What is it about nonprofit organizations that they readily lend themselves to self destruction? They just kind of gnaw away from the inside until nothing is left but a name and a list of unattained goals? True enough, there are many successful nonprofits, but it seems that most of those are centered in larger cities or have a more business-like approach, such as The Trevor Foundation or the successful Middle Way House here in Bloomington.

Our attention has been drawn to the smaller groups that organize to address a lack of community support for their causes or to fulfill unmet social opportunities, in particular as related to the LGBTQI community. While these organizations are in dire need, their existence tends to be short-lived, and their failure rate is fairly high.

The formula for organizing seems simple enough. A few well-meaning, well-intentioned folks sense a personal or community need and come together to share ideas and suggestions in an effort to help their fellow citizenry. Then an organization is created, a list of goals developed and a hierarchy of leadership established, based upon individual qualifications, expertise, willingness to serve and availability.

All good so far. But this is also the point at which things begin to break down. “Already?” you ask. It would seem so, since leadership in such volunteer groups is always challenged by those who think they can do a better job, don’t like those in authority, or perhaps, just resent the success of anyone else.

"Leadership in such volunteer groups is always challenged by those who think they can do a better job, don't like those in authority, or perhaps, just resent the success of anyone else."

Sometimes seeing one’s name in lights becomes more important than actually focusing on and meeting the needs of others. Hence, in-fighting ensues and is exacerbated by a new vulnerability to attacks from the outside. Fairly soon the organization is flailing about with lost focus, serving no real purpose, except providing a smoke screen of names and titles.

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What causes such infighting and hostility? We think it’s partly due to social discrimination and ostracism. We’ve talked about internalized homophobia before in cases where those in the LGBTQI community are disenfranchised from mainstream culture and turn on one another because there is no acceptable social channel available through which to be heard and have one’s feelings or issues addressed.

Discrimination also sets up a sense of isolation that prevents a free exchange of interactions beyond one’s defined group and increases the value of recognition where the potential for reward is small. We think all of these factors can contribute to the emergence of individuals who develop such thirst for power and recognition that they will do and say anything to stifle those who might step forward as strong and effective leaders.

You might ask why, if someone has true leadership ability, they could be shoved out of the way or would back down. We suggest it’s because credible and serious leaders have respect for themselves as well as others and frequently prefer to lose a battle rather than concede an entire war. And they may wish to live to fight another day sans a tarnished image.

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Okay, you are probably wondering what all of this has to do with anything, but just stick with us here. A few short weeks ago we spent part of a Saturday watching the funeral and internment services for Senator Edward Kennedy and were reminded of the legacy of not only the Kennedy clan in particular but Teddy specifically.

We grew up in the peripheral milieu of the Kennedy social circle and attended some social and political events where we made some acquaintance. We always were impressed with the Kennedy family because of their graciousness, their attention to their constituents, their dedication to those not so privileged and their forbearance in times of crisis.

"Sometimes seeing one's name in lights becomes more important than actually focusing on and meeting the needs of others."

Due to their Irish descent, the elder generation experienced discrimination in the new homeland. As they built an empire of political power and money, they never lost sight of how painful discrimination can be and how harmful it is to everyone when one group is set apart. As Catholics they endured additional criticism but continued on in their service to their country, even in the face of multiple assassinations. Any large family will, with little doubt, experience its share of accidents, mishaps and deaths, but there is definitely a difference between anticipating one’s eventual natural demise and the knowledge that others are seriously planning your death.

Nevertheless, through heartache and loss and surviving an attempt on his own life (many believe the Chappaquiddick incident was of his own doing, but we do not), Ted Kennedy persevered to become one of the most respected political leaders and senators in U.S. history. He dared to challenge the Catholic Church about the right for lesbians and gays to marry and supported women’s health issues, including the need for legalized abortion. He fought for civil rights for everyone and supported enactment of fair immigration policies.

While attending to his family he never forgot his public, friends, colleagues, supporters, while keeping his detractors in mind, as well.

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Change has to begin somewhere and if we want our government to work better and we want a kinder, gentler nation consistent with the Kennedy vision, then we must begin at the local level and send the message that we want, no, we demand, respect from one another. Public dialogue at the grassroots level is the perfect place to practice rational debate in resolving differences. Shouting, name calling and character assassination does nothing but disparage those who are making the charges and prevent positive change by discouraging those who have much to offer but are not willing to endure insult and attack.

"Public dialogue at the grassroots level is the perfect place to practice rational debate in resolving differences."

And, no, we are not comparing the petty squabbles of small, local LGBT organizations with that of our federal government or the office of the president, but the equation isn’t entirely that of apples and oranges either.

It seems that many Americans have redefined the concept of civil disobedience to mean crass and rude behavior. That it’s okay to make an ass of oneself in public forum because that will somehow make those in power listen better.

The ugly American indeed. Where is the refinement of a Kennedy when you need it?! Kennedy didn’t meet discrimination and counterattack with mean spiritedness. He fought through it for the common good. Did he face as much discrimination as the LGBT community faces? That’s debatable. But he was certainly smart enough to know that facing adversity with hostility only increases alienation and replaces the achievement of common goals with internal divisiveness.

An earnest, united front exerts more power than does that of a group so busy undermining one another that they lose sight of the issues and end up contributing to their own discrimination.

Loyalty, honor and service to the community must be the No. 1 priority and personal aggrandizement tabled. It is only through personal sacrifice of ego that an individual creates a legacy of merit.

Helen Harrell and Carol Fischer can be reached at hharrell@indiana.edu and cafische@indiana.edu.