Sunday, September 28, 2008

Yesterday was gratifying in more than one way

I've bitched, here and elsewhere, about the ups and downs of participating in my neighborhood association. I decided as far back as April or May that I am not doing this again next year. Specifically, no elected posts. No way, no how.

I let them vote me in this year because last year they sent me on an all-expenses paid trip out of town, put me up in a nice hotel and just generally let me have fun and get to know my neighbors better. Before I even got on the bus, I figured, okay, they've been hinting that I should let myself get nominated for something, so what the hell, it's only for a year, etc. All of that came to pass. But the follow-up thought, this is going to be a pain in the ass, was not long in coming.

There are significant underlying problems with the whole infrastructure of this thing.

First, we're under the guidance of a non-profit foundation. And that is wonderful, to be sure, but there's a vast difference between the people who run the foundation (mostly upper middle class and college-educated) and those who will be running it once the partnership agreement (and the funding) move on. The NPF folks can lecture and preach to us until their heads fall off about how WE have to take the reins and assume responsibility ... but what we've got is:

People who have received an inadequate education and understand very little about nearly our little 36-block slice of the city, I'd conservatively estimate that 65 percent of the residents would fit that description. A subset would be those who have dealt chronically with drug abuse and time spent behind bars.

People who have spent their lives feeling powerless and downtrodden and can't be moved out of that mindset for love or money...50 percent.

People who have already lived their lives, raised kids, grandkids and sometimes great-grandkids and would be DYNAMOS if they were only, oh, 40 years younger, but they're not...again, 65 percent.

People who have a slightly broader worldview about what needs to be done, but they also have demanding full-time jobs and other real-life commitments that sap their time and energy, leaving little for this endeavor...25% This figure will be slightly higher in some of the other neighboring communities.

I have deep affection for the old folks. They are always the first on the scene, the ones who never forget a meeting, and often the ones who ask the provocative questions at meetings. The priceless gems among that group are the ones who have GAINED energy and insight from all their life trials, rather than letting themselves get beaten down by them.

We've also got a precious crop of kids in our midst -- the aforementioned grandchildren, mostly. I love their smiley little faces. Some of them are older and have already put on that mask of indifference, but we keep trying to keep them interested and involved. I think this has worked better than we had hoped. Last year at the leadership retreat, we did a role-play, in which the adults had to pretend they were addressing a roomful of teens about getting them to put on a Christmas party. One of our ladies said (and I am not making this up):

Okay, you youth. Pull up those pants! Now, listen here. We want you to plan a Christmas party. You give us some ideas, tell us what you want, and then we will decide what you can and cannot do....

It was hilarious to watch, but a little scary, because the lady who said this was completely serious. I've seen her in action; she will do that. Just walk up to you with a smile and say "All right now, we want you to do this, that and the other..." giving you very little say in the matter. The NPF folks saw this right away and worked on explaining why that approach is doomed to failure. We've had several youth events this year and they seem to be gaining momentum.

So that's good, but even among those of us grownups who could be considered "willing and able" to lead this, there are vast differences that make it difficult to inspire confidence. Mainly, it's the "I-don't-know-what-we-should-do-let's-ask-somebody-else-and-see-what-they-say" position. Every last one of us is guilty of that. The reason we do that is, we don't want to step on anyone's toes. I'm one of the worst offenders, but I feel justified because I moved here only 2 years ago and everyone else has been here for a minimum of 2 decades. In many cases, it's more like 7. I also feel justified because I'm really, truly, not a leader. I have serious mental difficulty making broad decisions about anything and I absolutely SUCK at asking anybody for anything. If a project requires 100 tasks, I would sooner do every last one of them myself than ask one person to help with one task. And since that's impossible for me, I'd rather someone else be in charge, and then get assigned to one minute, specific task, preferably far behind the scenes.

All of the above feeds into the goings-on that led up to yesterday's fall festival. It was combined with a gospel showcase (lots of churches in our area, and other local neighborhoods have jazz and blues concerts, so we did our thing) and a voter-registration drive.

On paper, perhaps, the festival wasn't that big a success. We had solicited all these little local churches to send their choirs to this event, and as far as I'm aware, none of them did. Instead, we got small groups and individuals. So what we envisioned at the beginning did not come to pass. Clearly, we got started too late with that aspect.

But -- a casual observer, who didn't witness the planning and preparations, would have declared the festival a great success. Why? We had music, food, good weather, lots of little kids running and playing and getting their faces painted, and 5 generations of neighbors socializing and hearing (for the umpteenth time) about our association and how we need people to get involved, come to meetings, etc. etc.

And, hence the title of this post, our leader from the NPF called me last night and told me this. IT WENT OFF WELL. There were no disasters. We had a cotton-candy machine that quit long before we wanted it to, and forgot to give out some t-shirts, but everything was in place and there were no complaints.

It was gratifying to me personally because the NPF lady had started my day off on a negative note by scolding me about some things that she thought hadn't gotten done, due to what she perceived as my lack of follow-through. As it turned out, all of those tasks had been done. There was really nothing for her to complain about. Subtext here: We're not as dumb as we look. When I called her back mid-day to inform her that her fears were unfounded, I believe she got the message that the way to motivate people is NOT to criticize them for things you think they haven't done.

It was gratifying to me, also, because it showed that my instincts were better than hers. I wasn't expecting doom or gloom and turned out to be right.

So we all lived happily ever after. And I'm STILL not serving on any permanent committees next year.