I’m now 7 months into transitioning from an owner punk to an employee punk. Having seen both sides, I have some thoughts and questions which I hope are useful when thinking about how a successful clinic, as well as this whole coop thing is going to work.
When I started working at Providence Community acupuncture in August, I thought I knew everything about how to do this as a punk and about what it takes for a clinic to succeed. In fact, I’m really having to learn it in a different way. It turns out that being an employee punk is not just the acupuncture part of being an owner punk. It’s made me realize some mistakes I made in Philly as an owner and the sense of ownership one needs as employee in order to be an asset and not a drain.
First of all though, why the change in the first place? Why would I give up being a co-owner of a very successful and completely wonderful clinic in my awesome neighborhood to take a significant pay cut as an employee of another clinic? Parenting and the need for our family in N.E.. The need for a second job in the family. Struggles with partnership. Ask me about any of these if you’re interested. I think we need to learn how to be more respectfully up in each other’s business about this kind of stuff. I think the answers are important for at least these reasons. 1) Punk moves will happen from time to time. POCA should be able to help maximize the strengths of the punks and clinics involved, and support or interrupt where something is off about the punk’s move or where it looks like one or both clinics might suffer. 2) Part of our move towards coop-ness means that we get to consider all the ways in which the work of a CA employee can and should be just as important and rewarding a job as that of an owner.
Starting to poke in Providence this summer, I noticed that I was really up against my middle class training about different kinds of work and about status. As much as I philosophically saw all roles in the clinic as interdependent and none more important than others, I immediately felt less significant at Providence Community Acupuncture. Not because of the way I was treated or what was expected of me by Cris and others, but just because of some internalized notion that, as a founder/owner in Philly I was a Big Guy, prone to being shown a certain kind of respect which I somehow didn’t expect as “just” an acupuncturist.
For the first few months of punking in Providence, I noticed I wanted to tell people that I started a clinic. So they’d trust me more? Than the other non-owner punks? I think this problem is mine; but, its also a cultural one we should all check. We all grew up in a hyper-stratified, status conscious world, whatever our class experience was. Most of us have been exploited as workers, creating profits for owners and getting the totally inadequate scraps. Some of us have managed the exploitation for the owners, and been exploited that way. But, also, we in CAN and POCA spent a lot of time trashing acupuncturists and elevating the social business entrepreneur punks among us. I’ve now participated in problem-employee conversations as an owner or been privy to them as an employee. I’ve seen at times a thin line between justified rage at employee behavior which exemplifies the problems of “the profession” and patterned complaining about subordinates being annoying. How much of this stratification have we internalized? Has what started as a classism-fighting critique now served to reinforce a classist dichotomy between owner and worker within our minds? As we continue hiring more and more punks POCA clinics will be helping to first of all make relevant the job of acupuncturist by providing real jobs, equitable pay, real connection, and the opportunity to do a ton of poking. And, the systems we’re creating will keep killing off the “I’m special” crap we all hate so much about practitioners we’ve known. Can our minds keep up with these goals and go ahead and shift our view of ourselves and our comrades as acupuncturist employees to one of deep appreciation and respect? And, how (or will) will we employee punks earn and demand that respect and make ourselves central to the whole project?
So, as I returned to the check-earning world of the employee I was met with internalized stuff about status and hierarchy. My references were dozens of other working class jobs I’ve had. The feeling was that I just need to show up and do a good job, that I’m less important. This of course came with the relief of lower expectations, and also the subtle or not so subtle disempowering distancing that happened between me and the larger project, me and my colleagues.
Whats wrong with a little distance between owner and employee, between wage earner and leader? Well nothing if we want our clinics and organization to run like everything else in our capitalist economy. But, its not what any of us really want. And, its not how clinics are going to work. All shifts have to be full. That means everyone has to hold space for roughly the same sized overlapping-but-different circles of patients. Isn’t this the essence of the clinic’s work? All systems, administration, acupunking need to lead to this happening. All hands on deck need to contribute to it or it won’t happen. If someone is feeling less important, less committed to the project, the way they hold space for patients is going to suffer. I think I really got a first hand look at this in my first couple months at ProvCA. There was a way in which i really wanted to/needed to coast for a while. I did, and I believe it really negatively affected the speed at which I drew patients to me.
What got me out of this was acting with leadership. What go me to act with leadership, honestly, was that I was getting paid for doing non-poking, bigger picture work. At ProvCA, Cris uses the administration module system pioneered by WCA. In my case I’m getting paid, gloriously, to do outreach/marketing stuff. I love doing outreach/marketing stuff. I’m good at it when i do it. But, again, I think I really had to fight through the subconscious notions that hey, I didn’t start this place, or I don’t own this place, or I’m not really from here, and that Cris does that stuff so I’ll just add to it a little. In my best thinking I knew I could do it, should do it, but I was slacking. Until I realized that after a couple months the list I kept for myself with marketing to-dos was getting longer and not much was getting checked off. And, oh yeah, I’m getting paid for this. Anyway, as SOON as I really started cranking on this work my sense of belonging at the clinic really expanded in my mind.
Two specific projects helped shape my growing involvement. These were the organizing of our documentary screening event, and our fifth year birthday party. You have to go talk to people to this stuff. You have to go ahead and arrange child care and go meet people. To ask for help and to spread the word. I think our doc screening event was only marginally successful in getting new patients or spreading the word about POCA. But, it kicked me out of my shit. And, helped me start hitting a stride for organizing the birthday event, which was a decidedly more significant explosion of “aha” moments for acu-newbies. Coming out of that, I felt more fluid in talking to my patients, knew more about town and so started understanding the little local references. Especially in a city as small as Providence, you can get a degree or two from everyone really quickly. And, as we all know, that really counts for something with your patients. My schedule filled up.
I think the main thing that gets hard to keep doing when our internalized employee/subordinate kicks in is leadership. The coasting I did initially here in Providence was made up of giving up on acting with leadership. “Not my role right now.” Most of us, for many reasons from how were treated as young people to corporate control of the commons, have deep suspicion of leaders. This creates personal patterns of giving as little as possible to those in leadership roles when we feel we’re in a subordinate position. We leave it to Leaders, who get the credit for success and the blame for failure. We get both sheltered from and denied the essential risk. To the extent that non-owners are individually stuck in patterns of hopelessness about leadership, a structure like theocracy or consensus can only go so far in shifting our power structure to one thats more horizontal. This is true of power structures in our clinics and, of course, in POCA as well.
How do we bridge that gap of empowerment and ownership between owner and employee punk? Obviously, it’s not just up to the employee punk to figure out how to somehow get over their wage earner training. We’ve got to keep finding people who have the potential of being fully on board. But, I disagree with the shorthand we sometimes use that “there are those who get it and those who don’t”. If we don’t figure out how to work with people who don’t get it, we’re fucked. I still don‘t “get it” a lot. We’ve got to help people who partly get it to get it some more. Which is what we’re doing, of course. And why creating a school and apprenticeship system is so important.
As an owner and someone trying to hire punks, I think I focused, along with Ellen, on finding punks who mostly got it. I did less of a good job at continuing to communicate with them, supporting the learning curve while seeking their input. But, once again, the main thing in the way was the internalization on my part that what I did as an owner was ultimately important and what they did was important to the extent that they just figure out how to do their job poking. Being an employee again is helping me clean that part of my shit up I think.
What’s the employee/clinic owner going to do to engage and insist upon the punks full involvement. Of course this needs to be talked about extensively as we move towards the realm of coops. How are clinics going to start reflecting cooperative principles in terms of how/what people are payed and in terms of who really owns the clinic, and in terms of how the jobs are shared? Should owners be payed more than punks at all? What about founders original start-up costs and unpaid labor. How long will we still have owners and employees? What are the best ways to get everyone involved FULLY involved. I wouldn’t be doing community acupuncture or a member of POCA if I wasn’t hopeful about our being able to transform the notion of leadership most of us have inherited.