Our Non-Directed Support Organization
This essay, by Earl Gary Stevens, was originally published in the Talking About Learning column in the May-June 1995 issue of Home Education Magazine.
Over the years I have spoken many times in these pages about our large, diverse support organization, the Southern Maine Home Education Support Network. Individuals and families within the network have worked and played together for a long time, and this has led to the flowering of both friendships and community. Almost 10 years have gone by since we began with only a handful of families, and we have learned much along the way.
In recent months parents from many different places have told me stories about disagreements and confusion and hurt feelings within their own support organizations. While groups begin with families joining together in a sincere desire to cooperate in sharing support and resources, all too often they find themselves sinking into seemingly irresolvable differences of opinion over the details of group activities and events.
Disagreements among members can begin with attempts to define what it is that "the group" should do. For example, what kind of support meetings should be offered? Who will lead them? What philosophy of home-based education should be emphasized? Should kids be welcome at all support meetings, or should there be some gatherings for parents only? Should discussions be moderated, or should they be entirely informal? In addition to support meetings there are sports activities, social events, field trips and a host of other possibilities to consider. All can provide ground for conflicts.
We are often asked how we can manage to advertise a variety of support group meetings and a long list of activities and events in this part of the state with very little debate or disagreement over how they are conducted. The answer is that the sponsoring individuals make all the decisions, and the network itself never offers anything. Every member is free to make his or her own decisions about what to offer, either as an individual or in cooperation with others. While some of our more active members may be perceived as leaders, especially by newcomers, the truth is that no leader or group of leaders decides what is to be on the calendar.
This is not to say that everyone agrees about everything. No matter what the activity or event, there will always be somebody who feels that it should be done differently. Sometimes even longtime members get confused about the process and protest that some aspect of a given activity is not sensitive to the needs of this kind of family or that kind of philosophy; when this happens they must remember that they are free to offer an alternative.
Seven years ago I decided to offer an activity which I called Family Baseball. I wanted to create an environment where parents and boys and girls of all ages and skill levels could have fun playing together with a non-lethal ball, relaxed rules, and a spirit of helping each other learn the game. I placed an ad in our newsletter giving the time and place and a description of the game. (See HEM, July/August 1989.)
At the beginning I was feeling my way along and having to make many decisions. One parent thought that the game should be more challenging for bigger kids. Another parent wanted it to be less challenging for little kids. Another felt it was too disorganized, while still another believed that any adult direction at all was too coercive. Can you imagine trying to figure all this out at a support group meeting? I listened to everybody and kept to my vision. Some people drifted away because it wasn't their cup of tea, while others became regulars in our weekly games, but these differences never became a source of group conflict as they might have if the game were sponsored collectively.
For those who wish to try our approach the key is to create a point of contact for families in which individuals and groups of individuals are free to figure out ways to meet their own needs. This may be a simple transition for some organizations, but in other cases it might be easier to start a separate mailing list with its own calendar. Just focus on making it possible for families to explore their own ways of working and playing together.
While it is true that a network is not a community, Eileen Yoder, who co-founded SMHESN with me, points out that within our network we are a community of people at various levels of commitment and caring and willingness to give. Some people give a great deal, and, as time passes, they tend to be seen as leaders. But as long as we claim ownership and responsibility only for what we as individuals offer to others and not for any kind of group authority, then we avoid misunderstandings and debilitating conflicts.
It is surprisingly easy to forget this principle. I've done that occasionally when I have neglected to leave my name attached to an activity so that in the newsletter it appears to be a group offering rather than an offering by Earl Gary Stevens. I realize this has happened when I find myself feeling responsible for pleasing everybody instead of allowing myself to be guided by what I feel that I can give.
These are some of the practices and concepts that make SMHESN work for us. This approach requires a lot of respect for the authority of individuals to make their own decisions. Most of us have been well-schooled to look for authority from above and it can be hard work to begin looking within. It is fun to see the enthusiasm when newcomers first realize that they have the freedom and the means to create opportunities for themselves and for others anytime they like. With each passing month we learn more from each other.
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Earl Gary Stevens 1995. State and local nonprofit volunteer-based support organizations may reprint this article for their members without asking for permission. As a favor, please send a copy to 25 Belmeade Road, Portland, Maine 04101. All others please ask.