A Letter to Pollen by Melanie Walby
In our workshops with Pollen Studio Clients, we learn as much as we can about their work by asking a series of questions.
One of the questions we ask is, “If you accomplish your goal as an organization to the extent where you no longer needed to exist, what would the world look like?” Another question we ask is, “What would our community lose if your organization went away?”
These last few months, Pollen was asking the same questions about ourselves because it was a very real possibility that Pollen would go away. A public announcement went out in the middle of our crisis to share some of the hard news with our community. Our community rallied quickly, and because of your generosity, we raised enough money to push back the immediate threat of having to sunset the organization. However, we still have a long road of rebuilding ahead of us. Everyone feels differently about how we got here and that makes sense: we all have a different lens into life and work. Everyone feels terrible for different reasons but everyone agrees this was terrible. When people are traumatized, we are messy. Because we are human, people were harming and harmed. The hardest thing I’ve ever seen us go through at Pollen — not because it was hard, we know hard — but because we couldn’t handle it like Pollen would. It was bigger than us and it completely crushed our soul.
People were managing a crisis that changed daily, sometimes by the minute. A punch in the heart over and over for two consecutive weeks. The amount of pain that just happened to everyone and the shocking quickness of it all will take years to process and heal. The days of still feeling like we were getting caught up to speed on details that might change left us unequipped to check in with people who felt in the dark. People were stepping down and resigning left and right. Layoffs happened quickly. And then, a team of five was left doing all of the work meant for 12.
As we’ve all been navigating a traumatic, exhausting and impossible situation, I’ve looked to our own stories to sort out my grief about how everything went down to think clearly about what “Pollen” would do next.
“This is a big grief. It requires extra care.”
“Woke up feeling like a whole ocean is resting at my tongue, yet my ancestors are telling me to move slow.”
The Revolution Will Be Served On A Plate by Sarah White.
And the phrase we’re all thinking: “What the fuck just happened to us?”
“WTF Just Happened To Us” by Mitra Jalali.
This should not be common.
Everyone who has helped me process has similar stories. That does not make me feel better, just less alone. No matter if they work at a brewery, a nonprofit, if they’re a senior animator at Google or the leadership team at a design agency, everyone I spoke with knew this same hard balance of hiring for capacity to meet a demand that doesn’t always cover the cost of the capacity if the work isn’t there or isn’t completed on time. The field of creative services relies on many factors that are out of our control so we all adjust accordingly by looking at the numbers.
That math is hard because that math is people. It can either burn people out from being pulled in too many directions, which happens at Pollen, or it means companies and organizations have to let people go, which Pollen just did.
I’ve been laid off twice. Once was same day notice. The other was with two weeks notice and a going away party. I really wanted to do the latter for the Pollen team that was let go, but the truth is, it wasn’t up to us, or up to any one leader — it was up to the financials.
Urgency never leaves space or time for anything. People had to make hard choices really fast. And though I was very angry and pointing fingers because I thought it would have been kinder to do it my way, I’m reflecting now and I understand where the several voices telling me there’s not a good way to tell people they’re losing their job were coming from. In my own reflections, I’ve seen where I need to forgive and where I need to be forgiven.
It’s No One’s Fault and It’s Everyone’s.
It would be much easier if there was a malicious person to blame but the reality is, a lot of factors and people contributed to our current financial situation, including me. It’s also true that no one meant to. We all made mistakes, we all got hurt, but we all need to own up to the parts where we messed up, too.
Even though everyone’s upset, most people have been able to critique the systems instead of asking who’s at fault. I see this as grace. That grace makes me believe in a Pollen worth fighting for. I’ve seen enough times in my life that radical honesty can lead to peacemaking regardless of how impossible conflict resolution may seem when I’m in it. The only thing that makes sense to me is to act like we don’t know if we’ll make it or not, but be certain: we will tell these stories, regardless. A next phase of this organization only works if Pollen repairs the harm first. That’s who we say we are, so it’s who we have to be.
Confess and Forgive.
I’ve spent just as much time thinking about why it’s everyone else’s fault as I’m regretting the ways I think it’s mine. I’ve journaled how I’m angry at others and then myself, how I blame others and then myself, and then I write how I could have grace for others and then myself.
When I remember what my workload was before the team grew, I realized it was impossible for me to get us ready for that growth. Any time my brain tempts me to identify who else should have prevented this, my mind reminds me of a tiny team that managed to accomplish all that we were and are:
12 Rise & Hive Events, 12 Work Redux Events, 9 #LikeaBoss Events, 9 Unraveled Network Events, 7 Are You Ok Events and stories, 3 Life Reimagined Events, 2 Pollen Live s, 7 years of 50/50 Celebrations, Dozens of Feature Stories and Pollen Studio Projects, and 4 Voter Guides.
I’ve worked here for six years, I know this is a community that can talk publicly about hard things and if I didn’t believe we’ll do that even now, I would have already resigned. Everyone who was wounded from this deserves to see Pollen the institution model how to confess and forgive as Pollen the humans. We have to lean into the conflict, talk about thorny topics, share our learnings and tip this conversation into action. Regardless of what happens next, we want to spend our time doing that.