9 SEMINAR/WORKSHOP CONSULTANT
Donna Holling's life and her career are a testament to perseverance, determination, and a love of learning. Now retired after 25 years of government service, Donna has developed a second career as an independent consultant – trainer. In her work for the federal government, through involvement in her church, and through her children Donna has been a real pioneer in the Black and Women's movements. Because of this she is highly networked, with a positive reputation which often precedes her. The result is that work comes looking for her.
In Donna's case, the relationship of career and sociology is less a matter of academic degree than it is a combination of significant life experiences and pursuit of education. The discipline is important in that it is compatible with her experiences. Sociology has provided skills, both hard and soft, which help Donna better understand her experiences. Thus while Donna's degree is a B.A. in sociology, it has had the impact of more advanced degrees.
After completing high school Donna's dream was to attend college. Finances prevented this and she had to go to work. Nonetheless she persisted and enrolled in a local college's night school program, part–time, and began taking courses towards a degree in criminology. In this area of study Donna encountered two "excellent" professors in sociology who helped shape her long–term academic interests. To pay the bills Donna took a day job at the college which she held for four years. However, the college did not offer a complete degree program through its night school, so her education could not be finished. Donna then took a clerical job with the IRS (Internal Revenue Services). Unfortunately, reorganization within the IRS soon cost Donna her job. But this was the early days of the civil rights movement and Donna saw that opportunities were there for those, as she said, who were "aggressive enough to go after them." Her aggressive action was to "take my case to Washington D.C. and see if those in government really meant what they said about civil rights." There the IRS rehired her at "the lowest grade level." Twenty–five years later Donna retired from government service at the highest senior executive level.
Donna's career is a classic "feel good" success story. Yet she still clung to her dream of earning a degree. She had taken some occasional coursework, but nothing in a degree track. According to Donna, "I always wanted to pursue the degree. I wanted to feel good about myself, and be able to do good for others." At this time a university in the Washington, D.C. area was offering a unique program called University Without Walls. The idea was to award credit based on life experiences and then complete a degree with formal coursework. To determine how her life experiences would translate into college credit Donna wrote a thesis on herself, her work, and observations about the world. In addition to credit the thesis served to direct her studies into the field of sociology. But why sociology?
According to Donna the choice was sociology because in many ways it defined her own life. "It seemed that my whole life has been spent working with people in groups––my work, my children and their groups like girl scouts, my church, and other organizations. And, I have often been involved with people of various cultures and backgrounds. I have had to learn how to get along with many different people in many different settings. Sociology just seemed to fit those experiences so well. Further, sociology helped me gain a better understanding, a better feel for what was happening."
One obvious characteristic of sociology as a discipline is its wide applicability. There are also many subspecialities in sociology. Working in government for 25 years gave Donna special insight into the realities of power, and the structures in which power is exercised. Because of this Donna focused her coursework on the sociology of politics and power. On this basis, according to Donna, she would be able to "stand back from my experiences in order to see how things work from a different perspective. Sometimes when you are in the middle of a situation it is difficult to see clearly how things are really happening." This capacity of sociology to help one gain perspective provided the foundation for Donna's second career.
Donna's second career is that of independent consultant and trainer. In 25 years of government service Donna said that she became "quite well networked. Beyond people I know there are people I have heard about, and there are people who have heard about me. This is absolutely necessary for the kind of work I do." And that work is to help people in work settings begin to see their work, and the other relationships which swirl around work, from a sociological point of view. Donna says that, "If I can do this, then these people can apply the discipline for themselves, and in ways that are most important to them."
Donna's consultations and training sessions often take the form of workshops. These workshops cover a wide range of topics, including cultural diversity, women and organizational creativity, and power and organization. According to Donna, "My sociology comes into play in two ways. First, the discipline helps me see and understand the issue, such as cultural diversity in the workplace. Secondly, the discipline also helps me to administer the seminars themselves. You have to carefully manage them or you'll lose the participants." One way to run such seminars is to involve the participants in the phenomenon being examined. For example, Donna often does executive training for new CEO's or upper–level managers. The objective is to demonstrate to them that their real task is to effectively communicate what they want others to do. "So, I give them some very basic assignments. One might be to amuse a child with simple things. What they learn right away is that they have to see things from the child's point of view, not their own. Another might be to write the directions for making a peanut butter sandwich. You would be surprised at how many people forget to collect the ingredients in their instructions. The point is, they don't have a useful perspective. It's my job to help them develop one."
Donna understands that workshop participants will have some kind of perspective on whatever the issue for the workshop is. Further, Donna understands that these perspectives "have been produced over a long period of time. People aren't born with these ideas, they are put together over time. This means that they will not change quickly, but it does mean that they do and can change." For example, if women or minorities are being subjected to various kinds of discrimination or harrasement, then their productivity, as employees, will certainly be affected. Donna asks, "Are we just going to dismiss all unproductive employees?" She answers, "That's not possible. Instead we must change the conditions of work, including the perceptions people have about female and/or minority co–workers. If the workshop is well done then the process of reconstructing damaging perceptions has begun."
For some this kind of work seems a bit difficult to grasp. To help you understand, Donna suggests an aggressive career development approach. She observes that, "Workshops like I do are an ongoing part of the business and government worlds. Simply because you haven't heard about them doesn't meant that they do not exist. Therefore, I suggest that researching the business of workshops and seminars be part of what you do as a student. You could begin by contacting convention bureaus and getting a list of industry conventions or annual meetings which have come to some cities. Then ask for convention schedules. You will see for yourself the array of workshops offered. But this is only the start. You need to pursue this in order to learn as much as you can."
Donna also has advice on skills to develop. She concludes, "Writing is absolutely important, as are speaking skills. You need to be able to present yourself, and what you have to say, so that others not only hear you, but will adopt the point of view you are offering." Donna also wants students to know that "you can make a living." Of course income will depend on the kinds of consultations you do, but Donna currently earns in the $60,000–$65,000 range annually.
Most important, Donna advises to "not give up on your dreams. I enjoy what I do. But I'm sure that 25 years ago I could not have seen myself where I am today. The fact is, your life will be full of many twists and turns, and you must be prepared to learn from them all."
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