Fighting the man while still dancing with him

As a social-scientist advocate in the HIV/AIDS field everyday may be considered a day in which I am fighting the proverbial man. There is always a fight for resources. There is always a fight to be counted. There is always a fight to be heard. However, running a community-based organization, doing community based participatory research and writing grants for government funding means that at the end of the day, I am in an odd bed with the government at large. Such has been my longstanding lot in life.

First off, many years back, I worked for the government. Considering my outward display of my utter distaste for the inefficiency I observed while there, ironically enough, I fought the man everyday from within. I saw firsthand government waste and apathy. A good portion of staff in the division I was in was suing one another. Any slight was cause for a lawsuit. My acts of calling out the inefficiencies got me labeled as a brat. I had been en route at that time to become a lawyer but instead, as a result, I went back to my learning roots and became a psychologist. I promised myself I would never, ever again work for the government. While there I did learn, on my own, a good amount of case law and how to make sound legal arguments.

Second, such knowledge came in handy when the IRS tried to falsely claim I had not paid my fair share of taxes. I shepardized case law, assembled evidence and fought back. I won and it felt good. As it is, I have learned that you can’t roll over or bow down before incompetency. It is a good life lesson for all occasions.

Third, there was a moment a few years back when people felt the need to protest the fact that I was advocating for resources for the Hispanic community. People tried to shout me down. Dishearteningly, some of those include government employees. While the government system itself is entrenched in bureaucracy, we cannot forget that for now (until the robots take over) government is comprised of human beings who bring their personal histories to the work. I fought back. Fought back hard and never looked back. Won some major concessions and a right to be at the table. While amplifying my voice at various policy table discussions, I have also learned to find compromise and to sweeten the atmosphere. It is very hard, when engaged in social justice efforts, to go it alone. Collaboration and partnership is key. There are government entities that do seek community input and we have to always ensure we provide that input. I readily admit there have been some great projects for the community as a result.

Fourth, there was one project that was a so-called cooperative agreement project, in which I was the director, with a government entity. However, from the outset the government officials were severely antagonistic and not interested in us as human beings. They came in with an agenda and proceeded to shove that agenda down our collective throats. When I tried to provide feedback they dismissed it as unimportant and uninformed. Although, I was par of the project because of my connections to and cultural competency with the community. They just didn’t care. They cared about climbing up the internal bureaucracy. These are the same individuals that made me attend a meeting while on maternity leave and provided me with a broom closet to handle my breastfeeding needs. How these people were par of the HIV/AIDS public health field,when their compassion reserve was clearly depleted, is beyond me. I tried to fight back this personal injustice but they pulled the purse strings. They exerted their power over us at every turn. These are the people we need to root out of government. At the end we completed the project doing the best we could. However, their internal hangups and politics destroyed the long-term viability of the project. The only recourse I had was to give them a bad evaluation at the end. Luckily, we were afforded that opportunity.

Government need not be a bogeyman. It need not be inefficient. The question is what systems can be put in place to root out or keep incompetent staff or officials from taking hold. Some have argued for a civil government academy that trains individuals on what it means to be a government employee akin to what you see for police or military academies. There is a need to be able to hold them more directly accountable.

As I write this, I am riding the rails, getting ready to meet with some government collaborators. It is a fine line dance in which we participate. There is a need to partner and collaborate, but we must never forget our duty to also hold government accountable.

Inspired by the daily fight and daily prompt of fight the power

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19 replies »

  1. I fight..sorry Freudian slip, …work in an institution that was government run, then some career driven and money making individuals managed to separate the department I work for from the public institution, into something no one was and still is quite sure about what we are (private business or a sub public service, Trust, Charity, charitable Trust?).
    Two years later we got ‘re-branded’ and the confusion is even bigger.
    Various restructurings later (they are mere basic survival instinct battles between friends and colleagues and not very pretty to witness or indeed be part of) and I at least now know how it is possible for an incompetent individual (on many levels) to climbed up the career ladder into the management positions.
    Just like you, I feel very passionate about my profession and assumed when I was employed that it is this motivation and expertise that got me the position advertised.
    I also have been very active in pointing out the short comings (not of people but of processes and systems) that affect me directly (basically doing a lot of other people’s undone work so I am able to do mine) to the effect that it hasn’t changed a thing apart from me having become the ‘trouble maker’.
    The one thing I am grappling with now is if this paralysis of bureaucracy is indeed the sum of some fluke in employing the ‘wrong’ people for the important roles- or if they have had to become corrupted in order to become a key component to the building blocks that are beneficial for maintaining the system?
    They might be ‘wrong’ in regards to actually doing what they are supposed to do- but that judgement will be always a matter of perception – and the wrong might be the right for keeping up the system as a functioning system.
    To me its less fighting the man- but man fighting the system which has been created by humans but at one point seems to have taken off by itself making us all run around like headless chickens to ‘please and worship’, to great cost of loyalty, responsibility, humility and subsequently forgetting all about what it is we are actually supposed to be doing and why and for what…
    These are all things that are not measurable, the grey zones, empathy, responsibility, commitment, are not easily assessed as to how effective they have been in increasing the ‘income generation’ or ‘profit margin’.
    The system doesn’t register ‘grey’, only black and white, right or wrong or yes and no.
    At least if computers, robots or algorithms run it all one day, we could just pull the plug if we finally had enough…just a thought.

    • hi sculpturesteph. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and experiences. It is such a fine line to navigate out there. I totally love your last sentence on pulling the plug! hope uou are having a great day

  2. I am so very thankful that there are people like yourself, who go out there day-in-and-day-out to fight the good fight. Who bring direction and some common sense to what would otherwise be a great big pile of self serving apathy that is government.
    The words “Government of the people, by the people, FOR the people…” mean something to me. Thank you for keeping that ideal alive.

  3. We’re different countries – but this resonated with me. I’ve worked for non-profits and currently work for government. Trying to figure out the best place to work – and find that work fulfilling – isn’t easy for me. I enjoyed reading about your experiences.

    • Hi there. Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I have been a little tardy in my responses the past few weeks -just getting back from vacation. I am pretty sure I won’t work again for the government but I can never totally rule it out. best of luck with your work decisions going forward.

  4. Your treatise on trying to get the job done in government employment is so spot on. Years ago, I got a job working for the county in which I lived. It was my first “public” job as opposed to “private.” Coming from private industry into the world of government, I was making a difficult adjustment. In private industry, speed and accuracy counted. You were paid to do the job expected and at a speed that satisfied the employer. Coming into the government world, was a difficult transition. Had to slow down so as not to outshine the other people in my department. I didn’t realize it at first, and was given the “heads up” by my colleagues. They were starting to feel that I was purposely trying to make myself look better than they. It was very difficult for me to slow down. I felt frustrated, because my “modus operandi” was speed. In order to keep peace, I had to come down to their speed.
    Just another example of having to put up with the “speed” of bureaucracy.

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