11/17/2022 0 Comments
Everything Is Work: Conflicts of Interest and the Ethics of Being a Conscious Business
For almost my entire career I have walked a line between what is work and what is “work.” By some definitions, I am working all the time. For instance, my hobbies and passions of teaching fitness and yoga classes were often paid work in addition to being a work out. This is work that I have always done in addition to the work of being a student, and later a professor. For a long time these spheres were completely separate, in part because being a fitness instructor was looked down upon in the world of academia. I have worked over the last decade to bring these two spheres closer together.
Almost anything and everything I do that is not work can be connected to work somehow. My fitness teaching has been work, a work out, and then work in the form of research. As a cultural critic and theorist even my recreation of watching tv shows is also work! I have worked (there’s that word again!) hard over the past few years to create better boundaries between work and not work, and to pursue activities that are not at all work, but it is an ongoing challenge for a recovering overachiever and someone who is passionate about all the work that I do.
Being a professor is to be in a vacuum that absorbs everything as a part of the expectation of our teaching, advising, research, university service, and public service. I can always do more, if only because it can be another line on my vita. There is an unspoken expectation that we should give more of ourselves, more of our time and energy (and even our money) in service to the university and our community. I teach my students that service is part and parcel with our privilege, but where do we draw the line?
In my attempt to be ethical and serve my community, for more than a decade I have offered fitness/wellness events for free as well as low-cost events, sliding scale events, and events where the funds raised support scholarships. Part of my free offerings was my reluctance to profit from what I consider to be community service. I love being able to offer free events, especially to those who cannot afford to pay for the “luxuries” of self-care. With a flexible full-time job with decent pay and benefits, I can afford to be generous. I give freely of my time, energy, skills, and talents even when my giving is not always in my best interests.
In addition to offering a ton of free and fund-raising events, on and off campus, I have also taught for non-profits where my annual pay is a nice bonus but doesn’t even begin to cover my expenses for trainings, let alone for the things I need to do the work of this side job. I’ve always operated from the idea that this work is more service than it is work. Even when I receive a paycheck I am also spending thousands of dollars a year on maintaining certifications and continuing my training. I could skate by on my knowledge and experience, but I want to learn more, do better, heal myself, and better serve my community.
I have continued to operate with this loose ethical structure of service for over a decade—working a demanding full-time job while also teaching up to five or six fitness and yoga classes a week (plus unpaid prep time for these classes) and offering free events and classes, on and off campus. In this work, I consider myself to be an ethical person. At least I try to be.
But in the world of yoga and healing modalities, like JourneyDance, we are encouraged to not offer free classes and events for a variety of reasons. Many consider it unethical to regularly offer free classes. We spend a lot of money on trainings and professional development and we are encouraged to ask to be paid what we are worth. (This argument of my own worth has always been an additional challenge for me!) But not everyone who needs these healing modalities can pay what they are worth in our capitalist system, which is an ethical dilemma that I struggle with.
Further, when we offer free yoga classes, for instance, we are devaluing the work that other instructors are doing to make a living (not to mention the debates around cultural appropriation, but that’s a whole other blog!). Just because I have the privilege to afford to offer free yoga doesn’t mean that I should, especially if I am hurting the work that other teachers are doing in an attempt to make a living. And, really, by offering my highly skilled work for free, I am ultimately devaluing myself, even if this is not the way that I see it.
My navigation of the lines between my professional career and my work in my community have become further complicated by my opening of a “business.” I really hope that someday I can say that I run a successful and profitable business, but that dream seems like a far-off future, especially since I have spent a sizable chunk of my personal savings to open the doors of The Spiral Goddess Collective, a Center for Mind/Body Movement. As a new venture, I really have no idea if I can expect to pay the rent each month, let alone make back the money I have invested in this dream.
Further, because of the model of my enterprise—as a low-profit LLC that aims to provide not just affordable and accessible yoga and JourneyDance classes, but also free and low-cost community events and scholarships for community members who cannot afford the luxury of healing modalities—my potential profit is mitigated by my personal ethics and generous spirit of community service. I am okay with this. Even if I never make a penny of profit, it will be worth the time, effort, energy, and money to be able to offer my gifts and talents on my terms and to create space for others to do the same. The Spiral Goddess Collective is ultimately not about making money; it is about creating and curating space and inviting the community to engage in healing modalities. My community includes my colleagues—faculty, staff, and students at UMA—as well as people living in and around Bangor.
But here’s the crux of the issue . . . part of what I am offering is workshops that colleagues and friends encouraged me to offer as professional development workshop opportunities, especially since UMaine system money is available for just such offerings. In an attempt to do so, I hit a barrier that I did not anticipate—UMaine’s policy on conflicts of interest. I have been told that while it is okay for me to own and operate a business as “outside employment,” UMA faculty and staff cannot use professional development funds to pay for my workshops because this is considered a conflict of interest. In fact, when I inquired further I was told that no faculty or staff in the entire UMaine system are allowed to spend professional development funds at my “personal business.”
This breaks my heart. Not only because of the money that I will not be making, but because I have been offering workshops like this for free or by donation for a long time and I have witnessed the positive impacts that they have made on people’s mind/body health and wellness. Of course my colleagues can still attend. They can still choose to pay me their own hard-earned money. But because I now pay to maintain a beautiful, sacred space for such offerings, I can no longer afford to offer these services for free. I will continue to offer sliding scale prices, and I have already awarded scholarships to a couple of UMA students. So I find myself wondering what is ethical about this decision to bar faculty and staff from the entire UMaine system from using professional development funds to pay for the innovative, revolutionary services I am offering?
Is it ethical to tell faculty and staff in the entire UMaine system that they cannot choose which trainings they want to spend their professional development funds on? Is it ethical to create a circumstance where I feel like I cannot charge what I am worth? Is it ethical to restrict funds to a business that is trying to place the best interests of its community above its profit margins?
Apparently it is not a conflict of interest for me to offer free weekly yoga classes to UMA students and staff, and to give scholarships to those same students and other community members. It is not a conflict of interest for me to offer my professional services for free, as I have been doing for years. But it is a conflict of interest for people to pay me with money that comes from the UMaine system because I am also employed by this same system?
To make this fuzzy boundary more complicated (because that’s what I do), The Spiral Goddess Collective is not simply “outside employment”; it is a manifestation, culmination, and synergy of everything that I have been working on, and for, over the last couple of decades, maybe longer. I had dreamed of having my own space and teaching mind/body movement on my own terms, but I never really thought this dream could be a reality. It only very suddenly came into being when the universe plopped down the opportunity of a lifetime right smack in the middle of my path. The SGC is a blending of my education, my activism, my academic teaching, my personal and professional research, my fitness and yoga teaching and training, my service, my ideology, my life’s work—the best of both worlds in one amazing, magical space that has already made a difference in my community.
Evil capitalists bask in the glow of conflicts of interest and bend the rules of ethics all the time. It’s why we need conflict of interest policies in the first place. The language of the UMaine conflict of interest policy is vague—perhaps as vague as the rules that surround ethics more generally. I feel stuck and constrained by a system that is trying to preserve the ethics of its employees. I feel devalued by a system with no wiggle room and hard boundaries. I feel cheated out of an opportunity to reach more people in my community and to actually have a chance to make enough money to pay my rent and grow my business to serve even more people.
My dream finally has a sacred space—a place where I can offer comfort, relative safety, and an atmosphere that fosters healing, rather than the austere and chaotic borrowed spaces where I have previously offered my healing modalities. But even with a physical space, the dream of The Spiral Goddess Collective still does not fit in a square world. I am just another “personal business.” There is no category on Google that describes The SGC. The categories on the Mindbody scheduling App don’t fit the classes I am offering. I still have to convince people that yoga and conscious dance are worth their time and money. I should have expected the lack of conventional fit, especially since its uniqueness is at the core of its creation and impetus.
So, perhaps this is just one of the many lessons I have to learn about what it means to be a “business woman,” an identity that I avoided as long as I could and still struggle to embrace. Perhaps this is one of those “life lessons” that I have chaffed against as I have attempted to carve my own path through the wilderness of what it means to be an ethical person and to work in service of the people in my community. I will appeal. I will push back. I will continue to live and work within my personal code of ethics and hope that I at least break even on the money front. My approach has worked pretty well so far though I grow tired of always having to argue and defend innovation, transdisciplinarity, and radical service. And that is another reason why I took the leap and opened The Spiral Goddess Collective—every time I arrive there I am renewed, rejuvenated, and reminded that I am right where I need to be.
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