Finance and Direction, September 2018

This blog post began as a finance report and turned into a longer story about the various approaches to finance, leadership and direction of the Boston Center. Where we put our energy and financial resources reflects the principles by which we operate, whether we are conscious of them, or even able to articulate them at all. Let this be a longer commentary on the email that was sent about our current financial picture HERE, as well as a narrative that will inform our community’s direction moving forward. We have such a strong foundation of dialogue and inquiry over the past handful of years and I believe we are moving into a phase of collectively holding ourselves more accountable for the kind of community we want to be. Let this be a further education into how the local Center has navigated organizationally since 2013.  

What happened to ‘Moving into Boston’

2013 Newbury

In 2013 the local Council at the time borrowed equity (in the form of cash) on our building, in order to position ourselves to open an auxiliary space on Newbury St. The bank would only loan us an amount based on our cash flow (not based on the full assessment of our building) and capped our loan at $100K in cash. At that time the Council and ‘Move Committee’ explicitly allocated the use of the cash for expansion and was not to be used operationally. When the landlord at Newbury Street made unrealistic demands, the initiative for that location ended.

 

2013-2015 The Pause

The Center then moved into a phase of significant leadership changes, from Dan Glenn’s Directorship leading into a period without a Director, followed by Ashley Hodson stepping into the Directorship, and a complete change of the local Council. During that time, the cash equity of about $100K remained essentially untouched. The plans for expansion were slowed to a halt between leadership changes and the reality of real-estate costs and values in the city of Boston. Essentially, the loan amount and our Center income (mostly break-even scenarios for the regular operations of the center) could not come close to affording the leasing, renovating and operating of a secondary space in the areas of Boston and BackBay that we were implored to consider by the Sakyong and Dr. Eva Wong. The aspirations to be more visible and also accessible (handicap and by train/car) met the realities of our financial limitations.

 

2015-2018 Direction Change

During the last three years Director Hodson, along with staff and Council, explored the deeper issues around moving into Boston that had previously been less visible than the financial limitations. These critical issues fall into these main categories: Teacher Development, Collective Liberation, Accessibility/Visibility. A final issue to address, further down, are the Real Estate Developments in the area of our building on 646 Brookline Ave.

 

These areas of consideration are expanded on below, but the key aspect of our change in direction from ‘Moving into Boston’ was focusing on building our capacity to offer Shambhala teachings and being able to do that anywhere, without leasing and maintaining our own secondary space. It was identified that even if we had a financial windfall in the future, the issue of human resources and teaching capacity would always need focus and cultivation in order to fulfill the demands of any future auxiliary spaces. In the Spring of 2017, our current mortgage was up for renewal and we requested to borrow $100k more in cash equity (a renewal is an important time to request money, as the process is identical to the renewal process), and based on our current cash flow, we were approved for that amount. Since the previous Cash Equity amount had not been touched (due to the initial use being restricted for physical expansion efforts by the previous board), the new Cash Equity was specifically slated for capacity building through teacher development.

Teacher Development

One of the key limitations of our previous 2013 Newbury Street expansion attempts were the limitations of a small, volunteer based teacher core. The main question haunting that project was ‘Even if we had all of the space in the world, who would teach the wealth of classes we would need to run just to stay afloat?’ The lack of available teachers was just the beginning of this inquiry; what followed were important explorations into who teaches at the Center, how they are trained and supported, and the need for creating better models of compensating teachers. The area we will most address in teacher development section is how teachers are trained, supported and mentored on a local level. The who teaches at the Center will be addressed in the next section of ‘Collective Liberation’.

 

Over the last handful of years, teacher training on an international level has been going through a major overhaul, with the previous trainings and paths for becoming a teacher coming to an end. This has led to a shortage of support and path for trained and authorized teachers locally, as well as many potential teachers having no opportunities to become authorized. Some of the issues with previous teacher training models were that anyone could apply to teach and without strong gateways, feedback, assessment and support systems, there were members essentially tenured into teaching positions who were either not skilled in teaching or who were not in any way required to continue training or expanding their awareness of the communal or societal patterns affecting the accessibility and context of presenting the Dharma. The emphasis on local teacher selection and training began to shift towards an invitation process that Acharya Adam Lobel was beginning to oversee but has remained in a state of unformed, unorganized and leaving this shift for local leaders to sort out with little direction.

 

In 2013 and 2015 we ran two local training circles for folks who were earlier on in their path and moving into facilitating affinity groups or training as guides/MIs, in order to expand not only the amount of trainees locally but also begin to shift the age/race/gender expression/life experience of our teacher core. Without more women, younger folks, people of color, queer and trans teachers in our sangha, we were missing so much voice, embodiment and view that are inherent to our teachings of warriorship. These circles and their design were not perfect and there was much stumbling through how to switch from application to invitation as a process locally. 

 

The need for more voices in our sangha to teach and lead, not only programs, but all different aspects of our community was not going to change itself. In November 2017 the Center hired Nick Kranz as a part-time, one-year contract position to work solely on the project of teacher development.

This included four aspects:

-Developing simple curriculum to be taught in spaces outside of the Center 

Offering ongoing circles for peer mentorship and discussion, particularly for mentees just beginning the path of leading/facilitating and guiding simple drop-in style classes

-Beginning to develop a path of nomination, invitation and training on a local level in relationship with the broader Practice and Education leadership (with the Center Director)

Developing a new payment model for teachers on a local level, particularly for more drop-in offerings and off-site beginner programs

 

We have been working with Mr. Kranz in this capacity for the last year and have only just begun this important change in strategy. Off-site beginner classes are scheduled throughout the Winter and small peer circles have been happening with a group of people who are earlier on in the facilitating/leading/training path. Though we hope this work will continue in some form with our Practice and Education team moving forward, Mr. Kranz’s contract ends in November and there is still much work to be done in order to bring this key change to fruition. Mr. Kranz has made valiant efforts over the years to magnetize, support and inspire our young teachers and his lungta and direct mentorship will be deeply missed by our staff and leaders.  

 

Because of recent funding cuts at the Center of the Mandala we will have less overall support in building equitable and transparent teaching paths which are used and adopted across all Center’s. There has always been a balance between ‘wait and see’ what the Center of the Mandala will do, and making decisions locally that are needed for our Center. Right now we have a focus of slowing down, seeing who would like to continue their path of training/leading and finding the best local supports for that to continue. 

 

Collective Liberation

We have written much about the work of Collective Liberation, but I want to identify this important piece of our work over the last few years as it relates to the financial aspects of our Center. There are three aspects of the collective liberation work that we have been working towards.

Building a Scholarship for People of Color (members) to attend land Center core programs, –Inviting and supporting a more diverse group of teacher trainees to teach and facilitate in order to give broader voice to the lived experience of Shambhala Dharma and warriorship,

Offering trainings, programs and Affinity Spaces that fundamentally shake our societal habits which both personally and organizationally keep marginalized people out of positions of leadership.

 

If this last aspect is confusing, let me try and be more pointed. Where we put our money, resources, and energy is the thing that we will ultimately cultivate. If we want to be a community that offers Dharma to all humans, we must intentionally put money, staff and resources towards changing our leadership and teaching circle to invite and support our members of color, women and queer and trans folks and people with abilities of all kinds. Without literally putting our money where our mouth is, we will perpetuate a community that is missing the entire message of a liberation which is inherently collectively held. If we are to take abuses of power and the disrespect of women seriously, we must see the entire landscape clearly. Misogyny does not replicate without racism, and racism does not replicate with classism, and on and on. We are a web, and the work of Shambhala is to illuminate that web. We cannot do that without intentionality. This work of collective liberation must continue, and it needs champions who understand this view. Currently no one is specifically holding the work of Collective Liberation and after the allegations against the Sakyong were made public, our People of Color group leaders decided to step away from the Center for the time, which I support wholeheartedly. If you want to see this work continue, be it the POC group or the White Affinity group, please contact our council and let them know: council@shambhalaboston.org.   

 

Accessibility + Visibility

One of our community’s criticism of the Back Bay area and the plan to move an auxiliary space there was that many marginalized communities are not represented or able to participate in a Shambhala space situated in the Back Bay. Another factor motivating the opening of an auxiliary location was to find a space that was physically accessible for disabled and older participants. Our current 646 Brookline Ave location does not even have a ramp into the first floor, nor an elevator to the second floor. This has not only kept disabled and older participants from accessing the Dharma but has been an incredibly painful limitation for our whole community.

Recently, precipitated by our change in strategy and de-emphasizing looking for a physical space to lease, we opened the question of ‘Could we build an elevator?’ again. This was tied into another series of events, where a developer made an offer to buy our building as part of a development happening at the end of Brookline Ave, on Rt. 9. (More on that offer below.)

 

The elevator exploration included some initial exploration by community member Paul Wilbur who made some very rough sketches and got us to the stage of being able to ballpark some initial numbers. Our guesstimate to put in an elevator brought in more questions regarding the facade, front and back entrances, as well as the feasibility of a 3rd floor expansion. Without expanding our scope too much, we estimated about $400K+ would be needed to consider an elevator for this building, which did not include yearly maintenance fees and repairs. Again, this was the roughest guess we could put together, without actually paying professionals to design and estimate these changes. We wanted a ballpark to see what that investment could look like in the long term. After that preliminary conversation, we put that conversation on pause because of the rapid development of this small area of Brookline Ave. (Please see the next section to continue the explanation of the development story.) The exploration of the elevator basically stopped at that ballpark estimate because we felt it needed a much longer term development strategy that included a higher income stream or fundraising effort to consider taking on the project.

 

646 Brookline Ave, Real Estate and Local Development  

In early 2016, Claremont Development Company made an offer to buy our building at 646 Brookline, with an option to lease until we found another building to move to. After a conversation with John Ranco, one of our board members and our local realtor, we decided that the offer was not significant enough and the timing wasn’t right for us to consider a move of our main Center location. The offer was well below market value and not enough for us to afford the amount of square footage we currently own, closer into the city of Boston. Claremont is currently developing a hotel at the end of Brookline Ave and they have purchased the properties leading up to the Shambhala Center (from what we can gather). Given the development in the area (along Rt. 9 and Pearl street by Children’s hospital and Claremont), this will continue to be an area of interest for future developers.

 

The town of Brookline changed our zoning in the last year in order to attract more development. As far as we are aware, the remaining business owners are not interested in selling their buildings anytime soon. After much discussion with John Ranco and our Council, it was concluded that we are not considering moving. I would like to emphasize that we have an incredible space, and the square footage-to-mortgage ratio is VERY low compared to what we might pay for the equivalent space in this market, this close to Boston. We are here to stay. The accessibility issue remains, however.

Staff Changes at the Center

 

Staffing has consistently been the largest expense for our center, and maintaining a relatively large staff of three full-time people (compared to most Centers) over the last decade has kept us balancing the overall expense with the financial returns of greater staffing capacity.
In reviewing the center’s financial situation recently, it became clear to the Council and the Directors that our staffing capacity needed to change and accommodate a smaller scale of operations.
Our current staff leadership team (Ashley, Max and Nicole) discussed various options and came to the most mutually supportive arrangement in a challenging moment. Nicole Arseneault, our Program and Marketing Manager, will continue in her position through the end of September, working to document and transition as much of her key efforts as possible to community members. Our hope is to identify the role’s she is holding and shift our Center’s needs to be more collectively held. She has expressed wanting to have some time to focus on her health before making her next career move.
We will take more time to appreciate Nicole, but let it be said here that we are so grateful for her dedication, her eye for detail, her enthusiasm for service, and her deep care this community. We wish her all the best.

In Conclusion

There is still much to be said about how we continue to govern ourselves, make decisions as a community and allow our practices to inform and shape our direction moving forward. I hope this was informative, helpful and inspires some inquiry for you. Everything that we have achieved at the Center, has been done by someone who had an aspiration to be of benefit and who showed up to ask ‘how can I help?’. The next few years will take all of our skills, ability to stay in uncertainty, and deep self care. Sometimes taking time away is as much help to this community as being in the eye of the hurricane. Find your place, your voice and stay connected to the spark that motivated you to sit and practice in the first place.

 

Much Love,

Ashley Hodson

Outgoing Executive Director

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