Prague Meeting with 15 people in the AKORN Gallery in Praha 2, near the center of town, on a cool, but surprisingly clear evening, there was great good will but it was not always easy going. The ACORN, or AKORN as they call it here, activists and organizers were enthusiastic and had invited others to discuss a more comprehensive community based organizing drive.
The gallery itself was a new venture. A combination art space, coffee house, and meeting area for activists, young artists, and passersby, that they had opened within the last month and were staffed between 10 in the morning and 6 in the evening. It gave them a presence without giving them a deeper base. In the first month it was, predictably, a fledgling affair, where hopes were high, but revenues still meager and the rent coming due.
Three women had been active in Occupy Prague and similar efforts. They had experience going door-to-door, but had not had any success with it, and blamed the system, fear, apathy, and in general the people themselves for not taking action. None of that was unusual, but their Occupy time had hardened their skepticism once they were down to 20 people and holding onto one tent space near the square. I wasn’t sure that I was able to convince them that another way was possible.
One man told an interesting story of the US-funded National Democracy Institute (NDI) and its funding of a community organizing experience. There were paid organizers, there was doorknocking, there were many meetings, and even a few small actions of a sort. People responded well to the systematic methodology. There was optimistic and concrete results, typical of any solid community organizing experience. Then the project pulled the organizers out and the organization and activity quickly dissipated. I’m not sure what the NDI was trying to do. Their mission is supposedly to promote civic participation and engagement. The notion of sustainable organization that might have been an empowering tool for people in the Czech Republic didn’t seem to have fit in their scope, or at least so it seemed in this telling. The sum product was to intrigue those who knew of the effort, but frustrate them as well, all of which made my job harder.
One man wanted to talk about how to reclaim a factory that he had lost. There was interest in translating my books into Czech and how that could be done. There was interest in seeing if more support could be gained from local churches. It was that kind of evening.
We had a long conversation with a number of the organizers after the general meeting about a project they were trying to promote in Guinea in western Africa around “agro-circles,” a technology developed in Slovakia, many here felt to be more affordable, environmentally adaptable, and critical to increased food production in that country. We have been going back and forth on these questions for months between English, Czech, and French with great confusion. The project would be difficult under any circumstances, and finally there was agreement on who was doing what, when, and how, and the very limited role that ACORN International could really play in a rural development project outside of our expertise.
The hard part of all of these discussions was moving people to act and go forward, rather than dwell on the great movements and disappointments of the past. Getting people to try something different is never easy, and at the end of the evening, I would have to say that a stalemate is different than a decision to move forward, and I’m not sure people were yet ready to really change their organizing process in order to see something different happen here.