the cultural legacies of our elders

My achchi in a busy produce market, her face full of pleasant surprise. She is wearing a purple jacket and holding a breadfruit the size and shape of a green coconut. She’s standing in front a whole display of them, which she was clearly not expecting to see.

My achchi, or grandmother, passed away last weekend at 87 years old. She and I were 50 years and a couple weeks apart. Mourning a loved one in the age of coronavirus gives me a sense of how it must have felt before planes or trains existed. That said, I was lucky enough to see her on Zoom the final week before she passed away.

I’ve been thinking about her a lot this week. My grandparents live on through me and the rest of my family. We tell jokes like they did (though we also tell our own). Many of the things we do or don’t value have a connection to the things they did or didn’t value. Looking through old photos, I also recalled how much time we spent cooking and eating with each other.

I have a lot of memories of us spending time together while someone cooked. I remember my seeya scraping coconuts in the kitchen sink, which achchi turned into pol sambol. I found a photo of her eating a shabby birthday s’more I made for her in my college-era duplex. Another photo depicts her at my all-time favorite market in Atlanta. She’s clutching a breadfruit with obvious glee. She told me that day it had been so long since she had last seen one.

My grandparents were famous for throwing huge parties on New Year’s Eve. Dozens of friends would come over with dishes of Sri Lankan curries. We would set out a huge platter of spiced yellow rice. We’d gorge on short eats till midnight: fried mackerel cutlets, samosa-like patties, and more. At midnight, we’d sing auld lang syne and hug our loved ones before getting down to a 12:30 AM dinner.

With three of my grandparents now gone, I am reflecting on all the ways in which they aren’t. We cook parripu using my achchi’s recipe. When we don’t want to do something, we say “we’ll see…” like she used to. My family and I will tell each other the stories we remember and the good times we shared until we, too, are someone else’s fond memories.

coronavirus update

Hills and trees in Washington wine country at sunset. The sky is light blue with gorgeous peach-colored clouds. A pond in the foreground reflects the sky like a mirror. I’ve been inside for the vast majority of 30 days now. I miss the outside more than when I couldn’t go outside. “When will I see another sunset?” I think wistfully. I am still healthy, so I shut up.

It’s been an unbelievably long seven weeks working the COVID-19 response. I’ve spent a lot of time working with my part of an interconnected network of partners across the state. Our response changes at least once or twice each week. We make plans, we communicate those plans, and then they change again. I’ve grown a mustache!

In the past seven weeks, I interviewed two candidates for a job. I twice interviewed for a new job. I didn’t get it, but I’m feeling okay about that. Especially now, I have plenty to do.

Communication matters
I make no secret about my love of Hemingway the app. Everything I write for an audience of ten or more I write in Hemingway. Making something easy to read is the highest form of respect that I can give my audience. I used to write languid, embellished prose. I wouldn’t do that to an audience that gets an avalanche of emails every day. I have gotten overwhelming positive feedback for this decision. My words cut through the vagueness that covers up the unknown. And if I don’t know something yet, I say that. It’s easy!

Plans matter
Plans change, all the time. But they still matter! Plans communicate vision. They convey intent. What we put into our plans tells other people what we value and how we focus our attention. I’m reading Emergent Strategy right now, so I see fractals in everything. I notice that even the new things we are doing sometimes feel like the old habits we’ve tried to break. It’s hard to reinvent yourself while you’re doing something new. I have to check my biases when I create new programs, or else I will repeat them.

The collective matters
I am reminded every day why we must fight for a better world. This one treats people like shit! We are stuck fighting every day for small improvements. We are fighting against decades of people destroying the social contract. We still don’t acknowledge that the social contract was never made to support people of color, women, renters. We in the public sector make programs that benefit and support white culture without even realizing it. When we as a society lapse into panic mode, we go for what’s easy. That means prioritizing dominant culture. It doesn’t have to be this way. We have to choose to stop it. There is no time like the present.

We can’t afford to wait.

how do workers grow?

A forest in the Pacific Northwest. Scrub trees and ferns litter the ground. Hints of cloudy sky peek out from behind the trees. Ferns don’t have a five year plan. Plants don’t grow according to their boss plant’s wishes. Must be nice? It is!!

I see professional advancement as the incremental development of skills. I identify a task or role, then compare it to my existing accomplishments. The more I learn, the more I can apply to the next challenge. I approach employee advancement the same way. I give guidance on new challenges and provide feedback along the way. I use those accomplishments to lead to larger and more complex assignments later. But are there limitations to that approach?

in a typical hierarchy
A person’s supervisor usually sets their opportunities for growth or advancement. Advancement could depend on favoritism, luck, or other uncontrollable factors. When I’ve had a good job or a supportive boss, advancement feels so easy! I’ve also had jobs where my boss doubts my potential, and has worked to limit my opportunities.

there is a better way
In a self-managing organization, each team determines and distributes their responsibilities. People who want to advance can seek support from their team, rather than one person. In a distributed leadership, management responsibilities spread across an entire team. Team members could add new responsibilities or rotate them among their teammates.

for people who aren’t ready for the responsibilities they want
This is often a hard decision for a manager to make. I don’t want to limit a person’s potential for growth. But in a traditional hierarchy, advancement is usually a series of steps, not a slope. There is a whole host of responsibilities involved in going from being a team member to manager. Lots of organizations treat a promotion into management as sink or swim. Management trainings are often given only to people who are already managers.

what can I do in a traditional hierarchy?
We offer trainings for employees at every level of the company. We set aside funding for them to attend conferences and other learning opportunities. I could try distributing leadership to junior members of my team. I assign them project leadership and track their progress over time. We already rotate who facilitates team meetings and other gatherings.

But it wouldn’t be right to ask an employee to approve time sheets or lead my weekly check-ins. I use those to track the progress of my team and correct their course as needed. I also get paid more to do those things. Sharing management duties should mean sharing compensation that I receive. Would people be happy if their pay fluctuated based on their current role? Would I take a pay cut if someone else did part of my job? For how long should someone do work for their own growth before they’re paid for it?

Managers should contribute to a culture of feedback and support the growth of their teams. People who want advancement should be able to decide what that’s worth to them. I will keep looking for ways to do that.