What a difference a day makes. (*hums*)
A funny thing happened on the way to the NGO.
On Sunday night I cried out to God for guidance, for help, for faith, wisdom and strength. I prayed for my words to be seasoned with salt, for hearts to be softened and for minds to be open. I prayed for the future of Practical (Christian) Ministries and for the interpersonal relationships among the team members. Up till that night, I had never really known what it felt like to be willing and able, excited and committed to perform work because of the real implications, the actual effect on people’s lives and their ability to positively touch other lives. I ought to have had that kind of experience with ARC, or ThinkQuest (which clearly did change the course of Sizwe’s life, along with Robin’s and the Ningizimu School, in less obvious ways), but I didn’t. To borrow some of Janine’s sentiments, I always felt vaguely fraudulent, and merely cerebrally convinced of the work’s value. Before Sunday night, the closest I had come to feeling like I had found my niche in life was when I revamped the MOI package at OCS, and even that experience came up short because I couldn’t fully realise my vision (all manner of critical time, resource and support constraints), and because I doubted (and still doubt) the final purpose of the SAF. [This does not mean I believe that national defence is a futile or unnecessary undertaking, but that I wouldn’t want to spend all my time thinking about and preparing for a situation I’m working hard to avoid at all costs. Also, I’m not sure I believe war is ever justified or just. Why not just be conquered? Why not trust God to deliver you? What exactly are we fighting over and fighting for? “Way of life”, “freedom”, “justice” – what exactly do these things mean here on earth, anyway?] On Sunday night, I was willing to be the Director of PM (which I don’t mean as a brag), and I finally understood what the staff here mean when they say that they’re not here for the (scanty) financial rewards or titles or power but because they love what they do, believe whole-heartedly in the value of their work and are willing to accept the challenges and serve (generations of teachers, nurses, police officers, religious leaders and social workers have echoed this sentiment, of course – I just never could quite believe them because I couldn’t match it with any of my own experiences). At this point I’m also reminded of the “leave everything, take up my cross and follow me” lines in the Bible. I seriously did start to figure out finances, how I would take a year off, how I would break the news to my family, friends and the Dins, etc. etc. But only if that was the path that God wanted me to take.
On Monday, Rooks (the Director), was back in the office after two weeks away spent conducting an evaluation of another developmental NGO for the Finnish Embassy in Durban. I asked for some time to discuss work, and when we met, I told her the following (slightly summarised and excising her responses):
“When I came, you told me that you wanted me to add value to the organisation, and now I think I know how I can best do that. I believe that I can be most useful by helping to open up lines of communication within your NGO and help the organisation to be more effective, because I think that PM is at a crisis point right now and something needs to be done.
I call it a crisis because an organisation is more than just money and buildings, but also about people, and I think primarily about people. When you have a core team of about eight people – project managers and key staff who essentially run the programmes and the organisation – and you have at least four of them talking seriously about or in the midst of resigning, finding other work or seeking legal action, while the rest of the staff are also unhappy, demoralised and insecure, then I would say you have an internal crisis.
Of course there are many reasons why people would want to leave an organisation, but trust me when I say that these people are leaving because of valid frustrations about the way they, and their work, are being treated. I think that everyone is doing things that make their own or others’ frustrations worse, so this isn’t about blame or individual fault, but about moving forward and improving for the good of the communities you serve.”
“So now you have two options, and they are vaguely non-negotiable. Your first option is that we can now talk about what you assigned me to do, the corporate PowerPoint presentation and website framework, which I have already worked on. I will then finish up that work and my time with PM will come to an end and I will leave. Your other option is that you allow me to lead a one-day meeting, workshop, session – whatever you want to call it – with all the key staff, which I would like to hold away from the office and which I believe should be held tomorrow, for various reasons, including the fact that I don’t want the situation to fester, and I will not be around very much longer [unsaid: and I might chicken out if we wait, and Maggie won’t be here anymore after tomorrow]. If you choose this option, I have a couple of additional conditions. First, nothing that is said can be used against staff in the future. The reason for this is quite self-evident – you say you want a democratic situation, so obviously people cannot fear that what they say will come back to haunt them. Second, you have to come with an open mind – which means you have to be willing to believe that this can work – and be willing to admit your faults and ask for forgiveness if necessary. These conditions are not being directed at you only, but at all the participants.”
“I assure you that this is not something I was put up to do – you are the first person I am proposing this to – and that I have not suddenly turned into a critic of the organisation. If you read the report and scribe’s notes that I wrote about the meeting I attended on the first day I was here, before I even knew everyone’s name, you will notice at least two things. Firstly, that I am honest, yet I also try to be neutral and tactful. Secondly, even on that first day I already noted various problems, including gaps in communication [unsaid: and with your supposedly democratic leadership style]. Since then, I have listened, asked questions and spoken with most of your staff either individually or in small groups and I am basing my conclusion of an internal crisis on these interactions.”
“I understand that the staff have had numerous other retreats, time-outs, ‘open-spaces’ and had external consultants come in to conduct workshops, facilitate sharing and help to craft ‘shared visions’, but firstly, you yourself have said that these weren’t as successful as you would have liked, so that warrants more work. Secondly, and more importantly, it sounds like you are coming in to this with a closed mind already, which, if you recall, does not satisfy my second condition. You don’t even know what I am going to do, so you can’t say that I am not going to succeed, just like the previous (nine!) attempts (in less than five years!). [Note: this past history of attempts ultimately goes on to be referred to by five out of the ten people who attend the next day].
I also understand that X will have to be summoned out of the week-long workshop she is attending in another city (an hour and a half away) and people will have to drop everything they are working on, but if something is a priority, that is exactly what it means. If someone is in labour or has been shot and is dying, you don’t say that you’re busy with a deadline or in the middle of cooking something or have to take a phone call. No, you drop everything and rush them to the hospital!”
“I think one factor in my favour is that I haven’t been hired by anyone, I am not an employee of PM and I haven’t been sent by the board of directors or anyone else so I have no vested interests, which may help people to be more willing to share their concerns.”
“And while I don’t think it’s my job to answer every doubt you may have about my ability to achieve anything – remembering that the apostles doubted Jesus, and there are people today who doubt the moon-landings or that Elvis is dead, showing that people can doubt anything – I can give you at least two other reasons why I believe this will work.
First of all, I believe in these people. I believe that they are all good people; I believe they are talented, committed, caring, teachable, open, honest, amazing individuals who believe in their work, believe in each others’ work and believe in the organisation. If they were a bunch of incompetent, embittered, back-stabbing, mean-spirited, close-minded, stubborn, dishonest, untrusting losers, then there would be no point in trying and I wouldn’t bother. But that isn’t the case. I am willing to sponsor the entire session, so that no one can say that the organisation has spent (read: wasted) more money on another one of these team-building sessions. [Note: lunch, snacks and other such things ultimately cost about R500.]
Secondly, and I am almost embarrassed to say this – you know what a secular world we live in – although I really shouldn’t be, there’s the divine reason. I believe that this is why God has brought me here to PM, and that all the things that I have previously done (and did not choose, such as being a trainer, or learning counselling skills and so on) were all preparing me to be ready for this. I have prayed extensively about this, and I even prayed that if it’s not His will for me to do this that you would pick the first option! So I believe that this will succeed because He wants it to succeed.”
So guess which option she chose?
That evening I called Doug and asked him to pray for me, and then my calling card ran out of money and I couldn’t call home, or anyone else. I wonder why it didn’t occur to me to use my ICC card?
Anyway, I spent the rest of that afternoon and evening cooking, baking, thinking and praying.
I won’t record too much of what happened during the next day, only that it wouldn’t be dishonest to interpret it as an unprecedented success or breakthrough for the organisation, nor would it be unfounded to call it a useful step towards better inter-team communication and cooperation. There were references to Oprah and Dr Phil, and four of the ten participants cried at various points, including the Director (!) during her closing remarks.
Imagine that. The twenty-two year old Chinese-Singaporean rising-sophomore who had spent just ten days at the office leading a session attended by people including near-retirees and grandparents, graduates and seasoned professionals who possessed well over a century of cumulative work experience which included activism and pulling bodies from the streets during the national violence during the seventies, eighties and early nineties. And made them open up to the point of frightened, emotional tears!!
I am so thankful to God, and so in awe of His work.
It looks like I will be heading back to Singapore either this Sunday (11th) or Monday (12th). I’m not sure that my work here is done, but we’ll see what happens. It also seems like I may not get to see much of Johannesburg this time round. Pity.