Palermo The Movimenti Civici di Sicilia or Civic Movement of Sicily had called together 40 of its key leaders and activists from throughout Sicily to participate in a workshop with me about strategy and tactics in building a more substantial movement for change city by city in Sicily. I drove with one of the leaders the 170 or so kilometers from Palermo to central Sicily in the picturesque town of San Cataldo. After a gracious lunch and the chance to see old friends from my visit to years ago in Catania, we were soon right to business. They wanted to know how ACORN and ACORN International had been built, how the campaigns worked, and the pieces were put together. Four hours passed without their interest flagging only jolted by one short shot of expresso from a mini-machine they assembled in the lobby (what a great idea!).
It quickly became clear that they had a base in many communities that was quite active, largely among middle income citizens determined that there needed to be more citizen participation. They were all volunteers with excellent leadership, facing an array of issues, often very effectively. One leader from Enna (which turned out to be a gorgeous, small town perched around a castle as perhaps the highest town in Sicily) described his organization as “very like ACORN,” and detailed a campaign and their follow-up, which had be applauding. Another leader from Caltanissetta, who had been slinging thoughtful, penetrating questions at me throughout the session, argued passionately for the need for action in a way that had me ready to march, regardless of the language.
Two things became clear in their analysis. One was that they needed real capacity. They wanted to engage the issue of dues collection, hiring and training organizers, and how to create the resources to take their movement to the next step. The other conclusion that one speaker after another raised was the need to find a way to more tightly join all of their disparate and autonomous city federations into a coherent whole that could act in a transcendent fashion throughout Sicily, rather than simply talking about it. We ended up having a very interesting dialogue about how to identify issues that “raised the roof” for the organization and triggered a larger commitment and plan to step up to bigger and bigger goals. We talked about how political campaigns and initiative procedures can do that and how issues like living wages and the response to huge developments can fill that need for organizational growth.
All of which also made me read the emails and articles on the Occupy “movement” in the USA more closely. At one level I was proud to read that people were taking up the banner to create an Occupy New Orleans, so that we are part of the action and attack. On the other level the Steven Greenhouse piece in the New York Times looking at the injection of labor support not only in the Wall Street march, where I heard good reviews from participants, but also the unanimous vote of the AFL-CIO’s executive council to support the movement and the fact that individual unions like the Steelworkers, SEIU, and others are stepping in, showed some institutional recognition that despite many efforts to “manufacture a movement” that even the old bulls were ready to run when they smelled something in the air that seemed like spring. Denise Mitchell of the AFL-CIO nailed it by recognizing that if there was a “spark” then labor needed to help bring forward the kindling to build the fire.
None of this makes a movement of course. Nonetheless after 3 years of hoping for a change this is a signal to the right, left, and the middle, that finally we are looking for transcendent issues that can unite all of he forces, trump the conservativeness of foundations, funders, and Beltway seers, and how the power and passion of Americans desperate for change and willing to fight to get it. This could be a transfusion!
In Sicily my new friends continued to talk about having the passion without the plan. In the USA it seems recently we have been drowning in plans, but not finding the passion. If Occupy can remind us that the two belong together, whether under this flag or another, then we can get America moving again from the streets to the structure.