You have to listen first
The last year I worked for the IRS, my team and I were surprise to learn during our annual training that our entire job had been changed, effective immediately. No warning from on-high about a coming shift, just another mandatory briefing via e-learning module casually outlining how our job was going to work from that point forward. I was so shocked when I went through it, I assumed there had been some kind of mistake. But since we were each taking the assorted courses asynchronously I was alone in my cubicle with my confusion. So I leaned over the wall to ask my neighbor.
They had not reviewed the briefing yet. Neither had most of the rest of the team. The one team member who had also seen it agreed with me about its content. So directly to the manager’s office we went. She had also not seen that one yet, but heard our concerns and told us she would watch it immediately and get back to us. I called my union president and let them know what was going down.
A couple hours later our boss called an emergency team meeting. In short, she was flabbergasted. Completely gobsmacked by the everything different we were apparently supposed to be doing starting last week. She told us to sit tight while she ran her objections up the leadership chain. Meanwhile, the union chapters were talking to each other and preparing to inform the upperist of upper management they had missed some important procedural steps.
Some while later my boss received an email titled Cease and Desist. “Oh good,” she thought, “the Union paused this madness until we can talk through the impact and implementation of such a massive change.” Nope. It was from upper-upper-upper management ordering her to cease and desist her rabble-rousing and fall in line with the changes. Good try, boss. Sorry Senior Leadership thwarted your attempt to manage in-line with the contract and advocate for your employees’ rights.
So a procedural battle ensued, management rolling back it's changes until the execution of the new job order could be formulated in accordance with our employment contract. What we learned much later (during the many-months-long union-management throw-down) was it all started because some analyst sat in their office for two years crafting a solution to a problem apparently identified from on-high. That’s not all that unusual, but the problem in this case was they didn’t ever talk to any of the people actually doing the job. Not once. No focus groups. No surveys. Nothing.
That's completely asinine. How can you solve a problem you don't understand? You can't. And yet many people and organizations try to do just that all the time. Countless NGO's are working all around the world at this very moment to solve problems they don't fully understand for other people in other places with other cultures. And it's not going very well in most cases. Afghanistan is a perfect example of America rushing in to another country to solve its problems without listening to the locals.
Statistics are wonderful and numbers can provide a lot of insight, but they are completely useless without context. And to understand context, you have to talk to the people living, working, and raising their children in that context every day. Even more importantly, you have to listen to what they tell you. Fortunately there are some great examples of folks doing just that. A doctor in Boston has been treating patients who don't have an indoor place to live for the last three decades. He has been successful in understanding his patents' needs and treating their ailments precisely because he listens to them.
There are also some scientists getting out of their labs and into the streets to advocate directly for changes they hope to create in the world. I heard a conversation this week between some of these activist scientists on the BBC program Science in Action. One person discussed the need for diversity of tactics to create lasting societal change, which is a key point. Some folks need to be holding up signs and shouting through bullhorns among the masses. And some folks need to be in the lab doing the science.
Modern society has a lot of problems that need to be solved. And as historian Hugh Ryan so eloquently explained in a recent episode of the History is Gay podcast: it all comes down to whether people are getting the care they need. People who don't have housing need care. People who are addicted to harmful substances need care. People who don't have enough to eat need care. People with medical conditions need care. Traumatized people need care.
As a societal collective, we are not taking care of all of us. Our system is not set up to do that right now, but it could be. We could restructure it and I want us to do that. But first we need to listen to all the people who need care and support when they tell us what they need. Listening to others starts with listening to yourself. Spend some time getting to know yourself and identifying the filters through which you process the world. If we all do that, maybe we can stop thinking we know what other people need better than they know themselves. Then maybe we can take better care of each other.
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One size fits none
Many years ago I took a sewing class. The focus was alterations. I learned creative and useful methods for taking garments in, up, out, and down. I also learned most commercial patterns are designed with a B-cup bust. That means if you have a larger bra size you generally have to buy a larger shirt, even if the rest of your torso does not require it. At the time, I was thoroughly offended on behalf of all humans with a body outside industry standard specifications.
I was also glad to finally understand why I had to alter every piece of non-stretch clothing I ever bought. We are all different shapes and sizes; that’s how humans work. But it’s not very practical (or profitable) for fast fashion to try and serve all body variations in every style it produces. So we end up with a default that doesn’t fit many actual people. Instead it fits the ideal body as defined by misogyny and racism. Then specialty shops pop-up to serve the rest of us who have different hills and valleys going on.
Similarly, one way to work or function in the world is not a good fit for every person. On the surface I appear to function quite well in the modern world, but it’s just because I have developed a compendium of coping strategies. Over my lifetime I have created epic work-arounds for managing in society while my brain does it’s non-standard brain thing.
In many workplaces there have been great strides to allow people to work in the ways that function best for them, especially in the wake of Covid. Unfortunately, these benefits have been mostly available to higher-earning employees. The lowly service workers we all depend on are still stuck laboring in the manner that best suits the boss. This has remained the case despite overwhelming evidence that happy workers are the most productive. It comes down to whether we think the people working those lower-earning jobs are worthy of job satisfaction. A lot of people don’t think those humans are valuable enough to take care of and that's got to change before we will see any drastic shifts in those industries.
We also cannot focus entire on our workplaces. We have to assess all areas of contemporary life. This week I saw a news story about AI generated academic papers. Students are using these AI tools to write their essays instead of spending hours slogging through the process themselves. If educational institutions didn’t require everyone to express themselves in such a regimented and particular way, maybe people wouldn’t resort to using a robot tool to build an essay to spec. Sorry Academia, you brought this one upon yourself.
These and many other issue are ongoing, but I am not completely without hope. I am grateful to see so many playgrounds redesigned with inclusion in mind. More and more cities, counties, and schools are creating spaces where kids of all abilities can participate in one of the most basic and most important parts of childhood: playing with their peers.
Overall, our present iteration of society is not designed for all people to be successful. Only people who can cram themselves into a particular society-defined shape are gonna make it. Ultimately, that’s not good enough. And that's not the kind of world I want to live in. I want everyone to have the opportunity to live their best life no matter what their body shape is or how their brain functions. We are all required in order for the majority of us to thrive. If there are not enough of us invested in each other, humanity may not even survive.
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Let's learn better lessons
After 15 tries, the Republicans finally voted-in a Speaker of the US House of Representatives. This week’s news followed attempt after attempt, each thwarted by a small contingent of extremists within the party. The very same extremists who supported last year’s run on the Capital. It’s a strange juxtaposition: marking the anniversary of that absurd and destructive attack on one pillar of US democracy while it’s champions frustrate the order of one of its institutions in the present.
The BBC covered the current unrest in Bolivia during its Business Matters program and the 1986 revolution came up during the discussion. Reflecting on that, the commentator reminded listeners “no country can take democracy for granted” This feels especially relevant to me as a US citizen. Many politicians seem to think the US government is a democracy machine. They act like no matter what inputs you feed it, the Great Machine will faithfully churn-out democracy. The reality is: it's just a government machine. If you feed it democratic parts and pieces, then you get democracy. If you feed it fascism flavored policies and practices, then you're gonna get fascism.
This is one of the many reasons it’s critically important to have strong protections for voting rights. The more participation by the electorate, the broader representation in leadership. Greater representation means more perspectives are considered when crafting policy, strategy, and building institutions. The more flavors of folks considered in building societal institutions and infrastructure, the better chances they work for greater portions of the population. And that’s the point of democracy.
The useless left-ish politicians need to stop pretending they can just keep doing what they have been doing, and the rest of us need to stop pretending their posturing is doing any good at all. A better lesson to learn from Jan 6th would have been that we need to solve some real problems with how this country functions. The supposed progressives cannot wait for the approval of rural America before they start making those people's lives better. Solve some real problems and the disenfranchised MAGA people will eventually come around.
One way to definitely not do that is to alienate even more working class folks. Blocking a railroad labor strike was the opposite of helping people. And the opposite of upholding democratic ideals. It was shameful. Made even worse by the pretending that travesty of legislation was doing us all a favor. All it did was further demonstrate the Democratic party is entirely out of touch with the plight of ordinary Americans. The only winners there were the capitalists. Just like always.
That’s the same kind of mental gymnastics conservatives use to justify “protecting the unborn from abortion” and then immediately abandoning those children the moment they breathe air. Also the same as paying millions of dollars today for art made by dead artists who couldn’t make a living from their art while they were alive. And just as back-as-wards as appointing the CEO of the largest oil company in United Arab Emirates as President of next year’s global environmental symposium, COP28.
We need to learn better lessons. I remember the same kind of mistake when President Obama attempted to tackle the health care crisis in the US. I assumed it was a lost cause when the first thing they did was invite all the health insurance companies to the table to participate in building the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The point of health care is to care for the health of human beings. The point of insurance companies is to produce profit. Those are opposing goals in our current economic system. There is no way to take care of people if the institutions profiting from our un-wellness are setting up the method and mechanisms by which we all access care. It’s quite classically the fox guarding the henhouse.
But not enough people made a fuss at the time, so instead of some universal health care structure we got the ACA. Which didn’t actually solve the problem of the cost of health care. All it did was provide some government subsidies for some people to buy the overprices plans from the private insurance companies. The biggest opposition to the whole mess at the time was the wall of Republicans determined to prevent President Obama from accomplishing anything at all, no matter how much it might benefit their own constituency.
This week I heard an interview with an Italian artisan umbrella-maker. They said “To live long, you need to make long-range plans.” There’s a great deal of value in that. It often feels to me like we're taking collective actions today without considering the needs, challenges, and resources of tomorrow. When things go awry, we need to start with better take-aways. It's less important who is to blame than what we're all going to do differently going forward. If we can manage that, maybe history won't just keep repeating itself interminably.
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That backscroll, tho
The first week of a new calendar year is a nice time to reflect on the prior year and consider what I want to put-in and get-out of 2023. Thinking back on it, 2022 was nonstop full-volume in a variety of ways. It seems like a lot of people had a similar experience. For starters there was all the madness of the world, unrelenting since Covid's initial arrival almost 3 years ago. Trump supporters stormed the US capital, Covid variants lingered, the war in Ukraine persisted, extreme weather returned each season, and inflation grew.
On top of the universal chaos came the backlog of things postponed during lockdown, like the four weddings I attended and all the new babies I met (who are now toddlers). The current surging under it all was a constant feeling that the world is completely different now and it’s difficult to identify exactly how to fit into it. I just couldn't wrap my head around how to engage in this new place that looks very much like the old place but does, in fact, function in a completely different manner.
I spent a lot of 2022 trying to figure out how to rearrange my life and restructure my work to fit this new landscape. I tried some things; I got stuck. I tried some different things; I got stuck differently. I realized I needed some guidance, so I flew half way around the world to spend 10 days at a workshop learning how to un-stick myself. I made some headway and returned home with wind once again in my sails, only to be thrown off-kilter by yet another personal tragedy.
So it goes.
A great deal of what happens in life is fleeting. The ups, the downs, the churn of regularity. Even the aspects that persist occur differently as circumstances shift and change. Even long-lasting things that feel like fixtures during their time are washed-out when examined in the fullness of time. That’s one reason it's good to reminisce. It gives us perspective on how we got here and why it feels the way it does to be here now.
I was looking through old photos the other day, searching for something specific to show someone. I greatly enjoyed the journey, which included a very strong vibe of oh yeeeeeaah, that totally happened. I forgot! It was a nice reminder of all the mundane details I captured because they felt beautiful, interesting, or significant at the time. It felt grounding. That was me living all those life moments. And even after all the twists and turns of 2022, I’m still here.
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Jaydra is a human in-process, working to make the world a better place. Sharing thoughts, feelings, and observations about the human experience.