Reflecting in the Face of Failure

2 Dec

Dear Suzanne,

All too soon I am once again without a job – I don’t think I even had the chance to tell you that I was no longer unemployed.

Anger, frustration, disappointment, and sadness. And shock – as I struggled and failed.

Failure is something I have worked so hard to avoid, and yet it happened.

What went wrong?

Let’s first backtrack a little.

The organization I had been hired by is a non-profit that seeks to empower low-income families through collective struggle against institutions and a system that perpetuates inequality. My role was to door knock in communities that low-income, working class folk were likely to reside, to get them agitated and angry about the oppressive forces against them, and then to offer a solution – to fight back by becoming a member of our organization. The only catch was that to join, one had to agree to pay a monthly due.

The first hurdle is to get in the door and on the couch. Most people weren’t interested in answering my question – “what changes would you like to see in your community/city?” – and often shooed me away. Or if they did answer, often people replied that they had no issues with our government nor did they see any need for improvement in their neighbourhoods. Sometimes, people were forthright about their concerns and had no qualms about expressing them – it was with these people that I was able to (usually) get in their door.

Once I was in the door and on the couch, there was my next hurdle: to guide them in creating a vision of change. To explain, I’ll use the issue of neighbourhood safety – something I encountered quite often. So as I sit on the couch, I start off by asking general open-ended questions to learn more about the issue – “what makes the neighbourhood unsafe?”, “how has it affected your daily routine?”, “when does this usually occur”. Once I have a better idea of what’s going on, I ask what they see as a solution to the problem – what would be better. So now that we have established the problem and a possible solution, we focus in on a target – who is responsible for making these changes. Once we figure out the target, I start to polarize us and the target and point out the unequal distribution of power and wealth – “I’m sure if [the target] was facing [the problem], his neighbourhood would immediately see [the solution]” “yeah!” “how come we see more city resources allocated to rich neighbourhoods but not ours?” “yeah!!”. Now comes the tricky part. Now that I have (hopefully) agitated them, I need to get them to realize that they can channel their anger and fight back by coming together with others. This means that they have to recognize that there’s a power in numbers. If I am able to successfully do all of the above, then I move on to the next hurdle.

While that last hurdle was tough, the next is even tougher. I have to convince the person that the way to fight back is to join the organization. And to join the organization, one has to pay a monthly due. At first, I wasn’t convinced that I could do this – ask people with low-income to give up a portion of their monthly income to join an organization that would aim to fight back but couldn’t promise anything. It’s a tough sell and when you hear the words “I have no money”/”I can’t afford this”, I struggled on my end to keep pushing. I understand the value of a dues-paying membership based organization – that by funding the organization, members don’t have to rely on outside sources and are able to control how funds are used, and also members are more likely to be active if they have invested money in the organization. However, my struggle was with convincing people in the limited time that I had, on this first visit, that our organization was the last part of the vision we created. I was supposed to limit my visits to 15 minutes and in that time jump through all 3 hurdles I mentioned – get in the door, build a vision, and get them to join.

It’s difficult, but not impossible. I was able to do it – twice – but not enough to keep my job.

The first week on the job I thought I could do it. I saw a steep learning curve but thought that I surely could do it. Every night I would come home and do more research about community organizing and door-kocking, and then reflect on the day’s interactions.

But by the next week, the days started to pass by and I was still without members. It didn’t make sense to me – I was trying hard, I was improving – yet somehow I still kept on coming up short. Then came the 8th day and I barely had 2 members and knew I would fail to meet the goal of 5-10 members in 10 days.

I kept asking myself, “what went wrong“, over and over again.

I was hard on myself, and couldn’t help but feel like a FAILURE. It led to some bouts of anger, frustration, then tears. But once I got over myself, I realized that I shouldn’t be asking myself “what went wrong”, but rather “what’s going on”.

What I had imagined my role as being and what I was actually doing were different things. I thought I would be more like a community organizer – bringing people together to fight on a common issue – but what I was really doing was trying to sell a social movement and build up an organization with more members. Not that it’s a bad thing, but I’m not much of a ‘salesperson’ – I don’t like pushing people into signing up for something, even if it would benefit them. I know that I wouldn’t sign up to become a member and agree to pay dues during my first introduction to the organization, so why should I expect that other people would? I would want to do my research first and take my time to make an informed decision about where I am giving my money, especially if I don’t have much to begin with. But that’s just me.

I believe that the organization is truly trying to demand equity for people with low-incomes, and to hold the government accountable and ensure that it serves all it’s citizens – not just those with money. However, my skill set wasn’t quite what they were looking for that specific job, nor was I the right person.

Still, it’s a terrible feeling to lose a job. But right when I was really starting to feel low, someone posted this comic called Be Friends with Failure and it reminded me about the importance of failing and how we grow from it.

It’s a lesson learned, Suzanne. Just one of many. I have to be prepared to fail many times in this lifetime before I can get anywhere.

So in the words of Aaliyah, “if at first you don’t succeed, dust yourself off and try again“!

Until next time,

J

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