This is a story of how I changed the lives of 8 people for 10 days in a trifling way. But mostly, it’s about how I changed myself.
Many years ago I was a shy social worker at a small, non-profit agency helping runaway kids by giving them shelter, advocacy, and counseling.
We were housed in an old building undergoing renovation during the hottest July I can remember. Temperatures hit 100 F (37.8 C) every day. Because of the construction, the air-conditioning and ventilation system had been removed.
For 2 days, 8 workers and I felt faint, nauseous, and head-achy. We sat with clients gasping in the heat, sweat dripping down our noses.
The boss said, “There’s nothing we can do.”
The heat wave was predicted for another week.
At that time, my financial situation was grim. I was going through a divorce. My house was in foreclosure because I didn’t make enough to pay my mortgage. I had nothing in the bank and was living from paycheck to paycheck until I could sell my house.
This was a new job so I had no vacation or sick time. If I didn’t show up, I might be fired.
But I felt so sick, I decided to take a risk that everyone told me was foolhardy.
I typed a letter: “We employees can’t work under these conditions. We advocate for our clients, but what kind of role models are we if we can’t advocate for ourselves? When the temperature reaches 90 F (32.2 C) in the office, we are all going home.”
I knew the other workers would be too scared to sign this, except for one man. When he signed after my name, I engaged in a little subterfuge with everyone else.
I told Letitia, “John said he’ll sign this if you do.” She believed me. When John saw Letitia’s signature he signed.
I told each worker the same lie, starting with the bravest and making my way towards the biggest coward. “If we all sign, they can’t fire us.”
Everyone signed and I presented it to the boss demanding that he air-condition our offices.
He stared at me as if I were a mad woman. “That’s impossible! There is no air-conditioning system any more. What do you want me to do?”
By noon, the thermometer read 90 degrees. “Time to go home,” I told everyone.
“Are you sure?” they asked, afraid to move.
“Let’s go,” I said, gathering each worker and pulling everyone out together.
We filed past the shell-shocked boss.
I felt exuberant. I’d have a free summer vacation!
When we arrived at work the next morning, the boss announced, “I met with the board of directors and told them that Candy shut down our agency. They donated their own money and found a place that would rent us window air conditioners. Let’s go get them.”
We had air-conditioners for the 10 day heat wave that followed. And we got paid for that half day we’d taken off.
I felt like Norma Rae when she writes the word “UNION” on a piece of cardboard, stands on her work table, and shows the sign around the factory room. One by one, everyone stops their mill machines and the entire room becomes silent. Victory!
I was still shy. I still avoided conflict when I could. But from then on, I knew that if I wanted something badly enough, I would ask for it. Even when it was impossible.
Have you ever done something that changed the way you behaved in the world?