Jun 10, 2008

To Work (or Not) in the Community: That is the Question

Although I'm studying for the bar, the question about what comes next has been on my mind a lot. With it came the question of whether I should move from working in the South/Asian American community where I have some experience to a more mainstream poverty/movement organization.

The plus for the latter is that there are few Asian American (and far fewer South Asian) groups that have adequate infrastructure to train or even give requisite substantive support for particular poverty law disciplines (public benefits, housing, economic justice). Going to a mainstream organization could be a good place to cut my teeth as a new lawyer, just trying to figure out how things work and trying to learn how to actually be a lawyer (notwithstanding whether or not I want to do that for the long term, or whether I feel that's the best pathway to real change - we'll cross that bridge when I find it).

While it's not always a deal-breaker, one of the things I've felt coming up was that you were basically damn lucky if you found a mentor in the APA community who gave a shit about whether you were, 1) learning anything and growing; and 2) afforded the opportunity to actually develop and take on more responsibilities. Nonprofits as a whole aren't that good at this, but frankly, at least on the East coast, this is a real problem. I've seen so many of my friends and comrades drop away from working in APA organizations in their late 20s/early 30s just because they were sick of the new glass ceiling they encountered in these groups, something I like to call the APA Charlton Heston school of leadership: upper management that won't relinquish control or power to the younger set at any cost... "from my cold, dead hands," as it were.

I've spent a lot of time getting over how I felt about this problem. I've met some West Coast folks who just don't seem to have the same chip on their shoulders. They also tend to be people who were actually active in more radical/community-based activism in the 60s and 70s. There are other issues with APA stuff from the West Coast (namely, where are the South Asians at?!) but this leadership thing is a killer. I don't want to assume control/a leadership position. I just don't want to be shut out because I'm not part of the little clique of revolving EDs in some of the organizations (East Coast locals and nationals). It's time we brought a radical change, son.

But this question of where to start after this course of study really bothered me. It's not about selling out - after all, it's still public interest of some kind. It's not about being uncomfortable amongst clients/co-workers who are not of "the same community" - because let's face it: Asian American communities are more or less a convenient (or necessary?) fiction, at least in the client base/community level. The only folks who really embrace that identity are folks who are community workers - it's safe, it's known, it's necessary to justify the work we're doing, and it helps to orient our work in broader immigrants' rights/people of color/poor peoples' campaigns.

So what is it? I think I still have that sense of selling out the community in some way if I'm not working directly in it. There's a real difference between volunteering when you have time, and being able to do this work full time, no matter how much we want to think otherwise. I'm not as young as I used to be - I still have energy, but the more distractions/disparate projects, the less effective I'm going to be in my primary work and even in my personal life.

I still think the revolution is never going to be funded, and that volunteer/micro-organizing is incredibly effective, but I want my work life and my volunteer/DIY life to overlap in some basic ways. The people we meet/work with in one arena could easily place multiple roles in multiple projects if there's enough resonance between projects for which we're wearing different hats. I think.

At the same time, am I just working in a comfort zone and limiting my ability to do more in my program areas because I'm not moving beyond this space? It's hard to tell (and isn't that what coalitions are for, anyway?).

So we'll see how this pans out.

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