Fencing Wish List: Pronouns

This is the final of four posts in which I’m expanding on the four areas I listed on my candidate info sheet, which I think are crucial for USA Fencing  to address:

These are not so much separate items, though, as different aspects of one gigantic puzzle. With the exception of the fourth item, which may well happen on its own as the other three are addressed (though I think there is much we can do deliberately in that direction as well), you make any major changes in one area and the others will be drastically affected.

So while I’m tackling each of these areas in separate posts, there will inevitably be some redundancy among them, because so much is so interrelated and interdependent.

Become a “We” instead of a “They” organization.

You can tell a lot about an organization by the pronouns people use to refer to it.

For all too many of its members, USFA is currently a They whose overriding goal is to wreck their competitive opportunities and ruin their lives.

  • THEY make me fence in the same pool as my teammate, even though that’s how the rules say it’s supposed to work.
  • THEY don’t book the flights referees want or pay officials on time.
  • THEY create schedules with conflicts that make me choose between two events that I want to enter.
  • THEY keep changing the rules.
  • THEY won’t tell me when my event will be done so I can fly out on the same day I fence.
  • THEY triple-flight my saber event or double-flight my foil or epee event so I have to spend too much time sitting around waiting.
  • THEY keep holding tournaments in cities I don’t like in parts of the country I don’t like traveling to.
  • THEY keep choosing hotels that are too expensive.
  • THEY won’t let me fence in the championship just because I forgot to enter by the deadline.
  • THEY keep assigning crappy referees to my pools.
  • THEY make it too hard to figure out what the rules are.
  • THEY won’t do what I think they should do.

It’s much easier to think of a dysfunctional organization as a disembodied entity acting maliciously against you. I’m not immune to the tendency—THEY’ve paid me much later than events I’ve worked, THEY’ve messed up my flight reservations, THEY’ve published schedules that were harder to run than they needed to be, THEY’ve changed the rules in ways that make tournaments more difficult to run.

But THEY are scores—even hundreds—of individuals. We’re a pretty typical subset of the general population—some highly accomplished, some less so, some passionate about making everything work better, others just trying to get by with the least possible effort. The problem with thinking of this eclectic group of individuals as a THEY is that an impersonal THEY is not something that can be changed or redesigned or improved. THEY can only be coped with or survived or avoided, and eventually it’s easier for the rest, the non-THEY, to give up hope of anything different, to decide that attempting anything else is a lost cause.

That’ll kill an organization fast.

Solving some of the problems I talked about in my previous three posts can help us become less of a THEY organization and more of the WE we need to be if we’re to survive our current muddle and thrive. We need to be more transparent and responsive as an organization, more competent and responsible. More than that, we need to develop an attitude, a sense of belonging among our members, a belief that we all have a part to play to improve USA Fencing, that we get the association we build together.

A former colleague in another nonprofit a couple of lifetimes ago was an absolute genius at making this happen. Someone would accost her, ranting about something or other they were unhappy about: “You people need to [do whatever was needed to handle whatever the problem was]!” My friend would ask a couple of questions, make a comment, and then ask one more question: “When do you plan to start working on that?” Somehow, without realizing how it happened, the infuriated ranter would find himself in charge of the project he’d not even realized he’d proposed.

We got some of our best volunteers that way.

But it only works when you’ve got a culture that enables participation, where the participants believe that what they can do will be valued and make a real difference. That’s the culture WE need to create.



Filed under Fencing

3 responses to “Fencing Wish List: Pronouns

  1. Manuel S Belmonte

    Hi Mary,

    It is with great interest and respect that I have read your “Fencing Wish List” blogs. I think that your insights are spot on! I see many of the same problems in the Canadian Fencing Federation: the problems seem smaller (as are we), but they are equivalent seeing our capacity to deal with them….

    As an outsider, I cannot vote, but you have my moral support. I will share this support with anyone who speaks to me about the USFencing elections!

    Thanks for sharing,

  2. Thanks, Manuel—I appreciate it. See you in Columbus!

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