In the Swirling Dust of Change, Life Still Goes On for an ED

It just makes sense that the founder of the Center for Digital Storytelling would tell his own story in a remarkably compelling way. Here's Joe Lambert with a thoughtful First Person Nonprofit account of how organizational problems can bring out the creativity and best in people and how, through it all, life goes on, though it's your choice how to embrace its everchanging moods:

My friend Daniel recently shared this Margaret Atwood quote:

"When you are in the middle of a story it isn't a story at all, but only a confusion; a dark roaring, a blindness, a wreckage of shattered glass and splintered wood; like a house in a whirlwind, or else a boat crushed by the icebergs or swept over the rapids, and all aboard powerless to stop it. It's only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all. When you are telling it, to yourself or to someone else.:\"

And maybe this is it: there's a dust storm in my head, and the shapes of the objects in my world are vague and uncertain. What this noise represents is not yet clear. Are they omens of change? Omens of letting go, to become something, or someone, else?

This year I lost my keys, my wallet, my computer, my office, and a small amount of the income my organization and I need to get by. Whoo.

The last four years we've been keeping seven full time and three part time people in place. Most of our income is earned income and historically if we could see X number of projects happening or not happening we could reduce or add to our staff.

As an executive director and someone who cares enormously about this ensemble of quality people with deep passion for the work, I didn't want to lose anybody. But we just didn't have the earned income projects in place. And my fear was that if I proposed a six-week layoff some people would leave.

Everybody makes the same salary

We're a completely horizontal organization; everybody makes the same salary as I make. I ended up telling staff they could take a six-week furlough and go on unemployment for those six weeks. Or they could go down to 70% time for five months, which would be 1.5 days per week.

What was really beautiful is that everybody picked up the banner and said this is what we have to do. We were able to use the California Work Sharing Program so that the EDD (Employment Development Department) paid 30% of the salary difference for people whose time was reduced.

We also did our very first donor campaign in 20 years, a project we put on IndieGoGo with a goal of $7,500. The campaign came in at over $13,000 and the board matched donations to get us to over $50,000 raised. This was a huge learning for us.

The good news is that we have been energized by the challenge and we're coming out the other side stronger.

The good news is also that I've found many wonderful new things. I found a fantastic new collaborator in Arlene Goldbard, who has led our StoryLab effort at CDS. I found a source of inspiration in the efforts of all of my staff, who discovered their own strengths, as people facing difficulties personal and professional, and as leaders in this work. I found that the new edition of my book was published which means a few more people might find my book.

My son Massimo reached his senior year in high school. My daughter Amalina became a chicken farmer and her productivity as a ceramicist was astounding. My wife Nina had one of her gardens chosen for a tour of the Association of Professional Landscape Designers national conference. And because Obama won re-election, and the Giants won the World Series, I consider all of the rest of the mishegoss a wash.

Fiscal, personal, and political cliffs

We will continue to have personal and political fiscal and emotional cliffs to fall from, or to climb down from, and certainly to ascend. Only present mindedness makes this possible: just by making ourselves at home in our heads, in our hearts, in our lives. That requires little technology. Instead: an ample meal, each other's company, words, songs, images, and play.

What I want is a different sort of exchange with living, a fullness that in my heart comes from a passing through the darkness and into light again and again. I will accept what this current passage will bring, but I know it will be a shedding of many more layers of the me I have been wearing for a long, long time.

I hope that means I can shed a few pounds as well.

Joe Lambert is the founder and executive director of the Center for Digital Storytelling, an outgrowth of his San Francisco theater company, Life On The Water. CDS develops curricula for gathering and using stories, and has taken the idea of participatory media around the world and to hundreds of nonprofits. Joe's background includes working as a community organizer and producing more than 500 theatrical shows. You can keep track of Joe on Facebook, at, or just email joe at storycenter dot org and share your story.

Comments (2)

  • Anonymous

    Great, uplifting story we can all relate to. Thanks for sharing it.

    Feb 13, 2013
  • Anonymous

    Great information thanks for sharing your nice thoughts. 

    Mar 05, 2014

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