“So, what do you do?”

Whenever I socialize with new people, I always dread the question: “So, what do you do?”   Not because I hate to be identified by my work.  Quite the contrary, in fact.  “What I do” is intimately connected with who I am.  No, I hate the question because once I mutter the words, “human rights lawyer” the response from my inquisitor is inevitable and invariable: a slight pause, a smile of sorts and then in earnest, “Good for you.  You must sleep well at night”.

Ha! Sleep well? Me? My sleep is consistently interrupted for one of two reasons:  anxiety or work demands.  The anxiety is caused by the fear that CERA won’t survive past the next fiscal year; that the 20+ years of commitment to addressing housing discrimination experienced by some of the most disadvantaged groups in Ontario will go up in smoke. Poof! Gone! So the work I do at night that keeps me from blissful slumber is mostly funding proposals that my colleagues and I have to churn out to try to keep the anxiety and fear at bay and the money rolling in.   Other nights it’s the administrative work I didn’t have time to do during the day, or, it’s cramming into the wee hours, the fun and creative aspects of our work …

Don’t get me wrong. I love what I do and I have an insane commitment to CERA – the little NGO that could! It’s an organization with integrity that does creative, cutting-edge, essential work. Plus, I wear jeans every day if I want to, I benefit from family-friendly personnel policies, I don’t have to ride an elevator to get to my office, and my colleagues are some of the most incredible people I know.  But, let’s call a spade a spade:

Working at a human rights NGO is often less about “doing good” and more about “staying alive” just to do some good.

In the current world order (in Canada), where NGOs, especially those working to enforce human rights, do not curry favor with government funders, and where core funding is a “no-no” in the funding world, you can well imagine that at CERA we spend a lot of our time writing funding proposals, coordinating a slew of volunteers and doing as much work in-house as possible because we haven’t the resources to hire anything but a small staff complement. And correspondingly, we are compelled to spend less of our time doing the work that is actually meaningful, that changes peoples’ lives, and that helps us get up in the morning – regardless of how we have slept!

I admit, I long for more nights spent wide awake worrying about how we can best convince a landlord to adopt a human rights-friendly housing policy.