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.


Golden State Spencer Fellows

February 12, 2011

Spencer Foundation Dissertation Fellows Retreat, Berkeley, CA, February 17, 1996. Donald Earl Collins (psst - I'm the young and cute Black guy in the white turtleneck in the back row)

Fifteen years ago this week I went on my first trip to the West Coast. It was for a Spencer Foundation Dissertation Fellows retreat in some villa of a conference center just off UC Berkeley’s campus. It was our second meeting as a cohort, presenting some of our doctoral thesis work in front of a group of professors from Berkeley, Stanford, UCLA and other places. It was also a chance for the thirty-three of us to meet the selection committee that had made it possible for us to be Spencer Foundation Dissertation Fellows in the first place. We spent so much time in Berkeley and in Oakland that most of us didn’t bother to take the BART into San Francisco, so the trip was a failure in that area — not really.

But it was very important in one aspect above all else. I learned during our three days of meetings how I wasn’t alone in the world of academia. That I wasn’t the only misfit was the first revelation. There were other Fellows whose departments and classmates had shunned them and their work because it touched on the “soft” field of education. Or because it wasn’t hardcore quantitative analysis. Or because they weren’t thirty years old yet. Or even because of the age-old academic issues of looking at educational issues through the trifocal lens of race, gender and class.

Some of us talked about our dissertation advisors and their lack of support for us and our work. We were individuals who had won a prestigious individual award and a $15,000 grant to research and write a doctoral thesis, but somehow had managed to do this without the support of tenured faculty at major, even elite, universities! I found that fascinating. I also would’ve found that unbelievable if my advisor hadn’t been Joe Trotter. We didn’t have any obvious solutions to the problem of asshole advisors who may well not have supported us on the job market. Nor did we have a solution to their midlife crises or male pattern baldness. Yet it was good to spend significant time talking about this.

I also discovered through this retreat that I wasn’t the only one of us ambivalent about having a career as a professor. It didn’t help that we had a freshly minted associate professor from U Chicago talking to us about her average work week. Not because a forty to forty-five hour work week seemed anywhere close to arduous. At least to me. The half of the Fellows who really did want academic careers moaned quite loudly at the prospect of teaching, research, writing and serving on committees for so many hours. I, among others, looked at the list and found it rather mundane and restricting.

Many of us were concerned about becoming institutionalized, kind of like the way Morgan Freeman’s character “Red” talked about it in Shawshank Redemption. My own fear was that I could make myself a successful academician, molding my imagination and writing more fully into the forms of academic prose. Meaning that I wouldn’t be able to communicate with anyone outside of my subfield or field, and certainly not with the general reading public, who usually wouldn’t use words like fait accompli unless they were French speakers. There were a few other Fellows who didn’t want to write or do research at all. They wanted to teach, to change the world of K-16 education somehow.

Catherine Lacey, the director of the Dissertation Fellowship program at the time, concluded with a lofty and philosophical speech about our bright futures. It was a good speech. It made me begin to think about what to do with my life if I didn’t get a full-time gig as faculty at an elite university. For many of us, though, this would also be the last time we could be this honest about our hopes, fears, and warts when it came to our doctoral theses and post-doctoral careers. If only I had known about the Ford Foundation’s associate program officer program when it existed back in ’96.


The 1’s Have It

January 5, 2011

 

The 1 Train, NYC Subway, January 5, 2011, Screen Shot. Donald Earl Collins

Every year that’s ended in “1” has been an interesting one for me, and I’m hoping that this year’s no different, at least in a positive way. The number 1 may be the loneliest number of all. But for me, the years that have ended in that number have been good, bad, ugly and complicated.

 

’71: I was a toddler, so only a few fragments of memory here. Still, my mom and my dad married that year, only to break up five years later and divorce in ’78. It was a good year, but it led to a lot of bad ones for my mother and father, and indirectly, for me and my older brother Darren.

’81: Now this is where things for me became really complicated. I started the year a straight-A student in sixth grade, finished second in a writing contest, managed to get into the Humanities Program, and had good friends. But becoming a Hebrew-Israelite and having a head the size of Jupiter with my early successes made the last four months of ’81 about as miserable for me as being naked in a blizzard. It took until ’89 to recover from all of the problems that started at home and at school that year.

’91: What a pivotal year! The year began with me having high hopes of getting into grad school, not knowing whether I’d be in Pittsburgh, DC, New York or even Berkeley in eight months. I hadn’t dated in so long that I figured I’d finished my master’s degree before I started going out again. But the year turned that May, between getting money to go to grad school at Pitt and me moving on from a brief crush on one of my best friends. I finally decided to start dating again, nearly a year before I finished my master’s. It turned out that this sense of hope and acting on hope was the theme for the rest of my decade.

’01: The hope and optimism that I took with me from the ’90s remained. Yet the pessimism of working in the real world and real world events would temper that youthful sense that everything I wanted in life was possible simply because I had the talent, faith and drive to make them all happen. Between working as assistant director for the New Voices Fellowship Program at AED and 9/11, though, I learned that so much in my and our lives was well beyond my control. And with that, that people can do me harm even when my only crime is being myself. That yin and yang reality shaped the stagnation that was this decade, with marriage, Noah and Fear of a “Black” America among the highlights of an up-and-down ten years.

What will ’11 bring? I honestly have no idea. The only thing I do know is that I can’t afford to sit back and wait for something good to happen. This much I learned in ’81, ’91, and ’01. As Morgan Freeman said in Shawshank Redemption, I need to “get busy living, or get busy dying. That’s g__damn right.”


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