A friend and mentor died on Sunday. Her name was Kim Patterson and she was amazing. I met Kim when I started working for the union in 2004. She was kind and smart and very different from a lot of the “guy” culture at the union. She was not my first lead. I was hired to administer the organizing database, but my lead recognized I could do more than that, so I started taking on local-wide responsibilities. That is when Kim became my lead.
I learned a lot from Kim, but one of the unexpected lessons came in recent years. Kim taught me that ambition is ok. This may seem weird for people not in social justice work, but I’ve always had the feeling that people who outwardly seek organizational authority are to be mistrusted. Almost every story I heard about someone getting to be in charge was couched in the idea of an accident. Here are a few examples:
- The former president of SEIU told the story about his involvement happened because he went to a meeting that offered free pizza.
- Directors saying all they wanted to do was organize and one day they became a lead. No plan, it just “happened.” They wish they could return to door knocking.
- When someone gets a promotion it’s usually filled with tremendous self-deprecation and “I’m as surprised as you.”
It’s humility on steroids. I’ve always been under the impression that a desire to have positional authority was never to be communicated. After Kim retired, I had dinner with her in Philadelphia and posed the question, “how and why did you become an officer?”
Kim looked at me and said, “I wanted to make decisions. There was a small circle of people deciding the future of the union and I wanted to be one of them. I told them I wanted to be an officer.” There was no romantic story about stumbling into leadership. She owned the fact that she was a leader and wanted an appropriate position to effect change. We all benefited from that focus and determination. She wanted what was best for our union. It is the most honest answer I’ve ever heard about being staff in the labor movement.
Kim taught me that it was OK for a union to have nice things and for staff to have fun. She made sure our union hall was not a grubby organizer den, but a place that made members proud. She was insistent that the staff had fun on the holiday party and required the electric slide be on the playlist. Members and staff loved her because she reminded all of us that that work must be paired with smiles and laughter. She loved life and it was that love of life that drove her fight against cancer these last 6 years.
Here are a few stories that make me smile when I am remembering Kim.
When I was leaving for Ecuador, Kim came into town to say goodbye. Dennis hosted a dinner and made octopus ceviche. He served us and announced, “I got extra tentacles.” The second he went inside, all of the tentacles were on my plate. She looked at me and said, “Not going to happen.”
Once, Kim, Sam, Cathy and I went to the horse races together. Kim and I were shocked when we arrived and Cathy bought the big guide and started talking about the superfecta and trifecta bets. To this day I have no idea what Cathy was doing, but we laughed at all of the betting nonsense. I lost all my money shortly thereafter. Kim was smart enough to spend her money on ice cream.
Kim and Cathy were a great pair together because Cathy would do something ridiculous and Kim would call her out on it.
Kim: “Put on that seat belt, there’s a beep that won’t go off until you put it on.”
Cathy: “It goes off.”
Kim: “I road with you for 5 hours yesterday. It never went off.”
Cathy: “It went off.”
Kim: “It never went off.”
Repeat for 20 minutes or as long as the car ride allowed.
The last time we saw each other was the end of September. She came over to the house. We had pie, took some photos, and enjoyed each other’s company. It’s not the last time I spoke to Kim, but it is the last time I saw her. Kim Patterson made me a better union staff person and she made the world better every moment she was in it.