Which is worse? To have worked for a bigot who once said, “You know, slavery was a hoax” as a joke? Or to have worked for an in-the-closet micromanager with a form a bipolar disorder? As someone who’s done both, they’re both difficult people to work for. But if I only had two choices, the bigot is a better boss to have any day over a bottled-up manager claiming to be a progressive. The key, of course, is to know what you’ve bargained for when taking a given job with a given organization.
I didn’t know exactly what I had accepted when working for these men between June ’99 and February ’04. Oh, my emotional instincts told me not to trust them, at least not entirely, even at the time of my interviews. Still, I needed a job. A decent or good-paying job. Part-time work in academia teaching only one class a semester only went so far. I had over $40,000 in student loan debt to pay off. And me and my soon-to-be-wife wanted out of Pittsburgh. For all of those reasons and more, I took my job as director of curriculum at Presidential Classroom — a civic education organization that brought high school juniors and seniors to DC for a week at a time — in Alexandria, Virginia in the spring of ’99. At first, it was a hokey yet relaxed place to work. Most of the staff was affable enough. Even if most of them couldn’t be accused of being intellectual powerhouses. Yet I had this sense that the other shoe had yet to drop.
It did, all right. In drips and drabs at first. With me being used as both the educational representative of an organization intent on making money through edu-tainment and as the one full-time person of color on staff. With the occasional comments that questioned my commitment and competence, based on nothing I had or hadn’t done. With the 110-hour work weeks on program with staff calling Asian students “Orientals” and Latino students “Spics,” as well as with Black students treated as if they were severely mentally retarded.
But the final straw occurred the week of my marriage ceremony, the last week of April ’00. After a semi-friendly argument between me and a co-worker over the intersections of race and gender in American history (she was and remains incorrect in her second-wave feminist assumptions), my boss walked by to tell me that “slavery was a hoax.” I already knew he was a political conservative who wanted so badly to be in the blue-blooded in-crowd of the Republican Party. I knew intuitively that he had hired me as a two-for-one show pony, a young African American male with a doctorate in history. I didn’t know that he was that bold and that ignorant, though. I was pissed, and stayed that way through the spring and summer of 2000.
Even when we had a loud argument in my office about his bigotry and my obvious unhappiness about being there, we found areas of agreement. He actually made it much easier for me to look for work while I was doing my job. I did my part as the show pony I was. And my boss continued to be the hands-off, almost neglectful boss he had been for all of the eighteen months I worked at Presidential Classroom. I couldn’t stand the man, his ignorance, bigotry and paranoia.
Still, it was easier working for him than for a progressive, in-the-closet gay micromanager whose obvious jealousies made it almost impossible for me to do my job at times. I’ve never had to manage anyone more that this boss, my immediate supervisor who was in charge of a social justice fellowship program. Ironic because if there’s any kind of job someone shouldn’t have to worry about how they’re being treated, it’s one as an assistant director for a social justice program. Ironic, too, because I wanted this job. I wanted to practice grantmaking, to help others make a difference in the world, even if it meant using a teaspoon to clean up an ocean of injustices.
Even here, there were signs early on. My eventual boss was nervous at both of my interviews. As if I were interviewing him. He also seemed quite keen on comparing his joint master’s degree program in religious studies and philosophy at Catholic University to my doctorate from Carnegie Mellon. Most importantly, he went about checking on me in my work as if I were a seventeen-year-old high school student. We met three or four times a week to go over the same tasks, ones that would normally take a person several weeks to perform, like lining up speakers for a conference, finalizing the logistics for a program, and developing a social justice curriculum. He once held up the printing of our first conference agenda because I used the word “forums” instead of “fora.” I said to him at the time, “I doubt the Fellows care what we call it.”
Like anyone with bipolar disorder, my former boss’ highs were way too high and his lows oh so low, to the point of being semi-suicidal. On the days of our conferences and retreats with the Fellows, he might as well had been on crystal meth and coke at the same time. On others, it was as if his family had been killed and that an asteroid was on a collision course with DC.
It meant that my boss paid too much attention to the details that didn’t matter and not nearly enough to the ones that did. Like one email run-in I had with a Fellow who insisted that it was his job to tell me and the rest of the staff how to do our jobs, that we “served him.” Somehow after putting up with this for four months, I was in the wrong for telling this Fellow to stop harassing me and the other staff. Of course, we didn’t receive any more condescending emails from this Fellow after that, but I was “too confrontational.” On the other hand, when our foundation told us in June ’01 that we should think about looking “for alternative sources of funding,” my boss somehow didn’t take that message seriously.
Then a meeting in New York on March 31 of ’03 happened. That was when the foundation had told my immediate supervisor that they were cutting our funding by 15 percent, and that funding would be a year-to-year decision, not a two-year check as it had been before. My boss called me from a bar around the corner from the foundation, drowning his sorrows in a bottle of MGD while telling me the news. He was obviously sloshed and depressed. Every time I hear Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus,” I think of him and that phone call.
After I realized that my boss had no clear vision for our work in social justice, I made the decision to quit, to find more meaningful, if less exciting, work. But not before he attempted to demote me for no apparent reason other than paranoid about me wanting to take his job. In the weeks that followed, he snapped, abruptly leaving a retreat-planning meeting two days after biting off the head of our organization’s CEO. My boss called me from the psych ward at Georgetown University Hospital a few days later, leaving the message that he “loved me.”
It’s been ten years since I accepted Presidential Classroom’s offer. Eight and a half since I said “yes” to the assistant director job. I’ve made a point to keep all of this in mind in the jobs I’ve held since the end of ’03 and in all of my job searches since then. There’s a reason why most people are unhappy at their jobs, even at jobs that they would ordinarily like or love. It’s not just because it’s not what they want to do or because of inadequate compensation. Working for and with incompetent, insolent and unstable people can make even a job we would otherwise love a living nightmare. I hope that no one I know ever has to go through this to make ends meet.