New Orleans The Organizers’ Forum has conducted an International Dialogue with community and labor organizers and activists in various movements around the world since 2002. In our first trip to Brazil we almost miraculously stumbled into the wild excitement in Sao Paolo and Rio de Janeiro around the election campaign of Lula de Silva from the PT or Workers’ Party then. Subsequently, we have been to thirteen different countries including South Africa ten years after the fall of apartheid and Egypt right after the ill-fated revolution. This year we will go to Poland. Even after all of these years, some organizers will say, “Why Poland? What can organizers learn there?” My answer might be Yevgenia Chirikova.
In 2007 more than 15 of us visited Moscow and St. Petersburg, Russia. We were often asked, “Why Russia? What in the world can organizers learn about organizing in Russia?” You would be surprised. We met a rank-and-file autoworker who had sparked the organization of a Ford Plant some distance from St. Petersburg and was involved in another half-dozen organizing drives with other labor activists. We heard about the efforts to curtail and regulate nonprofits, which over the last eight years has been common in scores of countries, including the United States.
By happenstance we also met Yevgenia Chirikova who at that time was a soft-spoken, young woman of 30 years old who was taking her first tentative steps as a grassroots community activist concerned with the environment. I never tire of telling her story of being a young mother living in an outer ring suburb of Moscow and taking her daughters, one still in a stroller, walking near the apartment where she and her husband had moved, and almost stumbling on a sign indicating coming highway construction through what was supposedly the federally protected Khimki Forest. Subsequently, the Save the Khimki Forest Campaign focused on the $8 billion construction project that ignored other, less environmentally intrusive routes, and exposed dark dealings by Prime Minister Putin and his cronies involved in the project being built by a French construction company. We were moved by her organizing and have helped her campaign over the last eight years in small ways, while she has deepened her commitment and expanded her range.
One of the things we learn in our dialogues is the prices paid by organizers in other countries.The Khimki Forest fight has been marked by frequent arrests and brutal beatings including one that left a reporter brain damaged and terminal. Global Witness, an international campaigning organization recently issued a report noting that the killings of environmental activists has risen by 20% in the last year. Their report said there were 116 deaths worldwide in 2014, including 29 in Brazil, 25 in Colombia and 15 in the Philippines. Others were sometimes kidnapped, beaten, and abused.
In the eight years since we met Yevgenia her profile has risen, she has won awards and prizes for her activism, but all at a price. The police several years ago threatened to take her children from her, only dissuaded perhaps by an immediate video she did of her rage at the threats that pushed them back. The news now is that she has moved with her children to Estonia because of the constant repression of activists in Russia. She has no plans to change her citizenship so that she can continue to be active in organizing in Russia. She told The Guardian,
“As soon as a person starts to be efficient at what he does, they begin to threaten you with taking away your children, or slapping you with criminal charges,” She added that the only way to campaign in Russia now may be “leaderless resistance so that it’d be unclear who to target”.
Russia, Myanmar, Vietnam, Bolivia, India, wherever we go we meet organizers who wake up and work for change every day, just as we must do, and face the odds, whatever they may be. Everyone pays a price, which is the cost of admission in the fight for justice and change. It is good to look at the ledger and continue to make sure that the balances are being accounted in the solidarity of struggle throughout the world.
We’ll learn a lot in Poland, too.It is often a surprise for people in the United States, but actually it’s a big world and it takes a lot of people to change it for the better.