Monday, September 21, 2009

Snapshots from the Sector

My entire adult life, with one short-lived exception, I have worked for not-for-profit organizations.  For fifteen years, I have gone to work in places that struggle to make ends meet financially, depending on the kindness of strangers through donations and volunteerism.  I have worked in places where we joked (in a laugh to keep from crying sort of way) that we would make more money working for the donut shop across the street, places where we brought office supplies from home, where people (myself included) have lost their jobs because the Canada Council for the Arts cut an operating grant, or a sponsor decided to go another direction, or not enough lottery tickets sold, or because it rained on the day of the outdoor event.

I knew getting into the sector that I was never going to make a lot of money, and made my peace with that a long time ago.  Never having made a big salary, I guess never got used to the perks that that may bring, and so I guess, most of the time, I don't miss them.  I have definitely had times when I wished I had more money, but by and large, I have comforted myself with the mantra that I go to work every day in a place that has a "higher ideal" than swelling the numbers on the bottom line, and that in my own way, I am working towards leaving the world a little bit better than I found it.

Lately, though, I've been questioning this a little bit, as Love of My Life and I have started to shop for a house.  I know that I'd have made much more money by this time in my life if I had chosen another path, and that it might be a bit easier. That it might be nice to have a job that I didn't care about as much, where I could just put in my 9 to 5 and forget about it at the end of the day.

But I had an experience today that reminded me that there are other benefits to working in the sorts of places that I do, and that is the extraordinary, weird, lovely little moments that happen in our sector that I'm pretty sure don't happen - at least on a regular basis - in a standard office environment. It got me thinking about the experiences that I have had may just rival things like dental plans and pensions and paid overtime. Like:

I have stood beside the stage of the Winnipeg Folk Festival, exhausted and covered in mud, as thousands of music lovers ran onto the site that we built, eager to get the best spot in front of the stage.

When a two-time breast cancer survivor crossed the finish line of a two-day, 60km fundraising walk, alternately limping and skipping, I got to be her first hug. "Thank you for making me do this", she said.

I have been in the room when the following conversation took place, every bit as serious as any boardroom exchange I've ever witnessed:
Wardrobe Mistress: I brought the fairies' wands to show you - what do you think?
Ballet Mistress (in thick Bulgarian accent): These two, good. Ya. This one for boss fairy. Need be more MAGICAL.
Wardrobe Mistress: More magical.  How do you mean? Bigger? More sparkles?
Ballet Mistress: No! No more bigger, no more sparkles, more MAGIC!

After accompanying a ballet performance at an inner-city school, I was approached by a girl who could have been no more than 7 years old.  She was rumpled, but smiling hugely.  When I asked if she enjoyed the show, she didn't say a word.  She just threw her arms around me.

I have looked into the eyes of an otherwise typical thirteen-year-old girl and seen nothing but complete sincerity as she said, "But Miss Jennifer, when you leave, who's going to take us to the opera?"

And today, I saw a boy of about 7 or 8 in - I kid you not - a full Batman costume walking down the hall of the hospital, reaching for his little brother saying "Adam, come on, hold my hand. I have to protect you!"

I'm not vain enough to think that I caused any of these things with my small part in working in the not-for-profits I have, far from it.  I love and am humbled by these moments as I reflect back on them, because they make me realize how privileged I am to work in the environments that I do.  Places where things like these happen every day, moments of utter strangeness, and honesty, and beauty, and humanity.

It may not be financially rewarding, but it suits me just fine. I'll take superheroes in the halls over a company car any day.

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