Finding My Voice

blog - finding my voice image

At 62 years old, I am, after three decades, trying to find my voice. That might sound like an odd statement for those who know me, and have “heard” my voice in articles I’ve written for magazines and newspapers, or as a presenter or meeting facilitator. And yes, I’ve been able to insert as much Ned-Andrew-ness as possible into the work I’ve done, but, because of circumstances, I have not been able to speak freely. For a very long time.

That is slowly, incrementally, changing.

I have been an employee in two very big systems since 1992, when I was hired by a large university to be managing editor of a special education journal, and then a researcher studying the intersection of delayed language and challenging behaviors. In 2000, I was hired by a state agency to direct leadership and advocacy trainings for youth and adults with disabilities, and family members of individuals with disabilities.

Within these big systems I was not able to use my voice. Any outward-facing communicating was vetted by various people in other positions; in some cases, other departments. As a state employee whose position was paid for with federal funds, I was not allowed to be critical of other state commissions, divisions or departments, the Legislature, or the Governor, even when those people and entities were not living up to their stated purpose in serving the citizens of Tennessee. I was not permitted to give my opinion on the President of the United States, or what the members of Congress were up to, even when their policies and laws were harming the people I worked for and with, or my loved ones. I was not free to speak the truth at my job, or in my off, unpaid hours as an ordinary citizen, because we were repeatedly told that what we said would be a reflection on the agency we worked for.

This was extraordinarily hard, and suffocating.

In retirement, I am unleashed from those manacles. I will never work in a big system again. I will never work in a big system again. I will never work in a big system again.

In many ways I am not proud of myself. In my government job for the last 19 years, I taught countless youth and adults how to speak up for themselves, their loved ones, and others in the community. I encouraged them to find their voices, to advocate for their rights. I told them that “if you don’t speak up for yourself, then nothing changes.” I explained that bad situations you’re in will continue to be bad if you don’t say something. That hourly rate you’re making? It won’t get any higher unless you tell your boss that you deserve more. Those people who are picking on you won’t stop unless you let somebody know that you’re being mistreated.

And there I was, for 30 years, not speaking up for the things I believed in, for the injustices I was seeing. What a hypocrite I was.

I was afraid I would lose my job. I was terrified that my family would lose benefits. I had convinced myself at various points of dissatisfaction and disillusionment that no one out there would hire me at this age. So, I twisted myself into a pretzel to toe the line. Shame on me.

And then I reached a point where I could twist no more. Everyone has their breaking point. A loved one of ours on the autism spectrum has a reasonably long latency period, or fuse, before he blows. This person can take a handful of what we call “insults”, before he can’t take one more. It looks like that meltdown, or object throwing, or door slamming came from nowhere. But in reality, there’s plenty of warning, if the witness is observant and intuitive. Well, in my tenure as a state employee, I was the recipient of several, significant “insults”. With each one I’d get pissed, and hurt, and send out a few résumés, and then those persistent fears about losing my job and insurance would creep back in and I would acquiesce. I would silence my voice again.

In the last 18 months, those insults came with greater intensity and with much more frequency. In consultation with friends and loved ones it became clear that I was being pushed out – because no other explanation made sense.

I found that I could acquiesce no more. I was done. Fortunately, at the end of my latency period I didn’t blow. I got quiet, calm, and focused. And I found the first hint of my old voice when I said, “I’m leaving.”

This decision was met with shock.

A really good boss, one who was observant and intuitive, would have seen it coming, would have recognized the insults they were delivering for what they were, and would have made things right. I had two of those bosses, at the same company, 31 years ago. When I left that job it was to move to Nashville and the three of us – three grown men! – cried for a while and embraced each other. Throughout my eight years in their employ we absolutely had our differences, and on rare occasions when things got really tense we cursed each other to each other, threw objects, slammed doors. But I never feared that it would cost me my job, and I was never “insulted”. I was also never not respected or appreciated for my “voice”, even when I said things my bosses didn’t want to hear.

So, please bear with me while I find my voice. Please forgive me for not being a good role model. Please learn from my mistakes.

If I can offer any wisdom at this point in my life, it would be this: know what you’re trading and continually assess the benefit of working for or with a big system; keep your voice clear and strong; ask lots of questions during job interviews; try not to compromise your beliefs and values; work and live with integrity.

 

For another, similar perspective on the need and choice to leave a big system, read Gina Lynette’s excellent blog called, Making the Moves so that my Child can Dance.   

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Speak Your Mind

*

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.