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It’s been ten years since I left that place…

November 26, 2023, 3:02 PM

This year marks an anniversary that just seems weird to think about: it has now been ten years since I left my job at Food & Water Watch.  Ten years since I finally decided that enough was enough, and left an extremely toxic work environment.

The relationship started out innocently enough.  Back in 2007, I was really involved with political activism, and I was also looking for a job that would enable me to get out of Walmart and move out on my own.  A nonprofit organization that advocated for consumer issues seemed like a perfect fit.  It was something that I could easily explain to my parents when it came to what the organization did, and the job that they were offering, office manager, was a perfect entry-level job for someone getting their first “real” job after college.  I remember finding them in a search on Idealist.org while sitting at an Internet terminal at the Staunton Public Library, a few hours after Walmart fired me.  I bookmarked their listing, and then, two days later, I fired off an application for them while sitting with my laptop at a coffee shop in downtown Staunton, along with a bunch of applications to other places.  I got a call for an interview a few days later, and then I scored a second interview at the end of the first interview.  The second interview went well, and then the following week, I got a call offering me the job.  I produced this Journal entry immediately after getting it.

The job, meanwhile, was one of constant evolution.  When I started, the organization was only about twenty people, with most working out of the Washington, DC headquarters.  My role was something of a generalist in a small nonprofit.  Then as the organization grew, my generalist role evolved with the organization.  Over the years, I want to say that they created about five or six different specialized roles out of my job functions.  And eventually, they evolved my role right out of existence, and made it very personal, even though there was no reason for it to be that personal.  You know that it has to be bad when someone quits a job like that without something new lined up, and that’s exactly what that job was, as the toxicity was starting to consume me.  But despite having to cash in my 403(b) account in order to have money to live on while I figured out my next move (and let it be known that those bastards never paid out my unused vacation time), I ultimately landed on my feet, getting a job in public transportation that I still enjoy nine years later.

At the end of the day, Food & Water Watch did one good thing for me, and that was to get me out of Augusta County and up to the DC area.  I’ve now lived up here for more than sixteen years, and I consider Food & Water Watch to be something that defined my early years living up here, before I “found my way” and got into transit.  Because of that, I won’t say that working there was a mistake, because it was something of a “big break” for me, but I definitely stayed for too long.  I imagine that if I had not stayed as long as I had, getting out before they morphed from a consumer advocacy organization to yet another boring environmental group, I might view them more favorably than I do today.  If I had stuck around for a more typical length of time, like two or three years rather than the six that I did stay for, I wonder whether I would have a different view of them than I do.  All the same, I’m glad to be out of there, but it does make me wonder.  Out of all of my past employers, the only one I look back on truly favorably was CFW Information Services, since that was a good job with great people, and when that job ended due to the closure of our call center, I wasn’t ready to go, but there was no more work to be had.

One thing that I have come to realize after being diagnosed with autism, is it’s amazing that I lasted there as long as I did.  The organization hated structure, and hated process and procedure.  As an autistic person, I thrive in a structured environment.  Things have a certain flow to them when I know what is supposed to happen when, and things follow processes.  Without that structure, I start to go crazy.  I like routines and set times when things happen.  I like that predictability, and am more productive that way, when everything is mapped out.  I tried to implement structure into my own workflows, but the organizational culture was such that they pooh-poohed my attempts at adding more structure to my position, and because of that, my attempts to make my role more structured failed, to everyone’s detriment.  Everything was an emergency there, and everyone wanted me to drop everything and deal with their latest “emergency”.  And you know how it goes: when everything is an emergency, nothing actually is an emergency, and I quickly figured that out.

I also have realized in hindsight that many of my “friends” in the office were only friendly to me because they were mining me for entertainment.  I remember that one of them started a Twitter called @StuffSchuminSays quoting things that I said around the office completely out of context.  I didn’t particularly appreciate that one, and they quickly made the account disappear when I mentioned that I didn’t like it. However, it did express a certain sentiment that showed that they might have liked me, but not necessarily for the “right” reasons, and that they didn’t really respect me, or my role in the organization.  Now, don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of people there who genuinely liked and respected me, but there was a subset of employees who definitely didn’t respect me and only liked me in order to mine me for their own amusement.  And unfortunately, it was only with the benefit of hindsight that I recognized what kind of people those folks actually were.  At the time, I thought that I was finally one of the cool kids.  In reality, no, I was being made fun of by the cool kids, and I was too autistic to recognize that this was mean-spirited and not merely in good fun.  When I say that I’ve intentionally distanced myself from a lot of my old coworkers at Food & Water Watch, those people are the ones that I’m referring to.  We’ll be polite to each other and briefly chat if we ever encounter each other out in the world, but I am not going to make any effort to get together with any of the people in that subset of employees anymore.

Though it did amuse me to see this one former colleague of mine, this girl named Miranda, on a somewhat regular basis when I was operating the bus.  Her typical behavior towards me when we worked together could best be described as hostile and rude, and it was clear from her behavior that she thought that I was beneath her.  If it tells you anything, she was also the closest that I ever came to calling someone a bitch to their face at work, but I managed to keep it together.  But when she saw me operating the 16th Street bus, which went past Food & Water Watch, she put on this whole big show on the bus about being so happy to see me, and this big fake smile and all of that.  I was not impressed, mainly because I knew what she was really about from having worked with her.  I couldn’t help but think, you are not a nice person, so shut up, pay your fare, and go sit down.  On a similar note, I remember whenever one of my “friends” from the office (the same one who made that Twitter account) would ride the bus, he would skip out on the fare because we knew each other.  He didn’t know that I was marking him as a fare evader in the farebox every time that he did that, but all the same, I was like, come on, you’re better than this.  But it certainly showed his attitude about things, that he had no concerns about using me as a means to be a cheapskate.  I would have laughed if there had been an undercover officer on my bus and they had nailed him for that.

Meanwhile, there’s one element of it all where I kind of feel guilty about my feelings about it.  Specifically, it came from seeing the LinkedIn profile of the person who replaced me.  Recall that my boss, Lane Brooks, had demoted me from my back-office role to receptionist with an eye towards driving me out of the organization, while taking my old role, adding some new responsibilities to it and calling it “Logistics Manager”, and then hiring it out, claiming that I was not qualified for the new role.  Once I submitted my resignation, Lane quickly promoted an intern to the receptionist role, and I trained them before I left.  So on the day that I left the organization, my replacement was the receptionist, and the Logistics Manager position was being advertised for hire.  Fast forward a few months, and I learned through Facebook that the girl who had replaced me had been promoted to the Logistics Manager position within her first six months as a full-time employee.  I sent her a note of congratulations, and I got to briefly say hello when I visited the office after completing bus training a while later.  I also couldn’t help but think that despite Lane’s making a big deal about my being unqualified for the role, that he ultimately hired someone who was less experienced and less qualified than I was.  In other words, that whole “you’re not qualified for this position” business was a bald-faced lie.  The real intent was more akin to this exchange from the beginning of the movie Tootsie than anything else:

Director: The reading was fine.  You’re just the wrong height.
Michael: Oh, I can be taller.
Director: No, you don’t understand, you don’t understand, we’re looking for somebody shorter.
Michael: Oh, well, look, I don’t have to be, I don’t have to be this tall.  See, I’m wearing lifts!  I can be shorter.
Director: *sigh* I know, but I’m… really, we’re looking for somebody different.
Michael: I can be different!
Director: We’re looking for somebody else!

And there it is.  They’re looking for someone else who isn’t you.  If Lane had said that from the outset, I would have understood, even though my feelings would have probably been hurt.  But at least then, I would have known where I stood with things, with no uncertainty about it.

Later on, I checked up on the girl who replaced me via LinkedIn, and found twelve different bullet points describing her tenure as Logistics Manager.  From the looks of it, she did fairly well in the role, with a whole bunch of stuff that seemed like logical extensions of my old role. and she was at Food & Water Watch as a full-time employee from July 2013 to October 2019, i.e. she was with the organization for marginally longer than I had been, though she had moved to Colorado at some point while still working in the role.  Then after she left Food & Water Watch, her LinkedIn shows a five-month gap before her next position begins.  I wonder if Lane didn’t eventually get tired of her and run her out, too.  I really can’t put it past him to do that, considering that’s what he did to both the finance manager and me back in 2013.

Where the guilt comes in, though, was from seeing those bullet points and feeling a little bit salty about it.  I couldn’t help but think that all of the successes that she lists there should have been my own, but the opportunity was denied to me.  In other words, I was simultaneously happy for her and mad for me, and the guilt comes in because none of those feelings that I’m having are her fault.  If anyone is innocent through all of it, it’s her, because she just happened to jump at the opportunity to get full-time work, which is reasonable, and ended up being the lucky intern that Lane picked after I had resigned.  She had nothing to do with the circumstances that led to my position’s coming open.  I felt guilty feeling salty over it because I knew that she herself had nothing to do with what I was feeling.

But then on the other hand, I had to then remind myself of something else: would you really have wanted to work for Lane Brooks for twelve years?  Lane Brooks had already demonstrated to me in the six years that I worked for him that he was not very good at his job, and didn’t want to actually manage anything.  He was a textbook example of the Peter principle, having risen throughout his career until he had reached his level of incompetence, and now that he had gotten there, his incompetence very clearly showed.  And he was definitely not going anywhere unless and until he chose to leave, because he was very close with the executive director, i.e. he had a job for life.  Twelve years working for Lane Brooks would have felt like a life sentence, especially considering how much the job weighed on me in my last few months there.  So, no, I wouldn’t have wanted to continue to work for Lane Brooks anymore, so I shouldn’t feel salty over the other person’s success, because of the situation under which I would have worked.

Another thing that I’ve found interesting is the way that I’ve reacted to my old Food & Water Watch colleagues’ getting new jobs and leaving the organization.  On more than one occasion, when someone announced a new job, my response was not, “Congratulations on your new job,” but rather, it would come out as, “Congratulations on leaving Food & Water Watch!”  It shows what an awful place that I feel that it is when I congratulate people that way.  When one person left Food & Water Watch after a very long tenure there in order to take a public-sector job in their home state, I couldn’t help but think that they finally got themselves a big-boy job.  Then there was another former colleague, the one who made the mean-spirited Twitter account, who left Food & Water Watch to take a job as an analyst with the federal government.  I thought, hey, he finally got a big-boy job.  Then two years later, he was back at square one, working in nonprofits again.  I couldn’t help but think that he tried the big-boy job thing and couldn’t handle it, so he retreated to his comfort zone, to work for a small nonprofit, similar to what Food & Water Watch was like when he started, before all of the massive mission creep.

All in all, I suppose that I’m glad that I had the experience, even if I wouldn’t want to repeat it again in the future.  And I suppose that it did come to its logical conclusion, as my interests had started to shift to other things in my last two years there, and I was less passionate about what they were doing than I once was, just as the organization’s focus was turning more towards environmental issues and away from consumer issues.  And I’m now in a much better place all around, having spent nine years and counting with my current company with no plans to leave, and owning my own house and being in a pretty good financial situation.  And I also look back quite fondly on my fifteen-month “sabbatical” between when I left Food & Water Watch and when I started with my current company, because while my finances might have been a ticking time bomb during that time (i.e. this is not sustainable and will eventually run out, but it will hold you over for a while), I was able to focus on self-improvement and personal projects.  Schumin Web really grew up and became a little bit more of a serious thing during this period, and the photography that I did during that period has a certain charm about it that I like.  And I consider all of that as a win, closing one door and opening others, or at least widening the existing openings.  Meanwhile, Food & Water Watch gets further and further in the past with each passing day, and I consider that to be a good thing, knowing that such a long “learning experience” is now over.

Categories: Work