Welcoming Belgians and Germans to Community Organizing

small groups discussion ACORN Organizing Model in Brussels

Brussels     There were more than twenty people in the room, mostly from Brussels area community-based development and service organizations, along with three last minute additions from Germany and one 11th hour insert from an NGO that Adrien Roux of the Alliance/ACORN in France and I had met several days ago.  They were there for an “introduction” to community organizing as it was advertised.  In reality, rather than an introduction, it was a full-scale head first dive into the ACORN model, doorknocking, and how we build organizations.

Adrien had some interesting tricks up his sleeve.  One I had seen before, as I was reminded later, but it was even more challenging than usual.  Rather than just have people give their names and where they worked, each individual would walk up, give their name and occupation, but also repeat the names of everyone who came before them.   To say the least my ear is not attuned to French, so I jumped up in fourth or fifth place so I could at least limit my embarrassment, though some showboats at the very end were still able to repeat all twenty names, amazingly enough.  A good tool to introduce people and embed the names more deeply.

small groups

My part of the agenda then was to layout the mechanics of building an organization using the ACORN Model, which proceeded on schedule for about ninety minutes.  There were the usual questions and clarifications particularly about asking for dues and joining even before the organization had a first large meeting or taken action.  Many wanted to understand more clearly the organizer’s role compared to the leaders and presumably their own experiences.  Pretty standard stuff although one difference seemed to be that in Belgium most of the organizations were state funded pretty much whole hog.

Adrien then did a couple of clever things.  Pretty straightforwardly, he asked people to team up with another random person in the group and discuss what they thought was most difficult to resolve in what they had just heard about the organizing process.  After letting them roll for about 15 or 20 minutes he stepped in and went from group to group without saying a word but holding up his hands in a triangle, although it could have been any physical motion, and having described the tool in the earlier session ground rules, without a word people became quiet.  This is an old anarchist and Occupy tool, but well suited here.  He then had each group of two combine with another group of two, so that each group could try to resolve the problem that the other group had identified was troubling them.  Amazingly, after another 20 minutes when he asked each group how they had managed of the five only one had been unable to sort the situation out.  Some nice work there!

Adrien Roux of Alliance/ACORN making a point in community organizing training

There were great meetings in and around the training in trying to understand the potential opportunities and challenges of organizing in Germany on one hand and in another meeting trying to understand youth organizing around Belgium.

Learning something every day is a great thing!  For all of us!

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“The Organizer” a Big Hit at the Festival des Libertes

mural on National Theater commemorating the Festivale and a critique of the war

Brussels      Perhaps the most interesting question I have gotten at a screening of “The Organizer” in a long time came from Professor Philippe van Parijs of the University of Louvain in Belgium, a noted scholar long recognized over many decades as an expert and advocate of universal basic income.  He asked a several part question, as many did, but the second half was the unique part of his inquiry.  After watching the movie and living along with the audience the ups, downs, and ups of ACORN and the victories and defeats I had experienced, he wanted to know how I managed to weather the storm and seemed “so relaxed and happy” as I stood to answer questions after the showing?

My answer was my usual.  My perspective on the work – and life – as a struggle to be met every day in a battle to resist, persist, and sometimes prevail.  Perhaps in fairness, he might have observed what should have been obvious to the audience.  It was hard NOT to be relaxed and happy.  There was a full house for this first ever showing of the film with French captions on the biggest screen I felt I had ever seen, partially perhaps because I had ended up after a TV interview sitting on the second row on the aisle feeling like the whole film was sitting in my lap.  The hosts had been prepping Adrien Roux of ACORN’s affiliate, the Alliance Citoyenne and me, about the details since shortly after noon – six hours before, so it was great to finally have this part over and hear the repeated and appreciative roar of applause from the audience.

Somewhere in the heat of the experience was also just the wonder and adventure itself, and my feeling of pure luck at getting to be a part of it all.  Not knowing what to expect from moment to moment, but being open and ready to accept the experience, enjoy it, and even learn from it, is part of the key.  The Festival des Libertes was not your usual film festival.  It was a multi-media kind of event that focused on empowerment and social change.  I had not realized it until the afternoon, but the “debate” listed on the program was not another word for question-and-answer period, but after the screening and the Q&A, it was actually a back-and-forth about the value and impact of community organizing.  How great is that?  No matter what rocks might be thrown, the fact that the film and the story of ACORN’s experience had triggered a discussion already proved the fact that community organization was steel plated.  Opinions had to be registered and weighed.  Organizing and building organizations, unions, and social movements was serious business and had to be considered soberly as a subject of inquiry and engagement.  Debate?  What debate?  From the opening bell, we had already won any possible argument, leaving the rest to naysayers and back-benchers.

More than 100 people had saddled back up for this second session and, unbelievably to me, they hung in until after 10pm, way past the point of common sense and good judgement.  I was tired and hungry, but I couldn’t have had more fun or been more honored to have been able to participate and in such a great event.

the crowd filling up the seats for the screening

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