Putting Communities and Environmentalists Together

Lyon     We showed up at the Alternative Bar close to what we thought was showtime to meet a half dozen of the organizers of what was billed as a showing of the documentary and a “debate” on various questions it might provoke.  They said there were more people on the way, and so we chatted and waited.  Seven PM came, and eight PM went, and although the film didn’t begin, to our amazement, the crowd swelled.  When we finally began on this leisurely schedule, the house was packed.  We counted fifty that had somehow squeezed in, and it could have been another twenty if there had been room.  There was a large picture window, and person after person came up, read the sign out front, peeked in, and then abandoned all hope and went on their way.

By 930PM, we cut The Organizer off somewhere around 2007, and the questions began.  Many in this largely young crowd were environmentalists.  They had specialized in direct action.  Before the film one of the organizers told me about a national action in Paris where they had joined 2000 others earlier in the year to protest at governmental and corporate headquarters in the center of the city.  Increasingly, they had recognized that they lacked a sustainable base that was widely representative of the broader population.  Certainly, this is a challenge for many climate and environmental movements, so it was encouraging to hear that they were trying to build bridges to our affiliates the Alliance Citoyenne, ReAct, and our emerging independent union in Lyon, UNITI.

The bar was a money maker, I was told.  They were in a busy part of town, rent was a bit over 1000 euros, the staff was all volunteer, and they sold beer and wine.  It was a meeting place for their issues and others.  Sometimes they hosted events like this one and showed movies.  One of the organizers said the bar was part of a wider movement in parts of Spain and France.  Very interesting!  Sadly, they reported, it did not do well enough to allow them to pay a staff person, but they hoped for the future.

The debate was not a debate, but a question-and-answer about how one starts small and grows.  The notion of “community” is not widely accepted in the same way in France, so part of the questions sought to parse how the concept translated, and whether it was geographical or much broader as we understood it to be.  I had been briefed that there were already some tentative conversations about possible partnerships between our organizations and their efforts.  We encouraged those discussions.  There’s great potential for such a partnership, and, as the documentary indicated, climate and environmental concerns are everywhere for our communities now.



Beginnings in Marseille

Marseille         After a truck key exchange in the New Orleans airport with our son, returning from Turkey and Bulgaria, we flew to Newark and then onto Geneva, where we experienced the most efficient customs and luggage handling experience ever, putting us at the ticket counter for the shuttle train into the main station within thirty minutes of our arrival.  Rather than running to make the 905, we found ourselves having an espresso with time on our hands.  A shuttle to the Geneva station and then a train change in Lyon found us arriving in Marseille to a warm sun and sea breezes on a promenade outside the station overlooking parts of the city.

Hours later we met Jason and Arthur, two young men who had been working since September to build an organization in what they told us was the poorest population district in Marseille and the country as a whole.  I had thought that Aubervilliers, where we have a strong organization in the Paris suburbs, held that title.  They clarified that Aubervilliers was the poorest municipal district, but this area around Belle de Mai in Marseille was the poorest area within any city in France, similar to what we would call the poorest census tract in the USA.  The area was a haven for a mix of recent immigrants and lower income, working families in apartment blocks near what had been a factory district for sugar, tobacco and other imports coming in as raw resources from French colonies and made into finished products within minutes of the central train station and the port.

It was a warm day and a hot night, and people were all over the streets, as we made our way to the office space near where they were organizing.  Adrien Roux, head organizer of ACORN’s affiliate Alliance Citoyenne, had spent most of the day doing training with their emerging organizing committee.  Arthur had worked previously for several months with our group in Aubervilliers.  More than a dozen folks assembled to watch The Organizer documentary and ask questions about ACORN, its roots, and its work elsewhere.  There were some technical issues that delayed the film as the transfer was made between disks, links, hard drives and computers to get the French translation right.  We filled the time with a preview of the film and questions and answers about ACORN.  One veteran of earlier sessions in Frankfurt was a surprise member of the team, so there was an “old hand” of sorts there as well.

Finally, the film was rolling, though we stopped it a bit after 9 pm, following the time-tested rule of respecting people’s time in meetings.  The questions were more pointed now.  Fake news and Fox News were common themes in Marseille due to Trump’s now long forgotten screed about neighborhoods that people were afraid to go near in Europe because of the Muslim menace he keeps trying to use to incite his base.  We talked about lessons and voter registration which turned out to have been an earlier discussion in the training as well.

They are off to a good start.  We wished we could stay longer, because Marseille could be an important organizational link for our development in France.