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Monthly Archives: May 2012

Pop Culture Rant: On “Glee” and Disabilities

I have a confession to make, which probably comes as no surprise to people who follow this blog: I watch the television show “Glee.” It’s this weird paradox in which every week, every time I finish the show, I completely regret feeling uncomfortable for an hour of my life, but I can’t stop. I keep watching it every week! And I always end my viewing session feeling vicariously awkward on behalf of the poor souls who have to break into “Journey” songs every two minutes, and then I quickly erase my browser activity so nobody knows what I just did. But this isn’t about trying to absolve my guilt over watching a cheesy television show. This has to do with the representation of a minor character in the show who has Down Syndrome.

For those who are unfamiliar, this is Becky, played by the immensely talented Lauren Potter:

Now, you have to understand, this is a case in which I’m honestly questioning whether I’m being too sensitive. I would never accuse myself of being too sensitive over the “R” word or over the abundance of judgmental language we use to describe people with developmental disabilities. But here’s the thing, dear readers: I spent the better part of my college life being trained to notice patterns in popular culture that marginalize other people: races, sexes, or sexual orientation. And when I look at Becky and her role as the sidekick to “Glee’s” resident evil, Jane Lynch’s cheerleading coach Sue Sylvestor, all I can think of is this:

The buffoonish partner to the archetypical villain. The one who’s there for comic relief, who says the funny lines, who makes you feel that unlike the villain, they’re not some evil mastermind; they’re just a little lost. And comical, of course, always.

Now, I’m a rabid fan of Jane Lynch, and her recent commencement speech at my alma mater brought me to tears of nostalgia. Seriously, I love this woman. I am also aware of Jane Lynch and Lauren Potter’s incredible voice in the disability awareness campaign. And I know that taking offense to “Glee” is a trivial crime, so be aware of all of this as I continue.

I just do not like the way the character Becky is portrayed. Plain and simple. I think she’s cartoonish, two-dimensional, and there for an easy laugh. In a recent episode I watched as her character sat in a hotel room with a few of the primary characters, as they felt disappointment over not being somewhere better, as she demanded beer and condoms, and the implication was, “laugh at this person for demanding condoms so she can presumably sleep with one of the main characters, who will, of course, reject her.” And I’m sorry, but that just isn’t funny. I’m sorry, but using a disabled person’s sexuality for a cheap laugh will never be okay with me. I’m sorry, but the intent was wrong: it wasn’t to point out the disabled person’s real, human feelings; it was to make an awkward, uncomfortable situation even more laughably uncomfortable.

If you want to talk about the capacity to which an intellectually disabled person feels fully-functional adult emotions, that’s one thing. If you want to talk about the moral implications of giving alcohol or condoms to an intellectually disabled person, that warrants an even longer conversation. But to make light of it and then move on is inexcusable.

And I know it’s not this show’s intent to write off a disabled person for comedic relief; in fact, I think that in their bizarre way, “Glee” is trying to draw a “this person is just like me” parallel. But it’s going about it all wrong, and I think at the end of the day, all they’re doing is solidifying the perception that society already has about teens or adults with disabilities. And I’m not sure if this is too much of a tangent, but full disclosure: I don’t think they’re doing gay people any good, either, when they lump gay storylines into the same storyline as a student sleeping with a teacher.

It used to be my goal to make movies and television shows (this was a long time ago) for one simple reason: to create characters that are different from the ones we see every day. At the time, for me, this was especially true of women: I yearned to see female characters onscreen that didn’t portray the archetypical romantic or weak stereotype.

But now? Now that I’m focused on disabilities? Let’s put it this way: I was concerned for women, but I’m pissed off on behalf of disabled people. If our disabled people aren’t buffoons, or if they aren’t a way of proving the main character’s “humanity,” or if they aren’t Oscar-bait, then they do not exist.

But guess what? They exist. They are our Austistic brothers, our aunts with Down Syndrome, or, in my case, our beautiful and capable brain-damaged sisters. And unlike “Glee,” high school wasn’t a laughable time for my sister. My parents had to move out of state just to find a special education program that wouldn’t amount to making my sister wait tables in the cafeteria for her able-bodied and able-minded peers. Before my sister switched schools, she was kept in a room with the behaviorally challenged kids (which she wasn’t) where they hit her (which made her wonder what she had done wrong).

This is the story that remains untold. This is high school for millions of disabled children around the world. And to minimize that by telling the story of one high school where the disabled girl is the laughable cartoon sidekick to the most evil woman in the school? That’s not okay. There simply aren’t enough stories out there to counterbalance this one. There simply isn’t a reason to believe that the stereotype portrayed in “Glee” isn’t true.


Four Things I’ve Learned About Nonprofits From My For-Profit Job

I’ve spent a good portion of past two weeks absorbing new information as much as any human can without spitting it out her pores. My new job has been fun, rewarding, and overwhelmingly illuminating. And while I’ve kept careful detail of all the technology-related information I’ll need to know in order to do my job as well as I can, a deeper part of me has also been making note of what I’ve found in this job that I haven’t found in my previous work with nonprofits. This is not an insult to any of the nonprofits for which I’ve had the pleasure of working; but it is eye-opening. I promised I’d continue to apply the lessons from my new job to the process of starting a nonprofit.

So here, then, are my first (but not last) lessons. The top five for-profit tactics I’ve learned that every nonprofit should emanate:

1. Value (and reward!) your employees, with both feedback and criticism. 

My boss is a busy guy, so he doesn’t check in with me more than is necessary, and he trusts me to operate independently, just as any nonprofit would. But he also gives me positive feedback. When he tells me I’m doing a great job, I believe him. Why is this? Because he reviews almost every assignment I send him. I know this sounds unfeasible for most CEOs or nonprofit managers; but especially in the “ramp up” or “learning” phase, it is critical. I feel respected, I feel aware of where my strengths and weaknesses are; and moreover, I feel held accountable. I want to do a great job because it gives me a jolt of adrenaline whenever my boss tells me I am doing so. And if you think that’s silly, well, you’ve clearly never been praised by a teacher.

Nonprofit managers are notoriously strained for time. I understand this more than anybody, and I also sympathize. But it takes 30 seconds a day to let your employees know they’re doing a great job. It takes five minutes more to review a small portion of their work and let them know if they’re on the right track. Schedule this time into your calendar and don’t ignore it when the reminder crops up: it could just make the difference between an employee who works her heart out, and an employee who is convinced she is creating echoes into a void.

2. Focus on results.

Every nonprofit is aware of what they’re looking for on a high level; otherwise, they wouldn’t have a working mission statement. The difference is, for-profit companies pretty much literally live or die on their results. Results are so much easier for profit-driven companies, as I’ve previously noted. But that doesn’t mean for-profits don’t have a game plan. It’s there, and it’s impacting their results, and they measure it. And when it doesn’t work, they get rid of it: even if it’s an employee or initiative they love. Please take this with a grain of salt, because nobody is heartless, least of all nonprofits. But at some point rationality must prevail, and if that 5k you organized just isn’t raising you money, even though the handful of people who run it love it, it’s time to cut the program and begin a new thought process.

3. Sell, sell, sell.

Here’s the point at which I feel like people are going to begin taking issue with my opinions (please leave comments if you do!) The entire point of a nonprofit is that you are harnessing yourself to a goal that isn’t sales-driven, a purpose that exists for the sole purpose of making a select group’s world a much, much more livable place.

In the nonprofit world, my strengths used to lie predominantly in the “grantwriting” aspect. I absolutely loved creating complex, emotion- and fact-driven images that illustrated why were were doing what we were doing, how it worked, and what we needed in order to be even more successful.

There are no grantwriters in the for-profit world. The expository beauty of the what, when, how and why falls to the marketing specialist (that’s what I do now). However, there’s this other critical branch of the for-profit industry: the salespeople. Bear with me here, because I understand your reservations about sales. But the fact is, these people are active, they are dynamic, they are personable, and they are out every single day with people who may be interested in their product or service. They are building relationships and they are addressing needs as they happen.

Grantwriters simply don’t have the capacity to do this. But does your nonprofit have salespeople? Does your nonprofit have people who are on their feet, addressing donors, telling them why their money should be directed through various channels, telling those donors what they can expect in return? Not always. And given the amount of business my current company’s salespeople secure, I’d say assigning someone to get out there–not just write grants–is a huge priority.

4. Don’t expand before you are ready to.  

This difficulty is paramount for both nonprofit and for-profit leaders. Both types of leaders have an endless stream of ideas, and it’s entirely possible that each new idea is as great as the last. Nonetheless, the for-profit company I work for has an explicit purpose. It is growing exponentially; but only to address that initial, primary purpose. It is not embarking on new initiatives, not now, and maybe not ever.

Were I currently running the Great Exchange full-time, I know this would be an immense challenge for me. As much as it seems like the world is tapped out on ideas, almost every person I have met has come up with a new one. I certainly have. But to work the new idea into the fold of your old ideas before they have even taken root? Well, here’s the analogy that’s coming to mind: it’s like planting seeds, only to suffocate them with more seeds before the first ones can grow and flourish. It simply can’t be done.

For some strange reason, my current for-profit knows this better than my prior nonprofits, and I think it’s because their income base–and therefore their results–are so focused. Expansion is great. Focus is greater.

And here’s a bonus, just for the nonprofits:

5. Create a profit whenever (and wherever) you can.

This is so important. Do not rely on grants and donations. Do not rely on grants and donations. Do not rely on grants and donations. There are plenty of intelligent, articulate, heartfelt people who will be able to tell you why some nonprofits should only rely on grants and donations, and I suggest you research Kjerstin Erickson, founder of FORGE, who wrote one of the most compelling arguments about this that I’ve read in the Stanford Social Innovation Review.  Kjerstin’s main point is that, given the population she works with, expecting a profit would be an unnecessary burden.

However, most nonprofits can come up with an earned income strategy that would work with their mission seamlessly. For example, my ultimate goal for The Great Exchange is that they start a business that emulates SCRAP in Portland, an organization that inspires creativity while recycling discarded products from around the Portland Metro Area. My other two inspirations, unlike SCRAP, are both disability-related: Full Life Coffeehouse, a coffeeshop that employs exceptional people with disabilities; and PHAME Academy, a performance-based nonprofit that teaches theater to developmentally disabled adults, sells tickets, and then generates the most inspirational, heartfelt performances an audience could ever hope to watch.

At the heart of these organizations lies a practical need to procure an income–by selling art supplies, coffee, or tickets–and therefore funding. Will this profit fully fund the organization? In some cases, yes, and in many cases, no. But it displays innovation and self-sufficiency. And this, combined with grants, donations, and “sales people,” will make the difference in your nonprofit success.

So there you have it, the lessons from my two-week point with my for-profit company. Please leave any questions or criticisms. More later; I promise!

Singular Focus, or Lack Thereof: An Important Reminder

The more we grow up, the more we realize we can’t do it all, don’t we?

I’ve always known that tailoring every element of my life to taper down into the fundamental goal of The Great Exchange would be my biggest challenge. That’s not wisdom; it’s obvious. It’s life we’re talking about, here, with its natural bumps and curves and variables, and the degree of control we have over any of it is debatable. This is perhaps the paramount thing I admire about successful entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs; they seem to have this effortless ability to examine that line between “life” and “work” and then to erase it as if it were a mandala sand painting, beautiful but transient.

I believe I am closer to starting and founding a successful nonprofit than most because as I grew up, I didn’t have to work hard to erase that line. It just so happened that the work I loved to do–being a voice–coalesced perfectly with the injustices I had watched my sister and her peers encounter. However, there are external elements that exist today that continue to give that line a sense of indelibility, and I’m making a conscious decision not to erase it yet.

There’s a sense of acumen in acknowledging your willingness to be unready. I’ve brushed up against these signs of age (or lack thereof) in the past, and it always feels awkward and paradoxical to admit the wisdom of not moving forward. I’ve been on the “right” track educationally, but I was 21. I’ve been in the “right” relationship, but I was 22. And now, at the age of 26, I’m on the “right” path to start a nonprofit–but I feel undone.

I want a job. A real job–not independent contracting, not sporadic film work, not Americorps, not scraping by while I hold an organization together by its bootstraps. Those are all wonderful, life-shaping endeavors, but I’ve never experienced a professional life outside of them. I want a job like the one I started two days ago, one that leaves me exhausted by the days’ end but also intellectually satisfied, surrounded by companions, and secure. It is inspiring to walk into a beautiful office every day and watch my talented coworkers do what they do. It is inspiring to feel instantaneously rewarded for the goals I complete. It is inspiring to watch the founder and CEO of my company work his ass off around the clock in a way I have never seen anyone work before. And I need that, for now.

This blog will continue, as will the Great Exchange. But for now, the blog will serve as a composite of the lessons I learn from my day-to-day experiences that I will someday apply to the best and most heartfelt nonprofit the world has ever seen. I will continue to build on the weekends, and I even plan on launching our first major event soon; but I will also rest. And when The Great Exchange launches full-throttle, it will come complete with the knowledge that I’ve tested every experience I’ve wanted to test; that I’ve created an exhaustive list of what I want out of an organizational leader; and that I’m ready to commit fully without having to wonder about the other paths I could have taken.

And should you ever arrive at a similar conclusion, in any element of your life, please don’t see it as a sign of weakness. I can say wholeheartedly that the acknowledgment of unreadiness is one of the hardest things I have ever done. To stare your dream in the face–or a person, or a place, or an idea–and to say, “I need a couple more tests,” is bravery. It is human, and it will help you interact with a greater sense of humanity toward every person you meet. And I can promise you that in ten years I’ll be telling you, as the founder of the Great Exchange, that working for another company for a few years was vital. I mean that from the bottom of my heart, or I wouldn’t be doing it.

I hope the nonprofit professionals who follow this blog will continue to do so, as I will continue to use it as a venue for applying the lessons I learn from a successful for-profit web development firm. And I hope the lovely members or family members of the disabled community who follow this blog will continue to do so, because every single lesson is still an arrow that points directly to the fundamental human right of providing our disabled community members with the respect they deserve. But my hope, most of all, is for the aspiring nonprofit professionals who have contacted me: if, at any point, another path seems enticing, please take it without regret. I can say without hesitation that you’ll fall back into your heart’s work when you’re ready to, armed with the knowledge that there isn’t anything else you’d rather be doing. And that, friends, is the heart of a successful nonprofit.