project MARCH was somehow sponsoring this pet project of mine. For one thing, it could cause serious misunderstandings as to who is going to be doing what and how the project is going to play out. For another, it could put my supervisor in the uncomfortable role of explaining that no, we aren’t using our grant for off-license purposes, that’s someone else’s program who just happens to be part of our grant. Yikes.

But that it never occurred to me that it would be confused as such, that it also never occurred to me that such a misunderstanding would be a problem and that I’m still somewhat bemused at the necessity for such concern (even though I thoroughly understand it and clearly see her point) speaks volumes about just how far out of my natural environment I really am here. And always have been, whenever I’ve found myself mixed up with “the establishment” (sorry…I couldn’t resist, just this once). 😀

The truth is, I simply can’t be who I really am under those circumstances. Just the waffling over whether or not to write this post, not to mention the minefield ballet I’ve felt compelled to execute while writing it, have been enough to remind me of just how relentlessly and torturously inhibiting it is for me. Of course, others no doubt thrive in such an environment, finding the strict infrastructure liberating in its ability to free them from having to act on their own and allowing them to put all of their energy into pushing against the common goal. Me, not so much. I just end up feeling like someone’s dressed me in a pair of size-15 clown shoes and plopped down in the middle of a well-used dog run. No matter which way I move, I’m bound to step in something unpleasant.

[Edit: Okay, so is it possible I’m overcompensating in my feelings for how much caution I need to apply when writing about this? Uh, yeah. That’s my point. Since I lack any real fine-grained sensitivity to these issues, I basically find it easier to give it a wider berth than may be actually necessary rather than risk running up over the curb when I make a course correction. Irritating, but there it is. Perhaps I can use the rest of this year to try and fine-tune my antennae on this issue. Or, you know, maybe not. We’ll have to see.]

Of course, that doesn’t mean that I don’t want to be here. If nothing else, I’m learning a lot about how the other side thinks, which is always good. But it’s also why I don’t make it a habit, unless you count two Americorps terms as constituting a habit. Which, if you do, you should feel better knowing that it’s a self-limiting habit, given the term limits that come with the program. It’s a learning experience. For everybody.

Let’s just hope I’m not the sole survivor.

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The 173rd of Febrary

Hmmm..what to write about today. Well, for the first time in ages, it was actually nice out during my walk. Actually, it was nice last week, too, but I wasn’t walking. Too busy trying to get my transpo in order. But today I’m back to pounding the pavement and even though the temps hovering just above 50 degrees were still a bit chilly, there was a lot of sun and it felt nice to be all solarific and radiated.

In other news, I’m still getting the odd trickles of support (from a teacher, this time) for my Black Asheville Conference comments, which is nice. I’m beginning to think that I might just manage to get out of this with most of my hide intact. 😀

Got a new volunteer today for PVA, or at least his application. Gotta run it through the database, but I’m counting it as a win. Got a nibble, too, from my Craigslist ad, and she’ll be in tomorrow to do the app thing, so yay me!

It’s still feeling like February will never end, though. Shortest month of the year and it always, always seems to last forever and ever and ever. The title of this post comes from this comic, by the way. It’s one of those that you read it in the Sunday paper and then spend the rest of the day shoving it in everyone else’s face, going “See! See! I’m not the only one!”

Anyway, that’s about all there is for today. Really, just like February, it was absolutely nothing special that took every last second and every last bit of energy to get through.

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No cookie for you

In fact, no cookies for anybody, today. It was definitely a no cookie kinda day. Let me explain…

But first, I’d just like to mention that we had a super training at our Friday Morning Meeting today, on strategies and techniques for tutoring and helping with homework provided by Ben Ambrosino, a professional tutor over at Asheville Learning, Inc. Lots of great info, and a superb presentation. We even got to play with Fun Dough while he did his thing, thereby exposing several heretofore unknown sculptural artistes in our group. (So, okay, I guess he can have a cookie. But that’s it. Nobody else.)

After the meeting, the program director and I had The Talk. Yanno. About that whole pissing people off at the conference thing. Apparently, she’s been getting calls about me. Some good. Some not so good. So, in my favor, a reasonable number of people were actually okay with what I said and even thought enough about it to call and let her know. I have a few fans. I even got a blurb on a local newspaper site. On the other hand, she’s been dodging some pooh flung in my direction from some other folks. I have a few angry detractors. On the whole, it seems to be rather precariously balanced and overall everyone would be quite pleased if I did nothing to actually tip the whole mess into the cesspool of dookie over the next few months.

The general consensus seems to be that I went right up to the line, but I didn’t cross it. Good to know. A lot of the comments and feedback were what I already accepted about the event myself – content was accurate, delivery was flawed. I agree. Although I said what I felt needed to be said, I handled it poorly and have made life, if not hell, at least uncomfortably hot for several people who shouldn’t have to be dealing with any more crap than they already do.

So, no cookie for me.

Fast forward to the afternoon. Today was Fun Friday and, since the weather has been rather nice we decided to take them over to a nearby park to play on the fancy playground they have.

At least, that was the plan.

In order for everyone to have a chance to go, we had to wait until about 3:45 for the middle school bus to get there. In the interim, we had the kids working on a poster contest. Unfortunately, this basically meant they were whining about not going to the park right now from the get-go. Then they proceeded to use the craft supplies we put out to make an unholy mess and, when the middle school bus finally arrived, they would not participate in cleaning up. We told them that we weren’t going anywhere until the supplies were cleaned up. Grudging clean up of a half-hearted nature ensued. That ate up at least a good 20 minutes of our park time right there.

Then, once we finally got it all mostly cleaned up, we tried to get them to buddy up for the walk over to the park. We have to cross a reasonably busy street to get there, and buddying up was the only way to make sure they all stayed together. But they wouldn’t even do that. They hung out in clumps of three or four, chattering away and not paying any attention, with a few of them stood off by themselves not wanting to buddy up, until a neighbor poked her head out to see if it was her kids making all that noise and, since she knew some of the kids and their families, managed to get them to buddy up with a few sharply spoken commands. (I consider this a case in point for my argument that community involvement is the only thing that will create success in this program – we have little if any authoritative credibility with these kids for many reasons, not the least of which is that they are all aware the unlike school and home their presence at the homework club is not legally mandated. Therefore they “don’t have to listen” to what we say. Or at least, this is their take. Neighbors and family, on the other hand, can get them to behave with little more than a cocked eyebrow.)

Anyway, finally they buddied up (by now, we’ve lost almost 45 minutes) and away we went. But not even halfway there (it’s barely a few blocks, distance-wise), they’re cutting up and behaving badly and a few were even calling Sarah bad names. She gave them several “one more chance” warnings, but they simply couldn’t hold it together today. So, finally we simply turned around and came home. Of course, they all wanted just one more chance really once they realized we were serious, but by then we’d both just given up. Crossing a busy road and going into a new environment with people from outside the neighborhood, we had to be sure they would listen to and follow directions. They couldn’t even grab a buddy and walk across the development without falling out. No way we could have trusted them to behave in a safe and functional manner crossing a road and playing in a public park.

So, no cookies for them, either.

Basically, no cookies for anyone (except our trainer for the day). Personally, I’ve learned from my mistakes (ie – don’t do public speaking about stuff you’re both passionate and frustrated about when you’re under a great deal of personal stress, even if you feel fine at that moment). Let’s hope the kids can do the same.

Because, darn it, I wanted to go to the park!

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Two posts in one – called to account

Sorry for skipping yesterday. I came down with a bad case of “stress/exhaustion/possibly fending off nasty going-around tummy bug/post-inspiration let-down/who knows what” malaise and went to bed almost as soon as I got home. Between the truck troubles, the adrenaline rush and subsequent crash that always follows one of my “brilliant flashes of big picture inspiration” ideas, dealing with the kids and trying to make the finances balance out over all of that, I think I just gave out. Not feeling much better today. I’m going to bed soon tonight, too. Hoping that maybe some power sleep catch-up will do the trick.

To update, yesterday was pretty slack in the morning – I spent most of the time helping out in the library’s Book Fair, which is a week-long book sale that they use to raise money for more books and stuff. They were short of volunteers Wed, and I was short of pressing work, so I “volunteered” to sit up there and read in between bouts of helping kids choose books and pay for them. It was alarmingly fun to be around kids who were actually excited about books and reading, who wanted both bad enough to spend money on them. Dunno if I’m getting close to burnout or just getting jaded, but when the first “customers” came in and started oooing and ahhhing and pawing over the books in their enthusiasm to own their own, it really caught me by surprise. Wish I could bottle some of that and slip it into the homework club’s juice supply.

Yesterday afternoon was interesting in that at the end of the day, the development director came over with a board member for the Weed and Seed organization (a group that works to “weed” out drugs and “seed” self sufficiency in under-served areas) to meet our supervisor, who was visiting/working with us that day. Since everyone seemed to be there, I decided it was a good time to talk to them all about my “grand vision” for creating microenterprise incubators in the developments. The development director and the Weed and Seed board member were ecstatically supportive (turns out the board member is a big economic development go-to gal), which was cool. The response of my supervisor, however, was interesting. But I think I want to let my reaction to it simmer a bit and give it it’s own post. So you’ll just have to chill and check back later.

Today was pretty much the same old same old. The only interesting thing being that the program director wants to speak to me about my comments at the Black Asheville conference. I figured that might happen. She did note that I wasn’t in trouble, which is nice to know, but wanted to talk about how my comments were perceived. I imagine my perception of pissing some people off was on the mark. Hopefully, it was my tone or delivery that aggravated them (which I readily admit I was personally disappointed with) and not the content of my comments (which is the flat-out, god’s-honest truth about the way it is and for which I stand behind 100%). If someone needs an apology about the former, I have no trouble with that. I’m still kicking myself for not being able to control my emotions better. If they want a “sorry” about the latter, though…well…I hope they brought a snack. It’ll be a while.

Anyway, that’s about it for this post. I’m still not quite all here and I want to wrap up my wind-down early tonight and hit the hay before it gets too late.

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Fun with computers – why the programmers should never design the user interface

Apparently, being the geek-in-residence at my school, I have been given the honor of bushwhacking my way through the new computerized check-in/check-out system, which the school has installed and actually started using, but which no one seems to really grok at anything other than a superficial level.

Enter Madame Mousetress (c’est moi). Since I am both geeky and in charge of collecting volunteer data (which this will be collecting in its data banks along with all the other visitors), I have been elected as the tech support liaison, user manual guru, systems configurationista and basic poker-around general.

I bitch, but you know I love it. I feel like Indiana Jones and the Proprietary Software of Doom. (Well, maybe Indiana Jones if he were a geeky she and wore a pocket protector. Okay, so I don’t really have a pocket protector – I mean, dude…email. Who uses pens anymore? – but you get the picture.)

Anyway…so far, I’ve plumbed the mysteries of why the volunteers can’t stay checked in (we have to pre-input the names of “certified” volunteers who’ve passed our screening process, after which they can indeed check in and stay checked in. Otherwise, they’re entering their own names, which punts them to visitors who are volunteering, rather than official volunteers, which is why when they go to log out from the volunteer screen, they’re not able to find themselves in the system. Making sense yet?), how to import our existing and extensive volunteer list (importable .xls files – yay!), the reason why we can’t get the “view reports” windows to open beyond unusably tiny screens (need to input a default printer before the reports windows will be functional…wtf?) and how to disable the Dymo label printer from printing a new (expensive) label for regular volunteers who already have badges, but still print one for visitors (simple checkbox buried in the system). And that was just this morning.

The annoying bit was having to track down the tech diva to log onto my computer with her admin passwords and install the video user manual for the system so I could learn how to work the system, since like all such software companies they can’t just create easy to use and generally available formats like Quicktime or whatnot. Nooooo…they have to have a proprietary video playback widget which doesn’t work nearly as well and involves an actual program install to view the video user manual, rather than simply playing a file.

As you might imagine, the interface of the system itself is likewise friendly, attractive and intuitive. Can anyone say DOS-based kludge-crud with a craptastic programmer-designed UI? I thought you could. (Note: link goes to an example of why programmers should never design the GUI, not the actual GUI for our new system. Thankfully, ours isn’t quite that bad. But it’s definitely a none-too-distantly-related cousin. For true jaw-droppingly evil GUI design nightmares, though, nothing beats the Steven King of bad GUI design, the FileMatrix. View at your own risk…)

Oh, and while I’m ranting – instead of hiring someone who is trained to do voice-over work and use a computer at the same time to record the video demos, or messing with all that pesky editing crap, why don’t we just get Bob in IT to run through the functions while dictating what he’s doing into a mike. And after he’s done, let’s not edit the demo at all but rather leave in every flub, every “uhm” and “er.” While we’re at it, let’s make sure he forgets to show at least one or two important functions that he then has to go back and re-do, and we won’t edit that out, either. In fact, we won’t even edit out the part where he clicks on a category of reports to demonstrate the reports system, only it turns out to be a category that we haven’t actually imported any demo data to, so he has to close out his windows and go click on another category that does have data behind it (leaving the audience in suspense as to how many categories he’s going to click on before he finds the one they uploaded data to, because, I don’t know, it keeps everyone attentive or something).

Word of advice, folks: Geeks do geekery. Designers design. Actors act. Voice artists give voice. Editors edit. Each of these jobs are separate professions done by separate individuals. Not by one or two inDUHviduals who took a course once or read a book about it. Capiche?

Anyway, yay me, I’ve managed to get it pretty much up and functioning the way the office crew wants it, and most of that was achieved in just a few hours. Still waiting to try out the report viewing and printing, since tech diva has to hook up the system to the network (I must remind her to set up an off-drive backup config somewhere, in case the whole kaboodle kicks it the day before monthly reports are due.)

*yawn* Methinks it’s approaching bedtime. Night, all!

mmmm, bedtime…

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Come to me after you’ve stopped the bleeding

Heh…that’s the sort of thing my mother would tell us when we got hurt. She had no stomach for blood, hanging flaps of skin, ripped-off nails or any of the common ouchies of childhood. Which is good, in a way, since we all learned how to do basic first aid on ourselves and each other at a very, very young age (aided to a great degree by Girl Scout trainings and leftover Red Cross books from my gramps, who was the head honcho of our chapter at the time). It was a skill that came in handy when the hubster took several largish bits off his left hand a few years back, and I spent the following several weeks changing icktastic surgical bandages.

Came in handy today, too. One of our kids hit the court hard, fingers first, going after a ball and immediately thereafter someone else stepped on top of his fingers. Can you say “fountain of blood?” I thought you could.

Sarah (who’s back from her time off – yay!) sent him in to my tender ministrations, so I turned the remaining inside crew over to a volunteer and spent the next several minutes trying to keep most of the bleeding contained to the kitchen sink and to convince him that hydrogen peroxide doesn’t really sting all that bad (and it didn’t, much to his surprise – hopefully, I’ll get some serious trust cred off that one). I fuzzed him up, tissued him off and stuck a few bandages on. The damages wound up being one horribly torn-off nail *shudder* and one nasty-looking slice on another finger, complete with gaping skin-flap *double shudder*.

But I was calm. I was cool. I was efficient. I was woozy…

Poor kid. And poor me. Made me want to hug and hurl at the same time. My body didn’t know which way to go.

Other than that, the day was pretty tame. Spent much of the morning following up on conference contacts and catching up on stuff that came in over the weekend. Went out to lunch with the hubster to test-drive a potential replacement truck (which turns out to be a not-so-potential replacement, as the dealer won’t come down enough to put it in our no-debt price range. Gah, back to square one). The whole Florence Nightingale thing was just a discordant coda to a rather nice, pleasant day.

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