Taking Off: The Tea Leaf Center in 2018

2018 was the founding year of the Tea Leaf Center. Emerging from long talks, rants of frustration, and countless daydreams, it now exists. We’re starting to do the work that we’ve been dreaming of doing, the way we think it should be done. It’s a bit scary, but the good kind of scary – like the first drop on a roller coaster or the first rainfall of monsoon season. It may feel a little wild and overwhelming, but once you give yourself up to the chaos it’s a beautiful experience.

For years Jon and I had been half-seriously dreaming of starting our own organization – a think tank maybe, or a consulting firm. It became a running joke of a plan on group chats with friends in various fields with similar working styles and approaches to life. We had a sense that we wanted to do things differently, a sense of not quite fitting in any organizational model either of us had worked in.

Lots of planning happened over coffee.

I can’t remember exactly when this dream became real, in part because it wasn’t a single moment. If I’ve learned anything in this process, it’s that some things exist when you say they exist. There was a lot of research on organizational structure, legal definitions and the like so that we knew how to make it formal – and the short story is that we’re still not quite there yet on some measures. And yet, here we are in 2019 and there exists such a thing called the Tea Leaf Center.

More coffee-shop brainstorming

Throughout the past year, we have brainstormed, researched, written and rewritten, had long discussions with long-time friends and newly-met colleagues. We’ve done our first activities and refined our model to seek the right balance of flexibility, freedom and focus. Already in our first year, we have had moments of struggle to keep to our mission of supporting locally-led research. It’s a lot harder to build relationships and support projects that are truly conceived and led by local organizations, and a lot easier to get distracted by a shiny, ‘fundable’ idea and seek ‘buy-in’ after the fact. It’s also easier to develop an organization based on a normal, professional NGO model instead of a more fluid, flexible network with core values but less security. To focus on getting funded instead of hired. I’m proud to say that so far we’ve been able to stick to our way of working, and the work is starting to come. But we’re still working out the details as we go, and I hope we’re always doing this kind of fine-tuning.

Participants in a Tea Leaf Center-led training on research design and methodology

Another thing I’ve learned about starting an organization – and with your significant other, no less – is the importance of enforcing a work-life balance and setting an organizational culture from the beginning. It would be easy for me to work on the Tea Leaf Center constantly – there’s always more to do, it’s still new and exciting, and there’s no one to tell me I’ve done enough. I’ve always hated 9-5 jobs. I prefer to work whatever hours are necessary to get my work done, and do my own thing when I don’t have anything pressing to do. For this new role, though, my work is never really done. I have so many hats – developing new projects, coming up with monitoring and evaluation policies and practices, networking, staying on top of our social media presence, reading and learning about non-profit leadership and innovation – that I have to learn when not to wear any hat at all.

Very excited for our first Tea Leaf Center networking/planning trip!

For much of 2018, I had another full-time and then part-time job, so everything was done on the weekends and in the evening. Around November, I looked back and realized that I hadn’t gone a full weekend without working since April, nor had we taken any vacations since then – just working trips with some free time sprinkled in. By the end of the year, I was stressed and just plain tired of talking about the Tea Leaf Center. We’ve decided that, starting this year, we will start to implement the organizational culture we want for the organization when it grows – we will be the bosses we want to be when we have employees. We will be strict on weekends and time off, and follow local holidays. We will remind ourselves, and each other, about mental health and how resilience in this field means taking care of yourself in addition to others.

A Tea Leaf Center-led training on research design and ethics

Overall, this has been an amazing year starting to put my dreams and ideas into practice. It’s slow, and it’s a lot of work, but it’s also liberating and the good kind of challenging. So I start 2019 with a healthy dose of hope, energy and optimism, ready to work hard to turn this small seed into something bigger and better. I hope you enjoy following this process. As an organization that values transparency and accountability, we will do my best to remain open about our experience, with the hope that it helps spark and nurture other budding ideas and organizations.