Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Conversation: Dinner with Mai

I received an email asking for some advice and support. A couple of back and forths and we settled on dinner. I'd cook.

I set to the task of crafting a menu trying to think about what would be the tastiest dish to create. I wanted something spicy, a little zesty, and most definitely comforting. I knew that the conversation would have all of those components, and I wanted them reflected in the food. There is nothing like tasting some deliciousness on your tastebuds to inspire conversation. There is nothing like food to get you to think differently. I knew exactly what we needed for out of the box thinking: cajun catfish, black beans and rice, escarole, and warm bread. The flavors were bound to mix together nicely and open nostrils if not minds.

I was behind in my cooking. I am always behind in my cooking. I love the process. I love getting lost in the chopping, designing, sauteing, mincing, selecting, washing, shaping, and producing. There is something about losing oneself into the mundane and ordinary tasks that transforms self and food alike. There is nothing else like it. Nothing.

When Mai arrived, I was sprinkling the catfish with my secret cajun seasoning. (Note: While I try and post most of my secrets, this mixture will not be making it to The S. Kitchen site. A girl's got to have some mystery, otherwise they'll gossip that she's easy.) My hands a mess I welcomed her from behind the counter. She grabbed a spot on our lovely olive couch, and I moved on to dicing onions.

I will not bore you with details of the conversation not only for your sake but also for Mai's. (Confidentiality, my dear.) But there are some major themes that seem to be popping up in conversations I'm having with many in middle management (like Mai) and lower in youth-serving, youth-led, youth-empowerment, youth-... organizations: power isn't distributed, voice isn't heard.

I don't work too much with executive directors or upper management. My experience has been that they don't too often listen and/or are too disconnected from the actual day to day operations of supporting clients. Some hide behind needing to make "tough decisions" as to why they don't keep engaged; it provides a comfortable space from which to make those decisions, decisions that will impact large numbers of people and affect power dynamics within organizations. Additionally, upper management always is looked to. They are the supposed "experts" of their organization and, as such, are called to decision-making, policy, and funders tables. Tables that also need the voice of middle management, frontline staff, and youth (aka clients).

I have nothing against upper management or executive directors. While I have seen and been directed by a number that had/have no clue how to supervise or manage or listen, I have also seen amazing leadership from innovative people and organizations. I do believe that balance must be found in whom we listen to and how we listen to them.

I put the catfish into the cast iron skillet filled with butter and listened to it sizzle. It was blackening and frying releasing the aromas of lemon zest, garlic, paprika, and oregano into the air. The salty spice tickled nose hairs signaling comfort, sustenance, and nourishment. The casual atmosphere fostered more dialogue, even greater ideas, and potentially hope.

There is a lot that is quickly changing beneath us. The economy, while signally a rise via the stock market, really isn't rising, nor will those on the bottom see that rise any time soon. In fact, as the profits rise so too are the numbers on the bottom. The disparity is growing. Listening to Mai and other middle managers, I am hearing that as disparity rises in our economy disparity of power dynamics within the non-profit (specifically youth organizations) sector is also rising. We are bearing the brunt of us versus them politics. And we are reinforcing it.

The conversation between Mai and me started with lots of open-ended probing questions as I stood in the kitchen preparing our meal. It was rooted in the pace of meal preparation: lovingly slow. It was about exchange and nourishment. It resulted in new ideas and connections. It will bring new opportunities for shared work, values, and process.

We need more of these spaces as we address the issues of our economy. We need places where openness and sharing thrive regardless of brand, identity, organization, issue, or politics. I see many of these efforts springing up around me, and I am engaging with them. But something is missing to me in these projects: true openness. From my perspective, sharing and open have become a "brand" that people are trying to promote and sell. It isn't a brand. It is a way of life. It is leaving your own bull shit and power and sometimes even your identity at the door. It is scary, risky, and potentially fatal to ones comfort and control.

This dinner wasn't about promoting one organization or person. It was about actively finding solutions to the challenges middle managers have in accomplishing ever increasing outcomes with ever decreasing resources. It took place in a home not an office. It involved people and not organizations. And as we gobbled down the catfish and black beans and rice and sauteed escarole and warm bread, we did what we have done since the dawn of humans: we nourished our "selves".

A quote of Margaret Mead's is "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens [people, in my opinion] can change the world. (r) Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." And a tasty, rejuvenating meal goes a long way in bringing that group together.

Click here for the Black Beans and Rice recipe.