A Very Brief History

To the many people whose lives were positively impacted by Operation Give A Damn (OGAD), I want to acknowledge that this blog entry is relatively short and incomplete. While I interviewed three people for this blog entry, there are many more people out there with important OGAD stories. I do hope, however, that this effort inspires others to do a much more in-depth history, perhaps in the context of a larger Marin City history project, which I believe would be of unique benefit locally and even globally.

I made every effort to ensure accurate data and true representations of subjects, including sending out drafts to participants for feedback. Of course, I also take responsibility for any errors, and if you note any, please contact me.

Elberta Eriksson, Inspiration for this Blog

If you happen to know Mrs. Elberta J. Eriksson, BCD, MFT, LCSW, you know that she is passionate about one thing: resurrecting what she calls “wrap-around services” for families in Southern Marin, specifically Marin City. What’s unique about Elberta’s vision is that it’s based in part on what existed in the past: Marin City used to have an organization that provided her vision of wrap-around services for families. The name of this organization was Operation Give A Damn, or OGAD, and it existed from approximately 1968 to approximately 1995.

OGAD Activities

Stevie Lee is a former OGAD mentee and later, OGAD / Boys and Girls Club mentor.

Stevie is certain that you had to be seven-years-old to join in the local Marin City Boy’s Club activities, because on September 27th, 1966, he turned seven. And on that day his friend invited Stevie to join him and his big brother on a go-cart riding field trip. Later, Stevie had his own OGAD mentor. By 1984 or 1985, Stevie was invited to become an OGAD big brother himself. Today, thirty-five years later, Stevie still has ongoing relationships with his OGAD little brothers and youth he mentored through the Boys and Girls Club of Southern Marin, of which OGAD was the first fiscal agent.

When I asked Stevie, “How long were you a mentor in OGAD?” He replied, “I’m still a mentor in OGAD.” “Operation Give a Damn, the best name you could come up with, because we really did give a damn.”

Activities could be anything from throwing a Frisbee, field trips to nearby towns, sleepovers, tutoring, to visiting a nice restaurant. (Stevie: “I’d tell them they could order anything on the menu except for a cheeseburger or hamburger. That made them have to read.”)

Paul Austin was one of Stevie’s mentees. Paul illuminated for me that OGAD provided both a sense of community and a structure to expose participants to educational and fun experiences they would’t have otherwise had. OGAD provided a sense of community in large part by cultivating community across organizations, and passed the value of strong community on to mentees. (Paul, for example, is currently part of a team coordinating meals to locals in need of food during this COVID-19 shelter-in-place period.) Paul says:

You could see the collaboration across organizations…It was like, ok, this program provides tutoring…you need to do more outdoor activities…so you sign up for Cub Scouts. It was headed out of the church, but you saw the collectiveness of people working together…You always knew there was some overarching framework in which people were working together.

This is an important point; that mentees such as Paul received the impression that this “overarching framework” was at work in the background supporting them. It is subtle, but profound, in terms of how this may impact an individual’s overall sense of safety, well-being, and belonging.

“Social Services Are Broken – Here’s How to Fix Them”

When I heard Elberta’s aspiration for her community, I immediately suggested she watch a particular TED talk I have embedded in the Systems Thinking Marin website. The title is, Social Services Are Broken – Here’s How to Fix Them. She loved the title, but it was a good year before she actually saw the video; at 90-years-of-age, Elberta relies on supportive friends and family to navigate technology.

When she finally saw it, she was very impressed, saying, “That’s exactly what we need!” And she once again began discussing the fabled OGAD. (And let me just say that Mrs. Elberta knows what she is talking about; she is a life-long mental health professional with her share of accolades.)

OGAD’s Beginnings

According to a one-page history that Elberta had written up, OGAD began at St. Andrews Church as a group response to a parishioner whose teenage son needed support, and was suffering from a lack of services available locally that offered help.

The congregation responded to her plea for help by taking up a collection to pay for a young mentor and role model willing to work with the teen in crisis. Minister Don Schilling, Community Activist Iniece Bailey, and Special Education Professor Dr. Phyllis Kaplan…met to design and implement OGAD services for un-served youth and family members for the community.

The program turned into a robust set of services that was central to the Marin City community for the next 25-plus years.

OGAD Built Relationships

It is often difficult to summarize how genuinely integrative organizations do their work. (This makes them harder to fund, by the way.) For example, Theory U, one of the major schools of systems thinking that inspired me to create Systems Thinking Marin, is nearly impossible to describe. “Systems thinking” by itself is much larger than what we might call a “field,” so I’ve taken to calling it a “worldview” (distinguished from the linear/reductionist/analytical worldview). But the first thing I say is, “systems thinking is about relationships,” and that is the bedrock underlying OGAD, and why the model was so effective and remains special to many to this very day. To quote from Elberta’s write-up again,

The cornerstone of OGAD was a modified Big Brother Big Sisters Program that worked in concert with mentors, education, social workers and the family. OGAD addressed the individual client’s needs and understood that the role, interactions and impact of the family dynamics should also be addressed in order for a successful outcome. More often than not the spillover in this inclusiveness improved the functioning level of the whole family…

Elberta continues in the following quote, which gets to the heart of the approach. The focus on relationships is primary, which is an important overlap between OGAD and the TED talk mentioned above: “Traditionally, services had been dispersed to clients by social workers who acted as decision-makers working with little input from the client or his community. With organizations such as OGAD, intervention became a group effort; the child, his family, the community at large, all worked together to decide what was best for the child and where to seek help.” Even as a youth Paul could in some way feel this integrated background of community. The social worker who functions as an isolated professional is undercut in his or her ability to genuinely help clients. The social worker who is empowered to build bridges across a network that includes the client but that extends well beyond him or her is at a great advantage, and therefore, so are the clients.

OGAD Commitments & Details

OGAD’s day-to-day work was pretty straight-forward. In addition to a variety of local programs and events, the center of OGAD’s work was a mentorship program for youth, hearkening back to the origin story of the organization. Like Stevie’s Marin City Boy’s Club, youth aged seven or older could be signed up to participate in OGAD. He or she would be assigned a mentor. All three parties, the mentor, the mentee, and the parents had a set of guidelines for participation.

Referencing some documents Elberta shared with me from OGAD days, I learned that parents had to agree to things like having their child ready on time, and being present at an agreed upon time for the mentor to drop the child off. Youth participants agreed to show up at the agreed time and place, agree to participate in new activities at least once, and review and sign their monthly report. Workers agreed to spend a minimum of 20 hours per month with their mentee, complete paperwork, and of course, honor the confidentiality of the youngster and family.

OGAD Youngster Agreements

OGAD Youngster Agreement (click to read)

From what I gather, there were monthly check-ins between the mentor/mentee/parent team and someone from the larger OGAD team, and then an evaluation every three-to-six six months that involved the OGAD board, at which longer-term goals for teams were set and evaluated.

Mentors were provided with $100 per month, of which $60 was a stipend payment to the worker, and $40 was to be used towards the cost of the outings with mentees. Stevie admitted that as a mentor he would just give the money to his mentees, and Elberta elaborates that the costs for outings would very frequently exceed the $40 in a month. Being a mentor was a largely volunteer enterprise.

While the organization was based in and focused in Marin City, kids throughout the county participated. Elberta estimates there could have been up to 90 kids involved in the program at any one time, and of various ethnic backgrounds.

Funding was provided by a variety of sources, including United Way, Community Mental Health, federal grants, and the Marin Community Foundation.

OGAD Goals Specifically Included Worker Development

A list of 1981-82 goals, shared with me by Elberta, includes furthering the skills of OGAD workers. I’m including the text in its entirety below and in the image above (click the image for a larger version).

To provide OGAD children an opportunity for psychological, social and educational development.

To assist OGAD families in creating and maintaining stable home environments.

To assist OGAD workers to develop skills in:

  • employment
  • interpersonal communication

To advocate and participate in the growth and development of the Marin City Community.

To maintain the community-based structure and grassroots approach to service delivery.

OGAD 1981-1982 Goals

OGAD 1981-82 Goals (click to read)

One of the most consistent reflections I heard from individuals who shared their OGAD experiences was that OGAD mentors went on to have careers in a helping profession. OGAD workers participated in various trainings to better support their mentees, which must have been an important contributing factor. (Parents also benefited from various educational programs, such as, what to ask at a parent-teacher conference, how to collaborate with teachers, matching elders and young parents to teach nurturing and bonding, and other programs.)

As it turns out, youth participants also went on to work in social services as well. Stevie Lee, both mentee and later a mentor, now runs Marin Horizon School. Paul Austin works for Bridge the Gap. Stevie and Paul, and many other former OGAD mentors and mentees are still active participants in their community, and strongly credit OGAD with inspiration and being an avenue through which to build not just knowledge about, but also trust within the community.

Where did OGAD go?

While there are several programs serving youth and the community in Marin City today, those I interviewed expressed that the loss of OGAD was a wound that has not really healed.

At some point in the 1990’s the Marin Community Foundation–which was providing funding to several organizations in Marin City–set up what was then called the Marin City Project, which was to be an umbrella for all of those organizations, OGAD among them. Also in this period, what had been a source of funding for OGAD and other local nonprofits, the Marin City Flea Market, closed its doors and was replaced by a shopping center that did not do very well, and still struggles to this day.

While the details of these two large factors–the Marin City Project and its demise, and the flea market and the land being sold to developers–is complicated, the long and the short of it is that the community suffered, and even a light scratch to the surface of community life in Marin City today will reveal strong sentiments and hurt feelings on all sides of these issues. Note that Marin City is not unique in this regard, nor Marin County. This is a story that has repeated itself across the United States, and the globe, for centuries: larger forces coming in to a place–even with good intentions–and leaving behind a community no better off, or actually worse off then before the intervention, especially with regard to low income communities and African American communities. (Not to mention the American Indian tribes, and we can forget about “good intentions” in those cases.)

Marin City Today

For someone like me who was raised in a small town in the “gold country” in Northern California, in a county that was about 85% white (and a town that was about 98% white), spending time with the Marin City community has been a precious privilege. I may have a PhD in mythological studies, but I have almost no direct experience with real culture. Attending Ricardo Moncrief’s monthly ISOJI meetings at the Marin City Senior Center, and Elberta’s Multidisciplinary Team (MDT) monthly meetings since 2017, and additional meetings and events, I have the clear and present experience that this is the first time in my life that I’ve been immersed in culture.

When I asked Paul, “How do you think your community today would be different if OGAD had stayed in action?” he replied, “It would have built more leaders, instilled a sense of community, pride, self-confidence, cultural…awareness,” and added, “Now, a lot of that is missing. We don’t have a lot of Kwanzaa celebrations, or even Juneteenth. Teaching you that I’m black and I’m proud, that was a huge influence.”

“I’m black and I’m proud.” In spite of this being a well-known anthem dating at least from James Brown’s 1968 hit, these are potentially threatening words for white people who don’t have good, solid social or familial relationships with black people. Yet they are also the same words that can mean the difference between a healthy, self-fulfilled life, and a dreary life of struggle for a black youth. In short, “Marin City Today” is a clear microcosm of “The United States Today.” Like Marin County as a whole, Marin City *is* unique and special, *and* just like everywhere else. (While Marin County has a public image of being politically liberal, the Race Counts report is a head-on challenge to this assumption.)

OGAD Into the Future

Community activists such as Elberta and Ricardo and a few others are working on figuring out what a unified Marin City would look like, and do their best to include as many organizations as possible in their monthly update forums. Elberta is focused on an integrated, “wrap-around” approach to social services, while Ricardo is focused on the question of how all organizations in Marin City could best coordinate efforts. (If you are on Ricardo’s email list, you may have been the recipient of many a document in which he is working to draw out what this might look like.)

I believe, however, that if Elberta’s vision of a renewed OGAD were to be realized, it would need to be something more like OMGAD: Operation Marin Gives a Damn. If you live in Marin County and give a damn, perhaps you will call Elberta up and offer to help her with the mountains of administrative tasks inherent to running an internship program for mental health professionals in training. Or maybe you will turn up to the next ISOJI monthly meeting and help Ricardo strategize on ways to create common goals throughout the various programs in Marin City. Or perhaps you will be the person inspired to document Marin City’s rich history; a neighborhood that even today still has a sense of place and pride that few communities can genuinely claim.

Or perhaps if you haven’t completed a “cultural intelligence” or “race relations” or “diversity training” course you will take the first steps in educating yourself, particularly if you are not a member of a minority group. (A simple first step might be watching the James Baldwin film I Am Not Your Negro.) Our collective lack of cross-cultural intelligence is painful and at the very heart of unsustainability. Building bridges, building high quality human relationships is the very heart of making the world a better place.