October in Portland

November 14, 2013

Panoramic shot of Hawthorne Bridge and downtown Portland, Oregon, October 14, 2013. (http://en.wikipedia.org).

Panoramic shot of Hawthorne Bridge and downtown Portland, Oregon, October 14, 2013. (http://en.wikipedia.org).

I know, I know. It’s November. But this post is still relevant. Five years ago last month, I made one of the toughest career decision I’ve ever faced, and certainly the toughest this side of the twenty-first century. I turned down a job that looked in many respects like a really good fit with my career goals and experiences, a job that on the surface would’ve paid pretty well. My decision to not take this job wasn’t made in a vacuum — this was October ’08, after all, when the US economic slowdown truly became the Great Recession here and around the world. But as it turned out, there are things more important than a higher salary and a job that looks good on a curriculum vitae.

Grantmakers for Education had interviewed me four times in six weeks between August, September and early October ’08. The first three were telephone conversations with various staff members, including the executive director. I already knew of their work through my college access and retention initiative at Academy for Educational Development (AED – now FHI 360). I interviewed for GFE’s program director position, which would’ve made me second or third in charge within the organization. Through interviews and research, I knew that GFE had been around since ’97 as a spin-off from the work of the Council on Foundations — meaning it had some support from the private foundation community. I also knew that they had a total staff of seven people.

But, most important, I knew that GFE’s offices were in Portland, Oregon. It wasn’t a deterrent for me. After all, my wife and I had agreed that any job search of mine would invite the possibility of making a geographic move. The cities, though, had included New York, Philly, Boston, Chicago and Seattle (with some considerations for Toronto and the Bay Area), not Portland specifically. In my mind, Portland, though definitely different from Seattle, was close enough.

By the time I flew out for my in-person interview with GFE on October 2 and 3, ’08, I did feel quite a bit of pressure riding on my interview and the decisions I’d make if offered the job. For one, I’d been privately predicting the economic slide that we now call the Great Recession since ’02. As a result, my consulting work for the second half of ’08 had all but dried up. I was teaching only one class at University of Maryland University College that fall, meaning that we would be going pretty deep into our savings to get through the end of the year. And though Boy @ The Window had attracted the attention of a few literary agents, the Great Recession had affected their businesses and their willingness to take a chance on a not-so-well-known author.

"Great Recession: It doesn't feel over," Bob Englehart, Hartford Courant, September 29, 2010. (http://blogs.courant.com).

“Great Recession: It doesn’t feel over,” Bob Englehart, Hartford Courant, September 29, 2010. (http://blogs.courant.com).

With all that on my mind, it was a wonder that I could focus on anything at all, much less the final interview. Yet I did, and in the process, met with a wonderful staff and found Portland a rather interesting city.

So I wasn’t surprised the following Wednesday that GFE called me to offer me the position. They gave me a low-ball offer, one that was only $5,000 more than I made at my last AED job, and far less than I made as a consultant (at least, when I had work as a consultant). But they did offer $8,000 in moving expenses. We went back and forth on salary and benefits over the next five days.

During that time, my wife and I talked at length about moving to Portland, Noah’s schooling (he was in kindergarten back then), and the negotiations. She finally revealed to me a couple of things I wished she had told me before my third interview. One, she wasn’t interested in moving to Portland (it reminded her too much of Pittsburgh, only without a sizable Black community). Two, she thought that GFE’s small staff and budget would limit my career and put a ceiling on my salary over time.

My wife didn’t want me to take a job and move out there by myself, with her and Noah here in the DC area. Nor did she want me to make a decision based on the momentary whims of the economy or because the job would be a relatively easy one for me. Ultimately, my wife reminded me that I preferred a challenge, work that could be exciting, that paid well, a community with a diverse nature, an organization that offered opportunities for the long-term.

Albert Einstein and his insanity definition, June 2013. (http://liveyourtruelife.org/).

Albert Einstein and his insanity definition, June 2013. (http://liveyourtruelife.org/).

On October 15, GFE came back with their final offer. It was somewhat generous. They increased the salary offer by ten percent, and offered $10,000 in moving expenses. In exchange, my salary would be capped for three years, and they wouldn’t pay into my retirement fund over that period (I’d have to add to it without them matching). They even offered to allow me to work from DC during October and November before moving in December.

Still, reading in between the lines, my wife was right. I could clearly see that if I’d taken this job, my marriage would’ve been over. Maybe not immediately, but it would’ve been a industrial-sized shovel full of dirt toward a buried coffin. The distance would’ve been too great to carry on anything resembling a family. As for my career, I would’ve faced a dead end in the intermediate term — forget about the long-term — financially and otherwise.

So I said “No” to GFE. I stared into the proverbial abyss, knowing that it would be a rough next few months. And it was. But I did pick up several steady consulting gigs in ’09 and ’10. My teaching schedule went from part-time to pretty much full-time by Fall ’10 (still an adjunct contract, though). I made sure that my wife was on board with a job not on our top-cities-to-move-to list before applying.

My decision was as much about finding the right position with the right organization as it was about ensuring the health of my marriage and my family. All have to be in sync on big decisions like this. I’m glad we have that clarity now.


My AED Resignation

November 9, 2012

Richard Nixon delivering the “V” sign outside Army One upon his final departure from the White House, August 9, 1974. (Robert L. Knudsen via Wikipedia). In public domain.

Five years ago today, on the second Friday in November ’07, I handed my resignation notice to my boss Sandy (see my post “Early November” from November ’08). We were at the end of a two-day final Directors Meeting for our Partnerships for College Access and Success grantees. I had decided to step down from my deputy director position with the initiative, and of course, with the Academy for Educational Development (AED). This wasn’t the first time I resigned from a job in order to move on to another job or to a new track in my career. But this was the first time I’d done it without much promise for new work.

I hadn’t even been offered my teaching position with University of Maryland University College at the time I resigned (that wouldn’t happen for another two weeks). Yet I was sure that after seven years at AED and nearly four years with PCAS, that my role as a full-time nonprofit manager with the organization was soon coming to an end. It was obvious that Lumina Foundation for Education was no longer interested in large long-term programmatic work on college access and college success, with changes in leadership and philosophy in the previous year. The additional grant extension that we worked on in ’06 was due to end in March ’08, and with my $70,000+/year salary, I’d find myself without work soon after.

There were other options. Sandy and the AED NY office (with my help in a few cases) had obtained some smaller grants for evaluation work from Citigroup, from Wallace, and from Lumina related to the PCAS work. None of this work was full-time, though, and would likely not be more than half-time work. I would then have to go through months of selling myself to other projects across the organization in order to get close to full-time and maintain my benefits. I’d done this once before, at the end of my time with New Voices, in late ’03 and early ’04. It was a stressful, gut-churning process, one that I didn’t want to repeat.

2007 AED Logo, November 9, 2012. AED no longer exists, releasing logo to public domain.

Plus, I’d learned so much about AED during that process and over those last four years in my deputy director job, most of it not good. Bad business practices, shady accounting practices, poor diversity and promotion practices (see my “AED Update – DOA for 50th Anniversary” from March ’11). I just saw AED as a way-station for people who were truly dedicated to social change, and not a place to build a career.

Still, the work at PCAS wasn’t complete, and would likely not get done (or get done at all deliberate speed – very slowly and gradually) if I just resigned with two weeks or four weeks’ notice. So I proposed the following in my resignation letter and in my conversation with Sandy. I gave three months’ notice, to ensure that I would complete any final reports for Lumina and to ensure my involvement in any potential funding opportunities to continue segments of the initiative. I proposed that I could finish the PCAS and related work as a consultant, making it easier for me to transition out of AED and for Sandy to transition PCAS. I could finish what would end up being a 144-page resource guide and a twenty-six-page scholarly journal article based on the PCAS work.

Sandy accepted my resignation and my proposal, of course. But I don’t think she believed I’d follow through with the resignation, given the amount of time I gave myself before my last day. I don’t think that she believed it until I submitted a copy of my resignation letter to Human Resources on January 9, ’08. She may have figured that my wife would talk me out of leaving.

But Angelia and me had discussed resigning as a calculated risk since the end of ’05. AED had rarely done right by me, right from the day I was first interviewed for a program officer position in November ’00. I was underpaid (given my skills, education and experience), and more important, I found the place an improper fit for the kind of work I wanted to do on education and other social justice issues. We had saved money and I had carefully applied for jobs in anticipation of this decision since the early part of ’06. A bit of good luck made it easier for me to move on, having been offered a part-time faculty position at UMUC right before Thanksgiving ’07.

Tim Robbins in Shawshank Redemption [screen shot] (1994), November 9, 2012. Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws – low resolution & symbolic relevance to post.

The question I’ve been asked the most often in the past four and a half years has been whether I miss working at AED. I sometimes miss the money I made while working there, as it’s easier working one job with a standard schedule than teaching and the feast-and-famine cycles of consulting and contract work.

But I don’t miss the organization, which essentially no longer exists. I really only think about AED when I do work for an organization that reminds me of AED (not good) or when I post about my experiences. Still, I learned a lot about business and greed, administration and ethics, people, social change and fairness in my time there. A mixed blessing, indeed.


USAID suspends District-based nonprofit AED from contracts amid investigation

December 16, 2010

I learned from a friend last night that my former employer, Academy for Educational Development (AED), was suspended by USAID for mismanagement of millions of dollars http://wapo.st/gIhw8Y. I’m mostly unsurprised. But it’s still shocking and very disappointing to learn that a place that I worked so hard for between December 2000 and February ’08 might’ve been involved in corruption, and on a fairly large scale.

The slogan for the organization for most of the time I worked there was “Connecting People, Creating Change.” It seems to me that if this investigation holds water, the C’s for corruption (obvious why) and chaos — for the futures of most of the staff — should be added to its fifty-year legacy. I was never a big fan of the organization, as its corporate structure wasn’t particularly appealing to me. But I did have quite a few friends and colleagues who I enjoyed working with over the course of my seven years. It’s those folks that I feel for the most right now. Especially in our current economic and job climate.


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