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11 September 2005

Fund your own revolution

“The American Revolution was not financed with matching grants from the Crown.” – David Bayles and Ted Orland, Art and Fear

American_revolutionQuick. Look around your office or workspace.

Do you have a clock there? Do you have a visitor chair—a chair where a visitor could sit, should one suddenly appear to visit with you? You do? Does it or does it not have arms?

We’ll get back to that. Hold that thought.

Chair_with_armsMany years ago, an organization that was focusing on diversity issues (they weren’t exactly sure why, but that’s another story) asked me to do some focus groups to find out what was wrong…what the diversity issues were on staff.

So, I dutifully did just that. (Note to Self and Other: this was before I knew that asking appreciative questions would lead the organization farther, before I recognized that, as Thomas Kuhn said, “The answers you get depend upon the questions you ask.”)

But I didn’t know all that yet; I wasn’t that sophisticated—I just did what I thought was the right thing to do—ask questions and listen to the answers. But because my questions’ intention was to “get the dirt,” that’s just what I got. People had their share of gripes, indeed. Sometimes they were directly related to diversity issues—barriers that they felt kept them from succeeding in the organization, ways in which they were minimized or held back or disregarded.

In some cases, there was more than a modicum of vitriol launched at the people in charge, the leaders, the “They” we hear so much about: They don’t recognize our value; They act like we don’t matter; They took away our holiday party; They call us all “kiddo;” They create fires for us to put out; They expect us to work late, but they go out for 3 hour lunches; They treat the Vice Presidents better than us; They promote their friends, not the best people for the job; They don’t listen to us; They take the corner offices and give us tiny cubicles; They give themselves big pay raises and give us nothing; They lie to make themselves look good; They tell us we can’t speak Spanish on our break time. Roiling waves of resentment. Significant complaints.

And many raised the Issue of The Chairs.

Each level in the organization got a different set of accoutrements: if you were an administrative assistant, your cubicle was 6’x 6’ with 34” tall walls (they knew the exact dimensions). Program assistants got a cubicle that was 6’ x 8’ with 54” tall walls. Managers’ cubicles were 8’ x 8’ with 72” tall walls and they got a visitor chair. Directors got all that plus a clock. And Vice Presidents in those offices with windows—and this was the straw that broke the camel’s back—got all that…and they got visitor chairs with arms.

It would be easy to dismiss these claims as trivial, even if true (which they were). But those chairs with arms were only a tangible symptom of a larger, invisible disregard, a larger disdain, a larger problem, you see, the stuff under the tip of the iceberg, below the water line. It wasn’t the chairs. It was what the chairs represented, wasn’t it?

There were harsh words about the lack of leadership, the favoritism, the incompetence rising to the top.

“Well,” I would ask in my sad and tiny voice, “can you suggest some ways out of this hell hole?” Ahem…I didn’t quite ask it in that way, but the intent was the same. “They need to do something about it,” I would hear. “They need to make things better.” “They need to change how they hire people and promote people and pay people and reward people and show people they matter and involve people and treat people and et cetera and et cetera.”

They need to.

They must.

But, I would think to myself, does anyone remember that in the stories you’ve just told me, “they” are the ones who created this nightmare in the first place?

And then it occurred to me: We give up our power to the very people who took it away from us in the first place.

American_revolution2Don’t you see? The American Revolution was not financed with matching grants from the Crown. It’s my new favorite quote.

No, it wasn’t in King George III’s best interest to fund the American Revolution. And great change does not come when we expect the Crown to fund it, when we present our case to the King and believe that he will all of a sudden “get it,” when we leave it up to His Majesty to give us what we want and need. No, it won’t happen. Matching grants, permission, change—whatever you want to call it—doesn’t come to us when we sit and wait for it. Or when we ask for official sanction for it.

Gauguin and Picasso and Van Gogh and Uccello all changed the face of art, and were all ridiculed. They didn’t wait for official sanction to impose their vision onto the world; it wouldn’t have come. But they changed the face of art from the outside. Robert Mapplethorpe, whose boundary-pushing photography ignited a conservative chokehold of funding from the National Endowment for the Arts (the story of whom prompted the matching grants quote with which we started)—he couldn’t depend on matching funds, and didn’t.

That’s how art progresses; that’s how change occurs—outside the edges. 

Rosa_parks_on_busMartin Luther King, Jr. didn’t get wait for his grant to come through before marching from Selma. If Rosa Parks had waited to pull together a National Bi-Partisan Task Force on Bus Seating or had waited for the check to come through to fund her multi-year research study, she’d still be standing at the back of that bus and so would a lot of other people. Great change doesn’t come with permission slips and official endorsement; it just never has.

~*~ 37 Days: Do it Now Challenge ~*~

Stop saying “They.”

Yes, we need to work on the systems, the organizations that dole out value in 2 foot segments of cubicle walls. There’s no doubt work needs to be done there, and there’s no doubt that sometimes we don’t have the power to make that change ourselves.

Crown_1But many times we can’t wait for the systems that created the mess to fix themselves and we can’t wait for the conditions to be right for change. It will take too long. It’s not in their best interest; things are just dandy from where They sit in their chair with arms. The crown fits them. We cannot give our power away to the people who took it from us in the first place.

Instead, put arms on your own chair if you have to. If arms are that important to you, then duct tape them on if you must. Find the change you can and must make. Then fund your own revolution.



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I've been blessed to discover a new blog: 37 Days. A few weeks ago, Patti sent me an email saying that she found my blog through a mutual friend. Turns out we're both Guilford College alums, have non-profit association experience, and she lives in one ... [Read More]


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I once worked for a US/international company.

When the unit had to move to a new location -- against our wishes since it meant 1/2 hour extra travelling time for most of us. one consolation lifted our spirit. One side of the wall is glass-window !! Our manager proceeded in letting us draw lots to find the lucky 3 for the prime glass window cubicles!

Surprised! the director ordered to have ALL the glass windows covered and nailed with planks simply because ONLY directors and above are allow to have glass window in their office.

wow, cindy - now that's an impressive display of hierarchy and bureaucracy! i wonder why we do this to ourselves? is it power? privilege? insecurity?

Loved the blog entry. Many times I am asked to look into problem situations. One of my hot buttons is the victim mentality that you clearly have encountered. My approach is to always ask "Why do you put up with that?" somewhere along the way. Unfortunately, that usually upsets people, but sometimes people need to be upset.

thanks for the nice words! As for "upsetting people," I always remember what Madame Curie said: "dissymmetry causes phenomenon." There's no story without a conflict; there's no change without discomfort, there's no learning without discomfort--keep stirring the pot!

I was really intrigued by this article. For me, the very idea that there is an "Us" and a "Them" raises the question, "Who are 'They'?" And what would happen if we didn't believe in "Them" at all?

It inspired me to write my own article on the subject, posted today on Win-Win Web. (You can find the article at .) Thanks for the inspiration!

Hello Patti,

you wrote: it power? privilege? insecurity?

Knowing the person myself, I would say insecurity, inferiority complex and rule with fear! How's that for terror at work-place?


This is a good article. I like your style.

jamal - thanks for your note and kind words - I look forward to taking a look at your blog - thanks for the link...

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