Michael Wojcik is Chief Development Officer for the American Red Cross of Massachusetts. He is a 16-year veteran of the organization. Michael is also legally blind. During Disability Employment Awareness Month, we sat down with Michael to talk about the importance of having honest conversations with colleagues, the meaning of an inclusive workplace, and the valuable insight people with disabilities bring to the Red Cross mission.
When did you join the Red Cross and what is your role?
I joined the Red Cross in September 2003 in my hometown of Chicago. Back then I never thought that I would have the many opportunities for professional growth that I have had at the Red Cross, let alone to serve as Chief Development Officer for the Massachusetts region. I am so proud of what we do here. I get to lead a team of 15 talented Red Crossers (fundraisers) who link compassionate individuals, brand aware companies and impact driven foundations with our lifesaving mission. It is an honor to advocate for a set of values and services that I truly believe in.
How has working at the Red Cross impacted your life or career?
Serving the Red Cross mission is incredibly rewarding. I am reminded daily of how truly fragile life is. We are all one step away from something unexpected disrupting our lives, sometimes forever. At the same time, we also see the humanity and hope in those we serve and our volunteers who reach out their hand to help. At the end of the day, there is hope in the world and it is the Red Cross. Beyond that, the life and career lessons that I have gained from colleagues past and present are too numerous to mention, but they shape who I am and they remind me of why we serve this cause.
What do you love most about your job?
I enjoy supporting our leadership volunteers. I love learning why they choose to champion our cause and strategizing with them to bring the needs of clients to their networks. Supporting their advocacy and helping my team build strategic partnerships to grow our organizational capacity is meaningful to me. Honestly, you would not have heard me say that 16 years ago. Like many, I began my nonprofit career because I learned firsthand that the world is fair to all. While I still know that to be true, what motivates me now is executing our goals. If X is our desired outcome, what will it take to get that done and who must be involved, where, when and how? This may not sound inspiring to some but affecting the desired outcome is cool stuff.
How has/does the Red Cross support you and other individuals with disabilities?
It took me years to grow comfortable talking to my managers about my vision impairment and acknowledging that I may need certain accommodations. For the better part of my life I tried to deny my impairment so that I could “fit in” with everyone else. In the workplace it’s not easy or comfortable to divulge a need. And frankly it took some of my managers time to feel comfortable talking with me about what I may need in terms of support. Ultimately, through courage and conversation, both sides took minor leaps of faith and for years now I’ve maintained a solution-oriented dialogue with my various bosses. For those who may perceive disclosing a disability as professional vulnerability, I say forget that. Just be you. Say what you need. Ultimately, we are our own advocates. No one else but you really knows what you need, so speak up. Believe in yourself and the value you add to this organization and our clients. Remember, our clients see us just as much as our peers do and our advocacy sends a message to them too.
What disabled Red Crossers find is an organization that has fairly well established support systems for folks with a variety of accommodations needs. For me, it’s ensuring that when I’m at a divisional/national meeting that I have printed copies of all PowerPoint presentations. Similarly, I work in an open office environment. When reporting out on our fundraising metrics, I need to be in front of my computer looking at a large screen while everyone else on my team is gathered in the conference room looking at the TV monitor on the wall. I also have help navigating some online systems.
Ultimately, the Red Cross is a collection of people, just like you and me, who live in and believe in community and who by our very nature believe in the concept of helping others. None of us would be working as hard as we do if we felt otherwise. So, if there is a volunteer or employee who either through fear of stigma, self-doubt or personal pride is unsure about sharing their needs; I am confident that you will find a willing listener and plenty of solutions-oriented people who will help.
What would you say to an individual with a disability looking for a job who might be considering the Red Cross?
The Red Cross is a great organization to serve. Volunteers or employees with a disability are instant rock stars. We play a key role in serving our community because we represent our community. By showing up and offering help, we uphold not only the mission but the values of this organization; in part because we look like those we serve and we experience life like those we serve. That street credibility is priceless. As a disabled Red Crosser, we have more than just our talent to offer; we have a perspective on life that shapes who we are and how we think about ourselves and those we serve. These are coveted assets to a humanitarian organization like ours and they are valued. Embrace it.
What, if anything, surprised you about working at the Red Cross?
I am surprised every day, even 16 years in, by the depth of compassion and sheer determination of Red Cross volunteers and employees. We bring so much of the communities that we serve to the workplace. This makes us a stronger organization every single day.
I have also seen a more inclusive workplace emerge. A few years ago, I was proud to help form our Ability Network. This is a resource group for Red Cross volunteers and staff with disabilities, function and access needs. Ability Network members bring to Gail’s leadership table the challenge, obstacles, perspectives and opportunities that we encounter every day across the organization. In addition to being a forum to drive organizational enhancements, the Ability Network has exposed me to so many Red Crossers who I quite frankly would have never met. Our group affirms that the Red Cross is vast and wide, and has volunteers and staff who represent every aspect of life, our lines of service and ways of working. It’s cool stuff.
What else would you like to share?
Accepting and embracing “the other,” is a continuous journey and requires intention, whether the other is a person who does not look like, talk like or function like us. Take the initiative to ask them who they are, what they value, how they like to be addressed and what we can expect from them. Don’t assume that because someone is different that they can’t. Assume they can and then hold them accountable to deliver on what they promise. It pains me when so called able-bodied folks give those of us with a disability a pass. I’m here to deliver just as much as anyone else and I expect to be held accountable, and believe me, I have been (lol). Everyone values being trusted, respected and expected to deliver for others. Those with disabilities are no different. Every Red Crosser adds value.
To find a career where you can make a difference at the Red Cross, visit redcross.org/careers.