Friday, February 25, 2005

Online Communication, CoPs and MDGs

Every now and then, reading here and there, you find some neat piece of information, that prompts some nice reflection.

I have some of them today, so... I've been lucky! ;)

In her Computer Mediated Communication, Jennifer Geary, a PhD candidate, digress on the characteristics of such kind of communication:
"The nuances, processes and structures associated with computer-mediated communication need to be explored and developed so that its full potential can be realised. In this article my thesis was that computer-mediated communication is a form of text paced dialogue that enables challenges associated with time and space to be transcended to unite knowledge based professionals including adult, community and distance educators throughout our “world villages”.

I had been writing for a loooooooooong time on how the supposed "inferiority" of computer-mediated communication (CMC) becomes a big advantage in some situations, for example in self-help groups for anxiety disorders, like the imponent work of Katelyn McKenna.

The second kudo for you all is something on One World, an article on building CoPs in order to achieve the MDGs. And guess what? Using ICT!

The world of dinosaurs claiming CMC communication to be "less" or "just like" f2f one are fading off.


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Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Dialogic Listening and Dynamic Facilitation

Few days ago, I was reading GRP-FACL posts while stumbled on a post of Jim Rough's who despite the surname is a really enjoyable person ;)

Anyway Jim invented what is called Dynamic Facilitation. I am intrigued by it because:
1) I work with CoPs where trust is important and dynamic facilitation is said to develop trust;
2) it is choice-creating (I get bored at usual facilitation, cause its outcome is often too predictable for me);
3) it creates a win-win situation (which I like, while I absolutely hate the patronizing/condescending traditional way of beating people into a consensus nobody really agrees with, but everybody pretends to buy into).

I have to admit, I tend to like more "confrontational" styles of interaction, like dialogic listening as opposed to Rogers' active listening.

I love dialogic listening because it:
1) emphasizes conversation as a shared activity (ahem... otherwise why should I take any part in it?);
2) values an open end (if I already know the outcome, why am I playing the game???And I can't stand overbearing egos fighting for having the upper end..);
3) focuses on what happens between the parts, rather than in their heads, or around them (if all happens in my head, even when I speak with you, what's the point of interacting? Can't I just read a book to get the stimulation I need to think on? *grin*);
4) stresses being in the present (if I do things now thinking about the past, or the future, what's the sense of doing them now????).

It's funny how dialogic listening (and "confrontational approaches") could be culturally unacceptable for Americans and other anger-avoidant cultures in which open discussion of the conflict is a taboo, while "tiptoeing" facilitation, the one so respectful of egos and their trips is so popular....

No wonder we (Westeners) go to war... we don't know how to have a real, honest, dialogue, possibly before the H*ll breaks loose!

Maybe what I really like of online settings is that there is more flame, more confrontation and thereby more occasions to be real, authentic, rather than politically-correct, anesthetized, "polite".

When I say "consideration for people", I do not mean we should lie or tiptoeing around others. I DO mean, however, that if we want to be honest, we better learn not to be brutal. Being unable to carry a conversation in a graceful way is not a fine quality, no matter how many times we twist it into a rational explanation. Otherwise the only beings that will bear with us will be our animals and plants.

And NO, being unable of meaningful relationship with fellow humans is not a compliment in my book, mo matter how many animals, plants, or whatever we end up adopting!

Saturday, February 19, 2005


Now, some background here.

My complexion is very fair, and I am very fond and proud of it. I actually like it so much that I never sunbathe, and not just because of skin damage. In fact, I never ever put self-tanning lotions on it. I do, however, put all the moisturizing and nourishing creams I need, since my skin is pretty dry too. Anyhow, I am white candid and like to be as white as the milk is.

Some days ago, I had a bad reaction to the sun. I don't know exactly if it was because I hadn't be out in a while or because of some pollutant being activated on my face by the sunlight. I wasn't wearing make up and my usual creams weren't enough. So, I started browsing the net for an appropriate sun-block screen. Then I thought I'd check into a whitening product cause anytime I get a sunburn my skin stays uneven for a while, and it's really yukky (to me anyway, who am the only person whose tastes I am concerned about).

Trying to decide which one to buy between a Lancome and a Dior product (and I ended up with a Chanel in the end), I was browsing the net more and more, till I found this article, which really enraged me. I am going to comment on several nonsenses I found there.

First of all, the supposed "popularisation of skin-whitening practices amongst 'non-white' cultures that has occurred in recent years" did not occur in recent years. Go to China, go to Japan, and you'll find ancient tales of Princesses that were said to keep their complexion fair with special herbals. No, wait a moment, by their own admissions authors contradict themselves later when they wrote: "In ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman societies, mercury and lead compounds were used to whiten the face of high-class women". Authors claim it all is "with relation to historical and colonial contexts", strategically forgetting how ancient Chinese and Japanese masks are and ALWAYS HAVE BEEN as white as ancient Greeks'.

They also claim to explore "the performance of 'whiteness' by young women in Southeast Asia, who are encouraged to whiten their faces with cosmetics to become 'paler'". Well such encouragement dates WAY back, so long ago that you can find it present in ancient Indian tales (again, not born yesterday, or with colonialism).

Asian skins, other than being oilier than white one, are much more dermatologically vulnerable to dark spot, so there are scientifical reasons to doubt that "changing skin colour possibly fulfils a role in the maintenance of literal and symbolic debt structures". Very probably, what was sought after, was the extreme eveness of white skins (the way white people envy Asian's resistance to wrinkles).

"Lipsitz coins the phrase the 'possessive investment in "whiteness"' to describe how European Americans have used whiteness to create and secure economic advantages, while 'white power secures its dominance by seeming not to be anything in particular'.": how could I forget THIS????? The white man made the awful mistake of inventing racism and therefore now he has the culprit of being white, in a sort of "reverse racism". He is even to blame for others' (SUPPOSED) inferiority complexes.

For some reasons, the authors decided that skin-whitening cannot just be "the old feminine ideologies that still [have] power to control women" as Wolf's proposes: That is mainly because their critique is a feminist one, which translates into "whatever you woman do, what's in between your legs influences your actions and make them different NO MATTER WHAT YOU DECIDE ABOUT THAT -- did I say chauvinism -- with an important corollary: "The uglier you are, the better you are to us" cause being ugly means you don't give a d*mn about what your father, brother and husband think of you but you also don't even give a d*mn about the most important person to you, YOU, liking YOURSELF). They even go so far to define being white "passive, non-threatening femininity associated with whiteness", as if being tanned and full of wrinkles to sun damage were a beauty to behold.

"In analysing the meanings of whiteness in colonial economies, Richard Dyer argues that the construction of 'whiteness' is dependent upon belief in the mind/body split, and on Christian spiritual values that support imperialism.": don't you just love these things? I understand it's a hypothesis, but usually they should make sense to be held as credible.

On one thing they are right though: being white expresses a priviledge, not just figuratively, meaning that's what people think when look at a very white person. If you are that white, chances are you either don't expose to sun or you have bad reactions if you do, so usually your skin is younger, more beautiful. In any case, even in Europe, being that fair is not usual. It is considered being special.

It sounds to me as if all the supposed bad intentions behind the whiteness are out of a misperception of the priviledge "less-whites" see in whiteness.

Coming to think about it, don't you find persons as white as Nicole Kidman or Greta Garbo to "feel" somehow superior, snotty, snob, while "darker" (like, say, Penelope Cruz or JLo) persons are seen as "less distant"?

I don't mean authors are right, I mean the reverse.

They blab endlessly about those "critiques" just to sell you a (SUPPOSED) justification for a mere prejudice against very white people, explaining in details why you should think what your guts already do... that they are distant, icy, and isolated. Yeah.. I think somebody else tried to prove that black people stink too...

Next step is to pick all snobby whities up, shove them into a train like anchovies (so that they stop being so isolated) and send them to Russia to have their brain reformatted in a psychiatric ward compliant with the regime...

Wait a moment! Hasn't it already happened??????????

Monday, February 07, 2005

Background Screening

I have mixed feeligs toward background screening for volunteers....

First of all, because they tend not to be effective, especially about pedophiles who notoriously (95%) belong to the family of the victimized child or to "close family friends". Substance abuse screening has a little more sense, in that a subject can lie or even say "I am done with it" in good faith, but then be overwhelmed with symptom of dependence and give in, jeopardizing the safety of coworkers and/or clients.

Background checks sound to me like a definitive sentence, kind of "you made one mistake and you will pay it forever". It denies any possibility of recovery and real change in one's lifestyle. I know by experience that you can be manic or obsessed, situations in which your insight is impaired to the point you can commit a crime you later regret. I wouldn't feel like denying such opportunity to another fellow human, because I am not sure (not at all!) that people who make one mistake do so because they are evil, and/or beyond "repair".

Plus, people who made a mistake once and want to volunteer now, usually are persons that are trying to straighten their life up, otherwise they wouldn't choose to freely give some time away for the good of others.

Ultimately, background checks enhance in the public the perception that, in order to volunteer, one has to be perfect or so. That DOES deter people with low self-esteem, or the ones that don't feel like heros, from volunteering, which is a pity cause they would get to be the most dedicated and devoted ones.

However, it is a fact that some persons get to volunteer in order to take advantages of minors, or elderly people.

But are they the ones that have previously been in jail?


Friday, February 04, 2005

Leadership and Volunteer Management

Sidenote: yes I am still alive, even if this flu has taken a heavy toll on me. Thank you for your emails... now down to business....

I have various kinds of friends, interested in different topics, and I like various topics myself. I had been accumulating links over links till I got an email from Jill, which gave me an idea on how to sew them together, so here I am.

Starting with AVA's motto: "Every volunteer, effectively led".

Few months ago, a discussion about leadership on cyberVPM brought to my attention how there are persons that, surprisingly, oppose the term "leading volunteers". They think it to be somehow offensive to volunteers: "they are not animals, you don't lead them anywhere" they say "they go where they want to go". In fact, I said leader, were they animals I'd use shepherd instead. *grin*

All that fuss over hierarchies and leadership is yet another excess of such politically correct "person-centered" (and brain-alien) language.

The fact we all are usually given the right to choose where to go doesn't mean we need no hint about which direction to take. Even if the whole politically corrected world rushes out (usually, yelling at whom disagrees...) to level differences with some kilos of white let's-all-pretend-to-be-equal paint. And has even the nerve to call it "respect for differences"! I for one am humble enough to admit that yes, there ARE fields in which I DO need directions and no, I am not ashamed of it, nor to admit it, because there is nothing bad about it. I also am not envious of leaders and leadership roles, so I guess it's easier for me to accept the term and concept. Plus, I realize how the world needs hierarchies in order to work (on the danger of upside-down hierarchies, like putting ideals before feelings, I'll write another day....).

Others would prefer the term manager, or adminstrator. I don't like any of them. The former assimilates people to things to move from one place to another, the second to money that runs from pocket to pocket. I stick by Volunteer Leader.

But back to the leadership thingy... what is leadership?

In most countries, as well as in most persons' minds, leadership is something you obtain especially when you don't deserve it, provided you are willing to yell long enough to. The concept is dangerously similar to that of advocacy. Pick up a subject, it's not important whether you are right or wrong, whether your claims make sense or not. It is important that you yell so loud and for so long, possibly throwing all you can find on your path at whoever dare disagreeing with you. That way, they will become afraid of openly going against you, and you'll feel you won your war for celebrity and are the biggest expert in the world. But there is a problem: while you feel all contemptuous, the rest of the world will be laughing at you, your idiosincrasies and your intellectual blindness. If they sound respectful is because they are waiting for an occasion in which they will be granted impunity. At which time, you will see who is the winner and who is the sucker.

So again what is leadership and who is the leader? Leadership is when a consistent portion of a group of people follow the opinions, behaviours and/or ideas of a person that is but expressing him/herself in such process (meaning: no show-offs, no manipulations). They decide who the leader is and the leader can only accept or refuse the role. Get real: you cannot be a leader if nobody but yourself designates you as one. Period. You can't say: "I am the boss therefore I am the leader". PERIOD.

That's why self-proclamed leaders and experts are persons that, at minimum, are being blinded by their own ambitions but, usually, by their own stupidity and limitations.

Being a leader has something "animal" in it. It's a matter of sensing the temperature of persons & groups, of interpreting non-verbal language (and, for God's sake, remember Mehrabian!), of having & displaying feelings, of motivating folks and of knowing how to speak in meaningful spontaneous discourses. It is NOT about sending cold informal "personal" messages and newsletters, interpreting ONLY verbal language, keeping feelings and "important stuff" private, beating people into submission about some "ideal" and giving long technical/numerical/idealistic speeches. A leader is a person that after you listened to, you feel you can do what s/he is doing, with the result that s/he is having, if only you get into his/her attitude.

It's not about what the leader says, or thinks, or is. It is about how s/he makes you feel when s/he speaks to you. Even when you dissent from what s/he says, you feel that S/HE made you think, S/HE inspired you, S/HE fuelled your actions. Even when s/he prompted you to disproof what s/he just wrote! THIS is a leader. A person whose post you never skip, a person you want to listen to, and not just because s/he pesters you if you don't.

And no, being a leader is not a bed of roses, like false leaders think and claim to experience. You have no pauses or few, because their eyes, the eyes of the people that chose you as a leader are on YOU, whether you like it or not, want it or not, feel like it or not. Whether you feel you are enough for the role, the task, the goal or you are not, they chose you. The fact you wouldn't have chosen yourself doesn't change their mind. If you watched the Matrix, it was Morpheus to choose Neo as the leader, regardless of Neo's personal opinion. THAT is what leadership is like, and it's not easy or nice.

So the point is, of course, not all Volunteer Managers (or Adminstrators) can be Volunteer Leaders. Yet, they can still be intelligent enough to understand when volunteers recognise them as leaders and when they don't. And humble enough to detect who is that they recognise as leader and how to cultivate this person into a Volunteer Manager Assistant, or a Supervisor of Volunteers.

Another problem is that, usually, a person that is comfortable being a manager is a pretty anal one as well. Thus, s/he will have issue on letting go of control, watching volunteers too tightly, endlessly writing job descriptions (cuz they think job descriptions can't be misunderstood, you know), supervising "too much", having delusions that "if I am not here, things just don't get done" and so forth. The idea that there is life outside of what they think is just hard to get into those heads.

So, the social life of volunteers? "It's not important, it's important that the job gets done". Appreciating volunteers? "Well, why don't we just thank them as much as possible and that will cover most of the feeling stuff?". Facilitating social exchanges among volunteers? "As I said, it's more important that the work gets done". Well, if these three aspects improved the quality and quantity of work at Xerox, WHO in the #@ç* tells you that it wouldn't work at your organization, Einstein?

It's because those people are mistrustful of all that can't be controlled, rigorously duplicated and measured. If they help humankind out of duty (or loyalty to some ideals), they can't imagine you can perform the same action out of love, gratefulness or any other feeling.

So yes, I basically think that there is another way to manage volunteer, a happy hybrid between the "all fluff" everything-goes and the North American managerial style.

It would help, and a lot, if we recognise that:
1) group of volunteers have social hierarchies, inner leaders, social networks, likes and dislikes that are "reflective" in nature and individual in the way they present themselves. That means, each volunteer carefully select who to buddy up with, for reasons that have to do with their background, values, motivations and upbringing;
2) they way groups of volunteers behave is inherently different from group of workers. Most works on groups of volunteers have been conducted on open source software developers or on communities of practice. In both cases, and in a surprisingly myope way, findings have been analyzed through the lenses of groups of workers. In other words, the fact they weren't being paid hasn't been taken in account OR such volunteers have been considered motivated by having their name inserted in the acknowledgement file (that already happens for workers, but how is that they still want to be paid???? Hmmmmmm.....);
3) belonging to such groups is a big part of why they decide to start volunteering and of why they decide to stay at our organization (or leave).

For all these reasons, the Volunteer Manager can't possibly go on "letting these groups happen" because too much of what gets done (and especially, of what does NOT get done) depends on the mismanagement of this very precious resources.

And remember, when you doubt about your own leadership and don't know what to do, don't search the "expert"... identify the leader in that group and build on top of it.

It works.

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Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Professionalism and Volunteering Styles

Susan Ellis' January Hot Topic Why Can’t We Make Progress on Public Perceptions about Volunteering? and a link to an article posted by Jayne Cravens on cyberVPM highlighted how very many times, the word "volunteer" is associated, in people's minds, with something negative and, how some volunteers refuse to be identified as such, preferring other titles.
I think it is because of two reasons:
  1. the public perception of what a volunteer is
  2. the reality of what a volunteer manager is (and, I am afraid, is not)

Volunteers. Hustinx and Lammertyn (2000) began realizing how the meaning of volunteering was changing. The traditional framework, they found, was (and IS) old and not appropriate for reality that is changing. Volunteers are no more and no longer altruistic martyrs, whether secular or religious ones. They are no more and no longer all about community, since they find reasons to volunteer in themselves (may I add a big fat "Thank God" for that?).

Therefore, those volunteers are no longer people with a huge inferiority complex, trying to "give back" to the community out of guilt for being richer, healthier or luckier, and whose guilt we can take advantage of through some recognition event. They are trying to self-actualize and are WAY healthier than they were before. Logical consequence is, we better behave healthier too, but... are we able to?

Again the same authors found out that volunteers aren't as ideologically loyal to an association as they had been in the past. So trying to play the guilt trip on how they should "build a community", "save the environment", "owe their to their fellow humans" and similar things is not just dangerously similar to the "forced volunteerism" of the Soviet Union, but is just not going to work. Better find another trick to engage them, but... again, are we able to?

Volunteer Managers. Ever since volunteer management was invented as a profession, we started giving volunteers some well-deserved training. Thus they stopped being incompentent do-gooders, at least theoretically, a long while ago. In case they still are, we can look in the mirror if we want to find the culprit. It's a matter of professionalism. VPMs should not accept people unwilling to get trained, period. No matter how nice they are, or how well they rub us.

Many many times, in the field of volunteer management, we interrogate ourselves on the meaning of the very word "professionalism". My rendition of such word is "person that does her/his work at her/his own best".

Susan Ellis' December Hot Topic, Chicken or Egg: Why Are Our Professional Associations Weak?, was all geared on why volunteer management professional associations are so weak. In that occasion, I wrote to Susan's:

"VPMs don't belong to professional associations because they feel they don't need to. Since every situation is so peculiar, VPMs feel they don't need a pre-packaged, anecdotal opinion from experts but some sound, reliable guidelines to build their knowledge onto. Because so rarely evidence in best practices is given (beyond anecdotes), VPM voice is (and will stay) unheard, not even listened to, by those who takes political actions. I think the only way out is to change our practice and accept we have to back up our theories if we hope to become influential."

So I am asking you:

  1. Shooting from the "mountain" of our personal ANEDOCTAL experience, can be classified as "doing our best"?
  2. Can't we really go beyond and raise above it?
  3. Can't we demand our leaders to refer to facts, studies, research, when they explain their opinions, so that we can understand how they "got there", so to speak, and have a dialogue that creates meaning, rather than imposing it from one "superior" side, on another?
  4. How is that our associations aren't fighting for having "best practices" that are more similar to science than to fiction?

If I were a competent professional in another field and were considering donating my time, if I were a person upgrading my knowledge regularly, reading research rather than just best-sellers and make a truth out of them, well, if I were one of those persons I for sure:

  1. wouldn't accept to be called unskilled/untrained do-gooder by associating myself to an organization that tolerates such behaviours, and
  2. wouldn't accept to be supervised by a person that most of the times doesn't know the reasons (if any exists) for something "has to be done" the way it is presently done.

I am not saying, of course, that all or even most Volunteer Managers are or behave like that. I on the contrary know many of them that share my same discouragement at the present situation.

I am saying, however, that it is baffling, to see professional associations, advocates, and "experts" not coming out to improve the image of the whole category by raising their own standards (rather than "showing the truth" to others).

If nobody follows you, it's because they think there isn't that much to follow. It's up to you to change their minds, IF you want to be followed, OR to just shut up, IF you don't feel like working as hard.