Broken System IV: An Open Letter to the Powers-that-Be

by Anonymous Guest Contributor

To Whom it May Concern,

Hi. You may not know me – at least, not very well. You probably are not familiar with my experience, qualifications, or accomplishments. Which is ironic, to say the least, because I have worked for your organization for many years. What’s more ironic is that – at this point – a large portion of our policies, systems, and even curriculum have been created by me, and all the kids we work for know me by name; and yet – we have likely never even exchanged names or a handshake.

So you wouldn’t know that I’ve been working with youth professionally since I was a youth (over 15 years, to be more precise). That I have over six years of formal classroom teaching experience. That I train and mentor other teachers and youth workers (most importantly – your organization’s staff). That I have coordinated programs and workshops for groups ranging from 10 to 500 youth, covering topics from Identity, Culture, and Diversity to Conflict Resolution. That I have taught art, music, math, psychology, public speaking, English and many other subjects (with curriculum of my own design) to middle school and high school students. That I have been a case manager and family contact and support specialist. That I was managing a middle-school arts after-school program in my early twenties. That mentoring youth is just what I do.

Oh – and that I have dedicated myself to your organization for almost seven years.

All that said, though – you still don’t know me. And so it will be hard for you to know where I’m coming from with what I’m about to say. You don’t know how seriously I take my work, and how I’ve dedicated my life to doing it better. That I am willing to get over myself on any number of levels if it means better serving the youth I work for.

And that I speak to you now out of full respect for who you are and the good intentions I believe we all share.

But you don’t know these things, because you’re not involved at my level (nor I at yours). We do not interact. Your role on the board is not your main priority, as you hold other full-time positions. You just make some decisions from time to time about where the money goes, what programs we should be running, things like that. I get it. You’re not in the thick of it – you’ve got a lot of other things going on – so you just haven’t had the time to meet me, officially. That actually all makes sense to me. It does.

But this is where my problem lies – you have veto power over me and my peers. When it comes to the big decisions, you have final say. And that makes so little sense, it kind of blows my mind.

Again – I say that with full respect, but let’s just think about it a moment: What if I came to your place of work – the businesses and organizations that your expertise have brought to very high, very profitable places – and told you that some decision you were about to make was a bad one?

Most likely, you would laugh me out of your office, asking me who the Hell was I to question your decisions? Had I been running your type of business/agency for over a decade? Did I have a track-record of making tons of money through sound strategic planning? Did I have any experience? And part-time dabbling on the side wouldn’t really count, right?

It would be a joke. A mildly offensive joke. To come in there, thinking that – just because I was smart and capable in my field – I could possibly know better than you in your element.

But can you see where I’m going with this?

This is exactly what you have been doing to me and my peers (whether you realize how direct it is or not) for the past six or seven years (or more). You have over-ridden our decisions for years. Or – worse yet – you have made a million organization-specific decisions (that I haven’t been a part of) without ever questioning your own expertise and the sense in you doing that.

Because I ask you, with all due respect – who are you to be making any of these decisions? Who are you to have the right to fire me – from a job and line of work that I have dedicated myself to, that you have not – over my gall to question you on this matter? Who are you?

Respectfully (yet bluntly) – you are not educators. You are not youth workers, case managers, social workers, counselors, or mentors. You’re just . . . well . . . rich. Money well-earned, perhaps, with your prowess in a completely unrelated field, but that has no bearing on your prowess in this field. And it’s so very insulting to me and all my co-workers to suggest otherwise. To perpetuate this myth that being a good professional youth worker or teacher doesn’t take incredible skill, dedication, hard work, and years of experience.

If I was to suggest the same thing about your success – that it wasn’t well-earned through skill, dedication, hard work and years of experience – you would be appalled and offended. It would be a completely dismissive insult.

So I ask you one more time – and please look me in the eyes when you answer me – who are you to have power over me and my decisions (or those of my qualified peers) in this field of work?

Right now, you are either silent out of a growing realization of how right I am . . .

Or else you’re simmering with rage and indignation over the thought that I think I have the right to be questioning your abilities . . .

If it’s the latter, then that’s actually kind of a good thing. Because then that means you have a little taste of what it is for me and my peers to have worked so hard for this organization for the last many years, and to constantly have to bite our tongues and put up with terrible mistakes that hurt our kids because you were always questioning our abilities by thinking you could make better decisions with no real experience or knowledge of the youth we’re working with and for. That bitter, hurtful feeling in your gut? I’ve felt that every day on the job for this organization. Seriously – every day.

So why would I (and my peers) keep doing it? Because we love this work we do with the kids. These kids are so amazing – and do such amazing things in spite of our own mistakes and short-comings (and I include myself in that one). How could I not keep coming back? Me quitting wouldn’t do anything but hurt the kids.

So that’s why I’m writing/saying this to you today. Because I’m not a quitter. Because I am dedicated to this work, and I promised myself that I would always do it with the highest level of integrity. Because the kids deserve that.

And I truly, honestly believe that you feel the same way, too. That you are not veto-ing me and my peers and making your decisions out of anything other than good intentions. You want the kids to thrive, as well.

The problem with the system today is that people like me never do what I’m doing – talking in this fashion to people in your position. Because we’re afraid for our jobs. Because you just “can’t do that.” And so, instead, we uphold a system that is broken – that isn’t working. We pretend that we either don’t have the right, or the safety- to speak to you as human beings, one to the other.

As a result, in the name of what “can” or “can’t” be done . . . in the name of “how things are” . . . we never stand up and try something completely out of the box and different. We try to get clever and work our way up to a higher position through politics and compromise and carefully-chosen words until we forget what our original intentions were, and what we wanted things to actually look like.

Today, I refuse to do that. You and I – we’re on the same side here. We are. We’re coming from different angles, but I truly believe the intention is the same. To do something to account for an unjust, imbalanced world.

This is why I’m talking to you. And just directly addressing something that pervades this system that is only hurting the kids: the fact that the most-qualified, most-experienced people are not making the big decisions.

Is that anybody’s direct fault? Not really – as long as we ignore it and have no open discussions about it. But from here on out – now that it’s finally on the table? Well . . .

So I challenge you all to think about this work we do in the same light that you would think of the work you do (or did) for a living – as a legitimate profession. Where professional, highly-skilled, highly-experienced individuals need to be recruited and retained to run things and make the best decisions for the organization as a whole – in order to best serve the kids.

Any other considerations are secondary. Any personal reactions, pride, etc. come at the direct cost of the kids. And I’m not willing to pretend that that isn’t the case, anymore. I’m not willing to keep my mouth shut and pretend that that is how it must be – not while it keeps these youths exactly where we pretend that we don’t want them to be: Hurting. And oppressed.

It is not acceptable. And it does not “have to be this way.” You and I – we can change this, right now. Today. If we stop bastardizing education and youth work, we can start repairing this system.

And so I ask you one final question – what are you willing to do about it? Are you willing to do what it takes to change what doesn’t work – for the betterment of the kids? Or are you going to pay lip-service to that ideal and keep things exactly as they are?

Thank you for your time.