Heather Harker: Courage, Heart, and Organizational Change at RID

November 14, 2017

The one constant in the field of sign language interpreting is continuous change. Whether one embraces change or avoids it, evolution is inevitable. As the dynamics of the work change and relationships with the Deaf Community continue to evolve, StreetLeverage has the opportunity to research, report, and relay information to practitioners and stakeholders. During the RID LEAD Together Conference in Salt Lake City, Utah, Heather Harker graciously agreed to sit down with StreetLeverage founder, Brandon Arthur, to discuss organizational change, leadership, and relationships between the Deaf Community and sign language interpreters.

Rediscover the Roots

As part of the RID Conference, Heather presented “Learning from Organizational Life Cycles” and described some of the hallmarks of an organization’s life cycle. Typically, organizations are initially started with a mission and a passion which carries the cause forward. The founding members typically have strong bonds in their common vision. Once the organization experiences a certain amount of growth and change, there is usually a systems implementation phase where policies and procedures, paid staff, and other formalized systems are put into place. With an influx of new people who may not share the same passionate commitment to the organizational mission, there may be a flattening out for the organization – a loss of heart for the cause. In many instances, this can be a decision point for organizations – turn back and rediscover the roots of the organization or face decline. These common organizational stages can be a lens we can use to assess the health and development of our own organizations.

Reassess the Trajectory

For many small non-profit organizations, there are risk points. According to Heather, many small organizations struggle when transitioning from the start-up stage to the system’s stage – the implementation of policies, hiring of paid staff, etc., can often be challenging. Another challenge is when the organization sees some decline after operating in the system’s stage for a period of time. If the organization no longer serves its original purpose, it may be time to disband, although this rarely happens. More often than not, organizations elect to continue to operate. Some continue to struggle, but others – the organizations who realize they are in decline and reevaluate – may be able to return to their mission and rediscover passion and purpose for their cause.

Heather points to RID as an example of an organization experiencing this life cycle. After publicly acknowledging the decline of the organization, they are in a process of reassessing and regrouping. Affiliate chapters will ultimately need to reassess their trajectory, as well.  Heather recommends utilizing the visual description of the life cycle of organizations to help leaders define the stages and determine where smaller organizations stand. While there will likely be differing perspectives, it is important to explore multiple viewpoints. In this process, there will likely be gaps identified within the organization. Recognition that organizations cannot remain stagnant is critical. A healthy organization will experience many adaptations during its lifetime. One gap may be filled and another reveals itself. During this process of identification and adaptation, addressing the leadership needs of the organization and the skills of the membership helps to maintain a healthy balance.

Courageous Conversations

Heather shared that one key ingredient for success in a leadership position – as a member of an organization or as a practitioner – is the ability to engage in “courageous conversations.” The goal should be to thrive, not to merely survive. Each participant must engage in self-inventory and determine if their offering is a good fit for the organization or role. Leadership is complex and one person will not necessarily embody all the skills needed to meet the needs of the organization. Finding ways to shore up and compliment leadership skills requires reflection and these courageous conversations, as well.

Heather also discusses the simultaneous sense of loss and hope in rebuilding an organization. In letting go of old ways and thoughts, members have to experience their loss in a very real way. At the same time, participating in building a new vision can be rejuvenating. For the Deaf Community and sign language interpreters, it is important that we stay on the path together, acknowledging our losses while holding space for a successful future.

Be sure to watch the full interview for more of Heather’s valuable insights.

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(New York)