13 Lessons I learned at ACE

April 30, 2009

What a busy couple of months it's been! There has been a lot of work going on at ACE that we'll update you on soon. In the meantime, here are some wise words for you to enjoy, adapted from a speech our previous Director Penn Loh gave at his farewell party on March 4.

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13 Lessons I learned at ACE, 1996 – 2009

by Penn Loh

Penn receiving his 'professor gear' gag gift at the farewell party

On January 22, 1996 I started my journey at ACE, as our fifth staff person. As Research and Development Director, I was the first dedicated fundraising staff with half of my time spent on grantwriting and donor fundraising, while the other half was spent supporting all the programs with technical and research assistance. When our co-founders stepped down in 1998 and hired a new Executive Director, I became the Associate Director. Then, at the end of 1999, I was appointed Director.

It is with extremely mixed emotions that I leave this position at ACE. The ACE family and community is truly a unique place and a rare oasis of genuine relationships, diversity and a collective vision that we can make the world a better place now. I do not believe that I will ever work again in a place that combines the spirit, values and effectiveness that ACE represents. In the words of one of ACE’s co-founders, it is a “charmed” place. On the other hand, as ACE loses a Director, it gains a member for life. And, of course, it gains a new Director who holds so much promise.

It’s impossible to reflect on the last 13 years in a short speech. Instead I leave you with the 13 things I’ve learned at ACE over the last 13 years.

1. If it takes a village to raise a child, then it took a family (and partner) to support me as an ACE staffer, and it took an entire staff to raise a director. I couldn’t have done anything without all of you.

2. Two Ivy League white male lawyers really can make a difference and add value to the struggles of lower income communities of color. What I learned from Charlie Lord and Bill Shutkin about how to do this work effectively and respectfully as outsiders is to listen first, do what you say you’re going to do, always return your calls and show up on time.

3. Our communities really do care about their environment, as long as we define it as where we live, learn, work and play. Defined from this perspective, environment becomes a part of our daily struggles to stay healthy, keep a roof over our heads and feed our families.

4. Regular people (and youth) have a tremendous amount of knowledge and the capacity to create their own data. Early on at ACE, we found out that our own neighborhood mapping surveys were more detailed than anything that scientists or the government collected.

5. Youth are not just our future, but they are our conscience and inspiration. I’ve learned so much and continue to be inspired by our youth. Thanks to one of our first youth interns, Nicholas Copeland, I discovered that my last car, a little red Mazda hatchback, was a “hoopdie.”

6. In this society, there are too few spaces and opportunities for people to be treated with dignity, fairness and care; to have their contributions valued; and to have opportunities to learn and grow. This is what we try to create and sustain every day in the ACE community.

7. Seeing, hearing and smelling environmental injustice is the best way to understand the problem and challenge. We don’t all breathe the same air. If you haven’t already, you should go on ACE’s toxic tour of Dudley Square.

8. I, like many others, got into social justice work to change the world, but while we’re walking towards that new world, it’s the people that you share the road with that keep you going every day.

9. You can mobilize angry people to protest against bad things for weeks and months at a time, but it takes a dream and shared vision to organize people for a lifetime.

10. We need solid plans and theory to back up our actions. Going fast doesn’t always mean you’re going in the right direction. To achieve systemic change, we need to build power to scale so we can change the rules of the game instead of just putting band-aids on gaping wounds.

11. ACE is more than just a nonprofit organization and a job; it is a community and a shared vision for change. But we can never forget that we are in fact a corporation under Massachusetts law and a tax-exempt insititution under Federal law. Ultimately, for ACE to achieve its ultimate mission, we will need more than our current nonprofit structure and many more like-minded partners to be part of a movement.

12. If we understand that power is made up of political and economic dimensions, then we (and many of us in social justice work) have been excessively one-sided towards the political. That is why ACE’s new work around justice in the green economy is so exciting. In one breath, we can talk about the policies we need and the new economic alternatives we need for a sustainable and equitable world.

13. To really develop new leadership (and not just talk about it) you have to learn how to share power and cede it when the time comes.

Penn receiving a commemorative ACE poster

Finally, I want to put into practice what I’ve learned about fundraising and organizing for social change.

First, people give more to the things that they are more involved in, and second, you don’t get without asking.

So, tonight I would like to urge you all to:

A. Support ACE’s transportation justice campaign, which is fighting for funding for mass transit and for true accountability to riders. Given that the debate around the gas tax will be settled in the next month or so, we need all of our voices to come together.

  • You can contact your state representative and senator to urge them to support a gas tax that will adequately fund MBTA to prevent a cycle of fare increase and service cuts and to support “Riders on Board” restructuring to ensure that the T has Board members who actually rely on the T.
  • You can urge your friends, family, colleagues, and neighbors to do the same thing.
  • You can also write letters to the editor supporting these positions.

B. Give to ACE - join me in raising the funds we need to support our organizers and youth. Instead of buying me a drink, make a gift to ACE. Thank you!