Saturday, November 13, 2010

Alone is Okay

I was warned by many people that after I graduated college, I would be alone. They said this word with weight and sadness for me. Alone is something to be worked through, gotten over, ignored, avoided.

Since moving to Phoenix, I've had fantastic conversations with my roommate, shared brown bag lunches with the staff at my office, and sipped drinks with one lovely friend I made at work. But oftentimes, I am alone. I am alone when I commute to work, I am alone at my desk with my thoughts and millions of to-do lists, I am alone in my bed at night writing down the day's successes or reading or thinking or dreaming. During one of my first few weekends in Phoenix I went to a restaurant alone and had bar food and a Corona. Yesterday I went to the movies alone. Now I am sitting in the library alone after going to the farmer's market alone. Later today I will go to the museum alone and drive in my car alone, singing loudly to the music on the stereo.

I guess the point of the clip I posted above and the totality of my "alone" experience is that alone is okay. I enjoy myself more than I ever have before. I wonder at the way my mind works; I think about conflicts I have and reflect on what these mean about my character; I love the sound of my own singing voice, even when I don't know the words to a song; I savor the food I can cook for myself and the quiet and peaceful moments I can have just walking from my office to my car. I think sometime I mistake alone for lonely, and they are not the same. Alone can foster a love for self that is far deeper than the love you might know if you never give yourself time to just be. Please don't fall into the trap of thinking I am confused or feeling pity for me. I'm content and centered and enjoying all the things I'd never taken the time to know about myself. Really, alone is okay.

Non-profits in Phoenix and the Peril of Working in Cultural Silos

One issue that’s becoming increasingly important to me is the concept of working in silos. This is an oft criticized quality of non-profit work: non-profit organizations, driven by competition for public and private grant funding and donations from many of the same individuals, begin to “sell” their organizations as the best combatants of the social ill de jure. For that reason, we categorize and compartmentalize issues that are actually inextricably intertwined. We duplicate services; we reinvent the wheel all the time. We focus on community needs rather than community assets because we must prove that the crisis is ever-worsening and that we need an increasingly large pool of funding to do our jobs well. We create strategic partnerships but in so doing create artificial separations between issue areas and unhelpful competition between organizations that should otherwise be working collaboratively.

The concept of the silo is not new, but the thing of which I was not aware before coming to Arizona is how, in addition to working in issue silos, the non-profits of Arizona are also working in what I would call cultural silos. Non-profits have further partitioned themselves on the basis of race/ethnicity. For the most part, that bifurcation is one of white vs. Hispanic/Latino/Chicano.

And, honestly, the segregation is understandable if I’m considering carefully the kinds of barriers to effective partnership we might face looking across ethnic lines. Organizations would likely need to agree broadly on immigration issues. They would need to hold meetings in both English and Spanish (which is not to say that many Latinos can’t speak English well). They would need to involve and respect the role of faith-based organizations far more than they do in the white non-profit community. They would need to be sensitive to the issues of undocumented immigrants.

Unfortunately, I’ve found that white groups are largely out of touch with the culture, interests, concerns and importance of Latino-focused groups. People doing “racially neutral” work—-fighting poverty, for example, without an explicit focus on people of color in poverty-—are woefully disconnected from people doing expressly anti-racist anti-poverty work. When I make calls to other anti-poverty organizations with a largely Latino constituency or client base, they are (very) cold calls despite the fact that our organizations work on the same issues, often (nominally) for the same people.

I haven’t found the answer to this problem, but it is something I’m convinced impacts the effectiveness of all race-neutral non-profit groups. Because the poor are disproportionately people of color, race-neutral groups will do things ineffectively without buy-in and leadership from groups led by and for people of color. We need to (1) realize that we are working in cultural silos, (2) identify this as a large factor in our inability to move the needle on poverty, and (3) commit to working together (or rather largely white groups need to do internal anti-racism work and make a public comitment to find ways to enter into Latino or other POC non-profit networks.) Incidentally, race-neutral groups are often headed by whites and often have a disproportionately high portion of the available resources for non-profit work. This means that lacking or nonexistent collaboration also negatively affects anti-racist groups due to lack of funding and access to social and political capital

If we truly believe that everyone is tied up in the plight of the poor, we need to begin looking more closely at who is in our staff meetings, board meetings, neighborhood coalitions, advocacy committees, legislatures. Though we say that we as a society have made large strides in eliminating segregation during the past several decades, it is surprising, frustrating and hypocritical that the non-profits who claim to be aiding in the process of poverty alleviation and social justice are still so completely and ironically isolated on the basis of race.