Thursday, June 9, 2011


I can't even begin to think of an appropriate title for this post - how do you summarize what I'm about to write in a cute or catchy phrase?  The simple truth is you can't.  Because there's nothing cute or catchy about it.


For those of you that know me (I'm assuming all 3.5 readers) you know that I have a very unique job.  Unique is my way of saying 'wierd.'  That is, I can't give myself a simple title or sum up what I do in a short sentence.  I'm not a doctor or a lawyer, a teacher or a nurse, an engineer or a public worker.  (Which is why I always make Deonne go to the kids' schools for career day - his job as structural engineer is much more easily definable.)  I have my degrees in the natural sciences (undergraduate in geology and graduate in environmental science management.)  I worked for years for the state department of health and environmental control in a variety of regulatory positions - protecting groundwater, conducting environmental risk assessments, and finally (right before I left the agency) writing voluntary cleanup contracts for the state's brownfields program.

It was in that last position that I rediscovered my love of writing.  What a lot of people don't know is that once upon a time, I wanted to write for a living.  I wanted to go to journalism school, write for the NY Times, and have some glamorous life scooping my colleagues on important stories.  As time went on, that desire turned to wanting to go to law school, then specifically environmental law school, then through a really long turn of events, geology.

I've never thought of myself as particularly smart in science or math - or that those fields were my strong suit.  But somehow I ended up majoring in geology - and did really well at it - and it was then that I adopted that idealistic notion that most college students do that I would somehow go out into the world and 'make a difference.'  Not the Peace Corp-type difference (like my crunchy granola classmates from my overpriced and very liberal private college) but rather through a professional career.

So.  When I finally landed in the brownfields program years ago - it felt like all of my efforts through my academic and professional careers were coming together to do 'something good.'  I could utilize my love of writing with my knowledge of the natural sciences to help people purchase properties - clean them up - and put them back to productive reuse without assuming the liability of site contamination.  Pretty cool, right?

It was (in all truth) a dream job.  Except for that one nagging fact - it was a state job - and it paid next to nothing.  When we found out we were expecting James - I knew I needed to find something else to help foot the bill for two children in full-time daycare... at the time still thinking I could somehow continue and cultivate my career while being 'super'mom and doing all of the crafty/special/sometimes over-the-top things I wanted to do for the kids.

Somehow the stars aligned - and I found out that the company I am with now was hiring.  I was nervous about leaving my stable and appreciative of time-out-for-sick-kids state job - but this was an offer I couldn't pass up.  It was the chance to further 'do good' in the brownfields program - but this time from a consultant perspective.

So I left the agency - moved to the private sector - and slowly (over the last four years) found my 'niche.'  Our company is weird in and of itself - we're a non-profit environmental consulting firm.  Yeah, how many of those are there out there?  And we operate on a weird model - we work with communities and towns and counties across the southeast (primarily Region 4 of the EPA if you are familiar with that) to help them build their brownfields program.

We introduce the notion of brownfields to them (working to assess and clean up properties that would otherwise lie idle for the potential environmental liabilities that are causing blight and slowing down redevelopment), then offer to write EPA brownfield assessment (and cleanup) grants for them at no cost or obligation.  The only thing we asked in return is the opportunity to bid (through a competitive process) to manage the grant.  Manage meaning taking care of all of the grant paperwork and financial reporting forms, procure subcontractors as needed to conduct environmental work, develop public participation materials such as websites and brochures, conduct public meetings, and work with the community to find developers once the assessments are complete to actually move the properties we worked on back to reuse.

(See - how do I title that as a job in one sentence?)

And because we figured out what the EPA was looking for in strong grant applications, and could consistently produce them, the model worked.  We have consistently procured (and brought in as actual work to our company) several million dollars of funding per year.  We have marketed ourselves as the 'premier' brownfields contractor in the southeast - able to not just complete environmental assessments but to build brownfields programs.

So when I first started, I had a variety of jobs.  We were very small then - really only two others (my boss included) who managed projects.  Over time, as we brought in more and more funding, we grew.  More project managers, more support staff to conduct the assessments without us having to sub the work out ... a growing healthy company. 

A company that is entirely based on the first part of the cycle - procuring funding from the EPA in the form of assessment, cleanup, and job training grants.

Over the last few years, it became clear that my talent wasn't in project management or balancing budget tables - I've made loads of mistakes in accounting - and still don't feel that knowledge of the earth sciences is my strong suit.  Every time I need to make a decision about the environmental data - I question myself - still - and double check everything with my colleagues.

But one thing that I haven't second guessed, one thing that I've excelled at is grant writing.  And, in the last two years, have morphed into the person who writes all of the grants (with input from my colleagues who gather the information from which I tell the story).  Somehow I also discovered a talent for marketing materials - and have ended up being the web designer (even though I do NOT speak the language of html), the marketing material/brochure designer, and all purpose go-to person for all things Photoshop. 

And I love it.


There's always an 'until' isn't there?

Until this past grant cycle.  We knew that the communities we were working with weren't the strongest of applicants.  We knew their demographics were borderline 'too good' - and not as needy or disadvantaged as other communities that were applying across the region and country.  We knew that some of our follow-on applicants (clients we'd served through one grant who wanted to pursue a second or third) had some performance issues for a variety of reasons.

But we still went forward.  I went forward.  I wrote the grants - with everything that I had.  And here's where I made my fatal mistake - I became (as I always do) emotionally committed to the grants I write.  I believe in each and every story I tell.  I want/need those communities to get their funding just as badly as they do. 

And I spend an absurd amount of time writing them.  To the point that the weeks leading up to the due date I pretty much live at my office....taking a break in the evening to collect kids, cook dinner, dump dishes in the sink and return to the office until the wee hours of the morning.  That's the hard part - telling my kids for weeks on end that I can't read them bedtime stories or tuck them into bed at night because I have to work.  Or that I can't participate in the fun weekend activities because I have to work.  But I justified it to myself that it's only for a few weeks a year - it won't kill them - and besides... I'm working hard to make a difference

So last October, we pushed and pushed and wrote (what I thought were good and strong applications) - the product of a whole lot of hours and effort and thought and struggling to tell just the right story to catch the reviewers' eye.  We packaged them up, sent them off to EPA headquarters - said a silent prayer - and went back to our normal job duties.  Anticipating the spring when EPA would announce the grant recipients - and for myself - when I would bask in the glory of the success of my hard work. When I would call the clients with pride and tell them their project had been funded - and much needed federal funds were on their way.


And then...  and then it all fell apart.  The wheels came off the proverbial bus.

Monday (or was it Tuesday - the days have become a blur) the EPA made their announcement - telling all the world who the communities were who were selected to receive this precious funding.  The number of applicants increased from the previous year - and the amount of funding available for grant awards decreased as part of the ongoing economic federal budget struggles - and as a result, only one in 5 applications was funded.  Meaning that this already competitive grant process had become even more so.

We knew this part a few weeks ago - our pals in Region 4 EPA had given us a heads up on the dismal statistics.  But we were still confident in the applications we had submitted last fall.  After all, we were the 'premier' brownfields consultant - and we had a 66% success rate in getting applications funded when the national average was a mere 30%. 

This week is vacation bible school for Anna and James, meaning I have to leave work around 11:45 to pick them up, feed them lunch, then drop them at their respective summer programs.  I returned from my 'lunch' break to a worried face of our administrative assistant.  She asked me 'have you heard?' - to which I responded 'no' - not sure at first what she was referencing.  Then I realized she meant the EPA grant announcement - something we've been anticipating for a week - constantly refreshing our web browsers to see if the word had come through.  I asked 'oh, did the announce?  Good news?'  She shook her head - looked a bit frightened - and said 'I'll let him tell you' - gesturing to my boss' office door.

I walked in.  Asked 'good news?'


And not just bad news.  The worst news possible.

Not ONE of our assessment grants was funded.  Not one of the grants I was charged to write was funded.  Not one of the communities I invested hours in, taking time away from my family for, was funded.

It took a while for it to really seep in...  my boss and I briefly discussed the outcome - there was a lot of talk about how the communities themselves weren't the strongest applicants, that the EPA was looking for something different this year due to the changes in the administration, that the focus of funding was more for site cleanup than assessment (which are the primary focus of our grants), that we'll just work harder and do better this year when we re-apply for these communities along with the new ones we're currently cultivating.

I went back to my desk in shock. 

And then it slowly started seeping in... the implications of this.  And then the tears started to fall.  And fall.  And fall.  To the point that I was trembling.

No awarded grants means no work to propose on.  No proposals means no contracts.  No contracts means no work.  As I stated before, we typically bring in several million dollars of work per year.  This year, no new work.

No new work means we won't be able to meet any of the 'goals' that are set for us - the thresholds we are compared against for things like raises and bonuses.  More importantly, because we had consistently been growing, we've added new staff.  I'm not entirely sure we have work to support everyone now. 

And while everyone keeps telling me not to take it personally - how can I not?  This was my responsibility.  I was in charge of writing the grants.  Yes, I relied heavily on my colleagues to provide the information I needed to weave the tales into compelling stories of need, but that was my task.  Mine.

And I failed.

I failed the communities who desperately need the funding. 

I failed my colleagues who were relying on my 'stellar' writing skills to procure winning grants - the first step in our business model.  There is a very real possibility that not one person on my team will receive a raise or bonus this year...which young families depend on.

I failed my company - we can no longer say we have a 66% success rate of writing winning grants, or a 99% success rate of winning follow-on grants for clients who are continuing their programs - our reputation has been heavily damaged. 

I failed myself - I take pride and ownership in these stories - and become emotionally committed to the communities they represent.  I thought each and every grant was strong and 'A+' - apparently the only grants to get funded.  And it sucks, and makes me very disappointed in myself, and makes me question my abilities to write successfully when I give my best and it's not good enough.  My boss says 'we'll try harder this year.'  I don't know how to do that.  I gave 110% of myself - working myself until I was literally sick to make these applications as strong as possible.  I've gone back and read and re-read every application we submitted - because I'm a glutton for punishment.  I read each and every word.  I don't know what else I could have done - what else I could have written - or how I could have worked any harder than I did.  Which begs the question then, perhaps I'm just not fit for this.

I failed my family - night after night for about four weeks I fed the kids and then left.  I wasn't around at all for at least a month of weekends.  I missed out on a lot of fall activities with them - and denied them the presence of their mother.  And for what?  I didn't 'make a difference' to any of the communities I was trying to help.

I've let so many people down - and that's a heavy burden to bear.

And it makes me question everything - from my abilities - to my career path - to even working outside of the home when I should be there, with my children while they are young.

I'm only half-kidding myself when I start to wonder if Publix, the local grocery store, is hiring for a cake decorator.


Where to go from here?  Who knows.  I can tell you the last thing I want to do is face grant writing again - despite the assurances that it wasn't my fault.  I can't shake that deep down feeling that it is.  And I'm frightened now of every word that may come to mind.

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