The Anniversary of a Layoff

April 23, 2011 marked the one year anniversary of my lay off from my job as a Program Manager at an HIV/AIDS clinic.  The lay off was not a surprise. But although I had anticipated its arrival and had prepared, I was still a little fearful of what the future had in store for me. But before I could move forward, I assessed what I had accomplished during the time that I was employed so as not to feel like a total loser.

I worked in the nonprofit sector for ten years. First it was as a Prevention Coordinator at a rape crisis center and then Case Management in the HIV/AIDS field where I provided services to Latinos in Los Angeles.  Anyone who works at a nonprofit organization will tell you that they are underpaid and overworked. Most workers function under mental stress and physical exhaustion from dealing with such complex social issues. However, most nonprofit employees will also tell you that the work is rewarding and that it feels great to be part of something that helps so many people.

I took these jobs primarily because I needed a job and I had no professional skills. I had dropped out of college to work full time. I thought I would return to school once I was able to pay my bills. But I quickly discovered that working at a nonprofit meant long hours and sometimes weekends. School took a back seat. The paychecks helped me forget about going back. They were instant gratification for the hard work I was putting in. I didn’t even care that they didn’t pay me enough. I had a job and it was all my young and very naïve brain cared about.

As if this wasn’t enough, I also decided to join a couple of friends in starting a theatre company in East Los Angeles that was moving towards becoming a nonprofit.  I wasn’t getting paid to do this work but it was my outlet from all the heavy stuff I was dealing with at my “real” job.

In 2009, the tectonic plates of my life shifted and caused changes. One of the hardest changes was that I had a new boss. I won’t go into details but suffice it to say that the stress level at work skyrocketed. Everyone was on edge. I remember coming home crying and hating the job and the situation I was in. I wanted to quit every day and I was not alone. But having a job, even one that I hated was more important. And it wasn’t the best time to leave, because it was almost a guarantee that you would not find another job quickly, if at all.

During this time I also came to the realization that this was as far as I could go in the nonprofit world without a college level education. I was smart and had learned a lot of valuable skills on the job by I didn’t have a degree and this was a huge obstacle for promotion. I wasn’t going to get paid what I deserved if I didn’t have a piece a paper that said I was as smart as I said I was.

So when word of the lay off came. I was ready. The week after I was laid off I threw a party and invited my closest friends and called it the “Freedom Brunch.” I had decided to see my lay off as a release, one that would allow me the freedom to go back to school and finally hone in the skills that I had only dabbled in for years. I was going to take a risk on me. I was not without fear. I had plenty of it. It was pouring out of me. I had always had a job, paid my bills on time and taken care of myself. But I was no longer happy with the conformity that a job provided. I knew it was time to jump.

In the year since I’ve been unemployed, I’ve gone back to school and passed the dreaded math classes that had paralyzed my education for so long.  I trained and ran the 2011 LA Marathon. And I had a workshop production of my play The Rosalila, which playwright Luis Alfaro not only directed, but also mentored me throughout the workshop process. He taught me valuable lessons and helped me believe in my writing.

It hasn’t all been awesome. I’ve struggled a lot, mostly with finances and getting used to the rigors of schoolwork.  But I’ve been blessed with a few small jobs and school grants, and just recently someone hired me for a writing project. The laughter and love of friends and family have helped me through the rough times and the good times.

This is only my experience. A lay off is hard and stressful, especially if you have a family to support. All I can say is that there has to be an opportunity somewhere in it… where is it for you?