Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Comparing and Contrasting Public Achievement USA and Caucacus Versions

On April 2, Nickia Jensen, a great PA team member and PA coach in her own right, commented on this blog, asking, "I am wondering how you see/think of the connections between the PA you see there and the PA you see in the US. Are they the same structure? What can we learn from the way that PA is done in other countries that we can apply to PA in the US?  These are great questions.  After all, the primary reason for the trip was to train Public Achievement mentors/coaches.  (I include a brief description of the Public Achievement photographs at the bottom of this posting.)

Briefly for the non-PA crowd, Public Achievement is a democracy movement intended to teach people the skills (public work, acting from a position of self-interest, working from positions of relational power)) and attitudes (freedom, free spaces, diversity of ideas)  necessary to be active citizens.  PA incorporates the best of community organizing principles (relational power, understanding public v. private, working in the spaces between the World As It Is and the World As It Should Be).  Those interested can read more at the Public Achievement web site.  Those interested about community organizing can read more at the Gamaliel Foundation or the Industrial Areas Foundation web sites, the two community organizations that I know best.  (Don't let the anti-community organizing rhetoric that Sarah Palin and the Fox News crowd likes to exercise fool you: good community organizing has been and continues to transform people's lives in constructive ways that make a democracy deeper and richer.)

Description  Public Achievement in Georgia takes place primarily in Internally Displaced People's (IDP) settlements.  These are people displaced by the Russian encroachments in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.  Many of us remember the brief and devastating battle between Russian and Georgian troops in 2008, but there is a longer history; many of the IDP settlements we visited had people who had lived as IDPs since the chaotic early days of independence from the Soviet Union (1991-1993).  Many of the Public Achievement teams in Georgia tend to be young and middle-aged adults, and the mentors, too, tend to be young or middle-aged adults.  In Azerbaijan, much of the Public Achievement work takes place in education settings.  Most of the mentors/coaches are teachers or recent college graduates.  (I encourage more knowledgeable readers to add corrective information in the comment section.)  Follow these links to learn a bit more about the Georgian and Azerbaijan PA teams.

Similarities  The similarities are many.  The Public Achievement process (Issue-Problem-Project/Action) is the same as the USA model.  The basic requirements for any Public Achievement project/action are the same: it must be legal, non-violent, and contribute to the common wealth or public good.  PA teams are formed the same way around the individual team members' interests.  I noted similar learning outcomes between PA USA and PA Caucacus: the team members spoke of the "honor" that they felt when they did their public work, as well as the power that they experienced; the mentor/coaches spoke of a new-found respect for the team members as individuals, how it positively morphed the relationships they had with team members, and how it made their career lives richer and deeper.

 Differences  1) The difference that I most immediately noticed involves subtle semantic variations.  In the Caucacus, a PA coach is a PA mentor because coach doesn't have the same connotations, while mentoring captures best the type of relationship the Caucacus want to encourage.  Instead of Issue - Problem - Project the Caucacus use Issue - Problem - Action, and while I never asked anyone directly about the difference, my sense is that project is more static while action is more dynamic.  The biggest difference, however, is how people understand leading, leader, and leadership.  I won't repeat myself here: you can read about the hornet's nest I batted around in the 28 March posting titled "The Workshop is Finished."

2) On the one hand, the Georgia PA actions/projects are much larger in scope and scale and reflect the urgency of the teams involved: running water, playgrounds, employment, building safety.  The school-based projects, on the other hand, look very much like the PA actions/projects that I see in the USA: classroom-focused or school-building focused (with notable exceptions in Mingachevir, where PA teams conducted ethnographic-style studies to learn more about the history of their city or worked with local health officials to rid a school of mice and the accompanying threat of dysentery).  Seeing this reminded me of how frustrating I often am with the PA issue conventions in the USA.  Too often, especially with the college-based or school-based issues, teams are selecting unnecessarily parochial issues that are tame and too frequently not central to the hearts and minds of the teams' individual members.  Is it the foucaldian discipline of school settings that often drain the teams of more inspired selections?  What role does the instructor/coach coordinator/coach play in this (and I am thinking in particular about how I want to change the way that I address issue development in my own PA environments)?  Is it fear of failure or fear of success?  I don't know.  I do know, however, that this trip has jolted me awake when it comes to issue development.

3)  There seems to be more willingness to collaborate and share the learning in the Caucasus.  This inference is probably colored by my experience with really talented mentors, but I have worked with talented coaches in the USA and Northern Ireland, and I didn't get this sense of wanting to learn from each other.  This might be a by-product of US rugged individualism and Soviet-style inspired cooperation, but I think it is more complex than that.  I know that as a PA coach and coach coordinator, I want to structure learning environments where team members and coaches can genuinely and authentically learn from one another.  (I'll try to remember to write about this sometime in the fall when I'll have my first chance to act on this analysis.)

What can USA PA learn?  I was humbled by the seriousness of the work in Georgia and Azerbaijan.  Nobody is "playing at democracy."  Because both countries are nascent democracies, this group of citizens is establishing a baseline for what it means to be a citizen in a new democracy.  Older citizens are learning from younger citizens, and the young are learning from the more seasoned (this, from a guy who's 51 years old:)).  I am wondering how I can co-create environments wherein this can of seriousness can rise to the surface.  If I don't, then my concern is that I will only contribute to the growing cynicism that many people experience.  I have to keep asking myself how to make the work more real. 

I am writing an evaluative report for Julie and Ala at the Educational Society for Malopolska (MTO) and the folks at the Center for Democracy and Citizenship.  I'll share a link in a future blog posting for those who are interested in a more formal and thorough evaluation.

First two photographs:  Ganja PS 39 classrooms.
Third photograph: Aufto's kitchen in Borjumi (after he worked with others to remodel over 20 kitchens in the Borjumi IDP sanatorium, he worked with others to remodel his own)
Fourth and fifth photographs: Khaka's PA team member Dadto and the field that the team will turn into a soccer field and playground for the IDP settlement between Mshkteka and Gori.
Fifth photograph:  Gori IDP settlement, and the PA staircase.

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