Roy Harrington, 63, has been in social services work for nearly 42 years, including 16 years in a leaderhip role within the children’s administration of Washington’s Department of Social and Health Services.
He now works on family and community health issues for Washington State University-Spokane. In workplace and community meetings, Harrington has long been known as a truth-teller, often saying aloud words that others fear to say.
This is the complete transcript of a recent “Wise Words in Troubled Times” interview.I was born in St. Helens Oregon. Lived there for a year. Grew up in Los Angeles until I was 15 years old. My mother and father were extremely active in their church. When I was 14 or 15, my dad sold the business that he and my grandfather had run, and we moved to Asia and lived in Hong Kong. I went to a missionary school in Taiwan for my junior and senior year of high school. Then came back here, and I went to Seattle Pacific College. Graduated from there in 1968. Got a master’s degree at PLU in social science.I was a child of the late 1940s and ’50s, and my grandparents were pretty conservative with money because they were adults during the Depression. My dad and mom were children of the Depression, so there was a lot of consciousness about being careful with money. My parents, very religious people, felt that what it is that you have the privilege of earning, you need to share with others. So they tithed very heavily within the framework of our church community. And as an adolescent of the ’60s, money was not nearly as important to me then as it has become as I’ve gotten older.I carried these messages as I grew up: Save it, never pay the full price for anything, pay cash, don’t pay interest. Work hard, don’t be fussy about the job you get and earn what you are paid. There’s no job beneath you. And never give up, never, ever, ever give up. One of my dreams was to pay cash for an automobile. But that meant you’d have to save money. Saving money was important, and I was never very good at it, until the last few years. Have I ever paid cash for an automobile? I have. Last June. It’s a 2005 Mazda truck. They wanted $16,009 for it. I stole it from them for $13,002. It felt really good to sit there and write them a check.We use the term “troubled,” but the older I’ve gotten, the more pejorative that terms sounds. Everybody has a story. If we learn how to listen, the story is invariably fascinating. What do these folks have we can learn from? They have their stories. Their stories are oftentimes troubling. People want to tell their stories, but we aren’t very good listeners. Mostly what we do is when the other person is talking, we’re thinking of what we’re going to say in response.What the families and kids I’ve had contact with over the years have taught me is the importance of just “shut up and listen.” And don’t make assumptions. Quit putting people into categories. We’ve gotten out of the habit of listening. It used to be, in multiple cultures, that part of the richness of the culture was based on the telling of stories, listening to another person’s experience. Our culture, probably in the last 40 years, has been driven by the plenty we have had and the privilege we have had of benefiting from the plenty, those of us who have benefitted. It tends to make you not as sensitive. We have a political culture that is organized around bloviation. I think that political culture is not a culture based on listening. It’s a culture based on “what kind of credit can I get for doing the next great thing” and “what deal can I cut in order to create the appearance we have arrived at the next great thing.” I don’t think that’s a culture based on listening.If you have plenty, the tendency is to think of yourself in more individualistic terms than interdependent terms. During times when things are tougher, we have to learn how to be interdependent. We are biologically, in our DNA and in our brain cells, we are interdependent human beings. Over the last 40 years, especially in this country, we have lost that focus. In order to be interdependent, you have to care about the other individual. You have to learn their story. They have to learn what your story is. You have to create appreciation for one another. You can’t do that if you’re not listening. When you can wake yourself up to the need to listen better, you really do find the commonality with other people. If you and I sat here for three hours and told stories about ourselves, we’d probably wind up being friends, because we’d appreciate we’re more alike than different.Was there a story I heard that changed me? One that comes to mind. It made an indelible impression. It was the spring of 1969. I was working in the juvenile justice system. I was brand new, wet behind the ears. We’d get together on Friday mornings. The whole staff would get together. Either someone would come in or there’d be some kind of a presentation. On this particular day, someone brought in a tape of a speech. It was the tape of a speech that a man by the name of Arthur Combs gave to the Florida Education Association. He’s one of these guys with a pedigree as long as both of my arms. He seemed to me at the time like an old fart, but was probably my age now, mid-60s. The name of his speech was: “A new light on the helping process.” He’d done a lifetime of research on the difference between good helpers and poor helpers, good teachers and bad teachers. He said it came down to four essential things. I have never forgotten this and I’ve probably thought about it three times a week ever since and that’s been 40 years.He said the differences between good helpers and poor helpers are based on four things. They are almost like clichés, but we make things so complicated, and this guy brought it right down to really simple stuff. He said, “We have to remember that people are more important than things.” Then he illustrated his point by talking about an interaction between a teacher and a student. This kid had come into school late one day, and one teacher said, “Johnny, you’re late. Please come in and take your seat. I’d like to talk to you after class. As opposed to the other teacher who said, “Johnny, it’s nice to see you. Come on in and have a seat, join the rest of us. Would you chat with me after class, please?” For the first guy, being late, absences were important. To the other guy, the kid was important. Why he was absent, he’d figure out later. But he wanted the kid to feel included. Rules were important to the first person; people were important to the second.Second thing Combs said: Good helpers have a sense of humor. They can laugh at themselves. In the kind of work we do, there’s the new project or new idea and we get so serious and focused that we start to personalize whether it goes the direction we think it should go. Or there is this failure or that problem. We get so wrapped up in this stuff that sometimes it’s nice to get on the balcony and say, wait a second. It helps you detach from the things we take so seriously. This financial crisis is really, really bad, but what’s important is him. (Harrington points to the photos of his grandson on the wall.) This kid is important in my life. He makes my day. In my new experience of having this grandkid, it’s been like this non-visual bonding experience with other people who have the same experience. Kids are precious. He’s Quentin. I call him Little Q.Why do we need to lighten up? Part of the problem is we take ourselves way too seriously. If I’m not there to take care of this, or take care of that, it’s all going to fall apart. Well, that’s a bunch of nonsense. The world isn’t going to end because I didn’t show up one day. We’ve got to stop taken ourselves so seriously. We should take what we do seriously, but that’s different from taking yourself seriously. It goes back to the issue of being a bloviator.Another thing Combs talked about is that good helpers understand that they are one with the human condition and they are enough. You find any group of 10 people, and three or four out of the 10 is either a substance abuser, an alcoholic or has someone in their family who is. Three out of four of these people have either perpetrated some kind of violence on another human being or had violence perpetrated on themselves. These issues we work with are not about other people. They are about us and as soon as we think of ourselves as different, we risk becoming separate or apart from identifying with the human condition. We’re all a whole lot more alike than different.Lot of us have educations. That is a difference. Am I responsible for me getting my own education? Not entirely. I had to depend on other people to get there. Some people don’t have that privilege, that help or capacity. The clothes we wear, the cars we drive, there is the appearance of difference, but when we forget that we are probably more alike. I remember talking to a group of people at Leadership Spokane one day. It was when Leadership Spokane just got started. It was a bunch of junior execs, bankers and so forth. I said, “How many of you are three months away from being homeless? No one raised their hand. Everyone in that audience was lying. How many of us, if we lost our paychecks right now, wouldn’t be in complete crisis in about three months? It wouldn’t take any longer than that. We’re all pretty much the same. Driven by the same stuff. Some of us are more aware of that than others.The other thing that Combs said, which I thought was really telling: All people are worthy of dignity and respect, and they hold that principle inviolate. That doesn’t necessarily mean I have to have a high opinion of every human being on the face of the Earth. But I have the responsibility to cut the other guy some slack. In the context I’ve always worked in, I have trouble with people who act out as pedophiles. Can’t work with them. But after listening to Combs, when I became a boss eight or 10 years later, I knew I had to have people who were working for me who could work with pedophiles. They had to be good at it. They had to believe those people were worthy of dignity and respect. My job as a supervisor was to make sure that there was a capacity there, even though I didn’t have the capacity.Those were the four things that Combs talked about. Those were life-changing. That was in March of 1969 and I will never forget it. I can describe the room I was sitting in when I heard the stuff. It was an ah-hah moment that lasted 40 years.As a kid going into the juvenile offender business, reading diagnostic records and doing social histories, I focused on the deficits that other people have. Why are these people having problems? It must be because of lots of bad things. It must be because they haven’t pulled on their bootstraps hard enough. You get into this judgmental way of looking at people, when your focus on people is looking at deficits or what you think is wrong with them. All of us have deficits. That’s part of the human condition. People don’t see my deficits as much because I have some kind of social skill that lets me hide them or compensate for them or something. The lesson has come back to me time after time after time.If you realize every person is worth of dignity and respect, how does that change how you act toward people on a daily basis? You smile at people. You open a door for somebody. You’re more thoughtful. You’re less focused on yourself. You don’t flip people off when you’re driving because they got in your way. You compliment people on things. You try to make people feel good. You ask questions. But don’t ask the question if you don’t want to listen to the response. The response might be a long one. Take the time. Ask the question.These are simple things. We create barriers. We don’t pay attention to relationships. We take our privilege for granted. We take our plenty for granted. We don’t spend time reflecting on who is the family down the street with the kid in the wheelchair. Seems like a nice family, but who are they? What’s their life like?It’s difficult when you work in these social service systems, and your work life is defined by the onslaught coming through your front door and being assigned to your case load. They are there because we’ve said they are child abusers or mentally ill or they are this or that or half a dozen other things. We create categories for people, and we take those categories really seriously because oftentimes we don’t take the time to talk to people and find out where it is they don’t fit the category. We create categories to make us feel more comfortable. It helps us understand something happening that is foreign to us. Sometimes categories can be useful, but a lot of times they are not.What we have created over the last 40 or 50 years is not sustainable. We have categorized people into bits and pieces and parts, and then we have built financial systems to fill those categories that serve those bits and pieces and parts of people, without recognizing that this bit is related to that bit which is related to that part over here. It’s not sustainable, because we haven’t thought holistically. We can’t continue to categorize and move forward. We’ve got to start thinking more holistically about how we do the work.Just in my business, I find my points of views a little bit heretical. I’m a way-to-the-left social liberal, and I’m in the middle, and maybe a little to the right, in terms of my fiscal outlook and what I think our fiscal policy should be. Try living within those contradictions.In the business I’m in, there has been a tendency to see these groups of problems and we absolutely have to take care of them by advocating with our legislators to get this stream of funding that takes care of this group of issues. You advocate at the state level. You advocate at the federal level. You get to the place where you get dependent on federal or state largess, and we forget about what we have around us.What I’ve seen emerge in social services is a youth development movement. It’s a kind of spontaneous thing that seems to be happening in sectors of our youth population where they are saying, “Look you old farts, there is a different way to think about this. There is a different way to respond to this. The money is nice. We’re not going to say no. But we’re not going to put ourselves in a position where all of our actions are dependent on whether you give us money to get it done.” There’s a group here in Spokane called Youth Empowerment and Support. This kid, I think of him as a kid, by the name of Naaman Cordova-Muenzberg. He comes into town. He’s an AmeriCorps volunteer. A year later, he’s created an ad-hoc consortium of 35 or 40 different agencies that are coming together trying to figure out how to do this differently. They don’t have any money, but those groups find strength and commonality with one another. You have a group of youth who are saying there is a different way to do business. They are a whole lot savvier about technology than I am and using that technology. I may have an institutional memory, but they have this can-do spirit and they are not going to be dissuaded by the kinds of things that may have dissuaded us older folks 10 or 15 years ago, such as whether it’s going to work, whether we’re going to get the money.The financial meltdown got started because the bankers and the people on Wall Street got greedy. We weren’t paying attention to what we were doing at the federal level for the last eight years. We fought two wars off the books. This is not sustainable behavior. It has created repercussions through the economy and the life of all of us. It’s not a sustainable way of doing things. But it has served a purpose. It fractured a whole bunch of assumptions that we had about what we depended on, what we have consented to.Things bumped along OK. The value of my house kept going up and up and up. Oh my, isn’t that cool. What a bunch of nonsense. What created the meltdown wasn’t a sustainable way of living. But the meltdown isn’t sustainable either. If it was sustainable, we’d all be dead. Our unemployment is 10 percent. This society could not sustain a Depression era rate of 25 percent unemployment. Society would start to come apart at the seams. That level of disorganization and chaos, at least within the fabric we think we have created, it wouldn’t be sustainable. There has got to be a bottom to it.If it gets much worse, we as citizens will put a stop to it. We have had about enough. I think we will come together, regardless of this nonsense of whether you are a Democrat or a Republican, and we will put a stop to it. We will all say, “This is not in any of our best interests.” In that respect, I’m quite hopeful.I live in a cul-de-sac out north in Spokane County. In terms of my views on social issues, I’m far left. There are eight families on this cul-de-sac. My neighbor next door to me is a guy who is an arch right-winger, George-Bush lovin’ conservative. I got such great pleasure during the 2004 campaign. I bought myself a John Kerry hat, and I bought him a George Bush hat. We would come to where our half acres connected – him in his Bush hat and me in my Kerry hat – and we’d have a conversation. His family was important to him. My family was important to me. His family was important to me. And my family was important to him. My wife made pickles and gave it to him and his family made jam and gave it to us. You have those kinds of relationships. Those are the relationships that matter. The rest of the stuff is just rhetoric and self-referential nonsense. It’s those kinds of things that will create intolerance for this nonsense. We will, as a community, as a society, you come together and force a correction. I’m hopeful that will happen.The paradigm of how we functioned for the last 40 or 50 years, how we funded services, how we created wealth, I think some of those paradigms have already begun to change. A guy, I can’t remember his name, wrote an article for Atlantic magazine in 1995 or 1996. The name of the article was “America’s search for a new public philosophy.” He traced the development of American democracy and capitalism and so forth. He started out saying that in a Jeffersonian agrarian economy people would focus on Washington D.C. and all those arguments about state’s rights. But in today’s world, how relevant is Washington D.C. on my cul-de-sac? My city council, my county government is more relevant than Washington D.C.The guy who built Visa is famous for creating this term: Chaordic development, the balance between chaos and order. It’s organized around giving people at the front-end of a process the authority to make decisions, rather than having to go through 18 levels of bureaucracy in order to get permission to write a check or make a decision. We’ve got to get more to local control, to civic engagement, finding ways to talk to each other and create relationships with groups of each other.I think about the business I’m in. What we’re seeing is a collapse of social service delivery categories that we got used to and worked with for many years. We’re seeing the collapse of those and we need to see the collapse of those. We’re in the middle of it. I don’t think we know where it’s going. It needs to go to a more holistic approach to how we think about people. You can’t just think about a person with problems as a substance abuser or a child abuser or a person with a mental issue and then send them to three different places to get those issues fixed when they have children who may be in Head Start or they may be in special education. We have created barriers for these people. How do they exercise their own resilience when we create those barriers? We have to use public health principles, and think about universal systems of care. And resources have got to be shared.I’ve never been the kind of person who could worship at the foot of any particular bureaucracy. Just don’t have it in me. Can’t do it. I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror in the morning. Bureaucracies have now closed ranks. They are not permitting truth-telling. That is why I think things are in a state of collapse. When you shut down, you can’t survive, you can’t have a relationship with a local community which is where you need to have relationships. You have to tell the truth about what is, or how you see it, and you shouldn’t have to go get permission from somebody who makes more money than you to call it like you see it.Why do we need truth tellers now more than ever? We have to be able to share more. We have to be able to create environments where you can have discussion and dialogue. We will only make things worse if we don’t do that. I’m sick of being politically correct, and I’m sick of it when I see it, whether it’s from politicians or bureaucrats. The tension in the field I’m in is that if you are a private nonprofit agency that does really good work at the local level, if you call it like you see it, if you are a truth-teller, you risk the future of your agency. You risk the livelihood of the staff who depends on you for leadership. That’s one more reason why the ante is up on truth telling. We’ve got to do it.I watch national news. Sometimes. I like watching Chris Matthews, because he gives me the impression of not putting up with the BS. If I watched Keith Olbermann on MSNBC, if I’m going to be intellectually honest I’m duty bound to watch Bill O’Reilly on Fox. I’m not interested in spending that kind of time. I’ve got a grandson. And my hobby is woodworking. Only about 50 percent of what you read, and 50 percent in broadcast media, is truthful and accurate. Much of the rest of it is based on what a particular journalist has been told or what they believe or what someone else believes. I’m not interested in today’s world of investigative journalism. I’m 63 and I’m sick of the gotcha games. It’s a race to the bottom. It reflects an interest, not in a pinpointing a problem, as much as tagging an issue to a group of people who made decisions. It doesn’t look systemically at what is really going on in a system.