2018 Week 1: Nonprofit Management
On my very first day going to work, I got on my MTA bus (shoutout route 22) and settled into my seat, already trying to guess what I’d be doing at work and worrying about whether I packed enough food for lunch (I didn’t). For anyone who hasn’t ridden the MTA before, they often play a loop of recorded messages over the loudspeaker. They vary slightly but the gist is generally “guard your belongings there are thieves everywhere.” Now, of course, I know that precautions are good and no one wants to lose their stuff, but I was struck by the fact that even just playing that message seemed to cultivate a certain expectation of the folks who ride the bus– folks who are, realistically, majority black and with lower incomes. Then, about ten minutes into my ride, a man stood up to get off the bus and as he walked past a seat he saw an abandoned cell phone. Immediately he picked it up, asked the people around if it belonged to them, and then upon only negative responses, handed it to the driver on his way out. My initial instinct to this whole thing was to be impressed. But then, given that I like to think of myself as the type of person who believes the best of people by default, I started questioning why I was impressed. And although I’m not going to deny my own societally-conditioned biases and say the only factor was the message playing on repeat through the bus, it probably didn’t help. Even more so, how many countless iterations of that message have I received (maybe not always quite as explicitly) in my still-short lifetime?
Of course, a whole host of other things happened outside of that first 20 minutes on the bus. I had a fantastic week with Baltimore Corps, although it definitely was not what I was expecting. I realized over the course of this week that somewhere along the line I had come to the conclusion that all nonprofits are tiny, slightly disorganized, a little technologically inept, and generally more focused on mission than efficiency. None of those things is necessarily bad, especially when they may be inevitable given the size and resources of many smaller organizations, but they are also components of the nonprofit world that I had been struggling to come to terms with. As an absurdly Type-A person, I really vibe with organization, systems, and high productivity. But luckily, turns out, so does Baltimore Corps!
This is a stretch of a metaphor, so bear with me… but I realized that I had a warning track playing in my head too: some deep-rooted hesitations about the way in which work is accomplished within the nonprofit, social-justice sphere. But, just like on the bus, I hadn’t really considered the obvious human element. In this case, not just the fact that people are inherently good and don’t steal cell phones with reckless abandon, but that there are people who are drawn to value-centered work who are just as systems-driven, organized, and focused on efficiency as I am. And honestly, I can’t think of anything that could more firmly reaffirm my desire to do social justice work than that… except maybe free snacks.
“I got a desk!” My supervisor, Nicole, yells triumphantly as she drags a used wooden desk into her cubicle. It’s my first day interning for Out for Justice, a criminal justice nonprofit. As I witness the commotion around the office over Nicole’s new desk, I know I’m in for an interesting summer.
The work environment at Out for Justice is unlike anything I have ever experienced. Housed in a makeshift office space of a local community center and home to a grand total of two full-time employees, the organization is as grassroots as you can get. Throughout my first day, Nicole pops in and out of the office, giving me a wide range of tasks to work on—from redesigning the website to reviewing a grant application to researching recidivism statistics. These feel more like suggestions than set deadlines, as Nicole is often interrupted by a visitor or phone call before she can give me an explicit set of directions.
Flustered, I scribble down the projects she mentions so I won’t forget them the next time she leaves the office. As the day goes on, my list gets longer and longer, eventually growing to include 20+ items. Oftentimes, as I start on one assignment, Nicole will call me asking me to finish an entirely new one. As a Type-A student used to checking off neat boxes on To-Do lists, I grow frustrated with OFJ’s lack of structure and organization.
As I try to navigate through a disastrous Google Drive, I come across a folder entitled “Bills/Legislation” and my frustration turns to awe. Despite the seemingly-unofficial nature of OFJ’s daily operations, they have facilitated countless monumental criminal justice reforms at the state level. From the Ban the Box campaign to legislation ensuring returning citizens access to food stamps, OFJ managed to organize and inspire hundreds of volunteers to show up in Annapolis and petition for tangible change. They did this by mobilizing the immense passion of community members personally affected by the criminal justice system.
Learning more about Out for Justice’s impact shows me the organization’s resiliency. I realize that any obstacles it may face—whether it’s lacking funding for projects or a desk for its office—are dwarfed by the presence of a greater goal, to establish justice for returning citizens post-incarceration. Moving forward this summer, I will take care not to dwell on obstacles, but practice flexibility in order to dedicate myself to this big-picture goal.
The night before a new job or internship, it is inevitable for anyone to feel uneased at the ambiguity of their first-day-at-work experience. In the spirit of an excessively cautious intern, I overcompensated the amount of time it would take to get from campus to Impact Hub’s office located in Station North, allotting 45 minutes for a <10-minute bus-ride (with traffic). Fortunately, I was met with a friendly face upon entering Impact Hub. I guessed that she immediately sensed my awe at the office’s colorful murals and artwork adorning its walls, which I later saw myself was a typical reaction of newbies to their space.
As I walked in, Taffy immediately initiated a conversation that would later span ruminations on Impact Hub’s purpose to our experiences being a part of immigrant families. I also asked Taffy what her favorite thing was about Impact Hub, to which she responded that “no power hierarchy existed amongst the space’s community.” As she said this, I thought back to the number of times I deeply investigated Impact Hub’s “About Us” page on their website to prepare for my placement. In the hypothetical situation, someone would ask about Impact Hub’s structure, I could quickly respond “Michelle is our Executive Director” before continuing to list everyone else’s positions. In a traditional workplace setting, I always pictured that it would have rigid bureaucratic structures and a strong emphasis on following rules — But Impact Hub is anything but traditional.
I kept mentally revisiting Taffy’s comment as I met more of its community throughout the week. Everyone greeted me in the same kind way Taffy did on my first day. I saw how my supervisors, Michelle and Pres, were constantly in and out of meetings, but would always make time to catch up with others as they refilled coffee in the kitchen. In the two meetings I was fortunate to sit in, I observed stakeholders across both the public and private sectors snowball each other’s ideas to refine a future incubator program, with frequent laughs in between.
Overall, witnessing all this made me feel a little better about being an energetic, but frankly, clueless intern on social entrepreneurship, joining amidst huge transitions for Impact Hub. Sometimes I fell into an immediate worry that I would not be a contributing asset to these meetings. Nonetheless, it empowered when I changed my mindset and realized that maybe my “fresh set of eyes” could actually prove to be very helpful, especially as Impact Hub strengthens and introduces new programming this summer.
Week 1: “C’mon Baltimore, Dump the Pump!”
Transit. The organization I work for (the MTA) specializes in it. This same organization is publicly launching an app (Transit) next week. Yet somehow, it has been my biggest issue this week (ironic, I know). I was late to work on Monday because I missed the circulator that would have gotten me to work on time and on Tuesday (ONLY DAY 2), I ended up Ubering downtown (I know, how disgraceful!) However, come Wednesday, I believed I “conquered” public transportation by being the first one on the circulator that morning. From then on, I used the Silver, 95, and the metro to traverse the city. I am learning.
Now, besides figuring out my daily commute to work, my first week with the MTA Office of Planning has been challenging and exciting. Yes, I said office. I am working in an office with cubicles and where business casual is the norm. This is a HUGE shift from my completely casual and spontaneous placement last year. However, after this week, I believe that this culture is growing on me.
Besides the logistic part, this culture is a lively, hardworking, and collaborative one. Not only is everyone basically an expert in their field, they are all open to helping each other succeed. I will primarily be working with Teddy on community engagement projects, however, I will also be working for the entire office. This really excites me because not only do people want to help me learn, but they are willing to let me do so through tasks that force me to. For example, one of my first tasks was to craft a response to someone’s question about air pollution and the modes of transportation the MTA uses. However, to do so, I had to speak with several different people in the office and learn how best to respond to a question like this.
The main project for me though is the community engagement side of North Avenue Rising. It is an economic revitalization project to improve the mobility and access to economic opportunities for its residents. For me, this involves attending community meetings, collecting input from community members (data) from these meetings, analyzing that data a bit to formally document on what the community wants, and reporting these findings to the engineers and planners to better inform them on the best way to make these improvements from a community perspective. I am looking forward to all of this to learn more about how influential this piece is to the actual completion of this project.
Perhaps the most impactful event that occurred to me this week happened on Friday when I attended an InReach event. InReach is basically a time for the MTA to learn more about what happens out on the routes for the different modes of transportation from the operators themselves. Now you may have noticed that I used the term “operator” not “bus driver”. That was my lesson. During this InReach, operators were picking their new routes from the next rest of summer so I used this opportunity to talk with some of them about how they went about choosing which route to run (it’s actually pretty neat and complex so if you are interested, come find me!). Me being the GREAT conversation starter I am, I open with “so how long have you all been bus drivers?” and immediately, one lady rolls her eyes and head away from me while sucking teeth. The two people next to her chuckled. Me realizing I missed something, ask what was funny. A fourth individual tells me it was nothing and proceeds to answer my question. One the way back to the office, I recount my experience back to the coworker I accompanied and pointed out she kept using the term operator and I was confused. My ignorance was shown when she revealed that operators is the proper term, not bus drivers because they do so much more than drive buses (again, if you are interested, come find me).
Oh also, I had the chance to be in a commercial! My line was “C’mon Baltimore, Dump the Pump” and it was in reference of National Dump the Pump day which is next week. Dump the Pump Day is a day that encourages people to ride public transportation instead of driving a car. As someone who drives as part of their commute, I pledge to participate in this event this week.
Anyway, I am excited to keep on learning!
People often say that if you work for a nonprofit, you need to get used to wearing many different hats and doing a little bit of everything. This week, I got to experience the whirlwind of nonprofit operations firsthand. For example, on my first day I started writing a grant application, attended a meeting with community leaders about a new playground, went to another meeting with an organization that leads workforce and job development training, and reviewed all of the social media platforms.
My favorite part of the day was visiting the Greenmount Recreation Center, which is one of the most striking and beautiful buildings I’ve seen in the city. The Recreation Center was recently painted with vibrant colors and eye-catching feather designs, which makes it stand out against the rest of the neighborhood’s more muted tones.
Inside, I spoke to some of the Center’s organizers and volunteers about how art plays a role in community building. One woman told me about how she teaches youth how to make pottery, and described the joy of giving young people the creative freedom to make art. Another said that she wasn’t sure she would like the colorful exterior until she saw it, and now she feels that it contributes something special to the block.
Part of my role at CBP this summer will be to highlight the community members who are spearheading projects like the redesigning of Greenmount Recreation Center. I’ll be talking to the people who look at buildings and spaces in their neighborhoods and want to make them more functional, friendly, and beautiful, people who care deeply about their neighborhoods and have the power to develop them in a community-driven way.
When I think about the story of development in Baltimore, it is often an ugly one. I think about how development has displaced community members and how neighborhoods have lost their sense of identity and character as a result of new businesses, new buildings, and new residents.
Maybe though, there’s a new story of development emerging: one that is focused on the needs and ideas of current residents and lets them lead the process. I’m excited to dive into the story and see what unfolds.
The rabidly racist imperialist and former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill supposedly said, “A fanatic is one who won’t change [their] mind and won’t change the subject.”
At first glance and by that definition, it seemed like my office is full of fanatics.
Fusion Partnerships had just gone through a “Strategic Planning” meeting where they thoroughly discussed their role in serving other community organizations in Baltimore. On the surface, they are a fiscal sponsor organization. What that means is that they centralize the payroll, accounting, insurance policies — all the essential background tasks that people don’t really think about — for community organizations that would not be able to afford them otherwise.
However, they take that an extra step further and specifically focus on serving organizations that are created for and by the community in the pursuit of social justice. It’s about letting the community decide for themselves what resources they need to thrive. It’s about giving agency to Baltimorean residents who have long been denied before. It’s all about being conscientious about their work to make sure that they are *actually* helping the community — something that doesn’t always happen in the nonprofit sector. They have a mural of literal grassroots at the front of their office (it’s a really cool mural).
For nearly every day this past week, there was some conversation about their values and mission. The first two times I heard it, I thought “This message and mentality is great, but this is getting kind of redundant.” It was a bit “fanatic.”
But then as the week progressed, I realized that though it was true that they didn’t often change the subject, they were not afraid to change their minds. Putting an ambitious and abstract mission statement into practice is messy and full of personal interpretations and biases. But, they actively listened to each other and the organizations they served. They valued feedback and were unafraid of being critical of themselves. They changed their minds in the pursuit of the most effective and equitable way of serving the community.
“Fanatic” is not the right word for this organization. In fact, the only reason that word is in this blog post is because I read that quote by that war-fetishizer Winston Churchill somewhere and it was in my head while writing this. Maybe a better word would be “driven” or something. Maybe we don’t even need an adjective I find on thesaurus.com to label this organization. They aim to do good work for the community and I appreciate that.Tags: 2018, Baltimore Corps, Central Baltimore Partnership, CIIP, CIIP 2018, Fusion Partnerships, Impact Hub Baltimore, Maryland Transit Administration, Out for Justice, Week 1