As we continue to tie up the loose ends on the next Wise Fool publication, I wanted to share with you one of the great essays from this collection. As you may have seen, Why This Work Matters features 11 essays from community professionals of all types, from all across the country, writing about their personal (and sometimes painful) experiences, frustrations and discouragements — and what they draw on to keep going when it would be easy to give up.
I know enough about the situation that Joe Lawniczak has been in over the past few years to understand where he was coming from when he wrote about the frustrations of the state bureaucracy in which he works. And I know how beloved he is by the communities that benefit from his efforts. Joe is a class act, a dedicated community servant, and just about the nicest guy you’ll meet, too. Here’s a selection from what he very kindly wrote for inclusion in Why this Work Matters.
In September, 2001, I became the historic preservation and design specialist with the Wisconsin Main Street program, a statewide downtown revitalization program. I had finally arrived at my dream job, and now had the privilege of working with building and business owners across the state, helping them restore their historic building facades. It was not an easy road to get to this point, and it was not an easy decision to make the changes necessary to accept it.
Prior to taking this position, I worked at a private architectural firm for over 12 years, with a few of those spent attending college full time as well. I started out at the very ground level, and slowly worked my way up. For six of those years, I was an active volunteer for a local Main Street district, providing preservation and design assistance to a handful of local building owners. In a short time, I had made a name for myself locally and at the state level. I was the one the firm came to rely upon for most historic restoration projects.
I was in a good place.
When my predecessor at Wisconsin Main Street decided to leave, he called me to encourage me to apply. After much soul searching and advice from friends, I decided to take the leap. It was a decision that has changed my life for the better in so many ways.
But when I first arrived, I was far from impressed. I loved my job, and I believed strongly in the downtown revitalization approach that Main Street programs follow, as I still do to this day. But the fact that we were housed in a state agency full of bureaucracy and incompetency at many levels was just about more than I could handle.
I remember my first week of work. I arrived at 7:30 AM and was almost the only one in the office. At my previous job, people would have wondered why I was so late.
I remember asking a co-worker how I could obtain a building access card so I could come in to work on nights and weekends. He said he didn’t know because he would never work overtime.
Over the years, I saw countless times when upper management would have us reevaluate each of our programs in an effort to create more efficiency. Each time, we spent countless hours and endless meetings discussing it, and never once did they implement any of our recommendations. To me, it seemed like they merely wanted to make changes so they could say they were doing something, whether the changes were necessary or not. Ironically, because of all the bureaucracy, not much ever actually changed, but the waste of time was excruciating.
Hiring freezes and budget cuts took their toll as well. When I began in 2001, Wisconsin Main Street had five full-time and three part-time employees. Eventually we were whittled down to three full-time staff.
After my first year, whenever someone would ask how my new job was, I would simply say I love the job, I hate where it’s housed.
Thankfully, after I got to know more of my co-workers and more of the programs, I discovered that I was merely focusing on the few bad apples. There were dozens upon dozens of hard working, dedicated, passionate people in our division, nearly all of them employees, not management. Most of them knew their programs inside and out, were experts in their fields, and considered the people they worked with in the field to be friends and partners in community development.
None of them were in this for the money. They could have made far more in the private sector. They did it because they believed in what they do.
I began following many of my co-workers’ leads, devoting my energies to serving the communities first and foremost. Making the communities happy rather than trying to appease management made sense, since management would only be there for a few years anyway. This took a huge weight off my shoulders, and gave me a newfound energy and motivation. I valued the feedback from the business and building owners in the communities far more than any feedback I’d ever get fro m management, which was almost non-existent anyway.
As of this writing, I have worked with over 950 business and building owners to come up with appropriate designs for the renovation of their buildings exterior. Not one of them has ever intentionally wanted to do something inappropriate to their building. Most often they just didn’t know the best solution.
In the past 12 years, I seem to have earned the respect from my counterparts and other downtown development experts across the country. I have been able to travel around America providing speaking and training sessions, and design charettes,, and I’ve written several feature articles in national publications. That level of respect has given me confidence and motivation, without question.
But more importantly, I’ve earned the trust and respect of the communities that I work in day in and day out.
I honestly don’t know that I would be where I am today if I didn’t learn to accept and cope with the adversity that comes with working in a bureaucracy. Because of that, I’ve been able to weather many of the storms I’ve faced, including turnover with some of my key co-workers. And I continue to have a passion for what I do, as long as I remember who I’m truly working for…the communities.
Thanks, Joe. You rock.