Questioning my presence and resisting irrelevance

I really wanted to write a more positive post about work, but that would be dishonest. So before I begin another lest than positive post, let me preface this with the fact that I am having an amazing time in Ayacucho. This weekend I’m going to try a few tourist draws in the area, to get to know my city. I’ll be sure to post thoughts on that.

Yet, enjoyment wasn’t the reason I came here and as my first full week in Ayacucho draws to close I feel irrelevant and a little frustrated. I also feel a bit jealous, reading about fellow YAVs’ dynamic, engaging work environments. This has led me to question my presence at CEDAP.

You see, right now it feels as if I’m an irrelevant 11-month fixture in the office. That is a really harsh critique, so I’m trying to work through it, to find some higher message or hope for the rest of the year.

On my first day, Tulia spent an hour introducing me to CEDAP’s work and team. Although I still felt slightly unclear on my role, I was very excited to hear that I’d be creating an economic program evaluation. Something I’ve actually been trained to do and I’ll admit, won’t look to shabby on my résumé when I start searching for post-YAV employment. I had a laundry list of questions, but Tulia said they were too busy right now designing a project and they would attend to me later.

No matter, I told myself, this is part of accompaniment and navigating a new organization’s culture. YAV orientation prepared me for this. I needed to take my own initiative, so I started reading about CEDAP. This include a massive evaluation of 30 years of their work from 1978 to 2008. CEDAP has been a powerful presence for sustainable development since 1978. As the materials are all in Spanish, the reading was slow-going.

And I was given more than enough time. I arrive at 8:30 a.m. and leave at 1 p.m. for lunch. Then I am back from 3-7 p.m. It’s quite a while to sit there without active projects, and I admit that I have used the time to enjoy the internet. I feel guilty for it, but without a connection in my home, the office offers an opportunity to stay in touch with family from home. At first this provided a  mental break from reading, but once I finished the books, it was the next best option to sitting around.

I am managing to interact with my co-workers some, though they are all quite busy planning. I’m a little unclear on what exactly the plans are, but this is definitely budget-planning season. I’m hoping to find out more information, but haven’t had an opportunity to properly ask without distracting everyone from their work.

I have had a few amazing conversations with members of the office. We have talked culture backgrounds and the pros and cons of quantifying development through economics. I have savored those moments, as they are what I’d been hoping for out of this placement.

And of course, I played soccer. Surprise, surprise I was easily the worst player on the field, but at least I enjoyed playing and as far as I know I’ll get invited in the future. Marco Antonio who has a desk in the same room as me added that he’s excited that I’m going to be around for all kinds of holidays this year. What’s more I can always count on Olgita, the temporary secretary to be friendly and engaging when I come in during the mornings. At least socially, I am present.

But work-wise, I feel irrelevant. I appreciate that Tulia means no offense when she turns me away. The non-profit world is one of constantly feeling behind and I am here to accompany, not add another burden.

Yet, I really want to contribute. I want to be involved in a comprehensive evaluation process, one that reinvigorates the organization with funding after they recently closed down a project area.

Tulia suggested I write a proposal for my evaluation of the projects during 2014 after she again ran out of time to meet with me. She said we could talk when she returned from a conference. I was happy to comply and figured I could put something together. Soon I realized that I had little idea of where to even start. I had no idea what data or information was available on the year. All I had was the proposed set of goals for the year.

The proposal started to feel like a setup for failure and disappointment. In messages with Jenny on the subject, she advised me not to panic and that I should not worry about disappointment. Instead, she suggested I treat the proposal as an opportunity to introduce my ideas for the organization and include my thoughts on what I would need to accompany in a more beneficial way for both parties.

Jenny suggested that I meet with Tulia regularly for the first few weeks to discuss the office environment, my role, and generally go through questions and answers. Additionally, Jenny suggested I shadow members of the office to learn about that work for the next few weeks. I liked both those ideas and included them in my proposal, trying to say that this investment in me would pay off dividends for the rest of the year.

So I wrote up the proposal and felt cautiously optimistic about meeting with Tulia. I turned down an invitation from Paco to join him on a trip to the campo as part of his seminary outreach work. I explained that I couldn’t miss work, especially my first chance to speak with Tulia upon her return.

Today, I gave Tulia my proposal. A process that itself was more complicated than I expected, when her computer failed to read my jump drive. (Email to the rescue!) Then she informed me, regrettably, that we would again have to put off a meeting while they finished off planning the project. Out of some divine intervention, I stifled a sigh (Should I have just gone with Paco?), smiled and said I hoped we’d be able to speak in the afternoon.

Perhaps I need to take a second and breathe. I need to remember that this is only my first week. There is plenty of year left ahead of me with promises for fantastic opportunities to experience CEDAP’s work in action.

Jenny pointed out that my presence alone is valuable just because I am willing to accompany CEDAP. I appreciate the sentiment, I’ve sacrificed my privileged comforts, and brought unique training in economics to work with an organization of which few outside Ayacucho have ever heard.

At the same time, that’s a really loaded justification. The reason comes out of my privileged identity as a white North American. Being present is great, but am I perpetuating structural problems by only being and not contributing to the office?

And what does that mean for my hope that I can meet with Tulia every day and shadow members of the office? I’ll inevitably get in the way and slow down work in attempts to learn the organization. Is it best for me to just stay seated in my office, a passive presence, waiting to be engaged? I honestly don’t know and I think that’s the root of my frustration right now.

My hope is that soon the sentiment in this blog will be a thing of the past. Soon Tulia will have time for me and I will integrate into the office, an active presence in the work of CEDAP. The nice thing is I can do more than hope, though I sense that path won’t be an easy one.

3 thoughts on “Questioning my presence and resisting irrelevance”

  1. Dear Kyle, I am here to assure you that this is completely normal when you begin a new job. The feeling that you are not carrying your weight, waiting to get something assigned to you, etc. I remember feeling like that when I got my first job. Very normal. Even more normal, for an organization that is probably stretched pretty thin as it is. Rest assured, you WILL become a contributing member sooner than you realize. I like Jenny’s suggestion about shadowing different people in your office. While you have the time, find out what they do. The information may come in handy when you are assigned your duties and and/or you may pick up new skills (never a bad thing). Read the CEDAP literature while you have the time. Ask questions, shadow people, and soon your role will become clear. Don’t sit and wait (unless you are waiting to see your boss to fit you in), get out there and participate! You’re destined for great things Kyle Coombs and you’ve already begun. 🙂
    Love, Mrs. Pietrow

    1. Thanks so much for that. Somehow it helps to know this is more job universal than specific to serving in this fashion.

      I was able to speak for a bit with my boss earlier and that helped a lot. She offered some information I had been wondering about and things sounded like they may very well pick up next week.

  2. I remember when I started my sabbatical at Lumicon I felt the same way. I arrived at a busy time for this new company and I was basically made to feel that my presence was more a hindrance than a help. Slowiy, I worked myself into the workings of the company, and the group began to look forward to my input. I do believe they were sad when I had to leave and wanted another “intern.” Tracy Radosevic was my replacement for a couple months! Hang in there. You are not only new to them, but your position is too. Be patient and pretty soon you might be missing having this spare time.

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