As the COVID scare eased a bit and I began to contemplate a life of meeting people in person – albeit masked, sanitised, not hugging – along came the variants to make life not easy again. I had to reimagine why I do what I do and what has changed for me and the world. I wrote this piece because I needed to remember and reiterate to myself why we are here, what is it that we want to do, what we want to change, and to acknowledge that this situation is way beyond us and that we have been grappling with finding solutions.
The COVID pandemic has been destabilising on many counts. Personally, professionally, collectively, globally – all elements of our lives have been affected and we have had to struggle for some alignment and understanding in order to deal with the uncertainty around us. What used to be easier before COVID was the separation of the personal from the professional, but now the personal and professional are so enmeshed that we do not seem to have any clearly demarcated spaces. The table that we work on becomes the dining table when it is needed and at other times it becomes the space on which board games are played. Earlier, we had the luxury of being able to separate our professional lives from our personal lives, a distinction that has slowly gotten erased. Emotions are frayed because the instability outside pervades our lives. And amidst all our personal vagaries, indecisions, fears and concerns, we have to work and make that work effective because that is why we are here in the first place. It is not business as usual, no one has had any experience of dealing with a situation where people work from home, where travel is almost non-existent, where office rules have had to undergo multiple changes that cannot be kept track of. It is truly the worst of times where each one of us has had to recall our humanity and remind ourselves constantly that there is some purpose to what we do in our work lives.
Some thoughts that strike me as I wonder what it is that we should be doing:
- Why did I choose this work as opposed to something else?
I do not think that all of us chose our lines of work for some great altruistic ideals. Some of us may have, some of us took this as opposed to that because the prospects seemed better, what we wanted to do matched what the organisation does, it paid better than some others, we wanted a roof over our heads, or we sought meaning in our lives and the idea of marketing soap or beauty products did not appeal to us.
So if I have chosen a particular line of work, then I need to do what I committed to do in terms of the specifics and hope that all of it connects. And we have to see those interconnections and make the interconnections work since the pandemic has taught us that a virus that came into existence in Wuhan has the ability to travel, spread and hold the whole world to ransom!
- The organisation is not a monolith
It is a thinking, living, breathing space – at least it should be. It clearly has values that it abides by, practices that are critical to its functioning. All organisations in the not for profit sector have a mission that they are working for and that cannot be achieved single-handedly by any one individual. It is a slow building process with teams that work together and teams that consist of individuals who come on board, foibles and all.
For the organisation to achieve anything, it has to be one where learning and unlearning is a regular process and discomfort is something that is recognised as a given. What we do has to come from a space where we are dealing with discomfort and challenging ourselves all the time. Often those points of unease and questioning are hurtful and painful, but that has to be accepted as part of the learning pains. Who said growing up is a linear and one-time process and is not painful?
The organisation is not an Indian joint family where the parents, read Executive Director/Founder, rule the roost and what they say holds. However, I have often heard colleagues tell me that many organisations they have been part of are like conventional Indian families which one marries into. The space occupied by this entrant in that space is negotiated by the ways in which they negotiate with the boss. If you are liked and do well then you acquire the status of most favoured and if you happen to be one who questions ideas, and challenges decisions, however legitimate they may be, you get relegated to the outskirts of decision-making.
The organisation is also not a family enterprise where leadership is inherited either because of familial leadership or because of proximity to the boss – being almost “like family”.
More importantly, the organisation exists because someone, somewhere, has invested money into a process that they also believe in. We owe it to the communities that we work with that we utilise the funds for what we said we would do and at the same time be accountable for the money that is public money. Accountability towards compliances and reporting happen because it is the law of the land, what does not often happen is accountability to the community for whom we work. The first is a legal requirement and the second is a choice that we need to exercise.
Can we envisage an organisation that challenges itself constantly to accommodate the needs and discuss the questions raised by the governance structures, the teams that are part of it, the communities it works for, and, most importantly, listens to the sounds and voices that it hears outside of its precincts and examines itself and its practices?
An organisation where there is no premium on being more committed to the cause as opposed to just doing the job. Where people are lauded because of the work done and not because some are seen as more passionate and selfless compared to those who appear to be “professional”. An organisation where the founders move on to other things and do not sustain themselves on consultancies they get from the space they created. A thinking, working space where the mission for the organisation is not created because a donor needs to be approached, but one where the work done follows a need that is felt and the team understands this and works in unity with each other. Boards which question and support but are not there because they are “thought leaders” in the field and are best friends with the head of the organisation. And Boards that serve terms and are not there in perpetuity.
- Understand power and learn from it, challenge it, dismantle it, use it efficiently for change
Power is not static. It moves all the time. It is vibrant and can be used to create, as well as to dismantle and wreak havoc.
We do not spend enough time understanding power and all its dimensions. There is deep inherent power that is vested in those who are older and therefore assumed to be wiser. This gets enhanced manifold if the older person is also the founder. The notions of the founder are considered sacrosanct since they built up the organisation from scratch. That power when wielded is very similar to what one often hears from parents – we have spent a lot of our time and energy to ensure that you have a better life and so you have to listen to us.
We spend our time trying to understand and dismantle various power structures – the hegemony of English, the power of patriarchy, misogyny, ageism, casteism, sexism, and many other ‘isms’ and yet it is those very ‘isms’ that we play out within organisations at all levels. This is not a one-way street. Power plays out laterally too – one team member exercising power over another team member, the supervisor over the supervisee, the privileged colleague over one who is not, and the list can be endless.
While unpacking the non-visible part of the iceberg of power, the one that lies submerged, we miss the part that is large and visible and do not unpack the bits within that. We assume that it is a monolith. The visible part hides many nuances and systems of imposing power and those are overlooked since the assumption is that it is needed for strengthening structures.
Whichever level you are in, in an organisation, you have power. The question is how much are you willing to use of it, for what and how? Are we comfortable using power, is it always used as a tool for control or do we see it as a tool to strengthen ourselves, the organisation, the system? And where in all of this does the mission of the organization come in – because isn’t that why we are there in the first place?
A much-lauded and overused term and always predicts, once again, a linear way of functioning. Someone older and wiser mentoring someone younger and not so wise in the ways of the world, the field of work they are in, how to do things etc. Mentorship is never really discussed using a lens of power – why does it have to come down a line rather than acknowledge that knowledge and learning can happen across the board and that there is always someone with more understanding of some issues than others and it has only a little to do with age or many years of experience?
My learning curve during the last one and a half years has been steep and I would have never managed had friends and colleagues not taught me many, many new things in the digital world from how to use Zoom effectively, to Menti being a useful tool to use for introductory exercises in workshops, to using Google in a more meaningful way so that others could join conversations, to most urgently and critically learning how the same data can be used in many ways depending on who the end-user is. This knowledge did not just come to me, someone took the time to lead me through all of this and help me understand.
As people working in teams and organisations, there has to be a sharing of understanding, learning and holding of hands. If we cannot share what we know within the organisation, how are we going to do this in the community or work-spaces we wish to go in to and demand structural change?
How are our conversations framed? Do we speak to each other just to know how the project/field work is going or are we actually having conversations where someone speaks and we listen and we respond and then we listen some more? Maybe disagree, maybe agree, maybe learn, so we add something more to our understanding?
Speaking to each other also entails some detailing of where we are coming from, our own challenges, and our difficulties. It does not require a sharing of our deepest secrets and insecurities. It does, however, require a sharing of feelings. Sometimes anger and perceived injustice is more easily shared, but what about other things that we are dealing with? Heartbreaks caused by love, the world around us, the lives lost, the feeling of inadequacy that we cannot change the world, to the moments of elation and happiness about the rain falling or a call from a long-lost friend or something at work that rocked.
So where does all of this lead us to in everyday terms? What are we meant to do in the ways that we work?
Planning – plan for shorter periods of time rather than the two year cycles we are used to. Yes, the ultimate goal is for two years/five years; just as we need to eat to live, but we do not necessarily eat everything at one meal and hope that it will sustain us for days! The planning has to be broader in nature, multiple flexibilities have to be factored in, and a constant revisiting of the vision is required for us to be sure that the planning we do is clear to the whole team.
Flexibility/agility/adaptability – our plans are often set in stone or else our go to answer is “This is how it was done and it worked.” Sure, it did then, but it may not now. All those lovely offices we created and ensured that they were wonderful nooks to hang out in, the small gardens we created – in the last year the only people who have been happy with these spaces are the landlords who have been regularly getting rent! Those spaces lie empty and dust gathers and we obsess about who will dust the place down. The travel plans, the meetings, the bookings made for venues, all hang in the balance and will continue to do so.
How then do we do things differently? How do we allocate time for work that may not happen as scheduled? How calm are we in the face of that? How quick are we to change plans and not keep creating a framework for implementation? Are we conscious that we operate with a set pattern in our head and do not often incorporate new patterns, new designs?
I struggle with this for myself. I am a facilitator who enjoys meeting with people and chatting with them before, after and during a meeting. I can stay up late or wake up early. My life in this field has gotten reduced to three hours online in which I am supposed to be productive, funny, take the team along, ensure learning, and bond! If someone had asked me two years ago what an online meeting would achieve, I would vociferously say that it would be a waste of time. Now I know differently. I have had to rethink ways to engage and change course midway.
Virtual meetings are a great leveller – there is magic in these meetings if one looks for it. Two years ago, I could have never have imagined an online Hindi institute where people log in to Zoom from different parts of the country and engage with issues as they would do in a classroom. There are some hitches, but those can be overcome through paying for additional data or paying for phones that can be used by the people we work with.
International meetings now are so easy because there is no more uncertainty of waiting in visa queues and hoping that your bank balance makes the cut! Language challenges can be surpassed with simultaneous translation and chatting between participants is enabled by Zoom.
Virtual meetings are also not a great leveller – they have brought the divide home to us more starkly. Who can access a good, high speed Internet connection, who has learnt how to use Zoom effectively (learning to mute/unmute so that the reality of their lives do not permeate the meeting and cause “amusement” for others), who has the ability to constantly stare at the screen for hours on end, who has the luxury of being able to set aside the time for webinars, check in calls, work update calls, who can borrow that phone from the neighbour if need be – the endless list of requirements for connectivity.
What has been the toughest for all of us to manage is our own emotions, our anxieties, our feelings of inadequacy – at a very personal level, and that gets projected onto our work space because that is what we inhabit a lot of the time. Our demands of that space are inordinately high, we expect accountability all the time. It has become essential that all of us be prepared for the new journeys that we have embarked on in this sector and that we remind ourselves of why we are here and why we do what we do. In organisations we are not in competition with each other, we are meant to complement each other so that what we signed up to do as individuals, as teams, as institutions are achieved. And at the same time, we argue, we demand, we fight, we love, we walk together, we diverge – all as respectfully as possible since this world that we have got into requires it of us.
“Sometimes we drug ourselves with dreams of new ideas. The head will save us. The brain alone will set us free. But there are no new ideas waiting in the wings to save us as women, as human. There are only old and forgotten ones, new combinations, extrapolations and recognitions from within ourselves – along with the renewed courage to try them out.”
– From Audre Lorde’s Poetry is not a Luxury
Cover Image: Pixabay