Before I had kids, I kept my house very clean. Even when I was working 80 hours a week, I cleaned thoroughly about once a week–it was my ‘therapy’, of sorts, a chance to think through challenges at work and exorcise some of the stresses of the week. Now that I have three little ones at home, though, the house just does not stay very clean, and it’s hard to get time alone to clean (and not too effective to clean when my son is taking toys out more quickly than I can put them away!).
Every month or so, though, the mess gets to me and I stay up until ridiculously late scrubbing and washing and vacuuming (thank goodness for kids who sleep through noise!) and dusting everything. I had one of those cleaning sessions this week.
And what I noticed about myself the next morning made me reflect on organizing and that ‘golden rule’ for organizers. I found myself obsessing about keeping the house clean, in a way that interfered with how I normally parent. Instead of going straight to playtime after breakfast, I had to scrub the floor of pancake crumbs. I saw a spot I’d missed on the couch cushion and headed for the upholstery cleaner on the way out the front door to play. And I put another load of laundry in while my son was asking for help building his elevated train track.
It was when I actually intercepted him as he was on his way to (without even being asked!) wash his hands before lunch, because heaven forbid that he mess up my clean bathroom, that I realized both the absurdity of my attitude and actions and the connection to organizing.
See, control and order can be a problem for social workers who leave the confines of a direct practice relationship to do macro practice, too. Working with real human beings is messy enough, and when we no longer have the security of the client/practitioner relationship as a formal bound for our work, when we don’t have appointments scheduled on our calendar two weeks in advance, and when we don’t have a treatment plan to follow, we can get pretty anxious. And, given that good organizing means turning over the reigns for a lot of the work to those leaders with whom we’re working, this anxiety can permeate our work and interfere with relationships.
Unfortunately, I can think of several examples when this happened in my practice–the rally that I organized by myself, only to have my core leadership veto the plans two days before because it didn’t meet their needs; the really boring town hall meeting when I served as the MC instead of having a leader do it; the legislative hearing when two of our leaders felt silenced because they didn’t get to speak in Spanish. The times when I clung to control over things that really didn’t matter (just like the clean dining room table), my relationship with people who really do matter (a lot) was compromised. The times when I had my priorities straight, we created a space in which people could come together, comfortably, to build community and practice justice–the important stuff.
So maybe the newsletter article your clients write isn’t worded quite as you would have done it. The flyer they create doesn’t have the same clip art you would have chosen. The decorations they choose for the neighborhood celebration clash with the artwork in your conference room. You don’t like the color of shirt they chose for the grassroots fundraiser. The list could go on, but it shouldn’t. Because, just like whether every crumb is Dustbusted off my kitchen floor, it just really doesn’t matter. People are more valuable than ‘perfection’, and relationships are worth much, much more than the neverending pursuit of some ideal product.
The next time you’re tempted to correct, or take over, or redo, ask yourself if it’s really critical and if it will enhance or detract from your relationship with your leaders, from their sense of authentic power. And then remember my son, with his peanut-butter-hands all over our couch, and smile.