Follow the Spirit

Today is the summer solstice, longest day of the year. It’s been over ten years now that I’ve looked upon each of the solstices and equinoxes as an important time—a time for reflection, for gathering my energy, and occasionally for mourning.

Seven days ago was the one-year anniversary of me being canned from the non-profit industrial complex. I’ve been fired from every corporate job I’ve ever worked in my adult life, so really, it was only a matter of time. There were some substantial differences this time around, though. In a regular job at a regular business, everyone is clear on the goal, the very point of being there: making money. There’s not a business on earth that has high-minded conceits of accomplishing anything else—it is impossible, because a business is a non-living entity. It exists only to expand and produce money. Whatever the people behind the counter or in the boardroom may tell themselves and others about their goals and purposes, ultimately everything is subjugated to this one, cold, basic fact.

Most businesses are exploitative by design and nature—the people at the bottom work to benefit the people at the top. There’s no ownership, no stake, and no illusions regarding the contract that is signed when one begins employment—you, the company, will pay me whatever paltry amount to do a job, and extract profit from my labor. Most employment is “at-will,” which is an obfuscative way of saying they can fire you at any time, for any reason, with or without notice.

The non-profit business world is likewise based on exploitation, but with the added layer of claiming some kind of social benefit. It may not be required for employees to consider themselves Heroes crusading for a Better World, but it’s common for them to do so. You’ve gotta have some kind of psycho-emotional crutch to get you through the days of low-pay, overwork, uncashable checks, and frequent uncertainty about whether or not the company itself will survive. Exploitation becomes not only financial, but emotional; you’re working for The Cause, which you Care Deeply About, and therefore will tolerate all manner of bullshit in service of your ideals that otherwise would be unthinkable.

Most non-profits, like most businesses of any kind here in the states, are started and run by white people. This fact comes from a simple calculus of demographics—there are more white people in this country than any other kind of people—and historical privilege—they have the resources and means to do it. So when I got the opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a clearly rag-tag, canvassing-based non-profit spearheaded by a black dude, I took it.

Those facts were not what attracted me, though. I was following the spirit. I had just decided that week to quit my job as assistant general manager at an upscale fast-food restaurant (that feels weird to say), on account of the general manager was a cokehead douchebag white man whose modus operandi was to treat all of the employees like scum and garbage, while doing as little work as possible himself (and possibly while pitching peen to the queer owner, but that’s purely conjecture).

This was early July in 2014. I planned to quit on the 4th, when the restaurant was closed. I told the entire staff except the GM that I was planning to quit, so they would be prepared to be short-handed. I’d also spent over a month taking statements from them, and documenting the GM’s rampant abuse. The day I quit, I sent all my documentation to the company owner, but also to his accountant and all the staff members. Since I knew the owner had some weird cult-of-personality-like romance for the GM, I didn’t trust him to act on my information unless that information was public enough that he would be pressured to do so.

It worked. There was an investigation by HR that resulted in the GM being ousted. I left that job a hero to the staff; from that time until the restaurant closed in 2017, I never once had to pay for food there. One former co-worker told me she believed that God had sent me to rescue them from their abusive boss. Given the path and nature of my life, it’s not the most outrageous possibility.

In the few days between when I decided to quit and when I actually quit, I was coming out of the grocery store in Alameda when I spotted some canvassers outside. They were wearing shirts that said “HIP HOP” in all caps. One of them was a dude I vaguely recognized from the local hip hop scene; I approached him, he gave me the pitch for donating and for taking a job as a canvasser. Turns out he was the Executive Director, who I will now and forever refer to as Crab Cakes. I gave him $10 and took his card.

What really got my attention was the hip hop education program they (supposedly) had. I’d been brainstorming for at least a year to figure out how I could work with young people and teach them about hip hop culture; here was an organization that (supposedly) was doing exactly the work I wanted to do, and I encountered them right when I was about to become jobless.

This is what I mean when I say “following the spirit.” The world is always guiding you if you know how to listen and what to look for. I’d long since realized that my health and sanity depended on listening. So even though the pay was minimal and the work, as a street canvasser, seemed inherently degrading and horrible, I decided to apply for the job, hoping to become a hip hop educator.

It worked. Eventually.

It was months before I recalled any details of my first encounter with this dude at a show, but it speaks to his general character, so I’ll tell the story: I went with my nephew and hip hop partner DJ Innalect to a small indy show out in Berkeley, and Crab Cakes was in the headlining act. Me and Innalect were with the crowd of smokers outside when the door open and this dude comes swaggering out. My exact thought at the time was: “This asshole really thinks he’s something special.” It was written all over him. I sneered, blew a cloud of smoke, and went back to chatting with Innalect. I eventually remembered that “this asshole” was in fact Crab Cakes.

Once I started working at Hip Hop Fuck-Shit (HHFS), as it will hereafter be referred to, I discovered that their “education program” was mostly a fantasy ambition. Crab Cakes had conducted less than half a dozen workshops, mostly arranged by friends and associates who were school teachers. I wrote this off to the newness of the org; it had only been in operation for a little over a year.

Within five months after I started working, a series of unfortunate events occurred that led to a near-complete implosion of the org. Crab Cakes got into a personal conflict with the Assistant Executive Director—a creepy white dude from an upper-middle-class background who had a master’s degree in non-profit administration—and this conflict led to all of the staff, myself included, resigning in a fit of disgust. It’s a great story, but I’ll save it for another time. Suffice for now to say that I ended up returning to the org, for the same reason I started there to begin with; I felt the strong guiding hands of the creator and my ancestors nudging me to return. Actually, in the case of my ancestors, they were quite forceful (and loud). I followed the spirit.

Crab Cakes, being a certifiable narcissist, had no genuine interest in “educating the youth,” despite his incessant, self-promoting lip service to The Cause. He put me in charge of the education program, knowing it was the reason I was willing to return. I loathed the idea of going back to canvassing, but I realized this was a unique opportunity, so I bit the bullet. I did my first series of workshops within a few months, and kept building.

Within two-and-a-half years, I’d taught workshops in over 40 schools, colleges, and youth programs, for a total audience of over 8,000 students. In doing so, I’d brought in around $30,000 to $40,000 dollars for the org. For the last year I was there, my salary was more than I’d ever made in any other job, a whopping $19/hour, full time. As someone who had committed myself long ago to participating in the minimal amount of employment necessary to survive, and as a person who had no debt, I was, in my reckoning, a rich man. Hood rich.

I was also losing my mind.

It didn’t take long for it to become clear that the only real force restraining Crab Cakes’s tremendous irresponsibility and fundamental incompetency had been the creepy white dude with the master’s degree in non-profit administration. With him gone, the org ran like a leaking ship. Every single effort the rest of the staff made to plug those leaks was met with warfare by Crab Cakes (too much of a challenge to his ego), and more leaks. He never met a dollar he couldn’t spend, never met a person he wouldn’t exploit, and—for the last two years I was there, at the least—never met a powder line he wouldn’t snort. I spent a good portion of my last six months there convincing other staff members to refrain from beating him unconscious. Sometimes I wonder if that was a mistake; but then again, these are great people, and I didn’t want them to end up behind bars over this guy.

As a direct result of Crab Cakes’s incompetency, the org was constantly on the rocks; there was not one single pay period in the last nine months of my employment when any of the staff members were able to cash their checks on time. One member of the admin staff discovered he’d been underpaid—to the tune of thousands of dollars—for months. I personally discovered that my medical insurance had been canceled without anybody bothering to notify me, yet the money for it was still being taken out of my check. For three months, I was paying (the org) for medical insurance I didn’t have.

Beginning in January of 2017, he went on a particularly egregious series of hijinks and fuckery that destroyed whatever flagging morale that remained to the staff. It got to the point where I was not only doing my job, I was doing Crab Cakes’s job as well; I was working with other members of the admin staff to develop training programs, strategies, and tactics to make sure the org could sustain itself. Nobody’s really sure what he was doing during this whole period of time, other than a lot of cocaine.

I was so disgusted with his exploitative, abusive, and irresponsible behavior that I was having actual dreams about kicking his ass. I stopped even pretending to give a shit about his ego-fueled diatribes about all the miraculous things the org was accomplishing; they’d always been a waste of my workday, and now they were infuriating. I attempted to coordinate with other admin folks on strategies for taking basic day-to-day business fundamentals out of this guy’s hands, so the tasks would actually get done.

Every toxic social environment with a villain in a position of authority is going to have its apologists and collaborators—people who facilitate the abuse by covering it up, pretending it’s something other than what it is, or finding scapegoats. These motherfuckers are just as evil and dangerous as the abusers themselves, if not more so; without a lot of help, abusers can’t get away with their abuse. Hip Hop Fuck-Shit was no different. Somebody, probably a couple of people, got in his ear about what I was doing. Between that and my refusal to powder his booty every time he had a stroke of inspiration to Act Like a Boss, it was too much for him. He fired me.

As soon as he did, I knew I was finally free.

Having run the entire education program autonomously, I had connections, networks, friendships, and opportunities in the school universe. I struck out on my own, committed to never working for anyone but myself ever again. Other than my sporadic work at an event venue that I do mostly for free concerts and excuse to socialize, I have been my own boss for over a year now. I’m still doing workshops, and I have both the time and the energy to continue working on music, comics, and events. I got my freedom, I got off the plantation, I got my mojo and my life back. I set my own schedule and I work where, and when, I want.

And I did it by following the spirit.

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About DZAtal

The true and living
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