[squeakland] Great article by Yamandu about volunteering

Rita Freudenberg rita at isg.cs.uni-magdeburg.de
Thu Oct 8 17:27:13 EDT 2009

I just did read this article, written by Yamandu Ploskonka. We rely on  
volunteers for most of our work as well. It's really great and  


It Wouldn't Do Telling the President That Volunteers Failed Me
OCT 2009
There was this seminar at the Inter American Development Bank in  
Washington DC on September 15. I had the pleasure and honor to meet in  
person Ing. Miguel Brechner, someone I have a lot of professional  
respect for, as he is the person responsible for the logistics behind  
connectivity, delivery and many other roles for the 350.000 XOs of  
Plan Ceibal, in Uruguay.

I tend to consider Miguel a friend, though I have often given him a  
hard time due to the nosy questions I often raise. In a Uruguayan  
egalitarian way I "tuteo" him, and even dare send him emails that he  
does answer, though I try to keep them brief and far apart for I  
understand he is a busy man with many responsibilities.

His is a very hard role as politics force Ceibal to focus almost  
exclusively on the bright, smiley faces, rather than mentioning  
avoidable or unavoidable mistakes, issues that people like me tend to  
want to understand, and bring to light, so as to avoid making them  
again elsewhere.

So, Miguel and I had a bit of a conversation there at the IADB. He  
knows how I push for a bigger role and empowering of Uruguayan  
teachers and volunteers as the best option for Ceibal. So far he has  
relied for decision-making on paid, hierarchical staff, and even  
though volunteer events end up being standing-room-only in the biggest  
conference rooms of Montevideo, and volunteer work keeps many things  
actually moving, they seem a little more than consumables, instead of  
the cornerstone for operations, integral to the decision-making and  
plans and procedures. As the last word in our IADB conversation,  
Miguel presented his need to do his deliverables on time, and how he  
cannot give volunteers more of a role, a quote for the title of this  

On Volunteers

Yes, many volunteers are flaky, mercurial, not predictable, many get  
bored quickly, "a herd of cats" when it comes to planning and  
deliverables. I've been burned often by these unreliable behaviors,  
but maybe not nearly as often as by the reliable mediocrity of  
bureaucracies. There is solid evidence as collected and described by  
Eric Raymond (of The Cathedral and the Bazaar fame) that volunteer  
work actually ends up being better in quality and quantity. And it's  
not just because when there are many eyes all bugs are shallow  
(meaning that when a lot - the mostest the bestest - a big huge lot of  
people look at a problem, problems are found faster than by regimented  
groups of highly trained engineers).

There is also actually a lot to be said for the fringe benefits of  
empowering people, not just catching bugs. I mean, is a project like  
OLPC, like CEIBAL, all about delivering machines and getting kids to  
assume the joy of the Internet? Or is there an intent to actually  
change the world? Then let's start with those who already have bought  
in, the volunteers. Let's empower them, and use that as our calling  
card on how good our empowering works.

"It's an Education Project", about empowering people, helping them get  
moving to achieve their very best. But, oh, how fast do we put hurdles  
on "our" plan, to block off people whose sin is to do things  
differently. Nuisance, yes Sir, a silly nuisance they be! So yes, we  
are still happy to empower those who will behave, the rest pray stand  
aside. Those who don't gather, "my" way, they scatter... I am not  
saying Miguel is guilty of this, but certainly more could be done  
under his leadership to get teachers to connect - at a price, the  
price of seeing some disagreements, some loss of artificial appearance  
of uniformity, but then the harvest would be great.

Y'all know a few people that fit the shoe, no need to name names, but  
your usual liberal contructi* will tell anyone that their goal is to  
awaken initiative and a critical mindset, but they get so upset when  
it does happen and they get criticized... In an interesting paradox  
they really, really seem to dislike people with opinions and prying  
questions, maybe because that seems in their eyes to threaten their  
way to, uh, help awaken independent, critical thinking ?!?!

How to Work With Volunteers

Among the many weird things that God put on my way that I had no idea  
would ever be useful, was being professionally trained on working with  
volunteers. I must not have been a good student, for people I manage  
can often tell that I tend to expect immediate results, and for a  
while my CV indicated that I have low tolerance for mediocrity. As  
time passes, besides getting softer, I guess as a by-product of being  
married, I have had the chance to learn from the masters, and in one  
sentence I dare say,

"to achieve results with volunteers, you have to expect the best, and  
plan for the worst"
The worst often being long nights to complete and cleanup what didn't  
get finished (hi, Adam!). Otherwise, when you have patience, and time,  
and did your best to help people feel they can reach the stars, they  
simply will amaze you by what they can accomplish. In the USA many  
institutions like hospitals, libraries, the YMCA, and many others  
would simply die off if they could not work with volunteers. The  
"Volunteer Coordinator" there is a respected, well paid and trained  
professional that has deliverables to present, just like any engineer  
or sales person. I have already written on how important it were that  
OLPC empowered that position.

It is often told that a volunteer is the one who was too slow when the  
rest of the battalion took a quick step back at hearing the call, but  
that will not do.

The true volunteer actually takes the step forward, out of the  
standard mediocre herd. Of course it means that by the very nature of  
the beast, volunteers tend to be different, to have initiative. They  
tend to be opinionated. Not as easily appeased as the gullible sheep  
we know as normal populace. They ask questions, and they expect honest  
answers. And sometimes they quit unexpectedly or simply are late.

OLPC volunteers in action
Volunteers in Developing Countries

There seems to be significant evidence that enterprise and growth,  
both in production, wealth and knowledge, happens better where ideas  
are freely exchanged - look at ye olde US of A, already pointing that  
way before being born, by the example of Franklin and friends.

Thus a valid point for those who see brighter future for poor places  
is in adopting the ways of the initiative. The more the weirder it is  
that within OLPC and its brood there seem to be little concern for  
actually making this happen, to walk the talk. "teach initiative, but  
for crying out loud, don't try it yourself". (full disclosure:  
initiative is happening, it's even celebrated when it fits the  
manager's interests, but seldom encouraged with funding or attention  
or recognition - much less with a place at the decision making table)

Interesting paradoxes happen, especially on the way to socialism,  
where the initial concept calls for the people to have more of a  
voice, but we end up with rigid top-down five-year plans.

And anyway, it is very hard for teachers to even try if not  
encouraged, anywhere. You see, the teacher is the guy/doll who knows.  
Now, if s/he asks a question, or worse, makes a mistake, then s/he is  
proving ignorance, thus, how come s/he is getting paid for teaching?  
It takes a lot of balls or the suitable equivalent to dare stick up  
one's head up, a courageous nail where the hammers rule. When I was a  
teacher in Uruguay I knew my career was basically over and I would  
have no chance of a promotion because I was the kind of guy who asked  
principals to heed the ANEP rule that forbade smoking - worse since  
one of them was precisely among those spewing fumes in the halls and  
classrooms. I was 6th in a "concurso de oposición" among 1.800 in  
Montevideo (and thus tenured), a city where pretty much nobody knew my  
fame of "difficult", but 180 among 230 in my hometown of Minas...

How to Do the Volunteer Thing

My recipe for moving forward to encouraging initiative and critical  
thinking is precisely that: go ahead, c'mon, encourage initiative and  
critical thinking, at all levels, not just teach about it. Be  
consistent, walk the talk. Risk ruining that incredible thin budget by  
making sure people do participate, do ask questions, do, oh my,  
criticize. Open up!

Have your staff answer questions with something more substantial than  
the platitudes of telling people that questions are important (if you  
saw the emails!). Admit mistakes, not just say you made the book on  
them and that everyone knows, but by sharing that most valuable of all  
books so we be creative with our mistakes, not just repeat yours.  
People will be empowered now to maybe even try that same thing of  
honest openness with their own students, and those, as they grow up,  
truly transform society.

And then, my friend, we will all be able to say "we did it".

We all already admire the infrastructure, the sheer amazing thing of  
having 350 K XOs in the hands of kids,but that was not the goal, that  
was merely an objective. The goal is to have those kids, and of course  
their teachers, to be/come that "revolución" el Presidente spoke  
about. It will take too long if we don't scale up, and the only way to  
scale up that is affordable and effective is by empowering people to  
do it.

And they will amaze us all. They will change the world.
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