The Civic Action Free University


The Civic Action Free University is an activity fully authorized under applicable provisions of the United States Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  It is an effort:  (a) to identify Internet resources available at no cost, and (b) to utilize them for gathering information which may be useful to front-line non-profit Civic Action & Community Development Organizations, their Service Area Residents, Board Members, Managers, Project Team Members, and participating Volunteers.

Users of this website and its links should keep firmly in mind that:

01.  Not everything you see in newspapers or on the Internet is true.

02.  Not everything you see in newspapers or on the Internet is worthwhile.

03.  Not everything you see in newspapers or on the Internet actually works in the real world.

04.  Some things labeled "humanitarian assistance" turn out to be neither.

05.  Civic Action and Community Development efforts can be complicated.  They often involve difficult circumstances, inadequate resources, program support that waxes and wanes with the winds of political fortune, and people whose inherent skills & capabilities have not previously been actualized and are yet to be demonstrated.

06.  The civic consequences of multiple social and economic insufficiencies often produce a powerful negative synergism (i.e., the whole "can of worms" becomes greater than the sum of its parts).  There may be a "stacking effect," in which the detrimental components become mutually reinforcing and self-restoring, in spite of well-intentioned community revitalization efforts that are piecemeal or fragmentary in nature.

07.  Civic Action methodologies that work well in some areas under particular sets of circumstances may not be effective in other areas under other circumstances.  Without careful study and adaptation, my organization's "Best Practice" could turn out to be your organization's "Worst Nightmare."

08.  Well intentioned Civic Action projects may produce secondary or even tertiary effects that prove to be either:  (a) more beneficial, or (b) more counter-productive ("collateral damage") than the original project.  Sometimes these effects can (and should) be foreseen, and sometimes they cannot.

09.  Some domestic and/or international development projects may be tainted by political or commercial motives.  (For example, its generally not in the long-term best interests of the Human Family to destroy villages for the purpose of saving them, and/or to permit the unregulated exploitation of natural resources.)

10.  Even in the absence of "Best Practices," "Demonstration Projects," "Training and Technical Assistance," and "The Civic Action Free University," if you can attract, develop, and retain smart, energetic, competent people, your efforts are likely to be successful.  On the other hand, if you are unable to attract, develop, and retain such people, none of the aforementioned sources of support are likely to make a significant difference.

11.  There is no substitute to doing your homework and becoming thoroughly familiar with the professional & programmatic literature of your sphere of activity.  People who try to "wing it" in community service are likely to produce the same quality results as a high school biology student who attempts to perform an appendectomy.

12.  Its incumbent upon persons who are -- or presume to call themselves -- practitioners of Civic Action & Community Development to observe the same cautionary mandate as physicians:  Primum non nocere -- "The first thing is to do no harm."

13.  Sooner or later, the leadership of almost every significant government department or agency concludes that it needs to become involved in "grass-roots-level" community development efforts.  Some of the programs that result from these brainstorms -- and the ensuing notices of funding availability -- are creative, well thought-out, and worthwhile.  In other cases, however, they exemplify the humorous old saying that, "The camel is actually a horse that was designed by committee."  In 1967, a brilliant professor and researcher named George W. Fairweather wrote an important book (now out of print), entitled:  "Methods for Experimental Social Innovation."  In it, he outlined insightful procedures for subjecting new proposals to Reasearch, Development, Test, and Evaluation -- in a manner similar to the procedures that are supposed to be used by the Department of Defense for new weapons systems before they are adopted for deployment on the battlefield.  It is unfortunate that Dr. Fairweather's recommendations have never been written into legislation, and governmental agencies can still promulgate and fund "cockamayme" initiatiatives for community service and development.  Maybe if we live long enough, this glaring omission will be corrected.

14.  The level of resources provided by legislative bodies for implementing community development or civic revitalization programs can often be considered analogous to funding half-a-dozen sailors who are tasked to overhaul an aircraft carrier.  In a few instances -- if the sailors are unusually intelligent, creative, and fortunate -- they can succeed in mobilizing sufficient additional funds and skilled personnel from elsewhere in the shipyard to actually get the job done.  In most cases, however, they will work as hard as they can simply to remove the barnacles from one side of the hull -- only to discover that the other side has already become re-barnacled and needs another scraping.  They may never find it possible to move on to refurbishing or upgrading the ship's electrical systems, hydraulic systems, control systems, navigation systems, propulsion systems, communication systems, water distillation systems, ventilation and refrigeration systems, crew quarters, galleys, medical facilities and sick bays, hanger decks, aircraft lifts, ordnance storage compartments, or any of the other myriad components necessary to make the good ship seaworthy again.  But in five or ten years, the politicians and legislators will be back, wanting to know why the hell the vessel is still just a rusting hulk sitting dead in the water.  Little or no recognition is given to the fact that the team -- sometimes by extraordinary or even heroic efforts -- did manage to keep the damn thing afloat.

15.  "Project Evaluation" sounds good and seems to make sense.  Did the project do what it promised, and did it have the desired impact(s) ??  But it must be remembered that project evaluation may prove to be just as costly as project implementation in terms of time, money, staff, activities, and methodological complexities.  Beware of funding organizations only willing to provide resources for "Model T" projects, but which are nevertheless quite enthusiastic about imposing "Ferrari-class" evaluation requirements.

16.  In the emerging world of computerized data collection and information management systems, the purveyors of various programs market them with great skill and effectiveness to well-intentioned but uninformed bureaucrats and administrators.  In one federal agency a high-level political appointee was convinced that if only his staff would cooperate in implementing the proprietary information management program he had procured at great cost to the taxpayers, he would soon be able to answer any question and/or solve any problem "...just by one touch of a button."  Efforts by his staff to enlighten him to the facts that:

a.  the desired implementation could only be accomplished if every person in the agency were to become a full-time data input clerk; and
b.  even if such an allocation of staff could be accomplished, it was highly unlikely that the system could deliver benefits of the sort advertised,
were dismissed by the administrator in question as "...disloyalty."  Several substantial promotions were eventually awarded to staff members who uncritically embraced the program.  Some of these people now occupy exalted positions in the organizational structure, where they can reflexively and uncritically rubber-stamp even more useless and expensive exercises in bureaucratic buffoonery.  The information system -- along with the several million dollars and thousands of hours of staff time that went into its installation and attempted implementation -- have long since evaporated into the mists of Departmental memory and folklore.

17.  Paradoxical as it may seem, a serious endemic problem for community service and development programs may be encountered as the result of special efforts to facilitate placement of people from poor, disadvangaged, or marginalized groups into positions of programmatic leadership and/or administrative authority.  Absent the benefit of essential training and assistance with the development of leadership skills, residual internalized psychological and behavioral patterns engendered by identification with the hitherto oppressive social order may produce "plantationoid" patterns of leadership and/or administrative behavior that are extraordinarily authoritarian, passive-aggressive, distrustful, exploitive, repressive, and/or manipulative in nature.  More extensive analysis and explanation of this phenomenon can be found in Chapter 1 of the classic volume, "Pedagogy of the Oppressed," by Paulo Freire, and also in psychoanalytical literature -- sometimes under the similar heading of "Identification with the Oppressor" -- which may also address related behavior patterns of the sort exhibited by battered children, and/or victims in hostage situations.  Obviously, these problems should not inhibit or eliminate efforts to assist capable persons from disadvantaged backgrounds in attaining positions of leadership, but should inform and challenge such efforts to provide the full range of training and assistance necessary to achive genuine success.  Persons from such backgrounds who have subsequently had the benefit of a well-developed and intensive training program in leadership and organizational behavior -- of the sort generally provided by military, law enforcement, or public safety organizations -- often appear to have substantially overcome most or all dysfunctional behavior traits derived from the phenomenon of "Identification with the Oppressor."  It must be noted that a corresponding problem of at least equal -- if not substantially greater -- magnitude is whether and to what extent community service and development leaders drawn from the dominant culture and/or ethnic groups have themselves undergone some form of "de-programming," such that they have also overcome any tendencies to impose "plantationoid" patterns of organizational culture, management, and administration.

18.  In the professional communities concerned -- as in any others -- the great majority of people are highly dedicated and capable.  But there may also be rare occasions (very rare, we hope) when you will encounter phonies, con artists, power junkies, flim-flammers, air heads, connivers, dufuses, dog robbers, ego-trippers, guilt-trippers, Messiah complexes, wackos, professional victims, control freaks, workplace bullies, authoritarian autocrats, political opportunists, sycophants, charlatans, and even a few outright crooks.  (But, in all cases, remember Mark Twain's wise advice:  "Avoid arguing with idiots; people may not be able to tell the difference."  Also, try not to waste your energy wrestling with a polecat; you'll just end up smelling the worse for it, and he will enjoy having an opportunity to do "his thing.")

19.  Remember the insightful observation that:  "First-class managers tend to hire first-class subordinates.  Second-class managers tend to hire third-class subordinates."

20.  Other potentially helpful considerations include:

a.  The Truth about any given situation is likely to be like a diamond.  It may have many different facets, some of which may seem contradictory, but all of which are -- in fact -- true.

b.  Humans attempting to know the Truth about a situation may often behave like several sightless persons trying to comprehend an elephant by each feeling and describing a different part of it.  Sometimes, only by getting together and pooling our knowledge, experience, and information about a subject can we begin to gain a full understanding of it.

c.  Just because people have little or no knowledge about the actual nature of a situation does not mean they will not have sincere, firm, and sometimes even vehement opinions about it.  Further, through a misapplication of "democratic" social norms, we are frequently expected to give equal weight to everyone's opinion, regardless of the fact that some of the folks involved are substantially "clueless" regarding the matters being discussed.

d.  Murphy's Law:  If things can go wrong, they will go wrong.

e.  Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.

f.  Its a common human failing to launch vast enterprises on the basis of "half-vast" planning and preparation.

g.  For every hundred people hacking at the branches of human misery, there's only one individual sawing away at its roots.

h.  In community service, as in medicine or auto mechanics, the three most important things are:  (1) the right diagnois, (2) the right diagnosis, and (3) the right diagnosis.

i.  Also as in medicine, its important to listen very carefully to the patient -- he's trying to tell you what's wrong with him.

j.  There is nothing so frightful as ignorance in action.  (Goethe)

k.  The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

l.  When you're up to your armpits in alligators, its difficult to remember that your original objective was to drain the swamp.  (And anyway, just why are you trying to destroy that irreplaceable wetland ??)

m.  Mother Nature always finds the hidden flaw.

n.  It ain't the things we don't know that makes us so damn dumb; its the things we're absolutely certain about that ain't actually so.

o.  Armies and corporations alike have ways of sweetening the news as it ascends the hierarchy of command.

p.  If we don't learn from the mistakes of the past, we're bound to repeat them.

q.  If we keep on doing what we have been doing, we'll keep on getting what we have been getting.

r.  If a practical person realizes that he has dug himself into a hole, he stops digging.  When a zealot finds he's dug himself into a hole, he'll most likely call for a bigger shovel.

s.  If you jerk people along by their noses, their hearts and minds will certainly follow -- but only until they can find a rock big enough to bash your brains out.

t.  "WHAM" is both inappropriate and unfortunate as an acronym for "Winning Hearts and Minds."

u.  Any damn fool can tear down a barn, but it takes a carpenter to build one.

v.  There's a problem aaaaaany way yuh go.

With the above considerations clearly understood, welcome to The Civic Action Free University.  Visit, explore, join, participate, and enjoy !!

Best wishes,  Dave Matthews
E-Mail:  civact6@yahoo.com


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