This is the third in a series of posts I’ve done about my experiences with a former supervisor during my years with the New Voices Fellowship Program at the Academy for Educational Development (see my earlier posts, “The Messiah Complex At Work, Part I” and “Breakdown: The Messiah Complex At Work, Part II” for more). This one is a bit out-of-order, but it’s also both funny and sad at the same time.
It was the last Friday in March ’03 that the powers that were at the Ford Foundation had requested a meeting with Ken about the program up in New York. Not me and Ken, not “Driving Miss Daisy” Sandra and Ken, and not Yvonne and Ken. Just Ken. I knew immediately that this was a bad sign when I learned of the meeting. But Ken said, “No, no, this could be good. We’ve done everything they’ve asked of us.”
With Alan Jenkins now the head of the Human Rights and International Cooperation unit — Anthony Romero having left more than a year before for the ACLU — and with Yvonne about to retire, there really wasn’t anyone on either side of the AED-Ford Foundation relationship that would ensure the continuing, intact funding of our little program. If I could figure this out, I figured anyone could. At least, anyone with any experience working with foundations.
So around 5:30 on March 28, as I was cleaning up my office and preparing for the much-needed weekend with my five-months’ pregnant wife, my phone rang. I half-expected it to be Angelia making some requests for stuff to pick up from CVS or the grocery store on my way from the Silver Spring Metro, so I left the music running, which happened to be Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus.”
As soon as I picked up and said my name and “New Voices,” Ken began to talk. He asked me,”Are you sitting down?,” and then continued about the main event at 320 East 43rd. Despite the efforts of Ken, me and the rest of the staff to attract new kinds of fellows to New Voices, the various successes of those Fellows and their organizations, that a couple of program officers were unhappy with the amount of investment it took to attract these highly qualified individuals. That, and an overall change in priorities — which could have been seen from Mount Everest looking down on New York once Ford had launched its International Fellowship program at the end of ’01 — meant that there was a decreasing interest in New Voices.
Two things occurred at this meeting. One, the Human Rights and International Cooperation unit would now only renew funding for New Voices on an annual basis — it was funded in two-year chunks up until that day. And two, starting in ’04, Ford would reduce their overall funding effort by fifteen percent across all aspects of the New Voices budget.
“Well, at least they didn’t cancel the program,” I thought. Ken, though, seemed distraught. Then I noticed
that he was slurring his words, a bunch of voices, and the clinking of glasses.
“Ken, where are you?,” I asked.
“Oh, I’m at a bar, drinking a Miller Genuine Draft,” he said.
“Really, you’re drinking?,” I responded, with a gasp as a substitute for laughter.
“I have to drown my sorrows somehow,” Ken said.
“Oh geez,” I thought. He continued talking about the good fight, about parts of the program that we’d have to curtail immediately, about looking for new funding streams for New Voices (the last one I had suggested two years earlier).
“Given where you are, I don’t think that this is a good time or place for us to discuss these issues. Plus, I can barely hear you,” I said.
“You’re right. Well, have a good weekend,” Ken said with his worried, crazy laugh.
I got off the telephone, and turned off the music from my computer’s Windows Media system. Two songs had played since Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus,” but it was pounding in my head. It was now mixed up with the image of Ken looking disheveled post-Ford meeting, downing a bottle of Miller Genuine Draft while sitting on a bar stool, then ordering another. All by himself. All the while, everyone else around Park Avenue and Grand Central having themselves a good time. I realized at that moment that I wouldn’t see or hear “Personal Jesus” the same way again.
I felt sorry for him, but knowing what I’d gone through with Ken two years earlier, I couldn’t trust his judgment either (see my “Working At AED: Alternate Sources of Fear” post from June ’11). It was the first evening of the end of my time at New Voices, as well as the first day of Ken’s ten-month spiral that led to Georgetown University Hospital’s psychiatric ward. Apparently, a bottle of MGD’s hardly strong enough to take the weight of mental illness off. Nor did it make Ken wise enough to recognize that when a messiah has failed to deliver, that it would be a good time to rethink how one sees himself and the world.