For those of you starting out in the nonprofit sector, you may be surprised by the kinds of tasks you’ll be asked to take on. It doesn’t matter how educated you are. Doesn’t matter if you, say, went to Wellesley and graduated summa cum laude. Master’s in Philosophy? You can take that degree all the way to this here receptionist’s seat, thank you.
My first nonprofit job was as the teacher for a women’s shelter in Tijuana. While you might think that stunning paper I’d written in grad school on Leibniz got me the job, it was actually my work with the American Friends Service Committee documenting human rights abuses along the border that did the trick. The women’s shelter, Centro Madre Assunta, was run by an order of nuns from Brazil, and catered to women from other parts of Mexico who had come to Tijuana looking for work in the NAFTA-generated maquiladoras, along with women deported from el otro lado—the other side. (San Diego, my old home.) One of the residents, Rosa María, who was to become a close friend, had come to Tijuana to take some classes.
When viewed through the iron gates that harbored it from the city, the Centro appeared minimalist, a paved courtyard with a few trees plus a dorm building to the side. Behind the dormitory was la casita—a little house with a blackboard, TV, and games for the children who accompanied their moms to the shelter. The Center’s director, a loving but serious nun named Madre Gemma Lisot, showed me around and explained that my job was to teach all of the kids who showed up, and to keep the casita clean and in good order. After a quick tutorial, and for a $70 a week salary, I became the teacher.
And teach I did. My classes redefined the meaning of “mixed age group.” Some days, there would be moms and babies together with tweeners and teens in that casita. They came every day grateful to keep up their studies in any way, since the children obviously were missing school during whatever transition their family was undergoing. The kids, in fact, instructed me as much as I instructed them. And I don’t mean instructed figuratively as in, “thanks to these kids, I learned how precious life is.” I mean instructed literally, as in, “hey teacher, do you know you just told us that ‘Education will set you free-of-charge’”?
At the end of each day, after dinner, I would unlock the casita, straighten up the toys, and sweep and mop the place spotless. Part of my motivation in doing a good job was to humanize my people—my fellow Americans—and show that we actually do know how to clean up our own messes. We’re not just the blowhards to the North. Cleaning wasn’t that hard at all—just sweep it out, run the mop along the floor, and así.
One evening, a few weeks into my tenure, Madre Gemma invited me to check on the Casita with her. She glumly opened the door to the schoolroom.
“You see, Kenna,” she said, sweeping her arm around the place, “the casita isn’t really very clean.” She pointed to some shoe marks on the floor and some dried mop tracks.
“No es limpio,” she emphasized. Spanish was her second language too, so she always kept it simple with me.
“Ok, sí, Madre Gemma.”
“Tu tienes que hacer mejor trabajo,” she proposed.
“I’m sorry, Madre.” I promised to do better.
She swished off in her habit. After she had left, Rosa María walked up.
“I see that Madre Gemma isn’t happy with your cleaning job?”
Rosa María had a wonderful way of signifying through subtle inflection that I was just the slightest bit…laughable.
“Well, Kenna,” she said, grabbing the mop. “Let’s see.” And she set herself to show me how to clean. How to really clean.
First, you sweep the place to death. Then, mix the detergent in the bucket, don’t just spray the floor with the 409. Then, mop every crevice. Next, you rinse the mop and wring it out with your hands. And last, you go over the entire place a second time, with the dry mop. You see? Your turn.
That was cleaning.
Rosa María patted my shoulder.
“Muy bien, Kennita!” she said. “Ya eres maestra.”
You’re the teacher now. Of course, the christening was another moment of burlesque on Rosa’s part, because we all knew I was the learner here. I had, through my previous half-ass cleaning job, neatly confirmed the stereotype of Americans as douchebags.
Perfecting the part of janitor will not necessarily prepare you to become Executive Director, but most of you who have chosen to pursue nonprofit careers have entered a world where low overhead budgets mean most everyone is expected to hustle. True, your friends working on Wall Street, or even on Main Street, may have a custodian to empty their trash. But you have something they don’t. The answer to what that something is cannot be named in a witty epigram at the end of a blog.
For me, that “something” was the smiling kids running to the gate every morning, at the sound of my Tercel, calling, “Maestra!” For you, it will be something else. Meanwhile, the shock of the presumptively menial will wear off as you realize that you have accumulated a ton of experience along the way. Despite having to mop the floors.
Or perhaps, because of it.