It’s Awful, But I Love It (April 17, 2010)

Illinois Partners

There are no office supplies to speak of at Illinois Partners. The coalition manager, my boss Judith, and I use leftover utensils from the basement of the United Way’s main Chicago headquarters. They are the same generous souls who donate us cube space, computer and phone with which to conduct our business, but we cannot have access to their network, since we’re not technically employees.

On my very first day, I sat through four straight hours of meetings, including one with the powerful Executive Committee, which includes philanthropic bigwigs like United Way, the National Shriver Center of Poverty Law and the Chicago Community Trust. When I wasn’t busy being awestruck by their political connections and knowledge of Illinois legislature mechanisms, I was furiously writing notes so I could later prepare and circulate the minutes.

During my very first week I was handed control of the website, FaceBook, Twitter and YouTube accounts. I have wanted to learn how to mobilize social media in a political setting for a long time, and now I have my chance, but it is daunting because I am so new and the stakes are so high.

On Thursday, Judith and I conducted a meeting while parked in her car for 30 minutes on Jefferson Street.

I worked overtime twice.

And yet everyday, tired as I am (the work of organizing 480 members of a human service coalition is left to two employees – Judith and I), I feel more whole, more engaged, and more satisfied in the workplace than I ever have. How many citizens of Illinois use or require one or more of the following social services: drug counseling, mental illness assistance, housing, child care, senior services, adoption help, child and teen programs, domestic violence shelter and more? I don’t think there’s anyone in the State who doesn’t love someone who desperately needs these programs, if they are not themselves a direct consumer.

But Illinois, right behind California and New York is spiraling toward bankruptcy, and I don’t think I have to tell you folks that the Land of Lincoln suffers from more than a bad economy. We have a full blown crsis of leadership on our hands. Michael Madigan is apparently the most powerul man in the State, I have come to learn this week. He doesn’t want to raise taxes and he’s in no mood to take from the unions, whose organizing power social services hasn’t had to this point. Program are going to be cut Draconian-style, and the human services sector are particularly positioned to to take it on the chin. It is both the blessing and the curse of social workers everywhere that they are always willing to do more with less. Government, especially in a fiscal crisis, and a political climate of complete inertia, counts on that.

So I am doing work that interests me, and building my writing skills in new ways, while doing work that directly matters. I can feel it, see it, hear it. This is a tangible that was always missing in my former corporate incarnations, and it kept me from staying interested once I had mastered my job.

No two days will be the same at Illinois Partners. Flush with idealism as I am, there will be moments of tremendous sorrow, as people who need nonprofit assistance will be less and likely to get it with each budget cycle. But I am willing to stay here in the trenches and keep fighting.

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