Work Drama!

Work Drama!

My excuse for my uninspiring job (defensively crafted in case anyone asks) has always been that I work for a company that isn’t doing harm, the work is fine, I like the people, and it minimally infringes on the things I care about more: volunteering, writing, my spiritual growth, my peeps, my life in the world. My theory is that doing plain old work can be as good & ethical as a mission-driven career, and that the nature of the work itself does not determine the Rightness[i] therein (e.g. there are public school teachers who enshrine racist treatment of their students; there are sexist and unethical environmental lawyers). All of this was true for many of my years at Nonprofit, but it has not been true recently. The work is no longer fine: I have been underinvolved in engaging projects, so I find necessary but mindless and soul-sucking data cleanup work to fill my hours. I search for problems to fix. I spend time on my DEI Committee work and documentation of that work, which has been the most important part of my job for the last five years, even though it’s not actually part of my job. I keep being told that I will soon be utilized on various projects which need my considerable expertise, but they keep being pushed back. During a three week, at-home, meditation intensive in April, the downside of spending 1-2 hours every day paying close attention to reality forced me to concede that I have got to leave this job. Not urgently, but eventually. I can no longer pretend that I can hang on until retirement. The work is now doing harm – to me.

And in the last few months it’s been doing harm to others. Our new CEO has demonstrated a firm commitment to toxic masculine leadership. They [CEO referent from this point forward] have led a massive structural transition in the organization with the compassion of Elon Musk, and it no longer feels like a good place to be (though it has, like most tragic events, brought much of the staff closer together, if covertly).

I am committed to being compassionate at work. It is part of my spiritual practice. I do get annoyed when someone sends the same question multiple times or phrases a request in a way that seems demanding or rude, but I recognize my own snobbery and defensiveness and remember my goal of kindness and empathy, and always try to respond with open-mindedness and supportive pleasantries. As far as I know, no one has complained about me in any way for 5 years (prior to that, my directly worded emails were a bit much for some Minnesotans. I checked my communications ego and started adding 😊s and !!!s. It worked! 😉)

The focus of my DE & I work has likewise shifted to the I part lately. As much as I want to push changes in the equity of onboarding and stakeholder analysis and conflict management, since COVID shook up the world I am most concerned about how our employees, in particular, are being treated and included every day. It informs how I run meetings and trainings and facilitate any discussion. I am far more aware of taking the needs not only of BIPOC and LGBTQ+ folks, but neurodivergent employees, including those who exhibit characteristics as common and ignored as introversion, into account.

This commitment to compassion & inclusion, and knowing my days at Nonprofit are numbered, has put me on the CEO’s shit list. When I see Them dismiss employees’ feelings as irrelevant; or take over other people’s meetings to demand that every participant make a verbal comment about an insignificant topic; or accuse Committee members who do not behave, process, or communicate exactly like They do of incompetence, I have felt it is my responsibility to speak truth to organizational power. I am willing to lose my job and other people at the organization can’t afford to do that, because they may not have the financial safety net, minimal familial responsibilities, or other privileges that I do. The times that I have felt compelled to do this (twice in my analysis, but as the CEO may perceive every disagreement as insubordination, maybe 6 times), dozens of staff have reached out to thank me, express their concerns, or share their plans. I won’t say I don’t appreciate that, but that’s not why I did it. Being engrossed simultaneously in my spiritual responsibility to my fellow humans and issues of equity and inclusion for years now, the urge to bring the darkness to light comes naturally. I am as propelled by ego as anyone, unfortunately, but I don’t believe ego compelled my actions in this regard. They were organic, and with the fear of job loss removed, the barrier between desire and action dissolved.

I have zero criticism of any regular staff who haven’t spoken up (though I am disappointed in some of the leadership). Jobs are important. I haven’t heard of many instances of people standing up to Them. One who did, quit. Another was quickly shut down and their competence questioned. So I shouldn’t have been surprised when my supervisor told me, a few months ago, that the CEO was questioning what I actually do in the organization. Or when he confessed yesterday that They told him They don’t want me added to any projects. They are actively limiting what I am allowed to do in the organization, apparently in retaliation, since there is no evidence anywhere of me being bad at my job. No one from HR or anyone, including the CEO, has openly responded to, questioned, or formally disciplined me for anything I’ve said or done either – presumably because the objections are ego-driven and indefensible. Instead, the plan is apparently to shut me down or make me miserable or in some way push me to the point where I quit. Because Nonprofit doesn’t want to pay for my unemployment. Or get sued for wrongful termination.

Of course a person without the compassion to care about people’s feelings and relationships and fears, and a person without the humility or self-awareness to apologize or course correct when an error is called to their attention would hold a grudge and use their power to put that grudge into action. It should be no surprise, but it still hurt. Because, let me repeat, I take kindness very seriously, and even though wanting to be liked is a definite weakness of mine, if being liked comes out of an acknowledgement of decency and respect, why should I dismiss it?

So here I am. The new CEO of the company I have worked at for 8 years wants to push me out. It’s weird to know that. It feels so unjust. I was riding an anger rush for an hour or so after I found out (and anger fumes for a few hours more). I don’t love this org, but I like it, and I care about the people in it. And it breaks my heart that in an effort to increase profits at Nonprofit, the board has brought in a person who has built her management philosophy on … I don’t even know enough about this shit to give you another example … how about Gavin Belson from Silicon Valley? … but in an organization where most of the staff makes less than $25/hour. Not to mention the backsliding on goals of universal inclusion. I’m not sure what to do. Part of me wants to hang around indefinitely just to annoy her – to show up and comment on every insensitivity at every open meeting and force her to fire or confront me. Part of me wants to fuck off with all my exclusive knowledge of systems and processes and leave the whole damn place in the lurch. But neither of those is in my nature. I will probably stay for a while, see if my job gets any better, maybe cut my hours, work on my resume, and make a promise to my worthy self that, barring Their departure and other massive changes, I will get out by 2024. I will also, after the next meeting where I ensure that our plans for the future get heard, step away from the DEI Committee entirely. I’ve simultaneously resigned/been forced out of my leadership role on the DEI Committee, which would be fine except that the way it was done felt punitive, and now I know why. Knowing that the DEI Director (a competent and kind woman, but in a role created without consulting or even informing the grassroots DEI Committee) is reporting to Them and their toady, THE ONLY TWO PEOPLE IN THE ENTIRE WORLD WHO DON’T LIKE ME 😉, it might inhibit the advancement of good ideas if there is any suspicion they are coming from *this bitch*.

In honor of my Life Themes, I made myself take a moment after the anger subsided to ask what this series of events was teaching me. Even though I grew up with activist parents, one of whom was repeatedly beaten and thrown in jail for their activities; even though I refer to John Lewis as a personal hero and have undying admiration for anyone who sacrifices their wellbeing for the greater good, there is some weird little thing inside me that seems to think I will be appreciated for doing the right thing, who believes justice will prevail, and who somehow, bizarrely, thinks that the world in which I move carries more or less the same make of moral compass as I. I can’t defend this position intellectually or historically, but perhaps because I sometimes view the world from a place that is beyond human frailty, that higher, irrefutable, eternal truth may get blurred into the realities of our fucked up world. If I am generous to myself, I can put myself somewhere in the ranks not of Gandhi & MLK (topical reference!), but of those who point out that maybe we should make the effort to caption this meeting for folks with hearing loss, or say, hey, Bob, do you realize that you just repeated what Ngozi said without acknowledging her? or suggest that we provide a range of times for Parent-Teacher conferences, so that parents can attend regardless of their work schedules. I see you, friends. You may be punished directly or indirectly or not at all or praised for your actions, but they matter. Moments of deliberate kindness and inclusion matter. I hope you know that.

[i] In the Buddhist sense of Right Livelihood; much more on this in an upcoming post.

2022: The Path So Far, So Furious

2022: The Path So Far, So Furious

I suppose 6 weeks is plenty of time for a little self-assessment, especially as I’ve noticed some … wandering, I guess you could say.

Meditation has been good so far this year – consistent in the mornings, which is always best for me. The quality of the sit varies, naturally. Sometimes I can barely manage two minutes of actual focus. Sometimes it’s more. Sitting before work is crucial to my overall wellbeing and I’ve recognized and therefore been disciplined about that, but it seems wellbeing without wisdom and oversight is not quite enough.

I’ve been an Officer at my employer’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion committee for years, almost since it was initiated. It’s probably time to step off, and I will in 2023, but we’ve always had trouble recruiting officers (few people have enough breathing room in their jobs to take on the commitment, company support for the roles is limited), and it is my favorite part of my work. It is also the place in my life where I have the most direct impact on the education of White people. Our staff is composed of lots of well-meaning White folks, many of whom have limited experience with different cultures and an unintentionally parochial worldview. The trainings we’ve commissioned and led, on everything from White Cultural Supremacy to Islamophobia to Indigenous Approaches to Disability, really seem to have opened people up, and rarely freaked them out enough to get defensive.

Nonetheless, more substantive Committee proposals have made painfully slow progress. We have been asking Leadership for an Inclusion Statement for 3 years, and the only movement in that direction has been from the committee itself. We asked for a policy on responding to Tragic Events (a weak email about George Floyd’s murder came long after he was killed, and only after the DEI committee had already communicated with staff – and been admonished for doing so), and were eventually told that Leadership would only respond to events that directly impacted operations. We have no people of color in leadership, and only two BIPOC supervisors in a 200+ employee nonprofit. There have been some improvements – a greater percentage of BIPOC employees and Board members, some other accommodations for non-European cultures, religions, etc. but the Committee’s frustrations are manifold.

Another Officer reached out to me about our antagonistic relationship with Leadership, with a goal to mitigate that this year. I wholeheartedly agreed. And then I fell into the seductive arms of collective anger.

Leadership had us amend our Black History Month post not because anything in it was inaccurate or offensive or inappropriate – they couldn’t call out a single word or line – but because it made them feel, let me translate: icky. A week later, they “asked” us to host a “space” for staff to talk about the police killing yet another Black man in the Twin Cities, and when we explained that a group of White DEI Officers should not hold space for Black people who most need that space held, they announced that to the organization that we would do it anyway.

Do you feel it? That delicious distemper? That noble nastiness? That righteous rage? They’re clearly wrong, right? And they’re not wronging me. They’re wronging others. Better still, I have a cohort that agrees with me, who will bring their own passion and lift up my own. People with whom I can, if not demonize, at least criticize and somewhat vilify our primary antagonist.

Many of my teachers in last year’s Buddhist training talked about anger. How could they not, since they were promoting mindful social action in a program imagined while Trump was still in office. There was a lot more ambivalence around this fiery emotion than I had anticipated, however. More recognition of its power to motivate and even purge. And I have much more to learn about it, undoubtedly. My relationship with anger is largely one of dismissal.

Unlike many women, apparently, I have never had difficulty expressing anger. For whatever sexism I was raised with (less than many, more than some), anger was not discouraged in my household. I couldn’t get angry at my father – that was not allowed – but I could get angry at the world, at people we disapproved of, at the police, at politicians. I had no problem pulling off theatre performances as an enraged wife, director, prostitute, actor, medical student. (Apparently I have a very scary glare.)

I couldn’t turn it off, though. I was an angry, angry person. My cohort in acting school was, for whatever reason, chock full of angry, angry people. In our group of ~25 students there were a half dozen guys periodically flying off the handle, and me. I chain smoked and drove dangerously fast and drank a half dozen cups of coffee every morning and slept very little and in the rare times I noticed my body, it was like every blood cell was a whirling dervish of rage. All the pain I had been unable to express to the people who had hurt me perpetually simmered under the surface, spitting out steam at my fellow drivers and uncooperative retail employees, through sing/screaming to loud music, and onstage.

Once I got beyond that turmoil and saw it for the grating, exhausting force it was, I became vigilant about avoiding that state of being. Weirdly enough, it’s not that hard most of the time. I don’t worry about screaming at the radio when a politician puts their own reelection ahead of the lives of other human beings, or any of the other countless injustices that happen every day. Because I don’t hold onto it. I yell, I let go, I move on. (Meditation can take much of the credit.) I try to redirect any lingering energy towards something positive, or at least neutral. I remember that we are all flawed, fucked up little humans.

But that righteous group anger …. mmmm-mmmmm. It doesn’t feel bad. It feels delicious. When the DEI Officers got together to air our grievances about Leadership, it felt like getting together with a group of close girlfriends to talk about an overlooked artistic triumph. There was camaraderie and passion and pride and joy and frustration and fun. I didn’t feel like I was crawling with subdermal fire ants; I didn’t feel the need to scream to a Hole song. And there was something valuable and perhaps spiritually neutral in it: sharing frustrations, validating perceptions, and discussing & interpreting behavior aren’t inherently negative or destructive. But retrospectively, I saw that we had simplified the matter; that we had concentrated the complicated world of White supremacy down to a single point – the messenger for the organization; that our focus had subtly shifted from doing the right thing to winning. I did not have the courage to address an unearned insult thrown at the absent messenger, because I had been walking that unethical, cruel line in my own speech. Once the conversation was over, I had to take a good look at myself.

Right speech is hard. Our culture subtly and incessantly encourages talking shit. There is community to be found around naming a common enemy, around demonizing the other, around denying their humanity. I’ve been able to recognize it and avoid it on the large topics of the day – I don’t call all anti-vaccers idiots; I don’t call all Trump supporters Nazis; I do my best to look for a reasonable explanation for behavior from the right wing, and when I can’t find it, I look for the source of the behavior in the system, not in the “evil” of specific individuals. I try to practice my favorite cheesy aphorism: Don’t get furious, get curious. Why did I fall off the wagon at work? It’s not the first time. Groupthink has definitely seduced me before, and it’s so much easier to get sucked into it when COVID has left so many of us so lonely. But it is truly icky. It goes against what my Buddhish heart and mind believe, and it simply doesn’t help me be a force of love in the world.

So, 44 days into 2022, I guess the resolution that has forced itself upon me is to practice Right Speech, and hope it wriggles on down into my thoughts and bones. I will doubtless fail again and again, but they say the path, like the precepts, is not a do or die. Just as you haven’t failed if you get caught up in thoughts while sitting, you haven’t failed if your speech lacks empathy once in a while. It’s a practice, it’s about returning to the commitment again and again. Sometimes method acting is just too hard, sometimes you have to work from the outside in.