Hi everyone, I realized that last Friday was my last day as Executive Director of my organization. Today’s post may be rambly and a little sentimental, reflecting on nine years at an organization that I love. Please indulge me this week, and next week we will be back to nonprofit hilariousness (such as “Lessons we nonprofits can learn from ‘Naked and Afraid’,” a totally awesome show with much to teach us, such as if your staff or board is naked in the wilderness—maybe as a very creative retreat—the first thing you should do is make some basic undergarments for your team out of grass or leaves, since there may be leeches.)
Nine years ago, I joined VFA as a bright-eyed young Americorps member with youthful optimism and even more youthful acne. I had gotten my Master’s in Social Work, which disappointed my parents, who were hoping I would turn out to be a doctor, lawyer, pharmacist, engineer, or ideally a combination, such as phlawmacist or engineurologist. VFA back then was really small. I was the only full-time staff, and we had a tiny window-less office about the size of a kid’s bedroom. I had just moved to Seattle too and had few friends. Desperate for some social interactions, I went on Craiglist and formed a writer’s group called the Frustrated Aspiring Writers Group (FAWG; motto: “FAWG you!”)
It was a year of growth and learning. It was fun and frustrating. I remember working until midnight frequently, since we had so much to do (and I still had very few friends). One time, I was locked inside the office building. I had to climb out the window, and the whole time, I was thinking, God, I hope a police officer doesn’t drive by, because they might not believe that I was trying to break OUT of the building.
The frustration came from being a small organization with little capacity and no track record, which meant few funders wanted to support us, and also from the complex community dynamics that no one taught us about in social work school. After being yelled at a few times by some elders and seeing so little of my work leading to anything, I was ready to quit, maybe pursue my other dream of being a mariachi singer in Oaxaca.
I stayed, and another Americorps member, James, was placed at VFA. His energy and charisma were infectious. With James’s quick wit, spot-on impersonation of just about anyone, and love of Johnny Cash and Lord of the Rings, we quickly became friends. We were constantly cracking jokes even while we focused on building our organization. The amount of work we took on was insane, sometimes six days each week. We were both program coordinators but also instructors in the programs. I remember one day after we both finished teaching our respective class of recent-arrival immigrant kids, James and I slumped down against a wall, totally depressed. Only 16 kids had showed up that day, half our usual number. We felt like crap. And we worked even harder.
And it paid off. VFA started receiving funding, enough for the board to hire me as the Executive Director. Our programs started taking off. We hired more staff. It was exciting. With a bigger team, we did more stuff, really cool stuff like our Community Action Research and Empowerment (CARE) project, which recruited college kids, taught them participatory research skills and cultural competency, and sent them out to survey the strengths, needs, hopes, and dreams of the community. We got some amazing board members, support from great funders, and the momentum kept going. We served more kids. We created innovative programs, some of which failed miserably, and others that were just awesome. VFA started developing the reputation as the little organization that could.
It’s pretty great that VFA continues to be strong, and is only starting to reach its potential. The staff that we have are some of the most talented people in the field, and our board members are some of the most dedicated people I’ve ever worked with. We have wonderful supporters. VFA will be OK. No, it will more than OK, it will be great. I feel happy about leaving, and it is the right time.
Today, I went to the office with a box to pick up my stuff, including several unicorn posters. And it hit me, the bittersweetness of leaving my organization. For the past several days I had been meeting one-on-one with the staff to check in with everyone to comfort them during this transition as I step down from leadership. I didn’t take enough time, though, to process for myself what this means. It has been, after all, nearly a decade of my life that I have been here. As much as people give me credit for VFA’s success these past nine years, a couple of things must be said. First, there is no way this could have been done alone. It took dozens, hundreds of people, especially the ridiculously smart and passionate staff and board members who have lent their time and talent and sometimes money. As EDs, we automatically get credit for anything good or bad, but the ED is just the steering wheel, and a car cannot run and reach its destination without its engine and timing belts and tires. Each person who contributes to an organization plays a critical role. James was just as critical to VFA’s development, and so are the past and current staff and board members.
Second, good work changes you. My work with this little organization has changed me substantially, and for the better. I never thought that a tiny organization could affect my development as a person so much. But because of my time here, I have had a chance to meet and work with brilliant people every day. I’ve learned more stuff and had more fun than I ever anticipated I could at any work setting. I went home every day exhausted by the work and inspired by my colleagues and by the families we serve. Some of the kids who came to our after-school program years ago are now graduating from college. One has been working part-time for VFA. I took him out for ice cream. “Mr. Vu,” he said, “I don’t have a plan if I don’t get into a graduate program for physical therapy. I don’t have a plan B.” I looked at him and remembered the kid that James and I used to worry about. “You’ll be fine,” I said, “as long as you don’t go back to being that loud obnoxious kid you were in our after-school program.”
It has been an amazing experience for which I am profoundly grateful. I move on to my next adventure with Rainier Valley Corps carrying some important lessons that I have learned from my time at VFA, lessons like invest in people, find good mentors, expect change to happen slowly, believe that a tiny organization or project can make a huge difference with the right people involved, and never eat spaghetti before a site visit. Also, you never know what your actions may lead to; from FAWG, for instance, I met Rachel, who would be VFA’s very first Development Director (slash Finance Director slash HR Director slash Janitorial Technician).
Probably the most important lesson, though, is if you want to make something amazing happen, you must stick around.
I started packing up my few personal items. I looked at the award that James made for me shortly after I introduced him to the smoky voice of Mexican singer Ana Gabriel, which I liked to listen to after being yelled at by a community elder. “The 2009 Ana Gabriel Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Excellence is awarded to Vu Le,” it said, “in recognition of avuncular greatness and capacious administration.” It was signed by Groucho Marx, Commander of the Allied Forces, and was beautifully framed in plastic. I texted James. “I’m taking home the Ana Gabriel Award,” I wrote, “one of my proudest accomplishments.” “How long you gonna be there,” he texted back, “I’ll come.”
He came, bearing a bottle of cabernet sauvignon. “Can you believe this,” he said, “Costco sells four-pack bottles of wine!” We boxed up the rest of my stuff, then uncorked the wine and sat reminiscing about our years at VFA. It struck us how fast time has flown, and how different our lives might have been if we had never worked at this magical little organization that has been a magnet for some of the most amazing people. The landscape of Oaxacan mariachi music might be completely different by now if I had followed a different path. But I’m glad I followed this one.