Thursday, May 24, 2012

Watching change happen

I want to veer from my usual practice and write something personal today. That's because yesterday was one of the proudest moments of my professional career.

First a little background. I am the executive director of a small nonprofit where we work with youth who are starting to get in trouble. That means connecting with and re-directing youth who are getting suspended from school, have been arrested for the first time, are having a family crisis or are developing delinquency patterns before they are 10 years old.

Focusing early on these kinds of behaviors means that our typical clients are young teens and working in an urban environment means that they're primarily African American. Given our mission, the majority of them are boys.

All of this also means that our staff is predominantly African American and male. So the testosterone can run high at times. I've found myself occasionally mentoring some of our young male staff about when they've crossed the line in attitudes that reflect sexism.

Overall, what makes me most proud is that we have created a work atmosphere where its possible to have difficult conversations - whether that be about race or gender. It means being comfortable with tension and continuing the conversation through the differences. It also requires a lot of trust and respect for one another.

Yesterday we put all that to the test. We had the executive director of an organization working with trans youth (who is transgender herself) provide a training on the topic of what we need to know in order to effectively work with youth who are facing barriers due to their sexual identity.

First of all, let me say that the trainer did a marvelous job. I think the key to that was that she presented factual information and never once approached anything with the defensive "chip on your shoulder" attitude that I'm sure would have been easy to slip in to given the pain she's experienced in her own life. So she made conversation possible.

But I also feel that "proud momma" kind of thing about how our staff responded. When they'd heard initially about the topic of the training we'd seen a lot of grimaces and/or questioning looks. But afterwards the trainer said she'd never worked with a group that had been that engaged on the topic. We weren't able to cover all the material she had come to present because the staff got so involved in asking questions/commenting. It was all done in a spirit of respect and openness to learning.

As I listened to the chatter in the office afterwards, conversations were happening everywhere with people talking about how much they'd learned and how much they appreciated the training.

I'm not sure if this story will mean anything to anyone reading here. But what I know is that yesterday I saw change happen. The people who walked into that training were different after it was over. In telling the story, I've tried to highlight several of the things that I think made that possible. I hope there's application to other change we'd all like to see happen.


  1. It certainly means something to me, and you have noted the only kind of change that produces lasting positive results. You can screw things up long-term from on high, but you have to build good things from below, incrementally.

    There's a great folk tune called "I Wish I was a Mole in the Ground":

    I wish I was a mole in the ground
    Yes, I wish I was a mole in the ground
    If I was a mole in the ground,
    I'd root that mountain down
    And I wish I was a mole in the ground

    That's you!

    1. Thanks Bill.

      LOVE the tune!

      It reminds me that years ago I added the following quote as my sig line at Daily Kos.

      Almost everything you do will seem insignificant, but it is important that you do it.
      - Mahatma Gandhi

      I can't tell you how many times I thought about changing it during the years I commented a lot there. But every time I considered a change, I'd come back to the realization that I needed the reminder from Gandhi.

  2. This is just brilliant!!! Gives me hope. The best way to diffuse a situation is with education. Brava, darling.


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