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). šŸ˜€

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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