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The Esperanto Movement and Me

About 8 years ago, I got a phone call from Bill Harmon. Bill is/was among the most well-known and influential Esperanto-speakers in the country -- certainly among the US Esperantists. (Humphrey Tonkin is probably the most influential internationally). Bill was calling to ask me to consider joining the leadership of the Esperanto League for North America (which subsequently became "Esperanto-USA") as vice-president. He indicated that it was probably a 6 year commitment because, after serving as vice-president, I would probably be asked to be president for a term. They were also particularly interested in my expertise for redesigning the web presence of the organization. I thought this sounded like a good fit and agreed.

Initially, things went well. I found a group of web-savvy folks in the organization and we developed a business plan for how a redesigned web site and store could help advance the organization. In particular, the decision was made to focus on using the website to foster and develop an on-line community. I was actually among the most conservative of the group, suggesting much more incremental changes. But the group very much wanted a revolutionary change, so I built a test site using Drupal, asked for feedback, and began to make plans for switching over.

Rob Read, one of those other folks, organized a LAN-party where we got together with the president and a bunch of other folks to actually migrate as much of the content as we could. There was a nice writeup about our work at the time. And then things started going downhill.

A number of people, in particular Lucy Harmon, stated that they didn't like the direction of the new website. They didn't want to build community -- they just wanted the site to "advertise". We had endless discussions and some bruising debates, but I was unable to ever persuade them (her) of the value of organizing people. Eventually, after three years, my term as vice-president ended and, unsurprisingly, I was not asked to subsequently serve as president. I stayed on as webmaster and, a couple of years later, when the position of secretary became available, I agree to serve as secretary since it was a good fit with what I was already doing as webmaster.

I think the website was relatively successful. It was never a giant hit. I saw the primary goal of fostering community as a means of demonstrating to visitors that there actually are active Esperanto-speakers who are doing things and using Esperanto. Right now. And to show that the organization is populated by real people. The website did that. And a lot more: it enabled ordinary people who chair committees or organize events to independently post announcements and reports about their activities and for the administrator to promote things to the front page to highlight the most interesting stuff.

I read once that you need about 14 people to make an on-line community seem "alive". You need to have new content once or twice a day and, with 14 people, you can generally achieve that. We hovered around that point most of the time, sometimes dropping down into the single digits. But usually there were 10-15 people that had posted something in the past month.

For 8 years, I supported the site. I updated from Drupal 4 to Drupal 5 to Drupal 6. I migrated from the original host (on some random server) to Hypermart and then to a Dreamhost VPS. I did some custom theming to assist navigation and provide visual interest with photographs. I managed (with help) moderating thousands of comments and approving non-spammers to post independently. I built custom code to check user accounts against the member database and automatically assign member status. I wrote hundreds of blog posts and announcements. I tried to post a new poll every week.

On average, I probably visited the site twice a day and spent at least a half-hour per day on the site. I devoted several whole weekends to big projects, but even conservatively, over 8 years, must have spent at least 1500 hours working on the site. When I do consulting, I generally charge $100/hour, so the service I provided works out roughly to a gift on my part of $150,000 to Esperanto-USA.

Last summer, the new president of Esperanto-USA, Orlanda Raola, had contacted me shortly after I returned from the Universala Kongreso and said he was in the area for other reasons, but asked if I could meet him in Boston for lunch. He'd recently read my article at Libera Folio Steven Brewer: UEA devas eliri el sia morta spiralo and indicated that he was interested in talking about my ideas. I agreed and drove the two hours to Boston to have lunch with him.

I had been unable to attend the Landa Kongreso since they had changed the date to a date which I had told them I could not attend, so I hadn't spoken with him in several years. Perhaps the previous time I had seen him was in Tijuana for the Landa Kongreso there. We'd been roommates. He had been on the E-USA board and stood for re-election at that meeting, but was not re-elected. This wasn't a surprise to me, since he'd been essentially invisible during the previous year -- I don't think he even once participated in a discussion about the website, for example. But I remembered him as a bright, personable guy.

We had a good lunch. He said he agreed with the substance of the article I had written and wanted to advance that agenda in the United States. I was pleased, since I saw it as fundamentally affirming the position I had always taken with respect to the website. He further asked if I would be willing to become the representative of Esperanto-USA to UEA. I said would have to think about that.

Lucy Harmon has been the representative to UEA for 6 or 8 years at least (since Bill's health began to fail). There are a number of people at UEA who are trying to accomplish the same kinds of transformation at UEA which she used every avenue to thwart. She was unable to attend the previous Universala Kongreso and considered asking me to be her proxy. When I was unable to attend the Landa Kongreso -- and wasn't willing to commit to support her positions on the issues before the committee, she chose someone else whom she thought less independent.

As an aside, I've complained for many years that Lucy Harmon does not represent the interests of Esperanto-USA to UEA. But she doesn't consult the board regarding the issues and only once ever submitted a report that I saw regarding her activity on the UEA governing committee. Any representative sent to the committee ought to be a representative for the Board -- not representing anyone's individual position. But I digress…

I thought about it quite a bit. I was not particularly inclined to commit to attending the Universala Kongreso in perpetuity, but saw it as an opportunity help UEA (which, like E-USA, is dying, hence the title of my previous article). Reluctantly, I agreed that I would serve.

Orlando wrote a motion and sent it to the board. He hadn't asked me in advance and had conflated my appointment with a new policy for how to appoint representatives to the UEA committee. I indicated privately that I thought they should have been made separately but that, since they weren't, I would abstain from voting, since I was the subject of what the vote was about.

Initially, there was no discussion. For five or six days, there was nothing. Then when Orlando was about to announce the result, the shit hit the fan. It turned out that Lucy hadn't been consulted about the change and had organized resistance. After a bitter and acrimonious debate, Orlando withdrew the motion.

At nearly the same time he submitted the motion, he also sent me an email that replaced me as webmaster with someone else. I was rather shocked to get the email since it did not provide any rationale for why I was being replaced. At the time, I wrote a long email summarizing what I thought needed to be done and what I'd been trying to do.

And that's pretty much where things sat for 9 months until the Landa Kongreso. I was increasingly unhappy as I watched the small community which I had tried to nurse gradually dwindle and collapse. Security patches were not applied. Comments on articles were not moderated. A few people continued to add new content, but nothing was updated. In fact, today – 9 months later – I finally sent a note asking that the page that includes my listing as "webmaster" be updated to remove my name. (3 days later, it has still not been updated After 3 and a half days (and nine months) the Director of the Central Office redacted the page to finally indicate that I am no longer webmaster. Thanks!)

It hurt being summarily dismissed in that way. t particularly hurt to see that having someone who doesn't even get the security patches applied was considered better than me. It hurt to not be consulted about managing an orderly transition that would preserve the work I had done.

And I had questions. Was I overreacting? Was Orlando really not saying I was incompetent? Was I reading something into it that was not intended? I decided to not immediately resign from the organization but to watch and see what happened. Nothing happened. There was essentially no further activity of the board for 8 or 9 months. With some reluctance, I decided to renew my memberships anyway and signed up for the Landa Kongreso.

I arrived in Texas for the Landa Kongreso committed to doing my part. I came prepared to the board meeting and took notes and performed the role of secretary. Eventually, the topic turned to the website and it became clear that Orlando saw my contribution as primarily technical. He waves his hands at "technies" that simply do the work for other people who actually understand how to apply modern technology. He was angry because when he asked me about setting up the site to be multilingual, I hadn't immediately agreed to accomplish his goal. In fact, the site is *already* set up to be multilingual. What I said (and what I still believe to be true) is that the organization does not possess sufficient human resources to competently manage a bilingual site. Even when I was committed to the site full time, we couldn't keep our single site updated. Managing a fully localized site in multiple languages takes at least as much effort as the number of languages you have. Orlando didn't like that answer. So I believe he found someone else who would just say yes.

I don't know the new webmaster very well. He's a nice guy and perfectly capable, although I don't think he quite understood what he was getting himself in for. His report for the year's activity is full of statements expressing the need for additional human resources (to apply security patches, retheme the site, update the content, etc). I hope he's more successful than I was at getting them.

In any event, I decided that it was clear that my services were not required by the organization. The president clearly felt that I was just some "technie" that wouldn't take his orders and he had no interest in consulting me -- or listening to me -- as a professional. Or perhaps felt that I am professionally not competent. For that reason, I chose to resign as secretary of Esperanto-USA.

My note was very simple. I just wrote "Post longa pensado, mi decidas demisii kiel sekretario de Esperanto-USA ek de la 25a de junio, 2012." I sent this to the president, the director of the central office, the board, and I posted it at twitter.

I completed the obligations of the secretary at the congress before resigning. And I resigned before the final meeting, so that the board could meet and select a replacement before they left. I had considered waiting until I was at the airport heading home before resigning, which would have been a lot easier on my part. The last morning was quite unpleasant, with everyone walking around me on eggshells, evidently wondering if I was going to snap and go postal or something. But I wanted to do the right thing.

I have been a member of Esperanto-USA for nearly 20 years -- not because the organization actually does anything for me: I don't need anything they do. They provide a newsletter (which I don't read because it's rarely topical) and congresses (which are usually not very interesting to people under 60) and a list of members (which I haven't ever used for anything other than statistical research about Esperanto-USA itself). Belonging to the organization offers me nothing I need.

I have occasionally ordered books from the bookstore -- I don't need to be a member to do that. I own some books that Esperanto-USA has published, although I would always have rather had electronic copies than printed books. Esperanto-USA isn't for me. I've only ever belonged, supported, or donated money to Esperanto-USA because I wanted to support Esperanto in general.

I joined the board with the goal of trying to convert Esperanto-USA into the kind of organization that I could genuinely support. What I really want is an organization that provides a framework for people organizing to accomplish common goals and one that presents a face of the Esperanto community to English-speaking people that shows that there are people who use Esperanto on a daily basis to do fun and interesting things. Instead, we are left with a social club for old people.

My membership will continue until the end of December, I suppose. I don't really feel any better about UEA than I do about Esperanto-USA: they're in exactly the same boat (due to the activities of Lucy Harmon and her allies on the governing committee). So I have several months to decide. Will I renew my membership with the so-called "Esperanto movement"? Given the way I feel now, probably not.

Note: One other issue conflated with the events above was a discussion I had with Hoss Firooznia about the future of Usona Esperantisto. I was rather surprised to discover that he hates Drupal -- in fact, he seems to hate SQL-based content-management systems in general. I had tried to persuade him that topical articles should appear at the website in a timely fashion, rather than waiting for months to appear in the newsletter, when they were no longer topical. He initially refused but eventually we had reached a compromise which I had thought satisfactory. But it was at that point that I was replaced as webmaster -- I suspect that discussion contributed to Orlando deciding to replace me. But I don't know. Hoss' current plan seems to be to set up a separate website with static pages for Usona Esperanto.

Whatever, dude.