Sunday, November 16, 2008


The headline is probably painfully cliché by now (I have no access to the media, but I can imagine the magnitude of Obama-mania sweeping the country right now), but before you roll your eyes or throw up a little in your month, bear with me. The last time I posted a blog, it was from the Royal Solwezi Hotel where my fellow Americans and I pulled an all nighter, my first in years, to view the American elections. Glued to the television for hours, eating the most American foods we could find on the menu (mac ‘n cheese), playing protest songs on our ipods (Bruce Springstein), that distinctive mixture of excitement and trepidation that precedes most momentous occasions was thick in the air.

Eight hours and many caffeinated drinks later, my heart swelled. After Obama gave his victory speech, the hope I hadn’t allowed myself to feel finally burst, breaking the dam that had pent up my closeted optimism. Deep wells of conflicting emotion emerged. I was proud of America, but I also felt guilty for not having expected high standards of her. The feeling of being wrong was one of pure joy and also shame.

The undeniable thing was that this moment was history. My parents remember when Kennedy was assassinated, when man landed on the moon, when Nelson Mandela was freed. After 9/11, I will remember this day more than any other. A testament to the United States. Proof that the dream Americans hold of making something of themselves, of making our country better, is not one held in vain. The day American people of color were convinced that you really can be anyone you want, do anything you want, and that one person can be the impetus for worldwide change.

I have debated the question internally for a long time: how is change best created? For years I worked for institutions, believing that operating within existing systems was the best way to change them, and convincing myself that those changes inevitably effect the population as a whole and consequently move society forward. But corporations, The White House, think tanks, and the Department of Justice were all gigantic stepping stones that lead me downwards. I felt weighted by the sluggishness with which those organizations slowly chip away at barriers on the fringes and shift paradigms in the margins. Knowing that I saved someone from paying an extra few cents on bleach was important in protecting the free market and a competitive economy, but it was not inspiring. Anyone who knows me will tell you I am impatient, for better or worse, immediate gratification motivates me. So every red tape barrier drove me deeper into the ground, finally reaching the grassroots.

I chose to move to Zambia and work in the field (er, bush) to observe the flipside of public service. I sought to gain a holistic view of the sector from the ground up, to experience change on a personal level and observe it happening in a perceivable way. I thought that here I could make an impression on one person at a time and that it would be tangible and evermore fulfilling. And of course, now that I am here, I am frustrated by reverse challenges. Only making a difference in the most miniscule way possible, denting the lives of a few thousand people at most, is grueling and painstaking work that can break your heart.

Just as despondency began to cast its shadow on my outlook, I mailed my ballot for Barack Obama. We wrote it in at the Peace Corps house, off a tiny unpaved back road of Solwezi, Zambia. It was thrilling, empowering, enfranchising, more than any vote of mine in America had been. I needed an outlet that granted me access to way the world’s biggest decisions are made. I needed to believe that though my work in the field may be inconsequential in changing the way the world works, it matters deeply to a community that would be otherwise overlooked, forgotten, or ignored.

Obama reminded me that the world is not binary. Whether talking about the left or right, or the unity of our fifty states, Obama’s message is one that can apply to so many realms. He reminded me that systemic change complements the work I do here, and that the work I had done in the past was not ineffectual. In hindsight, it is may seem obvious, even glib, to proclaim that both approaches to public service are symbiotic and important. But I had never believed this to be truer than on this day. My renewed cognizance of this fact injected some much needed positivity into my attitude and helped revive the spirit of my work here. And for that, I would seriously like to thank you, Mr. Barack Obama, the President Elect of the United States of America!

I would also like to thank those friends of mine who poured their blood, sweat, and tears into his campaign. It is because of your sleepless nights and tireless efforts that this was made possible!

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

If Wall Street Got Drunk…

Then someone should tell Bush that our sector is suffering from a potentially fatal hangover. Much worse than a mere headache, startups, especially non-profit ones, are being hit by a maelstrom of factors that may have terminal consequences for many organizations that don’t have the capacity to weather the storm. Though bailouts galore will not anchor the financial markets enough to reduce the impact of this tempest to zero, they at least provide some sails for the heaviest players in the game to stay afloat.

Meanwhile, nonprofits the size of FORGE have absolutely no protection against macroeconomic fluctuations that affect the pool of disposable income available to us from individual private donors, our primary source of funds. This fact, combined with the bad luck of being rejected in the final rounds of two large and prestigious grants, and not making as much money as we had hoped from a traditional fundraiser (fancy expensive dinner featuring Tom Brady, Giselle, etc.), have lead to dire straits for budgets in the field.

Last week our Programming Director informed us that Meheba had to make around 24,000,000 kwacha worth of budget cuts to remain operational through March1st. In perspective: over HALF of our budget needed to be slashed. The PMs hashed out some drastic changes, entire programs were cut, and 10 staff members (almost a quarter of our workforce) were laid off in total. The PMs took a pay cut in solidarity and decided to use the money toward creating a small severance package; but the timing of the announcement was brutal, only four days before pay day, leaving no time for employees to budget their money. However demoralizing the facts of the financial situation are, the suddenness of the situation was by far the worst part of the announcement, and it severely limited our ability to damage control.

In Meheba, there is no free market economy. There are NO other employers in the camp. Wages are standardized to already pittance levels and the World Food Programme is no longer providing food rations to anyone in the camp (including the elderly, disabled, orphans, and other vulnerable people) beginning January 1st. Unlike other camps where salaries are incentives for people to work, to lose your job in Meheba is to lose any possibility of having some livelihood. The only other option is to become a farmer, but cultivation has already begun, if you haven’t prepared your field already, it’s too late to start for this year’s harvest. Some of those let go include FORGE’s first employee ever, and all of the staff from FORGE’s first project.

Beyond our staff, the community is equally affected by the abruptness of our scale back. Vulnerable (mentally and physically disabled or orphaned) preschoolers who are already psychologically unstable now must completely change their schedule midterm and adjust to new teachers with no training overlap, who are unfamiliar with the new students (personally, linguistically, and culturally) and are taking on twice their previous workload. The example is one of many.

I made it through the emergency staff meeting that we held to announce the changes. I made it through nine of the lay offs, where the PMs stoically and calmly took turns repeating the same words over and over: “unfortunately,” “the reality of the situation,” “I am so sorry,” “absolutely nothing to do with your performance,” etc. Finally we reached the last one, an outreach worker named Given, who I personally manage for the health services project. Given’s coworker is his good friend (and mine) and holds the exact same position and was not being let go because of her certification has a psycho-social counselor. She was the first to cry all day. And then quietly, the tears just started flowing, leaving cool trails on my cheeks, evaporating quickly into the African heat.

Being a young manager, for all the advantages it holds in energy, innovation, optimism, dedication, freshness, and drive; my youth in this case did nothing but long for advice. I missed my dad, a seasoned manager who has supervised hundreds (maybe thousands?) of people and let go of a few in his time; someone who has navigated through organizational and financial turbulence with deliberate finesse and forward thinking. I have no tools to deal with this from a managerial stand point, nor from an emotional and psychological one. And none were given to me by the executive team that is equally as wet behind the ears as I am, and whose responsibilities, as is the case in any startup, are already spread paper thin.

Having grown up in the entrepreneurial culture of the bay area and then having worked for one of the largest bureaucracies in the world (the U.S. government), I had once concluded unequivocally that the latitude of having a youthful, flexible, approachable group of supervisors and employees would be the strongest advantage FORGE has to “Go get ‘em.” And that fact remains. But in this situation I see more clearly than ever the benefits traditional, conservative, and most importantly experienced, leadership can have in tempering instability.

Ironically, this whole experience may be exactly what develops all of us into more mature managers, ready to take on bad news and expertly handle it whenever it’s thrown our way. Unequivocally I look at this as an experience I look at as an opportunity to grow. Here’s hoping!