It's your job to keep the fire going

One overcast day in early December, I went to a leaf clearing work day at a cooperative pool club my family belongs to. One of the first to arrive, I was greeted by the work day organizer and another volunteer. Both stood near a raised fire pit with a tall, brick chimney at the center of the pool club grounds. In the fireplace, several thick logs were ablaze, sending out much appreciated warmth on that nippy morning.

The volunteer told me that one of the first tasks to be done was to clear the fallen branches strewn across the green. He explained that clearing would allow the leaf blowers to work more effectively. I started in one corner of the field, and made several trips to the fireplace balancing piles of logs in my arms.  After several rounds, the organizer, a square-faced man with a leaf blower strapped around his torso, approached me. He lowered the power on his blower and said with great insistence, “It will go a lot faster if you use a tarp.” He pointed me in the direction of his pickup truck with an attached flatbed that held several garbage bins bulging with bright blue and orange tarps  I headed over to the bins, fished one out, and took it to the spot where I had left off. After spreading it on the ground, I resumed my gathering.

More volunteers arrived, all white men. Between the options of a hand held rake and a powered leaf blower, most chose the latter. What had been a quiet field, now filled with the cumulative roar of several mechanized yard tools.

When my tarp looked full enough, I hauled it to the fireplace. Another volunteer stood before the fire, sipping coffee from a large styrofoam cup. In between sips, he fed the dancing flames more branches from a pile I started on the ground nearby. I asked him whether I should unload my new batch of wood on the raised stone platform around the fireplace or continue dispensing on the ground. He shrugged and said it was up to me. I piled the logs on the ground and set out for another round of gathering. I continued to be the sole wood gatherer, the only woman, and the only person of color.

By the time I returned, the fire had diminished significantly. Tendrils of smoke rose from the blackened and charcoal grey logs that held only a few sparkling embers. Small flames licked around the edges of the disintegrating pile, hungry for fresh wood. The same man I had encountered before, arrived at the fire when I did. He threw in a few logs and then turned to me and said, “The fire almost went out. It’s your job to keep the fire going.”

It’s your job to keep the fire going.

I let his words sink in.

I went back out with a new sense of urgency. There was a section of the green that several men with leaf blowers were closing in on. I hurried there and laid down my tarp. Quickly and steadily, I collected wood. Bending, gathering, rising, tossing. Bending, gathering, rising, tossing. I kept just ahead of the men flanking one another in a long line across the field. I thought about the importance of both gathering enough wood and returning to the fire in time to keep the blaze going. I sensed I could reach one edge of the field and still get back in time.

I hauled a full tarp back to the fire. It was smaller but not in danger of going out as it was before. Without asking for directions, I began arranging branches in a square around the flickering flares, and then criss cross within. The fire grew in intensity and before long its flames danced high, radiating heat in all directions. The sound of crackling wood rose over the din of leaf blowers now at a far end of the grounds. I lingered and let the fire’s energy spread across my body.

It’s your job to keep the fire going.

As a facilitator, writer, and singer-songwriter, these words continue to reverberate in my heart and bring another dimension of clarity to the nature of this work. This call to purpose also raises many questions:

Who are the firekeepers in our communities (for me, they include the ritual makers, healers, teachers, young people, elders, and artists of all mediums) and do we value their work through recognition and just compensation?

How do we tend to the fire within ourselves, communities, organizations, and networks while also responding to the urgency of this moment, one with growing climate crises and increasing disparities?

In organizational development, network building, or systems change work, what is the fire we need to sustain in order for processes to be transformative and life giving?

It’s your job to keep the fire going. Let’s get to work.