The 2017 Shari Prestemon Social Justice Interns have graciously agreed to share their experiences with all of us. From time to time, we’ll be posting ‘journal entries’ from Naiomi Gonzalez and Katy Morton. Below is one of these entries.
Reflection on the Past Ten Weeks.
When I started at Back Bay Mission, I had two main goals 1) learn about nonprofit work and how a nonprofit organization is run, and 2) find ways to integrate my faith and my passion for justice. I believe both goals were successfully accomplished by the end of my internship. In regards to the nonprofit world, it was eye opening to be immersed in a nonprofit for ten weeks that has as many different programs and components as Back Bay Mission does. This, I believe, provided me with the ability to really see both the successes and challenges that come with being part of an organization that seeks to provide more than just emergency services and seeks to create clients that are self-sufficient and self-reliant. I also think I came to Back Bay Mission at an interesting time for the organization and for the nation. On an organizational level, Katy and I were at the Mission during Jill’s final months as a case manager as she retires at the end of august.
On a national and state level, there is a lot of anxiety regarding what will happen with the budget. The president drafted a budget that wants to sharply cut social service programs and grants. In the US, for a variety of reasons including an obsession with individualism and an aversion to taxes (except for course unless it benefits the military-industrial complex) means that social service programs have never really been well funded in the US. The one exception might be during the great depression which forced the government to take an active role in providing safety nets for its citizens. Since then however, we have seen the federal government go back on its responsibilities throughout the terms of both Democrat and Republican presidents. However, the president’s budget went further than what even many fiscal conservatives thought was wise. As a result, the House and Senate continue to debate and try to form a budget that is acceptable to enough members of congress to pass and be adopted. In the meantime, social service programs are in limbo. While they are fine for the next fiscal year, the future beyond that is up in the air while the budget is being debated. This in turn means that nonprofit organizations have to be wiser about how they spend their money. This, of course, should be a concern regardless of what is going on at a national level. But now, more than ever, nonprofit organizations need to take seriously the need for budgeting, keeping track of money and finding alternative sources of support. Talking with Shawn, the Mission’s CFO, was particularly important in helping me understand how essential it is that nonprofits keep track of every cent that they spend. Finances or anything having to do with numbers and math is not a strength of mine, but without a clear understanding of the money going in and out, a nonprofit will not only operate inefficiently but will eventually cease to exist altogether.
In addition to concerns about funding, which will always exist even though at certain times the worry is much more pronounced and critical, I learned that nonprofits rise and fall based on their organizational and communication skills. This of course applies to funding: it doesn’t really matter how much a nonprofit gets if it is unable to spend it wisely. But of course, this applies to other aspects of nonprofit work. Communication, for instance, is vital. Communication between leaders and other employees, between employees, and between the organization and outside community members need to be at the forefront of any organization. Communication not only helps convey information, but it also signifies respect. You communicate with those whom you respect because you want their input and you value their time and the strengths they bring to the table. Organizational skills and communication go hand in hand. They feed off each other. Emergencies and chaos are a part of social service work, but organizational skills and clear communication can prevent some emergencies or allow those that can’t be avoided, to be managed in a way that does the least amount of harm to the organization as a whole and to the individuals within it.
My time at Back Bay Mission also reinforced how important it is to keep both the big picture and the little picture in mind. I tend to talk a lot about the big picture but part of that is because so many organizations and individuals are so hyper focused on the little picture that they forget that there is a bigger story to be told. For example, what is going on in Charlottesville, Virginia, is not simply about that particularly city. It touches on the larger history of racism, Nazism, and state indifference to the suffering of black and brown bodies. It touches on the disparate police responses between predominately black and brown protests against police brutality and a rally in which hundreds of white nationalists used violence and intimidation against black and brown bodies and their white allies. But the problem is that many Americans are tempted to focus only on the small picture. But what is going on in Charlottesville only makes sense if you examine it through the lens of centuries of racism and state indifference and even encouragement of violence against black and brown people.
Likewise, for the Mission, both the big picture and little picture are vitally important. Back Bay Mission needs to focus on the specific needs of its clients in the area. Back Bay Mission needs to keep in mind the specific resources they have in the area. However, the Mission also needs to ensure that it has a larger vision and that every program or action it takes helps serve that mission. Back Bay Mission is working locally, but it also needs to keep an eye out on national conversations about poverty and homelessness.
The nature of my academic work means that I often focus on the big picture, but internships such as that at the Mission remind me that I need to be able to also take action on a small localized level. There will always be tension between the little picture and the big picture, but in order to work towards a more just world-whether in terms of minimizing terrorism and state violence or minimizing poverty and homelessness, both the big picture and little picture need to be frequently examined and referred to.
The second goal I had for my internship was to integrate my faith and my passion for social justice. Back Bay Mission provided the space for me to do that by giving me room to reflect on what I believe it means to be a Christian and providing ways for me to act in such a way. For example, for me, the heart of Christianity is justice and solidarity for the marginalized in society. I believe God loves everybody, but that God actively stands with the despised and rejected in society. What was Jesus but a poor, homeless, brown/black “thug,” killed by state violence? Back Bay Mission, because of its focus on the homeless and the poor, provided me with an opportunity to actively serve that population.
I am grateful for my time at Back Bay Mission and the lessons I have learned!
If you want to keep up with my writing: I have two blogs: Whoviantheology, which examines the tv show Doctor Who through a political and theological lens, and One More Light: Reflections on God, Justice, and Politics.