Friday, October 12, 2012

On Misuse, Missed Opportunities and Just Dealing With It

In 1945, my grandfather (henceforth Opa) was drafted into the U.S. Army. At the time, he had been in college for electrical engineering for three years (having been declined when he turned 18 because of poor eyesight), but in his own words, “my draft board decided that the nation could no longer do without my service”. Anyway, you would think they would put him in the Army Signal Corps, but nope; he was filled in as a regular GI, never mind his engineering background. That was a disappointment, but he did get to use a different skill eventually. Opa is Austrian by birth and spoke fluent German, and through the good offices of a friend, he wound up as a language instructor for a group of soldiers in New Jersey.

It wasn’t what Opa had wanted, but he made the best of it and, I can only assume, did a damn good job of teaching a bunch of GIs how to speak basic German. But when that unit (minus Opa) was eventually sent overseas, their destination was... wait for it... the Pacific Ocean! Even though the U.S. had occupied Germany after the war, and could probably have used a few good German-speakers,  it was off to the not-very-German-speaking islands of the Far East. Sixty-six years later, my Opa is still pissed at the government about that.

My Opa got screwed. His skill-set, and that of his unit, went totally unused. He was frustrated, and who wouldn’t be? But when that happened, he had no choice but to shut up and do his new job, because that was what the Army expected of him. So he went to New Jersey, bitching all the way, and did the job they wanted. It wasn’t glamorous and it sure as hell didn’t use him properly, but it was service in its own way.

I can’t speak for all of FEMA Corps, but judging by what I’ve heard from friends across the South and the East Coast, there are quite a few frustrated people who aren’t getting to use the training we just spent six weeks receiving. Instead of being out among the rubble, talking to survivors and helping communities, we’re pushing papers and fixing databases. Traditional NCCC appealed to me because of its direct service, its reliance on hard labor whose effects you can see. You really have to do mental gymnastics to connect office work to the visceral sense of service so many of us are looking for.

Now, in my grandfather’s time, the response to being misused or underused by the guv’mint was to shut up and do your job. I think it’s a bit harder for FEMA Corps because we’ve been told we’re so incredibly special to date. All of our instructors, the higher-ups in our chains of command, the deputy head of FEMA and the head of the CNCS have told us how great we are and how important it is that we’re standing here, ready to serve. It’s easy to get an overlarge head that way. We find it harder to just deal with our circumstances because we expected better or more glamorous work, or just because we know we’re capable of so much more. A lot of people have come up with a lot of panaceas for this feeling—find ways to be excited about your job, know that you’re carving out a role for those who come after you, take lots of FEMA training courses and stay positive. Here’s my two cents: you just have to shut up and do your job. Or, in the more moderate language of today, you just have to deal with it. (I love and take after my Opa.)

Yes, it’s a challenge. Yes, it’s not what we wanted. But the work will come. If it doesn’t—if there are no natural or man-made disasters, nobody dies, no communities are wiped out, no lives overturned for the rest of our time as FEMA Corps Members—that would be goddamn fantastic. But we can be pretty damn sure that it will not. The work will come, be it in nine months or two weeks or tomorrow morning. If you go home now, if you drop out and your team gets deployed without you, you’re gonna miss out on doing the work you really want to. We’re putting in time now so we can do the awesome stuff later. It’s the FEMA equivalent of eating your vegetables before dessert. Our expectations were so high, after six weeks of training that seemed endless at times, for us to go out in the world and finally, finally get started--but there’s no work for us right now, so here we sit. It’s nobody’s fault, and FEMA is trying to accommodate us the best they can (at least as well as any employer can find work for a dozen unexpected interns). We just have to make the best of it and wait for now.

Normally, this is the part where I’d tie the post back to the opening analogy, but I’ve pretty much shot my bolt with that story. Here’s another one. Long ago, one of my cello teachers told me—and this is true—that it was much harder to play slow pieces than it was to play fast ones. “Any idiot can play fast pieces,” she may or may not have said (paraphrasing like crazy). “It takes time and patience to play the slow ones.”

 It’s easy to rush to the aid of a community. It’s hard to sit around and wait. But you know what? We can do that. Because we’re FEMA Corps and they didn’t hire a bunch of ordinary people to be a FEMA Corps. They hired a bunch of awesome people who are dedicated to doing whatever they have to to help others. If that means putting up and shutting up for awhile, that’s what we’ll do. It's not sexy, it's not as fulfilling as we'd like, but you just gotta go to New Jersey and do what you're told. It'll all pay off the day we get out in the field.


Allison said...

We had some similar attitude issues in my CYNH corps year. Our team's motto became "Nut up or shut up". We realized that we didn't sign up to do easy glamorous jobs. We were recruited to give 10 months of our lives to a cause. We threw ourselves into it and I can honestly say it was the most interesting, crazy, and unpredictable 10 months of my life.

Randi Riley said...

Hello Andy,

I see that after your very informative and detailed post on our Atlanta location, you suddenly shifted from a FEMA theme. I wonder if you were "encouraged" to do this. Correct? No? FEMA doesn't like exposure. Management controls the message and brand. Since you are fond of history, you probably know that censor-like behavior indicates two things: the Kool-aid drinking, goose-stepping regime doesn't want you to know where their agenda is taking you and they don't want the agenda to be known publicly and stopped.

Since March 13, when FEMA Corps was unexpectedly announced and the entire system was nationalized to Central Planning in D.C., FEMA HQ lied to its Disaster Reservist employees as to your function and ultimate purpose. You are not a supplement but a replacement for a large segment of the Reservist staff who were suddenly fired and selectively rehired this spring and summer. They re-wrote our terms of employment and basically deconstructed our jobs to facilitate involuntary attrition and retirements under tight deadlines, unpublished, incomplete policies, unanswered questions, and insulting ultimatums. To date, @3500 established workers disappeared. Poof! Fair and Equitable everyone! The cost savings FEMA vaguely touts with FEMA Corps is that you are cheaper on a 1:1 ratio but our years, decades of priceless experience, program knowledge, and local rapport were discarded at a cost to be soon realized. There will be no savings with the New FEMA Order and it will fail for future collapsed morale, needless waste, and mis-management. The remainder of Reservist positions will disappear into the laps of bloated complacent PFTs, CORE (who aren't all bad as many are old DAEs), and offensively overpaid Contractors who usually create more problems than anything else. NONE of these have the historic, intellectual, or emotional investment in their duties and the suffering public as do most, but not all, Reservists. There are many crony-placed, chair-warming Reservists, as you will see, who should be culled from the herd. You will also learn FEMA employees resemble Supreme Court Justices. They resign when they keel over.

If FEMA Corps members choose to apply for positions Reservists once held, you will do the same, often routine, dull, indoor job at a much reduced rate with NO guarantee of work or a livable wage. At your age this is important, yes? You want some certainty and stability to chart a course to success and satisfaction for your future, yes? Well, FEMA is not offering that, no matter how much propaganda and ego-stuffing you receive nationwide. When I was your age and a guy used to overdo the flattery or keep telling me how beautiful, smart, or whatever I was at a bar or at work--my radar immediately powered up and I knew he wanted something, a hidden agenda, and could NOT be trusted. Tread carefully, dear. They aren't your friends. Watch how they really treat each other--the disrespect and negative vibe. We don't have enough buses, aka MCOVs to keep up with the body count landing under them.

Bottom line: FEMA LIED TO FEMA Corps and the Reservists. Like marriage, if they'll cheat on us, they'll cheat on YOU.
Ponder this, if you aren't Reservist replacements, then why are they sitting at home not being called and you, the very cheap(er) dates who are bound full-time by your CNCS overlords to any task and hours FEMA fancies, are being worked and trained like pack mules? What's the rush? You can't rebel or self-release after a couple of months like Reservists, if disillusioned. They don't intend for you to leave and there's nothing grandiose like your shattered expectations on the horizon. This is it.

So welcome to our world. I hold no animosity toward you and think you're a brilliant communicator and writer. We all deserve better than what we are getting from FEMA--you for your future and Reservists for our past. Just give it time and you will see. Facades cannot be sustained interminably under pressure.

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