Inspirational and Influential Women of the World: Dolly Pomerleau Part III
I first met Dolly in January of 1996. I had just moved to Washington, D.C. and was looking for a job. I had contacted the Quixote Center a few months prior about the possibility of setting up a small project to donate funds to a clinic in Matagalpa, Nicaragua. The clinic served the neighborhood of the Mothers of Heroes and Martyrs, where I stayed in July of 1995 with a Witness for Peace delegation. This had been my first trip to Nicaragua, and the group I was with was eager to help out the community in a meaningful way. Friends directed me to “check out the Quixote Center” to see if they could help. I did. Bill Callahan helped direct some of our funds to the clinic, but a long standing project wasn’t in the works. It was my first experience of what I would come to love about the Quixote Center. The whole celebrating dreams bit is real – laced with enough realism to keep people from wasting time and money.
When I came to Washington, D.C., I was reaching out to everyone I had come into contact with doing work in Nicaragua and solidarity with Central America more generally – asking if they needed help. Some of these cold calls would lead to lifelong friendships, with Chuck Kaufman and Kathy Hoyt of the Nicaragua Network, members of the Witness for Peace community (where I actually did get a job!), and, of course, the Quixote Center.
I dropped by the Quixote Center that January. Bill was warm and welcoming. Dolly was equally inviting and funny. They took me to lunch and took a lot of time, it seemed to me, with a young guy who knew nothing, but had recently been to Nicaragua. If you’ve spent time with Dolly you know, she asks questions. She takes an interest in people. She can make you feel like you are interesting, like your story matters. Later, when I started working at the Quixote Center, I discovered she was also very honest. Never “brutally” honest, but she had high expectations about the work we did, and especially how we communicated that work to our “constituency.” She was always clear when she thought I (or anyone) could do better. And she was always generous with praise when warranted.
On this first meeting, I did not land a job. But I got a few names and a much appreciated explanation for how the D.C. street grid worked. I went on to work for Witness for Peace that year and then I was off to grad school. But I kept running into Bill and Dolly. At Witness for Peace, I was part of organizing a fast on the capitol steps as one of the early SOAWatch actions. I invited Bill and Dolly to lead one of our evening reflections. I later would run into them at street festivals selling artwork and t-shirts for the Nicaraguan Cultural Alliance. Dolly was always cheerful and warm.
In the Fall of 2001, I was finishing grad school and completing a semester teaching assignment at the University of Maryland. I found out the Quixote Center was hiring a policy coordinator for the Quest for Peace program and I applied. At the time, I was simply looking for a bridge between grad school and a full-time teaching assignment, but I ended up staying and staying, and then leaving only to return. Since that first meeting in 1996, there has been a gravitational pull of sorts that has kept me in the Center’s orbit and Dolly has been at the center of it.
When I first started working at the Quixote Center, I established this rough schema about the relationship between Bill and Dolly and their respective roles. Bill was the charismatic leader. Always with the grand smile, unforgettable laugh, mischievous eyes that could pull you. He was the weaver of dreams, with his writing and his speaking. Dolly was the transactional leader. She was, in brief, the one who made sure things got done. Dolly has charisma to spare, and Bill could certainly finish a project, but their strengths I do believe lined up this way and reinforced each other, and through them, the Center.
For the years I have worked with Dolly she has been both a colleague and a mentor. Even now, I learn from her far more than I return. From my perspective, her greatest strength is her ability to mobilize people. She looks for ways to include others and does not hesitate to ask someone to take on a task. And though she can be a tough critic – a reputation she relishes I think – the result is that the end product is always better. With any other organizer all of this might sound a bit controlling, but Dolly’s genius is her ability to magnify her own expectations while making space for other people’s creativity. Dolly doesn’t want things done her way – she just wants whatever is being planned to actually get done and to be done well.
In my time with the Quixote Center Dolly has handed me grant proposals to write, fundraising letters to layout, or the name of a donor to call. She has asked me to write poems and songs and to draw pictures for different programs. She’s been my strongest ally in encouraging me to try new, sometimes wacky tactics and she has also been the first person to say, bluntly, “that won’t work” (though she is willing to be convinced otherwise, provided you bring your best game to the conversation). She, more than anyone else, has taught me about the transactional part of organizing work. And not just me. From the current mayor of New York City, to heads of national organizations, to the current staff at the Quixote Center, Dolly has helped a generation of activists be better at the work they do.
It is hard to imagine the Quixote Center without Dolly. Her wealth of experience, her insistence that our work make a difference, but also be interesting, even fun where it can be, and her enormous wit and energy will all be missed. I also fear our staff meetings will be longer now – Dolly had little patience for a lot of talking that seemed to lack direction. We all do, but she would actually stop it! I know that for Dolly retiring from the Quixote Center means passing along the legacy to a new cohort to carry the work forward. I don’t expect she will retire from the work of making this world more justly loving. She’ll continue to put her energies into new projects, enjoy her garden and travel. The Quixote Center will be fine though. She has implanted in all of us her passion for making impossible dreams possible.
Dolly is one of the most remarkable people I have ever met. She made me a better organizer and has shown more confidence in me at times than I have felt myself. Mostly, she has been a great friend. I will cherish all of the times I have worked with her at the Quixote Center, and I look forward to future adventures with her.