Jujitsu Lesson: Toxic Culture of Victim Identity

Over the decades, this poverty identity has grown from subconscious awareness to thematic.

A few weeks ago, Awal Basit [E-waste Scrapper, Dying for Attention, 1/16], one of the leaders of the "Scrap Men" (rather than "scrap boys", cred to Lalouschek/Wondergem) was calling my cell phone a ridiculous number of times per day.  I try to keep relationships with people I spent weeks with in Ghana.  Drive by saviorism isn't sustainability.

The technicians - Kamaldeen, whose dad made me the fairtraderecycling,com bracelet, Elvis, Yussif, Kamal and his wife, etc [all from Chendiba Enterprises]- might call occasionally, and we chat by Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp at least a few times per week.

How's it going?  How's the family?  Hey, it's national service day.  yeah? what's that?  You know, it's good to stay acquainted.

Awal and the scrappers are the Ghanaians of the north who never went to school.  He struggles even with Pidgin English.  Awal's text messages, outside of a few platitudes, are a mystery.  He's from the other side of Tamale's tracks.

The young men burning wires in Agbogbloshie typically don't have the parenting or resources of Chendiba dudes.  Geeks of color are typically valedictorians. Awal and his crew are not just "out of Africa", they are out of an unpenned Soukous Hilife William Faulkner novel.  They all live in a poor country, they all come from the same tribe and language and region.  But the Chendiba Techs are using downloaded schematics to fix TV tunerboards. They feel somewhat awkward around the guys who took the bus to the big city and live in a lean-to on Agbogbloshie's skid row.

In the Simpsons, the Chendiba techs are Lisa, and Awal is ("ha-ha") Nelson.  Awal is on the streets and he has to show he's tough.  He calls me whenever he feels like, having evolved far afield of pleasantry and shyness.  When I get perturbed and stop taking his calls (usually when I've forgotten to turn on airplane mode and my phone goes off at 3AM with the whispering distinctive ring I've applied), he starts sending photos on whatsapp.  Photos of burning wire.

"Your guilt gives me leverage!"
As I said before, he wants attention.  He's alone.  He sees an opportunity but doesn't understand what to do with it  Like the proverbial dog who caught the bus, Awal has a personal relationship with someone he may imagine to be as rich as Donald.  And what got him that attention, and the interviews with Justin Weinrich and other photojournalists, is burning wires.

When someone begins to feel that their disadvantage is their attraction, it can become toxic in a whole new sense.  As in toxic employee, toxic manager.  I'm important because of my gripe.  My victimhood, my lack of privilege, is the only currency I have.  Your guilt gives me leverage.

Fair Trade Recycling is trying to build successful businesses into even more successful businesses.  We think white box knockoff refurbishers in the 1990s, who turned into Foxconn and Acer, or cheap knock of car refurbishers who gave birth to Datsun and Hyundai, are not a miracle or a coincidence.  The best and the brightest in a billion-person marketplace finds the best value adding potential.  Find that person, trade with them, use their knowledge of the poverty around them to create fair solutions to it.

Those people, the technicians in Cairo and Jahor Bahru and Guangdong City, know the terrain. And when I share these discussions on the cultural dynamics of white guilt, do gooders, saviors and the downtrodden poster children, we see eye to eye.  If you haven't sat and had tea in Lima or Agua Prieta, or shared a ride to the Singapore airport with a Malaysian computer refurbisher, you don't know the chill down your spine when everyone you have the most confidence in, the best and brightest in every culture, share the same challenge.  Even if you haven't travelled, but went to college, you may get a call from a nephew or cousin who's out of prison and you feel your nurture buttons being pushed.  The best and brightest in Africa, South America, Asia, etc. get the same midnight calls I do.  But we know we'll be best able to play a positive role if we keep our business steady.

And that's where this chapter is very important.  Because Toxics ain't just a ju-ju, it's not just a cancerous chemical in the ashen soils of the Odaw River.  Toxic Workplace is a very real dynamic in fair trade recycling.  And the toxic employee or toxic boss described in Forbes is often harboring some beef or injustice, or fear or jealousy, to leverage moral currency.  The very same issues we have to deal with in American workplaces, or Thanksgiving dinners, are pandemic in emerging cities.  And NGOs too often send "volunteer" photojournalists or students or other volunteers out to "document the poverty", like white robed children onto a battlefield of imbalanced privilege.  What the NGO culture is doing in Agbogbloshie can be found in many Simpsons and South Park and Monty Python episodes.  "This redistribution of wealth is trickier than I thought," said John Cleese's Dennis Moore.

My first professional job after being a teacher in Africa was as a professional "cross cultural" trainer for new USA Peace Corps volunteers in Cameroon.  After 2 years of being paid Cameroon teacher wages, the weekly check from the USA government seemed like a windfall.  They were paying me to give lessons (like this blog) to a hundred or so bushy-tailed Americans, who enter Peace Corps for a variety of reasons, but typically sharing a lack of direction.  You are being sent for 2-3 years to live in a poor place, where everyone knows you are going to be there for 2-3 years and go back home to a rich place.  And the less educated and poorer your country constituent, the more exaggerated their perception of that gulf. Volunteers working with coffee picking collaboratives and fish farmers had a steeper climb than schoolteachers.  And school teachers sent to a "pioneer post" - first volunteer in an extremely rural area of Cameroon (today near the front lines of Boka Haram), have a to have a different set of skills than volunteers in cities with electricity and paved roads.

It turns out some of the best Business Blogs should be read by NGOs and Volunteers. Joel Peterson's blog on LinkedIn "Signs Your Company Suffers from a Toxic Culture" (Jetblue) identifies many of the cross culture clashes in do-gooder-ism.  People think that Corporate America is another universe from rural Mexico or northern Ghana, but "folks is folks".  And America, through Bernie, is experiencing the same shock waves of "one percent" exposure that Africans have when a Peace Corps volunteer represents "the one percent" to people living on a shoestring.
1. Unhappy people. When disgruntled people are in management positions, culture quickly become toxic, resulting in high turnover or the wrong kind of turnover (where the stars leave and the “dead wood” stays).
2. Unclear values. A management team that can’t articulate the priorities of the business or quantify them and set up ways to measure success won’t have value clarity – a culture killer.
3. No common language or folklore. The best cultures tell great inside stories, remember their history and celebrate heroic culture carriers.
4. Power-hoarding managers. Where leaders withhold information and use fear as the key motivator, the odds of developing a high-trust culture go to zero.
5. Second-class citizens. Bad cultures have a caste system. If the output of only one kind of producer is recognized and valued, it’s impossible to build a great culture.
6. Superficial diversity. Where managers only use race, gender or politics to create a superficial diversity, instead of ensuring that people with different life experiences are represented in the workplace, they can create cynicism.

Toxic comes from jealousy, "the motor that turns history" (French or North African parable?).  And its extremely difficult to brand yourself as helping the poor and downtrodden without suffering blowback, collateral damage, or building a card house of victimhood.  The Six Toxic Culture traits penned by Joel Peterson are pandemic in White Savior, Charitable Industrial Complex, and for Fair Trade Recycling to succeed, we must be brutally honest about our own vulnerability.  The toxic culture of victim identity can turn cancerous if the white leader is subconsciously negotiating to obviate his "burden of privilege: and the lesser developed national sees their "value" is their "sadness".

* * *

This toxic combination of toxic managers, jealousy, gossip, and leveraging privileges is probably what hamstrings another Fair Trade Recycling project, Las Chicas Bravas, or Retroworks de Mexico.  The womens co-op in Mexico is still recycling, but mostly Mexican waste.  We have less and less interaction with them.  I no longer send staff like Zach, Mike, Colin, Rachael, Pete, Tito, and John once or twice a year from Vermont.  And Mexican trainees who have come here to Vermont, if they came from outside the click of older ladies, tend to leave after a few months (I won't mention their names, it's confidential, but there are Mexican men who have told me basically the same thing).

Mexicans have two complaints about their time working at Retroworks de Mexico. One is pay.  Despite free rent and free CRT glass recycling, the factory hasn't been able to attract professional managers or bring the operation to scale. My company's toxic relationship with certain Vermont ANR staff cost us a million dollars, cutting our ability to fund management in Mexico.  Retroworks de Mexico's won and then lost its first contract in Tucson (largely a blatant case of covert racism, they held one event and stuck Las Chicas with the bill, cancelling the contract after the event was advertised but before it was held).  It suffered from insidious anti-export of ewaste chatter, brutal Mexican red tape, and every good contract I landed them turned to ash.  None of this was anyone's fault in Fronteras.

But until 2013 (when we lost and had to sue back for the Vermont contract), I tried keeping the place at scale by sending potentially repairable trailerloads of TVs from Vermont.  Or small devices like TV remotes, when the ladies complained of the weight of TVs, and their sore backs.  We even sent several thousand dollars of flat screen TV boards, which can be sold for reuse or as greenboard if you don't want to list them.   And in ever case, we got complaints.

The TVs are too heavy.  The remotes are annoying to dismantle, and their scrap isn't valuable. We don't know what to do with the LCD boards, you never explained it, and we asked two people and they didn't buy them.   There's not enough work.  You are sending the trailers too frequently and close together.

In the third quarter of 2013, I sent what I hoped were two good assets from Vermont to work there for months and really tell me what was going on.  One was a VP, John Fontanilles, who left early to start a world bike tour and photography odyssey wanderingbybicycle.   He lasted about 3 weeks and then couldn't handle it, after he found a bunch of good computers at the plant that had been sitting there for many months, maybe more than a year, and so he donated them to the elementary school on the other side of the fence.  He sent photos of himself and the Retroworks de Mexico staff and some kids from the school, donating the computers in front of the Retroworks de Mexico sign.

I got a complaint.  Basically "Your guy John gave away our really valuable computers and didn't get any money for them, and did it without our consensus".   I relayed it back to John by email, and if you know John, you aren't surprised he quit the company packed his bike and never came back.

That left Mike, my employee of 4 years who is naturalized Colombian.  I figured he's strong, he has worked at Good Point long enough that I know his strengths and weaknesses.  They need a strong body, I need someone to show them how to wrap tubes if they are going to send them away (I'd brokered a deal with a USA processor to take our whole tubes and return the sized pieces to send to the smelter - a deal I was proud of, avoiding all the work and risk and leveraging their CRT glass downstream end market.

Anyway, the complaints started coming in.  Mike is always late to work.  Mike leaves and doesn't tell anyone. Mike runs the forklift too fast, and he made a hole in the wall with it.  You got the CRT pieces back but now they are stuck on the USA side of the border.

Then a Canadian University (Memorial U) Geography Department got a $469k grant to research Fair Trade Recycling, and started in Mexico.  Dr. Josh Lepawsky first brought Chris McNabb down to meet with the Chicas, then came down with a larger group to interview the ladies and men who worked there, to get their side of what "fair trade recycling" meant.  From all the complaints I heard back about the Memorial University researchers taking their time and making money and not doing anything to help Fronteras, I knew their recounts of pear trees and oppression from Vermont were bound to come out in those interview.

There are many"e-waste victims", beit Awal or Vicki or a nameless child perched by the Seattle photographer on a pile of circuit boards (picture the NGO guy physically picking the child up and setting him but down on "e-waste" for the photo), or a water carrying girl asked to perched upon a computer monitor at Agbogbloshie.  And most people in America and Europe just choose not to think about them.  And the photography does make Europeans and Americans more "aware".  McElvaney says he is "holding up a mirror to society".  Guilt, leverage, blame, victimhood, liability, they all leverage a huge economy of international trade.

But when the people you are in a business relationship there think they are only there to play your victim, it sets up a cross cultural toxic workplace.  

[WIKIPEDIA 2016.02.20] A toxic workplace is a workplace that is marked by significant drama and infighting, where personal battles often harm productivity. Toxic workplaces are often considered the result of toxic employees, or workers who are motivated by personal gain (powermoney, or special status), use unethical, mean-spirited and sometimes illegal means to manipulate and annoy those around them; and whose motives are to maintain or increase power, money or special status or divert attention away from their performance shortfalls and misdeeds. Toxic employees do not recognize a duty to the organization for which they work or their co-workers in terms of ethics or professional conduct toward others. Toxic employees define relationships with co-workers, not by organizational structure but by co-workers they favour and those they do not like or trust.[1]

A toxic workplace suffers from a different toxin than poisons the bloodstream. Negative attitudes about the company or their coworkers performance makes the workplace miserable.  I triangulated Mike's side of the story with two other Mexican men in their 20s who were there then or recently left. While pay might have made up for the deficit, they said it was just a really unpleasant place to work, because certain older women running the place (that would be Chicas Bravas leaders) just complained all day.  Complained about Vermont, complained about whichever one of them wasn't in the room.  It was toxic, but not from the CRTs and e-waste.

The first signs were the first year. We hosted 6 of the Chicas, two by two, at my home for training in the first year.  It was exciting, NPR and PBS had covered us.  I had my whole house available, it was the year my family was in France and every bedroom in my house was full of Asians, Africans, South Americans, and Mexico Chicas.  The year I wouldn't exchange for a million dollars, and wouldn't do over again for all the money in the world.  It was the year I did my last business in Cairo, where my company sold tens of thousands of display devices between 2002-2010, and enjoying sushi with a Cairo Tech and a Mexican son-in-law intern was a typical day.

When a lady honcho returned after 6 weeks in Middlebury, I heard back from friends in Mexico that my co-host Tito had taken all the money and left them without food for the week I left to visit my family in Paris.  They were so hungry, they had to go to my yard and pick pears from the pear tree to keep from starving.  I thought is was funny, Tito is a personality and I love him but could figure out an angle or two they could be mad about.  But how seriously could I take it, I asked, when the same cans of corned beef and tuna fish were in the cabinet from when I left?  Did they not know how to use a can opener?  Did they forget to open the cupboard?  I admit the fridge was pretty bare, but the freezer wasn't. If they told my CFO Rachael, she would have restocked the fridge.

Now, rereading I see how this looks negative, and I risk committing the same gossipy sin, deflecting blame in the same symphony of white noise feedback that causes many to give up on saving the world.  My point isn't to deflect blame back onto the tough gals of Fronteras.  Their whole story is about women who are not afraid to speak their minds in a male-dominated culture and demand their rights as equals.  They'd make good union stewards.  They were in the newspaper for being tough, for complaining, for demanding rights to the building their coop had been promised.  The Governor met with the oldest one, and it was in the newspapers.  Poor women were considered un hireable in Mexico, were being laid off at 40 after years at a maquiladora or other company, and if they were widows or divorced, it was downright scary.

It's not about the gripes, it's about when you identify as a victim, and a charitable complex organizes around it, your victimhood becomes your asset.  And that's a doorway into a toxic workplace.  That is why I've embraced, instead, the "Geeks of Color".

My company had seen the Chicas victimhood as an opportunity.  And it was.  We got a CRT glass market capable of taking hundreds of tons per day.  We got national press for fair trade recycling.  A university research grant started a 5 year project at Fronteras.  The warehouse rent was free.

The danger I'm speaking about with Awal and La Chica is that when someone who has very little suddenly gets press and limelight for their victimhood, and white privilege and aspiration and attention combine in a loud circus party atmosphere of attention.... and then the attention stops and everyone turns another way... that it's completely normal for the person to see their complaints are their asset.  Awal sends pictures of wire burning.  Vicki, her joblessness taken away, finds problems with the job.

The more you are starting from scratch, the more heroic you are, but the more blowback you will suffer.  I love teaching at an African school and making it better, I don't want to go to a village and build a school.  (Yadji did that, and my 20 years as his friend foreshadows this narrative).  Some people can't see the first because they are too busy staring at the latter, or they decide to do a certain thing and then grab the first actor they meet, and put that person in a lead role.  I need to find someone whose main asset is what they can do, not what they cannot do.  

 But some people mistake their nurturing instincts over the latter (cannot do), their pity, for the former (belief in can do).  You need proof of can do, business requires individual merit.

Posing exotically in the Yenwa School Yadji had built
The Techs of Chendiba live in homes modestly better than most Africans, though often still dirt floor.  Certainly they are better off than Awal and his crew in Agbogbloshie.  But what joins me to them is their ability to do something very well.  They are virtuosos at repairing certain things that Americans don't want to bother to fix.  That adds value, real value, hundreds of dollars per hour, in a country where a dollar an hour is an excellent job.

Of course, in our negotiations over prices, there is still the dynamic of Retrworks de Mexico.  If I'm trading with someone because X, X can be used by that person to lower the price of Y.  Their loyalty is with their family, they may have a cousin who is homeless, and if they can get laptops more cheaply from me they will figure out what to say to make that happen.

But that's the charity the non-profit side of America doesn't understand.  They think business is exploitation, they think it's about getting rich.  For reasons I'm privileged to enjoy, I've made very little money for the past 3 years... heck, for the past 15 I've averaged less than I made working in the non-profit and government sectors, Good Point is practically Peace Corps wages if I look at the debt I take to pay myself.  But that's MY sob story, and the people who read this aren't going to do anything about it, in part because its my choice (and deferring income until your kids are out of financial aid in college is a big part of it... I'm not hungry or eating pears from the yard).

My form of charity is, every now and then, give the negotiator from Chendiba a really sweet deal.  Throw extra good stuff to the Medi-Com techs in Nasr City, Cairo.   Give Ow Yung Su Fung in Malaysia a pass on a missing stack of Pentium 4s.  This is part donation, part loss leader and loyalty building.  This is the central idea behind Fair Trade Recycling, that makingn something profitable to Africa MORE profitable at will is better than aid.  Using a deal to get Africa's Tech Sector to hire Awal's guys to bring wire we can sell and not burn it (and no, you don't need a million dollar grant for a 59k wire stripping machine, you can just sell unburned wire to China like Americans do).  The longer you do business with emerging markets, the more you learn, the better sense you get of what's going to work.

Your Talent plus My Privilege = Collateral.  Could Compassionate Capitalism beat charity?

I'm not denying white privilege, nor older women's professional status in Mexico, or the toxic nature of Agbobogbloshie's tire burning, or the nasty ways leftover circuit boards were managed in Guiyu after the Tech Sector pulled and graded all the most reuseable chips, heat sinks, and capacitors.  But when you play the game, you know the great plays, the beautiful moves, and you know the cheating and fouls.  I don't know if I'm really good at this game, but I know the rules and have been playing it a long time, and the leader of the Seattle NGO is a liar and isn't doing anything to benefit anyone.  The NGO takes Awal's picture, asks Las Chicas for money to be E-Stwewards. and calling the SKD refurb factories like Su Fung's "primitive".   It's like some loudmouth Mike Daisy starts describing things he's never seen, and does that for a living.

Using pictures of black faces to line white pockets.  That's what I'm talking about brothers.  Come the revolution, first against the wall.  When your story puts innocent people in jail, and you choose not to jeopardize your EU funding or your charity donations, you may well be going to hell, sir... checkyourprivilege, much?

See what I did there?  That's victim jujitsu.  I can play your game, too.

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