Tuesday, January 24, 2012


By Colleen Sinsky

The culture I’ve grown up in relies almost entirely on the written word for communication. E-mail, annual reports, Twitter, Power Point and case files are tools of a world that has forgotten oral tradition. Most of the information I’ve digested throughout my education was read off of a screen or page. I don’t believe this is a bad thing, but there is some magic to storytelling that has been lost somewhere along the way. In this way, JOIN is countercultural in the value we place on storytelling.

Friday afternoons long been the space to connect outside the office, to talk informally about what’s going on in our work and personal lives. When the House closes, staff migrates to a local restaurant and closes out the week with a laid back experience of just spending time together, often passing on stories of “old JOIN” and what it was like in the office on 17th street or at St. Francis. Hearing long-time employees tell stories from the olden days of JOIN is invaluable to people like me who are new to staff. We keep JOIN’s roots relevant by having a space for passing along our stories- some funny, some terrifying, an occasional legendary disaster, and all making me proud to play a role in this tradition. Better than any binder of “employee information,” learning from these organic gatherings has taught me so much about JOIN’s philosophy and how to do the work. We learn from each other’s experiences and have a safe place to vent or to solicit advice. Hearing Mike laugh about a minor crisis ten years ago puts whatever I’m dealing with this week into perspective. In the past 20 years JOIN has grown and changed and survived a huge array of hurdles. We keep those years, and the people who made them memorable, alive in our collective memory.

JOIN’s organizational culture revitalizes face to face communication. Everything from how we prioritize monthly retreats, to how our downstairs office space is designed, to the almost total lack of email communication between staff members is geared towards promoting conversation. JOIN is so fortunate to have had the influence of Lio’s Samoan culture that, for thousands of years, has had a rich history of oral tradition and verbal communication. From my desk, I can hear Lio begin meetings with our folks, “So, tell me what is going on.” He creates space for a conversation, not an interview to fill in the blanks on an intake sheet. From the big blue armchair, our folks are asked to tell their story. This is the foundation of building a relationship, and storytelling the first step towards empowerment.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Cleaning Out

By Colleen Sinsky

I’ve been meaning to do a “day in the life of the Outreach Assistant” blog post. To be honest, I was going to wait for a day with a long list of exciting activities to report on, but I realized that even today’s ordinary morning merits a reflection.

I met Quinn at the office just a little past our 8:45 meeting time. While the coffee brewed in Cafe Join, we chatted with Joe and Jose about last night’s dreams and weekend plans. Procrastination over, Quinn and I grabbed gloves and heavy duty trashbags and headed out for an apartment clean out.

(I should mention here that an “apartment clean out” is about as fun as it sounds. Not every time, but sometimes, when someone whom we’ve housed gets evicted or moves out, the responsibility to clear the unit falls to us. The state of the apartment when we get there ranges widely... but it’s almost always a half-day job I’d never wish upon anyone.)

Quinn and I arrived at the apartment, which had been home for a few squatters since our person moved out. “Melissa,” whom Quinn has known for years chose to enter in-patient treatment and has been meth-free for nearly three months. We’re extremely proud of how well she’s doing, and happy to help her tie up loose ends, like her old studio apartment.

Happy to help, yes. But that doesn’t make dealing with endless piles of junk much easier. It’s difficult to describe what inhabits an apartment like this if you haven’t seen one. Melissa’s was far from the worst I’ve seen, but imagine several trashbags full of dirty laundry, broken electronics, old pictures, a deflated air mattress, some sad stuffed animals, dirty dishes, a fridge of putrid food, blankets, a deflated bike tire, tools, etc. (“etc” in the most literal sense). It’s overwhelming. We salvaged and recycled what we could, but overall the process of clearing an apartment feels wasteful and depressing. Melissa was a huge help and worked alongside us tirelessly, taking loads to the compactor downstairs and cleaning the bathroom.

Used syringes are something I’m always cautious of, and Quinn and I quickly realized that today we had to move slowly and be extremely careful of old “rigs” and razors forgotten in the piles of stuff. In a makeshift “sharps” container, we collected a dozen or so artifacts from Melissa’s previous life as a meth addict.

It felt good to lock the door to the now empty studio and leave with Melissa for the last time. Yes, JOIN allows people to open doors, but just as important is providing the support for closing the door against destructive lifestyles.