In the Least Likely Places

Posted by jlubans on January 04, 2022

Caption: Hallway trash swept into center of landing. Photo by Latvijas Radio.

Sometimes you find leadership in the least likely places.
Often it is ephemeral and spontaneous, but still it is leadership, that interesting human process of getting others to come along and do something for the betterment of a group, for the common good.
It is purest when spontaneous and free of organizational constraints and free of experts telling you what leadership is.
A story out of my native land of Latvia caught my eye: “Rīga residents annoyed by dirty stairwells.
It tells of many residents’ frustration with their janitorial services arrangements. “One of these residents said they had not seen a janitor for five years despite the fact that payments for janitorial services have continued to be collected from them.”
The service providers claim, as always, there are too few people who want to work as janitors and that the shortage is further aggravated by covid rules.
Pretty awful.
The story says that some “inhabitants have got sick of the dirt, so they have decided to sweep it (as depicted) into small piles to show how much has accumulated.”
Now, the landings and lobbies of most buildings from the Soviet era are already in a rundown and shabby condition, as you can see from the beat-up radiation hanging off the even more battered wall.
So, yes, the dirt piles would make a point about lack of services. But it would add to the general feeling of depression and dilapidation in the building’s entry, stairs and landings.
While common spaces may not be well maintained for historic, economic reasons, private living spaces can be charmingly decorated and nicely furnished. There’s a Latvian word for a place being just right, ”smuki”.
Why go to the effort to sweep the dirt into a pile and not just pick it up and empty it?
Why make a bad situation worse?
Is this not passive aggressive behavior among victims? Complain and do nothing?
Kind of like if I find trash on a favorite hiking trail, should I pick it up and put it in the middle of the trail? I’ve done that a few times out of irritation with the littering class but nowadays I simply pack it up and take it out.*
When I asked a Latvian friend (“V”)** if she knew of any buildings in which the owners - by the way, many of these apartments are owned, not leased - had had enough and organized into janitorial vigilantes?
She knew of none in her Riga neighborhood, but she had a friend (“L”) in the not-too-distant city of Jelgava in which the residents had self-organized and were sweeping and mopping the stairs, landings and hallways themselves. Their “block” has 11 flats on 4 floors.
Well, that was of interest.
“V” offered, most kindly, to find out more.
I learned that the venture, following a building renovation which left everything “tidy and neat”, had been organized by the “house senior” through an online vote with three options: We clean, Janitor cleans (twice a year) or Pay someone else to clean more frequently.
The outcome: We’ll do it ourselves!
This, according to “L”, “went through, because it was initiated by the ‘house senior’. Her authority played a major role. If I or another neighbour initiated that, I doubt that it would work.”
So, given the vote, each resident took responsibility to clean their landing and stairs.
While there have been some bumps over the several months, “the best result is that the staircase is clean. (A) few neighbours started making common space fancier with plants and seasonal decorations.
Some neighbours are even cleaning windows and windowsills.”
But, alas, the house senior (the leader) has moved away and things are now a bit tentative. While cleaning continues, no one is making up and posting the schedule. A recently moved in block resident may not even be aware of the communal effort.
So, this is now more a volunteer venture with less guidance/direction than previously.
“L”, after reflecting on her own cleaning efforts, would prefer to pay someone to clean. But, for that to happen will require agreement among the other tenants/owners.
So, will this arrangement come to a slow and grinding halt like in Riga?
There is a glimmer of hope: The “neighbour from the 2nd floor voluntarily decided that she will constantly clean the 1st floor” (in addition to her 2nd floor bailiwick).
The folks on the 1st floor “are elderly people with physical disabilities”. A consideration in her generosity is that “she has huge husky dog with plenty of fur that makes some extra dirt. Maybe, considering this factor (inner guilt) or due to diligent nature she voluntarily makes this extra effort.”
Will the 2nd floor neighbor carry on the initiative started by the “house senior”?
There may be other options besides Riga’s sweeping the dirt into the middle of the floor – such as finding and employing someone – but exploring those options will require time and effort.
Perhaps it is time for “L’s” vigilante janitors to meet in person to reflect on – indeed celebrate - their accomplishments and to decide next steps.

*Speaking of hiking trails, I am reminded of an organized clean up campaign to change dog owner behavior in one of the Oregon State University forests. You can read it here: “Dog Poop and Problem Solving

**Acknowledgement: Many thanks to friend and colleague “V” for identifying and interviewing “L” and for translating.

Still available

And, don’t forget my book on democratic workplaces, Leading from the Middle

© Copyright text by John Lubans 2022

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