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In the process

December 12, 2010

Last week’s post about Invisible Children’s questionable new promotional media started another round of conversations about IC’s marketing and role in the NGO community. A friend suggested that while it’s easy to pour on the criticism against Invisible Children, as development workers and activists we have a lot to learn from them, especially regarding how passionate their staff are. On the surface, I think he’s right; IC’s staff is willing to work around the clock for next to nothing and live in group homes that make frat houses look good, all because they believe in what they’re doing. It’s a far cry from Landcruisers, relocation packages, and cynical late-night conversations over warm beer (with ice, of course).

He has a point; their staff’s passion is admirable, and unusual. I wonder, though, if that passion springs directly from the black and white way that they portray their work. It’s easy to be on fire for your job when you never question if you’re on the side of justice. It’s also easy to push concerns about money, school and work aside when it’s your first time in this kind of work and you really believe that you’re going to end. the. war. Kill Kony. Rescue the children. Restore peace and sanity. And look hot doing it.

It’s been five years since I was one of those IC kids. I was a freshman at BC when I saw the documentary for the first time, offered to help with the Global Night Commute in Boston, and… ended up spending about 40 hours a week organizing the logistics and promoting the event around the city for the next two months. I skipped more classes than I can count, often forgot to eat, spent several hours a day on the phone with the San Diego office, and was on a first name basis with city commissioners and police officers who would provide permits and security. I slept for a few hours a night, and found a way to make philosophy and early childhood development papers about child soldiers so that my schoolwork wouldn’t be a distraction. I loved every minute of it and never questioned if it was worth it, because I was sure that this single event was the be-all and end-all for Northern Uganda.
I’m nowhere near as single-minded about my work now as I was when I first started volunteering with IC and the GNC. I’m less willing to sacrifice for JUSTICE or PEACE or SAVING LIVES, and I’m not embarrassed about that. I’ll still take work phone calls at any time of day and I struggle to set boundaries between work and personal life. My perspective is slowly shifting though; I don’t approach my work with the same sense of urgency that characterized my semester spent working with IC. If I’m exhausted by the thought of a three-hour drive to a village to teach, I’ll take a morning off and stay in the office. If our workshop evaluations don’t get done on time, I don’t worry about it. And if I’m tired, craving Western food or English speakers, I don’t feel guilty about escaping to Phnom Penh for a few days.
It isn’t that I care less at this point, it’s just that I’m in this for the long haul now. For me, that’s meant facing that immediate results are few and far between in this kind of work. With that, I’m recognizing that the How matters as much as the What. When I believed I was going to fix things through a few months of all-consuming organizing and advocacy, it was easy to justify putting my studies, my health, and my friendships on hold. When the war was over, when the night commuters could sleep at home, when the child soldiers could return to their families and the IDPs to their villages, it would all be worth it. That end seemed within reach when I was working with IC.
After a few years in this field, and more than a year in Cambodia, I’m learning to value the process more than the results. Unexpected rain can cancel a workshop that’s been planned for months, a flat tire can prevent visits to women we promised to see, one too many bottles of rice wine can undermine a police officer’s training about the domestic violence law.  In any of those cases,  it’s possible that extra effort on my part may be able to change the outcome. Flooded roads can be navigated in village’s boats, tires can be quickly repaired with enough sweet-talking and a dollar to sweeten the deal, human rights NGOs can open cases against negligent policemen. But this is life here, and learning to deal with the unexpected means having grace for myself and my colleagues when we choose not to fight every battle. Giving 110% of myself today is a sign that I value the outcomes more than the process. It’s also a sure indicator that either tomorrow, next month, or next year, I’ll have less of myself to give. Not surprisingly, Thomas Merton says it best in his Letter to a Young Activist:
Do not depend on the hope of results. You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. You gradually struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.
I don’t know what this means for Invisible Children exactly – “join us for a winding journey equally full of successes and disappointments” doesn’t have the same ring as “be a hero,” or “save a life.” It may mean that in order for IC to have more realistic and responsible marketing, they’ll have to stop relying on cheap, passionate labor, and instead of asking their staff to give anything and everything, pay and support them enough that they can be in it for the long haul. It’ll make cynics out of some of them, sure, but the ones who stick around will be there for love of the process, not attachment to results.

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. Sam permalink
    December 12, 2010 9:03 pm

    I have to say it: clearly the hypothetical police office should have been drinking Hennessy 😉

    Great post.

  2. Sam permalink
    December 12, 2010 9:04 pm

    *officer

    • December 12, 2010 9:07 pm

      Of course, we all know that only rice wine leads to violence. Hennessy is always the safe choice for a wholesome night of fun.

  3. December 12, 2010 10:45 pm

    Hey Meg,

    I’ve worked in the IC office for quite awhile, and your post caught my eye. I appreciate the critical look, but I do disagree with some of things you’ve said. That being said, many things are on point. I’d love to talk with you, candidly, about my experience with IC and perhaps we can both some perspectives off each other.

    In your post, one thing in particular caught my eye. This sentence: “I don’t approach my work with the same sense of urgency.” I think that is a dangerous sentence. We talk a lot of urgency in the IC office and it is something I, personally, have to constantly remind myself of. But it is that sense of urgency that allows people to work long hours/months/years with little pay. You are right in the fact that it is something we truly believe in, but we are not so naive as to think this conflict is black and white. Museveni is corrupt and there is evidence he may not be trying as hard as he could to stop this war, the LRA are likely being used as a puppet by Omar al Bashir and the Sudanese government to destabilize southern Sudan before their independence vote this coming February.

    But that doesn’t change how strongly myself and other IC staff and interns believe in what we are doing. You mentioned that the “How” is more important then the “What,” but it is the “Why” that is most important.

    I hope to hear from you so we can discuss this, as I would love to answer any questions you have about IC and our mission.

    You can e-mail me at jbeaton@invisiblechildren.com

    All the best!
    -John

    • December 12, 2010 11:31 pm

      Hi John,
      If you don’t mind, I’d love to keep the conversation here, so that others can contribute if they’d like. But if you prefer to talk more on email, I’m open to that as well!

      Thanks so much for your comment – it’s nice to hear perceptions about what’s going on from inside the office as well.

      I understand why a lessened sense of urgency would be concerning, but I stand by it. First, I don’t think we should be looking for ways to get people to work long hours without pay — it’s a model that keeps professionals from joining our teams, meaning that our work doesn’t benefit from their expertise, training, and perspective. When we ask too much of people without proper compensation, almost everyone ends up moving on eventually, because they need work/life balance, money to support their studies, time for their families, or greater opportunities for professional development. If we pay more and make reasonable demands of our staff, we can attract professionals and are more likely to have long-term staff.

      Second, in my experience, a sustained sense of urgency leads to burnout. There’s just no way to maintain that level of energy and commitment forever, and eventually something has to give. For me, it was friendships, health, and schoolwork.

      Finally, I think that a sense of urgency makes it easier for us to justify compromises in our messaging and the “How.” When one more letter signed, one more t-shirt sold, one more university chapter launched takes on hyperbolic importance, perhaps the messaging we use to achieve those results are not held to high enough standards.

      Urgency has its place, but I think it’s possible to work with passion, commitment, and drive, without putting an unrealistic burden on yourself about how much your work has the potential to achieve.

      Again, thanks for participating in this conversation!

      • December 13, 2010 2:46 am

        Hey Meg,

        I’m perfectly fine keeping the conversation here, I just wanted to give you the option.

        On urgency, I’m afraid we will have to agree to disagree. I have been an intern with IC for a year and a half and will be moving on soon. I will get to take the life-changing lessons I have learned, the work ethic, the skills… to wherever I choose to work next. Personally, I plan to stay in the non-profit field, but if I went into business, would you consider that burn out? What if I were to take everything IC had taught me to my new job in a new field? I believe that would be a positive outcome and not burnout.

        To me, a lessened sense of urgency is a slippery slope to being settling and settling leads to complacency. My intention is not to imply that you are being complacent, considering you live and work in Cambodia. But we have a saying in the office: “You don’t end a war 9-5.”

        Urgency and stress don’t have to be the same thing.

        Finally, urgency is important because the situation IS urgent. The LRA continue to abduct and kill in the Congo, CAR and southern Sudan, so when I call that IC chapter at university encouraging them to have one more fundraiser before the holiday break so we can afford to put up another radio tower in the Congo, which in turn immediately begins to save lives, I mean every word of it down to my bones.

        Whew! That was a mouthful (handful?). Apologies if I tend to ramble.

        -John

  4. kaki permalink
    March 9, 2011 5:33 pm

    Meg!
    I was missing you, so here I am, just catching up on some good old planningtheday reading! I loved this post, mostly because it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot as of late, specifically in the context of rape crisis work (carrying a pager, going to the hospital at 3am, etc., are all less sexy now, 8 months in…shocker?!)
    Love you! think of you often!
    xoxo

    • March 10, 2011 10:55 pm

      Kaks,
      Thanks for stopping by. In the words of our favorite JMarks, keep fighting the good fight. Sending love from Battambang!
      Meg

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