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Community Agent as Social Activist

The only constant thing is change. The physical, biological and human environments are in a continual state of flux. Individuals react to change in patterns laid down by their society and culture. These patterns change through time.

In the following two papers we look first at the general concept of social agency to suggest that the paradigm may be shifting.; we then look briefly at two examples of the new paradigm in practice and draw some preliminary conclusions.

bulletSocial Activist: Heroic Parent or Thoughtful Adult?
bulletHeroic Individuals
bulletThoughtful individuals
bulletCommunity Agents - the Practice
bulletUrban Poverty and Housing in Colombo, Sri Lanka.
bulletOut of School Childcare in the Highlands of Scotland
bulletHow to begin and keep going
bulletLessons from experience to date
bulletContacts and References

Social Activist: Heroic Parent or Thoughtful Adult?

For more than 8000 years there have been individuals who, through education, religion, the media and/or brute force have managed, more or less consciously, to condition others into feeling inferior. Thus many people become complacent, long-suffering and dependent on their leaders to think for them and make decisions on their behalf.

This is the family analogy: the leaders, or elite, represent the all-knowing and dependable parents who are often stern and aloof. The masses are the ignorant and irresponsible children who must be disciplined for their own good. In these modern times this analogy is wearing thin.

Social activists are individuals who, for a variety of reasons, have seen through the analogy. They seldom emerge from the elite. There are two general types:

Heroic individuals take on the role of new father (or mother) figure, mobilising the others to revolt against the corrupt and abusive old order. Sometimes the new order improves life for the masses, sometimes not. There has been a change in the parent figure, but no change in the analogy. The paradigm survives.

Thoughtful individuals take on the role of older brother or sister. They have seen through the analogy and want others to see through it too. They know that adults are capable of making wise decisions, regardless of their social or economic class. The parent no longer dictates to children but rather siblings consult. The paradigm shifts.

In practice, social activists may be driven by both intentionalities. It is easy to be cool, understanding, and patient when the going is smooth; but when the going gets tough the dictatorial parent may emerge. The litmus test is control. When faced with opposition the activist may become impatient and angry and seek tyrannical control - at least for a time. This is rarely a good thing.

The social activist has two major challenges:

bulletTo encourage community people to take self-determined actions, and
bulletTo avoid harassment and obstruction by the more powerful who may feel threatened.

Overcoming these challenges requires technical and social knowledge and skills. Truly talented individuals may manage on their own, but such individuals are rare. Strategic thinking, mentoring and peer support are essential, and contacts developed through networking can be invaluable in surviving the second challenge.

The road is made by walking. The process has begun. Community activists in various parts of the world have set a new ball in motion. Methodologies are being developed which enable ordinary people to gain more control of their destiny.

The following section describes two existing community agent approaches to social activism.


Community Agents - the Practice

Community Agents begin as social activists in their own community then, with training and support, they become a resource for other communities and groups. Most Community Agents work on a part-time, self-employed basis. They form networks which may be approached by organisations and agencies intent on practical community work.

Urban Poverty and Housing in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

One of the first networks of Community Agents began in the late 1980s in the low-income areas of Colombo in Sri Lanka. Class barriers were the crucial issue for poor people who were tired of advantaged Sri Lankans reaching out to them. They felt that little would be changed that way. The Community Agent approach developed as an alternative.

Over several years, and with initial support from UNCHS, poor people joined together to become their own development agents. They formed a city-wide, poor women’s credit union and several housing co-operatives in which local people determine the priorities and mobilise others. This has reduced the social distance between the organisation and its beneficiaries and is proving highly effective. (MORE)

Out of School Childcare in the Highlands of Scotland

Community Childcare Agents (CCAs) are the focal point for increasing childcare services in the Highlands of Scotland. They are selected by their local childcare groups on the basis of trust and willingness to undertake the work. As local activists they are key in establishing after school and holiday care, but they also co-ordinate local training needs analyses, training events, impact assessments and work exchanges.

An Out of School Care Federation has been formed which trains the Agents through a combination of quarterly, centre-based sessions, on-line telephone support, e-mail and a practical work-pack. The work pack outlines the CCA tasks and provides guidance on where to find support. This network has been functioning for three years and has made major in-roads into increasing training, particularly for women living in remote rural areas.

How to begin and keep going

Most Community Agents begin as active local volunteers. Development organisations recognise them, provide skills training and help them to form networks. The ultimate goal is to establish autonomous self-managing networks, although this may require several years of external support before agents can confidently function in a manner that addresses the variety and complexity of their needs.

Networks of Community Agents seldom arise spontaneously because the process is neither simple nor direct. External organisations play a vital role in ensuring equal participation of activists in the initial stages and, over time, in providing an external perspective on the network’s capacity for decision-making and implementation, and for its skill in coping with and resolving internal issues.

Lessons from experience to date:

bulletSelect people based on their track record in social activism
bulletSelect people on their capacity for critical reflection
bulletEnsure that training addresses specific, locally identified needs
bulletDevise action plans focused on clear, practical tasks
bulletProvide regular and easily accessible support
bulletBring agents together regularly to share their experiences

So what do you think? - click here

Contacts and references:

Nandasiri Gamage

Sri Lanka Women’s Developmental Services Cooperative Society (Women’s Bank)
151/13, E-Zone
Seevali Pura,
Colombo 8
Sri Lanka
Tel: 00 94 1 681355
E-mail: womensbank@lanka.gn.apc.org

Kathleen McLennan

The Out of School Care Federation in the Highlands and Islands
c/o Merkinch Enterprise
2/4 Grant Street
Inverness IV3 6BL
Tel: ++44 (0)1463 240085
E-mail: me@cali.co.uk

Further Reading

Albee, A. and G. Boyd, (1997) Doing it Differently: Networks of Community Development Agents. Caledonia Centre for Social Development, 19 Midmills Road, Inverness IV2 3NZ, UK. Tel: 01463 230335

Albee, A. and G.Boyd (1994) Concept of Community Agents, Rural Forum Magazine, Issue 37 (Winter) 1994/95. Forum, Highland House, St. Catherine’s Road, Perth PH1 5RY

Community Involvement in Rural Development Initiatives, Good Practice Guide No2. 1997. The Stationery Office, 71 Lothian Road, Edinburgh EH3 9AZ. Tel: 0131 622 7050. Cost 2.50.

Gamage N (1998) Real Voices in Development – Hundred Stories of Women’s Bank Members; Women’s Bank & UNDP (for address see above)

Gilchrist, Alison (1995) Community Development and Networking, Briefing Paper No 7. SCCD and CDF,. Community Development Foundation, 60 Highbury Grove, London N5 2AGCost 6.

SCEC Community Government Exchange, Scottish Community Education Council, 9 Haymarket Terrace, Edinburgh EH12 5EZ. Cost: 6.

The Out of School Care Federation (1997) Good Practice Guide, c/o Catriona MacLean, 1 Sluggans Drive, Portree, Isle of Skye IV51 9EQ. Cost: 12.

Vijay Krishnarayan (1993) So You Want to Start an Environmental Network? A Practical Guide to Setting up and Running an Environmental Network, NCVO Publications, March 1993. NCVO, Regent’s Wharf, 8 All Saints Street, London N1 9RL. Cost 5.




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