Working With Wackos, Part 2

August 10, 2012

Daniel Craig in Layer Cake (2004), October 4, 2010. (

This is the second of my two posts about my last summer working with a group of misfits and backstabbing micro-managers at the Mount Vernon Mental Health Clinic (as part of Westchester County Department of Community Mental Health) in ’92. I left off by talking about the decision I faced when the head of the clinic, Dr. Williams, wanted me to write a report that would implicate Johnstone as both an incompetent and capricious office manager. It would’ve been a report that would’ve led to Valerie Johnstone’s firing (see my “Working With Wackos, Part 1” post from last month).

Luckily I had the weekend before my last week at the job to think it through. I approached my task the same way I approached a research project. I interviewed my co-workers — at least in a way without them knowing that I was doing a formal interview — about their problems with Johnstone and about their refusal to learn the new computers and billing system for the office. I documented various incidents that I either experienced or witnessed in which Johnstone was far from professional. I even discussed the overall office dynamics and argued that they were the reason why the clinic had fallen behind twice in the past decade on hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of Medicaid and Medicare billing to New York State.

But I did more than that. I in fact put together two versions of the report. One version was specifically for Dr. Williams, one that could justify the demotion — if not the firing — of Johnstone. The other, much fuller version was one in which I made the case that Dr. Williams and Johnstone were both culpable as they created an unprofessional and chaotic atmosphere at the clinic.

The Things We Think And Do Not Say “Memo” from Jerry Maguire (1997), August 9, 2012. (

I made the point in the second version that it wasn’t just their violent language and their nasty public and private arguments. Nor was it just their disappearances from the office for hours at a time or showing up hours late looking hung over. Their mercurial natures and their lack of respect for the office and each other had trickled down to the office staff. So much so that some summer office worker like myself had no chance of training staff on how to use a computer or a new billing system.

On my last day at work, Friday, July 31, I handed in version one to Dr. Williams, who was giddy with delight, and gave me a hug and a handshake. I left work early that day, and immediately took the 40 bus up to White Plains, to the main Westchester County Department of Community Mental Health on Post Road. I went to Bob Beane’s office (the department’s director), and dropped off version two of my report. Beane had already left for the weekend. I sneaked in and out that day, as I had worked at this office the summer and holiday season ’90, and I didn’t want questions from my one-time co-workers about why I was there.

The following Friday morning, as I got ready to walk from 616 to the Mount Vernon clinic to pick up my final summer paycheck, the phone rang. It was Beane on the other end of the phone, asking me questions about my report. He asked me how much of what was in it was true. “All of it,” I said. “I need you to come into the office so I ask you some more questions,” Beane said in response. Since I was already about to walk out the door, I hung up and went into my warp-factor-9-walk to find out what was going on (and to get my paycheck without a lot of fuss).

Heads Will Roll sculpture, Embarcadero Center #4, San Francisco, June 25, 2010. (

I walked into the equivalent of an emotional tsunami. One of my former co-workers was in tears, while another looked completely stunned. Beane pulled me into Johnstone’s office, and closed the door. I explained what had been going on at the office between Dr. Williams and Johnstone over the previous eight weeks, and likely over the previous three years. Beane paused, then told me what had occurred when he read my report earlier in the week. He decided to fire Dr. Williams, while he demoted Johnstone and moved her to the Yonkers clinic. Beane was in the process of meeting with my former co-workers to verify what was in my report.

After he apprised me, Beane handed me my final paycheck. Then he said, “Thank you. What you did here was very brave and very helpful. But you know you can’t work here again.”

“I know. I knew that when I gave you my report,” I said. Thus ended my career working for Westchester County government.

The Messiah Complex At Work, Part 1

November 12, 2011

Heinrich Himmler, ala Messiah Complex, 1938. (German Federal Archive via Wikipedia).

Today marks eight years since my former immediate supervisor Ken (see my “Working At AED: Alternate Sources of Fear” post from June ’11) forced me into a meeting with the head of HR and his “all-wise” boss Sandra “Driving Miss Daisy” in an effort to strip me of my Assistant Director of New Voices title at the now defunct Academy for Educational Development. All because I did my job while he was out of the office tacking on a couple of extra days after we’d attended the Independent Sector Conference in San Francisco the week before.

But this wasn’t about me or me doing my job as I’d been doing it for three years. No, this was about Ken in the middle of a period of emotional and psychological instability, and about me no longer trying to work around his moments of mania and depression. After all, I had a newborn son to worry about, a job search to keep secret, and a book I was determined to publish. Couple that with a fifteen percent cut in funding from the Ford Foundation for the New Voices program, and there was no way I’d make it through my last months with New Voices without Ken reacting irrationally.

Anglo Corned Beef, November 11, 2011. (

It didn’t help that Ken suddenly wanted to do a New Voices conference in Mumbai, India as part of the World Social Forum with no significant planning that August, while I was out on maternity leave. It also didn’t help that Yvonne, our center director, chose early retirement in June over being kept into “Driving Miss Daisy’s” box of highly talented and experienced but underutilized managers of color.

Most of all, it didn’t help that I was completely honest, for once, in my assessment of my performance in my annual review that October. I dutifully reported my recent publications in The Washington Post and a semi-scholarly journal, presentations, teaching of graduate courses at George Washington University, and so on. During that meeting, Ken all but told me he was jealous of the kind of year I was having professionally. He even asked me where I wanted to be in five years. “I want to be director of my own project, of something like New Voices,” I said, again being all too honest.

So, during a week in which we had zero babysitter coverage, where I’d taken the week off to take care of my three-month-old son, Ken insisted that I come into the office. All so I could listen to an hour of accusations, insinuations and wild speculations. He accused me of undermining his authority because I relayed State Department travel warnings for Mumbai to New Voices Fellows. He told me how “amusing it was” that I had titled my position Assistant Director, even though that was the title of my position when I applied for it, interviewed for it, and accepted the position three years earlier. And even though he’d been introducing me as his assistant director for three years.

He accused me of sexually harassing a New Voices Fellow and two staff members back in ’01 over two conversations that he had heard about third hand, and not from a staff member. One was about a strange site visit conversation that had nothing to do with anything approaching sexual harassment. The other conversation, it turned out, was about me and a former staff member’s gastrointestinal illnesses, something we had in common. Ken also accused me of wanting to take his job, of believing that I could do his job better than he could. Only on that last part I agreed, with a definitive nod of my head.

So when he asked me to accept having my title as Assistant Director stripped, along with the commensurate duties that went with that title (including supervisory authority), I said, “No, I think it’s time for me to move on from New Voices.” It left Ken in shock. Heck, it left me in shock, thinking about how we’d make it without my income if I couldn’t find another job over the next three months. The HR director and “Driving Miss Daisy,” though, weren’t surprised at all.

The meeting Ken had forced made my secret decision to move on an open one. Either way, it was inevitable. As I’d written in my journal after my annual review with Ken a couple of weeks before the meeting:

Mr. Magoo screen shot (and a serious lack of vision), June 23, 2011. (

“The most telling comment that my Director made during our fundraising effort came when I asked about his vision for our project. ‘I don’t know what the project’s vision should be,’ he said. I realized at that moment that everything we had worked for would fail, no matter how sound our ideas. My Director’s vision for the project did not extend beyond his need to feel needed, to feel as if he alone could keep our project – and by extension, himself – alive. I concluded that this was a dangerous position to find myself in professionally, and that it was beyond time to go.”

Working At AED: Alternate Sources of Fear

June 28, 2011

AED’s DC Office, circa 2008, before the sign came down. Source:

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:

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.


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