Working At AED: Alternate Sources of Fear


AED’s DC Office, circa 2008, before the sign came down. Source: http://www.glassdoor.com

It was ten years ago on this date that I began to think seriously about quitting New Voices and AED, the Academy for Educational Development, the subcontractor for USAID and the State Department in trouble these days (see my “USAID suspends District-based nonprofit AED from contracts amid investigation” post from December ’10). In the end, I probably should’ve on this date. I realized that most of the people I worked for and with cared more about money than Wall Street investment bankers, and had an addiction to fear greater than a junkie’s addiction to heroin. And, most sadly, I began to see signs of what my former immediate supervisor would admit two and a half years later, his bipolar disorder.

I’d seen signs of Ken’s mental illness as early as February ’01, but the first time I realized that I worked in an organization that thrived on fear was after me and my wife returned from our honeymoon in Seattle, at the end of May that year. All during the month of June, as I did site visits in Tulsa, Jackson, Mississippi, Fairbanks, Alaska and Durham, North Carolina, and visited my maternal grandparents in Arkansas, all fear was breaking loose in the New Voices offices at AED. Our funder, the Human Rights and International Cooperation unit at the Ford Foundation in New York, had called for a meeting to discuss the progress of the New Voices Fellowship Program to date.

I didn’t think all that much of it at the time, with me doing site visits almost every week and having done presentations for funders and academicians, including the Spencer Foundation, what was now the Gates Foundation, and a few corporate foundations over the previous five years. But as soon as I returned to the office that last Monday in June ’01, I realized that nearly everyone I worked with directly was on pins and needles about our Thursday afternoon meeting on East 43rd Street in Manhattan. Ken was on a higher level of worry than the rest of the staff, but it wasn’t a good worry. He had our program assistant and associate printing new copies of memos and other meeting materials every time he came up with a new sentence, found an error or realized he wanted orange paper for program statistics instead of lavender.

Jessica Tandy as Miss Daisy in Driving Miss Daisy Screen Shot (though Sandra wasn’t as aged, her attitudes definitely were), 1989. Source: http://heraldsun.com.au

What made this even worse was that on Tuesday, Ken’s boss Sandra — whom I regularly called “Driving Miss Daisy” because of her bigoted semi-liberal ways — called an additional meeting to emphasize how crucial this meeting was to the future of New Voices. After ten minutes, Ken, the program assistant and associate all looked like Bush 43 and former Secretary of the Treasury Hank Paulson did on September 15, ’08, when the US financial markets melted down. When I politely pointed out that “we need to be ready, but not scared” in presenting our results to date to the folks at Ford, another meeting was called.

Except this Wednesday afternoon meeting was just between me and Driving Miss Daisy. She called me out on the carpet for “disrespecting” her. She told me, “if you don’t like it here, you can leave,” and that she’ll be at AED “longer than [me].” It made me feel as if I had to worry about my job for doing my job. Meanwhile, Ken was going over word for word what each of us would have to say the following afternoon in New York, as if one bad choice of words would cost us $2.25 million, money we’d already received from Ford.

After a rough night of sleep before an early Amtrak from DC to New York, I arrived at Penn Station refreshed and glad that I didn’t ride the same train with the rest of the Nervous Nellies. They were already at Houlihan’s, eating an early lunch, with Ken obviously more relaxed from whatever he had to drink by the time I arrived.

The Ford Foundation, 320 East 43rd Street, New York City, November 19, 2007. Source: Stakhanov (permission granted)

The Ford Foundation, 320 East 43rd Street, New York City, November 19, 2007. Source: Stakhanov (permission granted)

The meeting itself was where something kicked in for Ken, what appeared to be a natural high at first. After Sandra and Yvonne (Ken’s actual immediate supervisor, even though Ken never listened to her) did the introductions, Ken took over the two-hour meeting. He talked over me, the program assistant and associate, even the program officers in the spartan meeting room. Ken’s euphoric fear was so strong that he didn’t trust us to speak on behalf of New Voices, meaning that it was a waste of time and money for anyone other than Ken to be there.

Or was is? The imam-suit-wearing program officers from Anthony Romero (who was within a few months had moved on to become the Executive Director of the ACLU) to Alan Jenkins (now co-founder of The Opportunity Agenda), who had sat silently through Ken’s soliloquy, finally spoke in the final fifteen minutes of the meeting. Romero said, “Maybe it’s time for AED to consider looking for alternate sources of funding” for New Voices “over the next couple of years.” That was my take-away from the whole ordeal.

But it wasn’t for Ken. He was on one of his blue-crystal-meth-like highs again, giddy like a kid getting a ten-speed bike for Christmas. Yvonne looked ready to go, while Sandra the wise-one was just happy it was over. I wondered, out loud to the group, if the not-so-veiled hint provided by Romero meant that the unit and foundation’s priorities were changing. I, of course, was accused of worrying too much. Too bad none of the senior staff understood the definition of irony.

4 Responses to Working At AED: Alternate Sources of Fear

  1. Ok. So, in a VERY high-stakes meeting with a grant-funder, the boss, who had non-treated or under-treated bi-polar, goes all out manic?

    Oy….I can imagine this meeting quite clearly. And I bet beans to dollars everyone was minimizing his increasingly erratic and consistently inconsistent behavior. And if anyone pointed out the obvious (you), ya got slapped down.

    Oh…that’s a very healthy organization indeed. Yeow.

    • Cath, the thing about working with Ken that made it worse for me was that he was also in the closet for more than two of the three years I worked with him (and attracted to me, a story I’ll write about in a few months). It made my working relationship much more difficult than it was for the other staff, since I was the assistant director for this fellowship program. I served as a buffer for much of Ken’s idiotic directives and sudden changes in mood. I even reported what I suspected to HR and to the woman I called “Driving Miss Daisy” in my last months with New Voices, but to no avail (again, another blog post).

      It also made him and the people we worked for all the more hypocritical, given that we were running a social justice leadership program in which social injustice occurred nearly every day. As my father would say, “it’s a shame and a pitiful.”

      • Jesus, Mary and Joseph. So closeted AND ill? That was a particularly HORRIBLE dynamic for you. From my own experience and seeing others in action, closeted queers don’t have the best of judgement (For example, I spent far too much time worrying about what other people thought–what a waste of time and energy!), Throw in major mental illness, which means perceptions are horribly distorted and you have a toxic psychological brew. Paranoid and distorted, just what everyone wants in a superior (SNARK!).

        Your dad is totally spot on. There’s probably a joke about “how many Ph.D’s does it take to spot trouble??” But in elite organizations, behavior that would be completely UNACCEPTABLE in other settings gets a pass. Ken got away with crap because of his race, gender and social class privileges, but the dynamics of that organization also fueled/enabled his behavior, until he landed in a psych ward–because enabling Ken was NOT helping him.

        Again, YUUUUCKKKK! This is the equivalent of having to put your hand in the flame of a blowtorch on a daily basis. That’s more hell than any job is worth.

      • Unfortunately, my former immediate supervisor and soon-to-be-defunct organization had one thing in common: a warped sense of loyalty. To work with Ken and AED during those years was like working in a box in which I wasn’t allowed to step out. They both confused loyalty with submissive behavior rather than a person’s willingness to look out for fellow employees and the progress of the work as a whole. It’s all too common behavior in academia and in the nonprofit world.

        But that said, I must admit, at the end of ’03, when I prepared to leave New Voices and AED — only to end up with a great project and a good supervisor for four years — I began to question myself about how I ended up with people like Joe Trotter, my bigoted boss at Presidential Classroom and Ken between ’95 and ’03. What about me enabled me to find a dissertation advisor and supervisors as abusive and paranoid as those three over a eight or ten-year period? I chalked it up to being too trusting on the one hand, and not trusting my own instincts on the other. It’s why I’ve been very careful about my next full-time move over the past year. I don’t want to find myself in that situation again.

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