Monday, March 25, 2013

Reinvent What You Do, Not Who You Are

I have no idea what I am supposed to do...I only know what I can do.  Captain Kirk, Star Trek Into Darkness

Yes, I am an unabashed fan-girl and so excited over this movie I can barely stand it.  But there are reasons why Star Trek has always captured my attention - they continually show us a world built on values that are deserving of our promotion and defense.  Star Trek, at the heart of it, is about ethics, choices and consequences.

What caught my attention in this trailer and what I have been (in my ever so annoying OCD way) repeating to myself over and over for the past 48 hours is one line - "I have no idea what I am supposed to do, I only know what I can do."  This to me perfectly sums up the situation associations find themselves in right now and, quite frankly, should all give us a lot of hope on this Monday morning.

I have been increasingly distressed (and increasingly vocal) over this drumbeat coming out of our community that our best days are behind us, that our only hope of survival is rejecting who we are, that "market share" means "not all members," that "selling products and gaining sponsors" is the panacea to our financial challenges, that efficient decision making may require sacrificing democratic principles, that associations are increasingly irrelevant in today's "fast moving society."

What I don't hear us talking about is how income inequality has skyrocketed in the last 30 years.  How the disappearance of the middle class is one of the reasons why members can't pay dues.  How the minimum wage is stagnant and the number of working poor is now an epidemic.  How our veterans can't get housing and their unemployment rate is twice as high as the average.  How students can't cope with rising tuition costs without incurring massive debts. How structural changes in our economy are moving entire industries out of the United States leaving members out of work and without the appropriate training to move into something else.

We have to STOP rearranging deck chairs for just a moment and remember that we have power.  That we can choose to be great.  We can choose to tackle these big issues. We can choose to make a difference.  And we can do it without fundamentally rejecting or remaking who we are and what we stand for.  Our values can transcend these moments of chaos and a better world is within our grasp.

However, we will not get there with extractionist, reductionist thinking.  Narcissism is not a business strategy.   We can't spend months debating about the usefulness of social media and then wonder why we aren't moving the needle on jobs and education.  We can't moan about members who can't pay dues and then send legislative teams out to kill bills to increase the minimum wage.  We can't defend being inclusive and fully embracing diversity if we cease to believe we are here to represent ALL stakeholders in our industries and professions.  We can't defend democracy when we decide that it's really more efficient for us to make all the decisions ourselves. And we certainly can't weigh in on the most pressing challenges of the day by losing another year to hand-wringing over our esoteric and utterly internal issues.

"Members" are not "markets" and we should not allow ourselves to re-define humans this way

Our choices and the language we use to express them, have unintended consequences because of the influence we still wield in our society. Language that we find "acceptable" can lead to unacceptable consequences.  How can the "competency based board" concept possibly lead to a bad outcome?  I mean, what could be wrong with competence?  But this is a slippery slope with real world consequences.  For example, Michigan has been systematically removing elected city councils and boards and replacing them with appointed (not elected) "financial managers."  Cancelling elections, dismissing duly elected representatives. The idea is NOT academic, the idea is in practice in the real world. The idea is democracy doesn't work and that financial problems can only be fixed by removing democracy from the equation.  This has been happening in Benton Harbor, in Flint and other towns.  It's spreading to Indiana, Wisconsin and New York. And now, Detroit.  Our beloved Detroit is in danger of losing its soul.

This poison is infecting us too and I'm tired of being nice about it.  This is a much bigger threat to associations than our members ever could be.

Am I against choosing talented people to lead our organizations?  Of course not.  But I reject the notion that this is a choice between "democracy" and "competence." It's a false equivalency.

Believe me, there are PLENTY of things we need to refresh and reinvent.  There are millions of technologies that we should be embracing.  There are new ways of doing business, of achieving fiscal stability, of reaching out and communicating effectively with our constituents - members and nonmembers alike.  We should be reinventing our educational programs, lightening up policies and procedures, implementing the best of the gaming techniques for building community and learning, expanding access to knowledge and networks, curating content, etc.  There are big trends that require a big response. We can be better in every way.

However, we should be reinventing what we do and why, not who we are. The arc may bend toward justice but we have to start leaning on it harder.  If we have to draw a line in the sand, let's draw it.  We have to stand for something or we are going to fall for anything.

And maybe we don't have any idea what we are supposed to do, but we know what we can do and that is what we should start focusing our attention on - TODAY.


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