I’m sure that I’m not the first Rotarian to regret transferring clubs, or to not find the right fit to begin with. This is my story breaking up with a club that simply didn’t pass the “five way test.”
Tuesday used to be my favorite day of the week (before I moved to Astoria).
I would wake up before the sun, get dressed up like I was going somewhere special, and walk or bike across the Broadway Bridge to get to the sunrise Portland Pearl Rotary Club meetings at the Natural Capital Center aka Ecotrust Building. I typically would have learned about great service opportunities, been educated about a myriad of community issues, and had a chance to converse with a diverse group of professional who all want to make the world a better place.By the time I got the office by 9, I was typically on cloud nine, feeling energized and purposeful. Without a doubt, Tuesday became my most productive day.
Once I had my third child and no longer had a workplace to connect with co-workers, those mornings became even more important to my sense of connection. For the first year, until she started to crawl, my daughter Teagan had better attendance than many members. She slept through many meetings and rarely even fussed (thanks to feeling comfortable enough to nurse when she needed it), and many club members looked forward to getting their weekly baby fix.
Rotary literally became part of our family. My son Kieran was five when I joined the club, and Makenna two. I brought them with me during school breaks, and especially Kieran would beg me to take hime to Rotary, and occasionally I’d “treat” him when it was a subject I knew would interest him. He came to be known for his loquacious “brags,” and several members would always make sure to chat him up about school and sports. One Past President even served as Kieran’s “special friend” on Grandparents and special friends day at school.
Beyond Tuesdays, I quickly became engaged as a student/host counselor for the Rotary Youth Exchange Program, which my sister and I had both benefited from going to Finland and Denmark when we were teenagers. It felt great to play a support role in their experience and to help give the club enough capacity to take on hosting/sending two students.
As all Portland Pearl Club members commit to, I enjoyed serving hot meals at Transition Projects shelter for grateful and hungry men. I also braved delivering Meals on Wheels for homebound elderly people, many of whom live in substandard housing. Despite the hard conditions, we’d all try to be as cheerful as we could, knowing that we may be the only face they would see for the whole weekend, until their next meals were served. It was always a humbling experience.
Then I moved to Astoria.
As soon as I was considering moving there were a few key things that I Googled: How are the schools? How’s the yoga? How much does it rain? And, who’s in the Rotary Club?
I admittedly stalked the Rotary Club of Astoria website, googling nearly every member. It’s like finding a “Who’s Who” of Astoria. I was really impressed by the roster of members, and envisioned having the opportunity to socialize and serve with the town’s movers and shakers. I eagerly emailed the board, and was surprised when I didn’t get a single reply. I figured that maybe email wasn’t the best medium. It turns out that was good indicator of my experience with the club, especially the leadership.
It’s hard to put my experience into words, but I basically never really felt welcomed at the club. The Elks Lodge, where most of the meetings are held, is a hard place for a newcomer. The majority of the club members sit at the same table every week. Initially I tried to mingle among the tables, and was told that I was sitting in someone’s chair. It didn’t help that there are pillars that make it hard to see and the “taken” tables are in the back, so the only spot to pick is one of the two center tables. The energy in the room was usually very subdued and predictable, and after the old-fashioned meat and potatoes lunches, I would almost always feeling less than energized. Not how you want to start off your week.
The harder part was that, from my perspective, that the club seemed to truly need “new blood.” At one of my first meetings, the financials were dismal and the club was barely making money on it’s fundraisers. There was zero orientation about what the club does in the community, and after inviting four Rotarians to meet for coffee or lunch, I finally parsed together what the key service project were. Essentially the service opportunities piggyback on what other groups are doing.
Last winter I went to an all day district training in the Portland suburbs to learn about how to improve a club’s culture. It turns out that the research shows that when you make a club more welcoming to new members, you also make it more engaging for current clubs. I came back to the board with suggestions, none of which anyone was willing to work on with me or give me authority to take action on.
Thankfully, club members acknowledged that the club needed a “signature project” and in the fall we had a meeting dedicated to brainstorming ideas. Just prior the local Scandinavian organizations came to the club with a request to help support a new heritage monument near the museum and waterfront. Their only ask was that the club commit to helping lead up pressure washing two times a year, since their group is aging and the city needs to have an agreement that someone will take on that chore. Somehow this seemed like too much of a commitment (for a group that only seems to want to meet for lunch). The board quickly dismissed the request, even though, or maybe because, I was enthusiastic to support their effort and thought that this seemed like the perfect project. Unfortunately, it turned out that the only “need” identified was to put a sign at the beginning of town to say there’s a local Rotary club. I’m still not clear how this is considered to be a “signature project”, but the board was eager to think so.
In the board meetings I felt even more awkward. It was a weird balance of feeling like I was constantly holding back and biting my tongue, and feeling like anything that I suggested different than how “it’s always been done” was being collectively questioned/rejected before it even came out of my mouth. Initially some board members seemed to give me chance, but I think I had too many ideas that sniffed of social change. On a side note, the board was very anti-youth exchange, after having had a bad experience a few years ago, which is the one way that would most love to serve through Rotary, so that didn’t help matters.
After a year of being in the club, I proposed forming a monthly happy hour club and that was simply too much of a threat, and it’s been since September that I’ve felt slowly ostracized, after one or two members turned the group against me. I still wonder if that’s who threw away my badge…when went missing after I proposed the happy hour club.
Just prior to me sharing my desire to start a monthly happy hour that would welcome newer/younger members (who wouldn’t feel comfortable at the Elks Lodge), there had been a vacancy on the foundation board announced. I offered to serve, but was later told that there had been a misunderstanding. Then a member took a leave of absence, which truly did create a vacancy (since September). Despite some obvious reservations, when the board began the conversation about who would be the next President-Elect, I was the only person the table even eligible, since they have all taken their turn leading the group. So, I offered myself up, and after a committee met, they agreed upon Peter Roscoe, and given that I really like him, I thought it was a great choice. But then when two members mentioned that they were happy to rotate off the board to allow new members to serve, it was clear that no one was interested in me serving the club.
The meeting had technically adjourned when someone remembered about discussing whether to do a whiskey crab soup, and asked if I was still willing to take on leading it up. I courageously spoke up and told the group that I wasn’t sure about whether I could still commit, since I wasn’t feeling very welcomed in the club. Instead of even questioning why I would say that I felt unwelcomed, the meeting ended with someone saying “I guess we’re not doing soup!”
It’s a real shame, because I loved the whiskey crab soup and was actually looking forward to making in an InStove. It’s a shame because Miel and I had dreamed of leading each of our Rotary clubs the same year, going through the leadership trainings together, and doing a big joint Portland/Astoria project that would join our diverse communities/clubs.
Instead, that evening I wrote a long email to the members to “break up” with the club, sadly the day before Valentine’s.
My husband urged me to leave without a word. But I didn’t want to have to explain myself again and again or have people talking behind my back about why I left without knowing my side of the story. In hind sight, it probably caused more gossip than I had hoped. I didn’t get a reply from any current board members, but a handful of members, mostly new members, reached out.
I also got a kind of creepy letter in the mail, where the anonymous sender had formatted my email into a letter and they highlighted the word “I” throughout the letter. Apparently they saw my perspective as selfish, and while I can see their perspective, using “I” was actually intentional because I never felt included as a “we” in the club, and I wanted to focus on my experience, rather than blame anyone by saying “you.”
When I first began at the Astoria club, I was warned that it was a conservative “Good ol’ Boys Club.” I just want to say for the record that my decision to leave has nothing to do with politics, and I’ve been thankful that the club has been nonpartisan. It’s just the board politics that I can’t stomach. I am hopeful though that like all political climates that the club will eventually shift to being welcoming and inclusive, and in the meantime, I’ll find other ways to support Rotary.
While extremely personal to share my experience, I also feel driven by the 5 way test of the Portland Pearl Rotary:
- Is it the truth? Everyone has their own truth, and this is mine.
- Is it fair to all concerned? I believe it’s only fair to the club to know how the current culture impacts new members.
- Will it be beneficial to all concerned? While it may not be beneficial to me, I can only hope that my speaking out will someday make the Rotary Club of Astoria a more welcoming and engaging place to all members.
- Will it build goodwill and better friendships? While it may feel a bit like burning bridges, I hope that the club will come to realize that I come to Rotary in a spirit of service and only want to help welcome a new generations of community leaders to serve the community and world. I hope that by freeing myself from the club that I will gain friendships that are more in alignment with my values.
- Will it be fun? It certainly has not been a fun experience for the last year and a half, but now I can put my energies into other ways to serve my community and have fun in the process.