Organizing Tips from Bulgarian Enviros and Justice for All

Sofia     Organizing is somewhere on the spectrum between craft, trade, and art, so to keep even, much less ahead, of developments in the work, it’s important to pick up tips and examine the “nuts and bolts” wherever you can.  Conversations and observations in Bulgaria were providing me a laundry list of lessons.

On a lunch break I was able to observe a demonstration in front of the Environment building in Sofia of between 150 and 200 protesting an attempted development of a ski resort in the mountains and calling for the government to Save Pirin.  The organizers had fabricated a large sign as the focus of the protest which was quite elaborately constructed, partially on the site, where the pieces were assembled, but individual protestors were allowed their own creativity.  One had made a hand puppet, which drew a lot of attention, clapping in unison with the crowd’s chants as a rooster with a Save Pirin sign.  Another was in a green getup that ridiculed the rich developer who was taking a loan from his own bank to finance the project.  Either the signs were homemade or didn’t exist.


I was fascinated as well by the sound system.  I can remember our own routine of borrowing a shopping cart and a car battery to hook up a speaker and microphone for marches and demonstrations.  Here I found a modification of high tech sophistication, complete with its own portable generator, portable hand microphones, giant speakers on stands, and enough gear that I thought any minute we might be broadcasting a local radio show, all of which had been approved by police permit, which was equally surprising.  Quite impressive.

Later in the afternoon, I spent a fascinating couple of hours with Atanas Sharkov, who was not only a tech and app developer, including for the very popular, Taxistars, used by independent drivers to compete with Uber, but also a sparkplug behind Justice for All, a coalition that has been trying to reform the judicial system.  Tactically, they had tried to introduce a referendum to get Parliament to allow a vote on their issue.  The requirements were relatively low, only 5000 valid signatures, but Parliament had the power to decide whether to accept the referenda proposals, which led to easy rejection.


We talked a lot about lists, which are part of the lifeblood of organizing drives.  Organizers were not allowed to retain a list of their signature signers or at least all of the information, but obviously they were able to keep a list of their petition circulators which potentially afforded a pool of volunteer organizers to deepen their national base, I felt.  They mainly organized through a Facebook page where they now had 40,000 likes, almost 5000 added in the last 4 months, so a very vibrant tool.  Since Atanas knew his way around the tech side, I was able to get quick affirmative answers on whether or not he had excelled the list and data matched to phone, email, and address records that could fuel an effort to build organizing committees around the country.  Additionally, he was knowledgeable and skilled in the area of predictive and autodialers that could also be invaluable for direct communication to support the  organizing.

Justice for All has the capability to embrace all of these tools to create a mass organization, if they were to decide to take the natural next step and go from social media to street work.  Posting is fine, but doorknocking is calling their names.

This was exciting!


Nothing Easy About Organizing Against Corruption or any Organizing

Sofia       I was hustling about Sofia in my first full day.

We started with a briefing from CEGA, Creating Effective Grassroots Alternatives, where my associate, Liuba Batembergska, and Emil Metodiev, who was directing the professional fellows program for Bulgaria, was also a key staff member.  The organization has been around a while and works closely with communities around the country, especially Roma and other marginalized groups, on education and other community issues to support their gaining voice and change.  They have vast experience and credibility for their work, though it was somewhat disheartening to hear the twists and turns they have to manage to receive funding from the European Union and other sources.

Emil took us to a lower income area, largely populated by Roma, where donors had built a 4-story community center recently.  We met with a young woman who had been an alumna of the fellows program who was working with refugees, particularly adolescents and teens.  She was dynamic, articulate, and committed, but the center was quiet during our midday visit so it was hard to tell if this was a building answering a need, or a building seeking a purpose.

Most interesting was a meeting Liuba and I had with the leadership of the Anti Corruption Fund in the afternoon.  The organization was relatively new, having only formally announced its program in July 2017, but it was well funded with a commitment of $500,000 for two years giving it both capacity and a head-turning profile within both the country and among other nonprofits.  Miroslava Petrova, the CEO, gave us a spirited and detailed description of their protocols for investigating charges of corruption that were based on anonymous and other whistle-blowing information that they receive. Because of the nature of the sources they have to do rigorous review in order to maintain credibility, using four lawyers, and careful consideration before publication on their website.  They have received 60 such complaints and have succeeded in vetting a dozen of them to date.

More interesting to me than their complaint-driven system was the fact that they had done a larger scale analysis of the country’s procurement system.  Thanks to a well regarded open records law in Bulgaria they have come up with some shocking information that seems to indict whatever “even playing field” bidders for contracts might have assumed.  They haven’t yet released their full report, but it’s fair to say that a very, very small number of companies, less than two dozen, get the lion’s share of all public contracts, and, not surprisingly, when they looked at the money value of the contracts the concentration was also extensive.

We mainly spent time talking about how to structure campaigns, sharing experience from ACORN’s work, and how to build a base of support from all segments of the populations using direct communication rather than just social media and the internet.  There was no question they had mountains to climb in dealing with these difficult problems of corruption, which are seen as both everyday parts of life in Bulgaria as well as systemic problems.