Its funny, but I’ve never really thought logically about the obstacles Freechild has faced before. Then, a few days ago a student from University of Guelph in Ontario wrote and asked what they were. Without hesitating, I pounded out the following response in a matter of minutes. I guess these thoughts were just waiting in the wings…
When I started The Freechild Project in 2001, it was done in the face of resistance: After working with a large U.S. foundation whose focus was promoting volunteerism, my job was to engage young people specifically. They didn’t appreciate my analysis in terms of the breadth of youth action, so I took what I’d collected and created the earliest form of freechild.org. So the earliest obstacle was generating interest in the breadth of action led by and with young people.
The next obstacle was technology. Without funding and expertise, I was forced to build the earliest forms of freechild.org on my own. You can see different iterations of the website here.
In 2002 figuring our how to continue the work was an obstacle. How could Freechild continue without any kind of funding? I immediately devised a series of knowledge and skill-based workshops that I could provide on a fee-for-service basis, both to promote the website and to have money to operate the site.
That same year access became an obstacle, both in terms of (1) accessing the wide variety of youth engagement going on, and (2) accessing the information about that action. Regarding (1), without the funding circles that provide support to like-minded groups to network within, I was almost solely reliant on my personal network of friends who were doing the work to refer me to other cool stuff, and on the Internet. In 2001 the web was absent of social networking and anything that made it easy to find anything, so… that sucked. About (2), I didn’t have the library research journals or subscriptions to the right publications or any of the tools I needed to substantiate the claim that “Yes, youth engagement does matter.” So, I spent a lot of time in the local college library…
Around 2003 I recognized substantiality and the appearance of legitimacy as obstacles. About substance, so many people come to the Freechild website, and I really want to give folks what they are looking for. I do that by discerning through the conversations I have, trainings I lead and folks who I visit what the latest and greatest urgencies are, and I work to respond to those both in our online content and through our publications. Regarding legitimacy, in addition to being cut out of the networks of funders, Freechild is also cut off from the legitimacy of being funded: folks assume that if you get foundation dollars than a program is legit. We didn’t have that leverage, so we had to establish our legitimacy in other ways – which I’m still not positive that we have succeeded in doing.
In 2003 I started bringing in volunteers to help out, and then I began hiring other folks to help do this work. In 2005 we recieved our government nonprofit status, starting CommonAction. So we’re working our way backwards, in a sense: We got out there, kicked a lot of butt, and now we’re going back and “earning our stripes” as an organization, so-to-speak.
As an organization, we anticipate our coming obstacles to be Growth, in terms of developing a staff and series of programs that fulfill our goals; Sustainability, in terms of finances and research/development, and; Reach, in terms of legitimizing and extending our international outreach efforts. You can read more of our timeline here.
I hope that answers your question – please don’t hesitate to ask more.
I guess that “mythologizing” this work will never be an obstacle for me. But I hear folks do it all the time. The best organizational leaders do it all the time, and it gets kinda old. The worst don’t do it very well at all – see Wendy Kopp on Colbert Report a few weeks ago. I guess this is one of my first attempts – what do you think?