One of my mentors at DMB and my roommate were both involved with an organization call The Michigan Citizen’s Lobby, which was an affiliate of Citizen Action. My work with the state student association got me involved with the national student association, which used a grassroots organizing strategy tool developed by -- you guessed it -- Citizen Action. The state student association gave me real practical experience with issue advocacy, and my connection with the folks at Citizen Action showed me that political organizing was a legitimate career choice.
It wasn’t long after that when my daytime role as mild-mannered number cruncher and my alter ego as a political activist clashed -- I took a day off of work to lead and speak at a state student association rally on the steps of the state capitol. When my picture made the newspapers the next day, my boss at DMB told me I needed to decide whether I wanted to work on the inside of the government, or on the outside.
That’s when everything changed. I just couldn’t see myself being happy making a career out of being a public administrator if it meant giving up my right to speak out, to do more than just vote to shape public policy and advance the causes in which I believe. It was at that moment that I didn’t just want to be on the outside, I needed to be on the outside. And with a little help from my mentor, I landed my first paid gig as a full-time activist and grassroots organizer and moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
At that first job, I worked mostly on single payer health care and environmental issues. That work, along with the help of another incredible mentor, led to an appointment by the Governor of Pennsylvania to the Coalition of Northeastern Governors’ Source Reduction Council, where I helped develop and promote model legislation to reduce the use of toxic heavy metal in packaging and other environmental issues. But far and away the greatest opportunity afforded me by that job was going through an intensive training by the Midwest Academy’s Steve Max on organizing for social change (also the title of their bestselling organizer's manual).
After a few years in Pittsburgh, I got homesick for Michigan and started looking for a way to move back. Some long-time activists in the disability community there had received funding to launch a cross-disability (physical, mental, and psychiatric) advocacy organization, and flew me up to interview for the job of Executive Director. I was their first choice and was offered the job but turned them down, a decision I quickly came to regret when, only two weeks later, the conditions at my job in Pittsburgh took a huge turn for the worse. I was miserable, and I wondered out loud what the odds were that the person who accepted that job would suddenly drop dead so I could have a second chance at it.
Well, he didn’t drop dead, but he did decide to leave for a higher paying position only six weeks after starting work. Fortunately for me, one of the board members who interviewed me suggested they call me back to see if I’d change my mind. (Already had.) I couldn’t imagine that this could get any better, but it did -- in an attempt to convince that guy to stay on, the board offered him a 25 percent increase in pay and an additional week of paid vacation, and felt it was only fair to offer me the same(!) plus $500 to help defray the cost of my move, further proving that I am one of the luckiest people on earth. So back to Lansing I went.