Good day, folks. Before I get into hobby stuff, the personal notes. I am beginning Week Four of not having had a decent night's sleep due to various issues with the kiddos, and being stuck once again in a weight loss plateau... I do however have some encouraging news for those who are following the saga of our foster care - we have a new CPS case worker from the adoption unit, which means we're officially in the pipe for the finalization of our adoption. He came to our home last week and informed us that we'd be looking at two months on the outside, probably less. That was pretty encouraging to hear. My weight keeps bouncing from 246-250... I have to admit that I just need to buckle down and get back to the gym, sleep issues notwithstanding. It just has to happen, period. I'm more than half way to my weight loss goal, and yet I'm still not quite there. Perhaps getting some exercise each day as I did before the New Year will help get me through the home stretch. I got my confirmation of graduation - and it came with Honors. That feels good. I know most of the population of the US has no college degree, undergraduate or otherwise- but Great Things were expected of me when I was younger, and I've always felt more than a little guilty that I let my Sleep Apnea issues derail my education when the federal military was no longer an option.
Even now, the spectre of self-criticism is rearing its ugly head. Sure, I have an undergrad degree, says my mind. But at your age and with your abilities it really means nothing until you get that Master's. One of these days I'll learn to put these doubts aside and just be happy that I'm now one of the few college graduates in my family, and that over the last year I've lost 41lbs. and become a fairly decent Dad. Intellectually, I know these are wonderful accomplishments. Problem is, my gut tells me they're not enough. Oh well, that's one for a shrink, and you folks don't come here to read about my mental issues - or maybe you do, inasmuch as they have to do with my chosen hobbies.
Continuing with the threat I started earlier, I'd like to talk about STARFLEET and the gaming club that was, and the one that is to be. As of this writing, we are awaiting approval to announce the launch of the starship Texas, NX-35. This new chapter of STARFLEET is based heavily on the best traditions of the USS Ark Angel, which I helped create and still exists in the form of Ark Angel Station. There's a lot of discussion and confusion on why those of us who chose to form USS Texas chose to do so - and in fact there's already been some criticism. I am going to attempt to explain some of the thought processes that go into why the Ark Angel was so successful back in the proverbial Day, and why the announcement of the formation of the Texas has caused such an enthusiastic response. These opinions are solely my own, but are backed up by over a decade of experience running these types of hobby group - keep that in mind as you read this.
First of all, let's talk about what STARFLEET is. I keep capitalizing it because that is the way the organization has presented itself. STARFLEET, at the time of this writing, is a not-for-profit corporation registered in North Carolina as "STARFLEET - The International Star Trek Fan Association, Inc." Fleet is a confederation of individual chapters grouped into Regions, which in turn make up the organization proper. There is a Commander, STARFLEET and the Admiralty Board which serve as the governing body of the organization, and each Region has its Regional staff to administrate at that level. Each Chapter must have a president and vice president, called a Commanding Officer (CO) and Executive Officer (XO)
Most STARFLEET chapters are like one would expect a Star Trek fan club to be. Folks get together, play games, watch Trek, stuff like that. There's a strong community service undercurrent in Fleet, but it's not mandatory. Each chapter is free to do as they please as long as they have ten dues-paid members and an elected CO and XO. Each group in this way forms its own identity and own way of having fun. This is important, since in my experience just saying "Star Trek Club" means differnent things to different people, and can result in effort dilution.
Sherman, set the Way Back Machine to 1999, the year the USS Ark Angel became more than just an idea rattling around in the heads of a few friends who were Trek fans. Ark Angel started out different from most chatpers from the get-go. A number of us were either prior service, prior cadets, current cadets, or had been a part of the military-themed Battletech club that preceeded the Ark Angel's formation. This meant we built a chapter with a decidedly martial feel. We put a premium on garb in the form of uniforms and on customs and courtesies. We set out , to paraphrase Will Smith, "to make this look gooooood." Ark Angel's crew looked sharp on parade, and took pride in our activities with STARFLEET. We plowed through every challenge set before us, and jumped into community service work and helping run events. We were noticed early on, and recognized with several awards and accolades. Our STARFLEET Marine Corps unit, the 342nd MSG, is still considered one of the most decorated MSGs in the history of the Corps and still appears in several of the photos on the SFMC web site.
Where many chapters would take a laissez-faire attitude with meetings, we had staff meetings preliminary to our group meetings. We made sure we had a formal agenda. We appointed an officer of the day and a chief of the watch whose job it was to see to it the meeting space was arranged properly, and that everything was cleaned and put back when we were done. We met at the Round Rock Public Library so we could avoid the informality of a restaurant or someone's home. When the meeting began, the chief of the watch called the crew to attention, and the CO and XO came in, took their posts, and the colors were posted by the 342nd MSG. Very formal, very pre-planned, very sharp-looking. There was a side-effect to all this, though - we took pride in doing things our way, but we also got the business part over with in an organized and effecient manner. Once the formal meeting was done we dismissed to a less formal location and broke out the dice.
Now, I've had people tell me this formal and martial approach to STARFLEET is just plain WRONG. That it's elitist and exclusive to expect members to take part in it. OK, says I, everyone is entitled to their opinion - but let's look at some things. First, the Ark Angel was one of the largest chapters in Region 3 for many years. Not just on paper, either. Our members tended to actually show up. I've seen chapters with huge rosters that can't fill a minivan for an event. There is something to be said in this day of Internet for online participation, and that's great - we're going to try it with Texas - but something about a huge roster and low turnout feels... dishonest. I've made it part of my mission to give distance members something constructive to do to feel like part of the crew, but I digress...
OK, so we had a large crew. We also had a dedicated one. People took PRIDE in being part of the Ark Angel. Our professionalism and snap and polish set us apart, and the members enjoyed that. It was worth learning how to stand in formation two or three times a year so that we could form up and sound off at chapter roll call with our trademark "BIG DAMN HEROES, SIR!" We founded Region Three Game Day, an event that still carries on to this day. We created the concept of a separate Marine muster, a concept that is being revived in April of this year. Aside from the awards, we had a record number of our members appointed to Regional leadership and administrative jobs. Our star was ascendant... and it was awesome.
So why could the USS Ark Angel generate this kind of enthusiasm and energy and membership numbers when so many other chatpers cannot? How did we maintain such energy for six years without burnout? What made members go through the snap-and-polish and hup-ho of being a shiny chapter?
I attribute the success of the Ark Angel to three things - focus, pride and leadership. I attribute her fall before being resurrected as Ark Angel Station to overreaching and burnout.
The USS Ark Angel had focus - gaming and what we refer to around here as "shiny" in deference to Joss Whedon's Firefly TV series. "Star Trek" was at the core of the club, but we didnt' limit ourselves to Trek games. We played whatever seemed fun at the time. Battletech came up a lot. D&D, since there's always room for gaming Jell-O. Space : 1889 was popular. We got the formal and business out of the way as effeciently as we could, and then we got about the business of GAMING. The fun was the reward for the hard work. The "shiny" was the other part of our focus. We took pride in being the group that looked sharp, and took the hobby seriously. I can't count the number of times we were asked to help out with stuff simply because the whole Region knew that the Ark Angel could be counted on. We had a focus on setting the example, and having a hell of a lot of fun. Note that this was two particular aspects of Trek fandom, not "Star Trek" in general. I make that distinction because I honestly feel it's incumbent upon each chapter to define how they will express their fandom. "Star Trek" is a big concept. What does it MEAN to your chapter? FOCUS. Yeah, the formations and uniforms and dungeons and dragons games aren't for everyone - but they are for a subset of fans who really dig what we do. We are here for that subset of fans. For folks with a different interest or commitment level, there's a reason STARFLEET has so many different flavored chapters. Doing what we did how we did it was not being exclusive or elitist, it was catering to a particular type of member.
Pride is the second component that I think really drove the Ark Angel. I had a member tell me he was more proud of making Lance Corporal (E-3) on the Ark Angel than most people would have been of making Commander (O-5) on any other chapter. This was because it was much more difficult to move up in the world on the Ark Angel. We took rank seriously, and handed it out sparingly to those who had EARNED it. People wore their insignia with pride, even if they were Corporals or Petty Officers Third Class. Those insignia MEANT something. They stood for hard work and hard play on a chapter that made a difference. It was an honor to be part of something as awesome as the USS Ark Angel was at that time, and that pride motivated the crew. We weren't just another Trek fan club, we were the USS Ark Angel, by Crom, and we were going to continue to kick ass. It's not for every chapter, but the focus on uniforms and bearing gave us something we could take pride in and make our own. No other chapter was like us, and that was something we could be proud of. Even today, I've got a former member who wouldn't go back to STARFLEET for all the tanks in Russia, but still has a sense of pride in what we did in those days.
Leadership is the final component that I think was integral to what the Ark Angel was and what made it so different. It is perhaps the most important, and perhaps the one that ultimately brought an end to the golden years of the chapter through overextension. The most obvious expression of the leadership was in the chapter staff. The CO, XO, and Command Master Chief were a tripartite team that made sure things were taken care of for members. I cannot stress enough that leadership, on the old Ark Angel, meant SERVICE. The Captain of USS Ark Angel was not there to lord over the members, the Captain was there to provide recreational activities and direction to those members. Election to a leadership position meant WORK. I've seen too many leaders in business, the actual military, and other clubs think that their rank means getting their ass kissed and having things done for them by their subordinates. Nothing could be further from the truth. Why do some officers have an enlisted soldier to act as a valet, secreatary or diver? Because they have responsibilities that mean their time is better spent working on those responsibilities than polishing shoes or driving a car. It's the same in a club. You do not get elected Captain of a chapter of STARFLEET because you want to be called "sir" and catered to. It's a lot of work - at least it should be. This is the same for every single post on a chapter that has any sort of responsibility or title. Everything from the person who puts together the emails and facebook invites to events to the person who edits the newsletter is responsible for vital parts of the chatper's operation, and should take that responsiblitiy seriously. If you're not going to work, don't accept the job. On the Ark Angel we had a good track record of leaders fromt he top on down "getting it" and doing their jobs so the fun could be had by the members.
Leadership goes a lot further than the "obvious" leaders. Leadership also comes in the form of the chapter settting the example for other chapters, for members setting the example for other members, and the chapter stepping up to assist the Region and the Fleet as a whole - and that's where we got into trouble. The USS Ark Angel at one time had five members of the Regional Executive Committee serving as part of her crew. That's two members over the old nominal limit. Why were we allowed to go over the limit? Mostly because everyone knew an Ark Angel member appointed to a job would *do* that job, and do it to the best of their ability. When there was no Summit planned one year, we put together a Summit event in record time. Hotel, program, whole nine yards. The following year when another chatper's summit went a bit awry, we stepped in and provided the members to rectify the situation. We created a Regional event, Game Day, and the Fall Muster as mentioned above. LOTS of from-the-front example-setting leadership. That was awesome - and it was also the beginning of the end. The upper leadership was deeply flawed at that time, and the Regional Coordinator at the moment it all came to a stop was unsuited to the job, and openly dismissive of the earnest efforts of the Ark Angel members who had volunteered or been chosen to help steer the Region. More on this in a later article. Sufficient to say, two events into the administration of this RC and it was clear the administration had no vision, no direction, and worse - attempts to arrive prepared and ready to roll were met with "I guess I should have expected this from YOU PEOPLE." Within three months of that last event, four out of five of the Ark Angel members who were part of the Regional Executive Committee had resigned their posts. The Golden Age was over.
So this brings me to the end of that golden age. Overreaching and burnout. Although the current Regional Coordinator, Reed Bates, is exactly what I think Region 3 needed to untie the knot of records and finances the previous two RCs left in their wake, the RC that preceeded COMM Bates managed to drive off some damn good people - myself included. Some will never even consider a return to Fleet, and that's sad. We had something amazing going, and it could have become even better.
Lesson learned? Well, this time we're focusing on the chapter level. Will we eventually take our turn running Game Day, or Muster, or even a Summit? Who knows. Maybe. But never again will the focus of the entire chatper swing so far toward Regional leadership that we forget who we are or why we are. The focus of the Texas will be as the Ark Angel once was - gaming and shiny. And it will succeed for much the same reasons, I predict. Our newly elected CO has said he intends to suggest a rule that prohibits members of the Texas from seeking posts outside the chapter without the approval of the general membership, and I like that. A safety valve to make sure we don't get ahead of ourselves.
So yes, the new STARFLEET Chapter Texas, NX-35, will require all hands to know the position of attention, and parade rest. Members will learn customs and courtesies. Members will be gamers. Members will wear garb. Prospects who don't like those things will be referred to other chapters. Is that being elitist and exclusive? Not at all. STARFLEET is still there for those members who want a more laid back experience. By setting expectations of prospective members the Texas will be able to cultivate and maintain the same kind of esprit de corps and "shiny" as the old Ark Angel did. This is nearly demanded by the members of the Texas who are almost all Ark Angel veterans, and missed the old days.
Ark Angel Station continues on under the capable leadership of FCAPT Lloyd Bates, a fine example of a more laid back, general-purpose chapter. They're our support chapter, what used to be called a mothership, until we commission. We maintain a friendly relationship with them. Both chapters are in this to have fun and express our love of Trek. Each chatper is free to have its own flavor, however. Theirs is theirs, ours is ours, and the Region and Fleet will be stronger for it.
So there you have some of my thoughts on what makes our style of chapter so successful at the things it is successful at. Time will tell if the new Starship Texas will prove these things to be true. I think it will be a lot of fun, and an interesting social experiment to prove the naysayers wrong about our style.
JEFFREY A. WEBB
Starship Texas, NX-35