Working with the Rainbow Hub on Next Steps

Sofia       The Rainbow Hub in Sofia, Bulgaria, is a nonprofit founded several years ago by three small organizations that came together to combine their work and rent space for offices and activities, making it the center of support and advocacy for the LGBT community in the city.  After the earlier showing of “The Organizer” there, they had arranged a session on campaign training for a half-dozen of their staff and key activists.

Last November they had been a key organizer of a march on human rights for women in the face of the failure of the Parliament to approve the Istanbul Convention of the European Union.  The convention or agreement between the member countries was a straightforward condemnation of violence and domestic abuse targeting women and girls, hardly controversial it would seem, but in fact the convention has become a lightning rod in the Bulgarian culture wars.  The Bulgarian Prime Minister Minister had been diddling over the convention until his term as EU president had ended.  The Bulgarian Constitutional Court had ruled the convention unconstitutional in the country teaming Bulgaria with Slovakia as dissenters to the convention which they saw as a stalking horse for same-sex marriage and recognition of alternative genders.

The march and rally had turned out 400 and now nine organizations had come together with hopes of putting more than 1000 on the street in early March.  Though my scope was working with the team on the follow-up campaigns after the march, it was impossible to avoid discussions of the march preparation as well.  Details matter, so we ended up discussing the critical importance of lists to organizing, the need to get commitments on turnout from each partner organization, the call and outreach plan whether via phoning or contact work or social media, and more.  It became quickly evident that much of the planning was not so much deep organizing as reliance on Facebook and similar tools, which also led us to a productive dive into the importance of organizing and expanding a reliable and identifiable base for the Hub and others, rather than an amorphous advocacy program.

Embracing our base, we were then able to have fascinating strategic and tactical discussions about campaigns ranging from equal pay for women to status and pay issues for feminized professions to finding organizing handles for emergency shelters, day care, and kindergarten programs.  Some of it was slower going as they educated me on the legal regime in the country, the bureaucratic morass and impotence of regulatory and investigative commissions, and traditional cultural barriers raised frequently against all aspects of their work with women and the LGBT community.

As always, the dialogue led us down interesting paths from targeting oppositional neighborhoods with direct contact and doorknocking programs to increasing the visibility of Rainbow Hub activities.  By the end everyone seemed ready to embrace the importance of organizing and a continual program of direct and collective action, but we’ll eagerly await future reports before measuring the progress of a fascinating several hours.

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The Organizing Lessons of the Bulgarian National History Museum

Sofia       Was there anything I wanted to do that was not on the schedule?  Well, yes, as a matter of fact, I’d like to visit the National History Museum.  Google Maps says it’s only 16 minutes from where I’m staying by car.  Is this possible?  Invariably, the look on the faces of my new friends and colleagues was bemusement.  Other museums were suggested.  Distances were questioned.  Schedules became more complicated, until finally the crazy American was humored and accommodated by the unfailing good nature of my fellow and others.

The museum was a former residence and office of a past commissar with sweeping views of the city, grand marble staircases, and immense display rooms.  While following the parade of history from Greeks to Romans to Turks to independence to the Soviet axis until not quite today, I also looked at awe at the similarity of the burial mounts in Bulgarian antiquity to the Indian mounds of north Louisiana.  I learned about the changes in the alphabet that cemented the language.  The up and down history of kings and pretenders from other countries.  I also learned the subtext behind the wave of nationalism often in vogue in Bulgaria by looking at the huge maps that plotted “Greater Bulgaria” and the times when the country’s borders reached three seas, rather than just the Black Sea in the east, that some still harbor distant hopes might return.

More critically, I was able to attach a historical context to some of the organizing proposals that I was hearing in various meetings thanks to stumbling on Vasil Ivanov Kunchev Levski, called the Apostle of Freedom, claimed by right and left as the revolutionary hero of the country’s 19th century independence movement in Bulgaria during his short life from 1837 to 1873.  Levski, as he was known in the Revolution, was a Bulgarian nom de guerre meaning lion-like.  Levski had been a monk, but left to join early revolutionary movements in outside of the country, but came to realize that another strategy was needed.

Rather than believing that an armed campaign would spark the revolution, Levski argued for creating a network of local committees that would focus on planning, tactics, and weapon acquisition with discipline and in secrecy.  He also famously wrote in a letter in 1872 that that seeking foreign support, either financial or military, was the wrong strategy, predicting that “He who would liberate us would later enslave us.”  For four years, until betrayed, he traveled the country building the local organizations, often dying his hair and wearing various local costumes.  He was a consummate organizer, never seeking to lead the revolution, only to organize it, though by any means necessary. As an excellent example of a revolutionary fundraiser, Levski also wrote, in 1872: “Where there’s money we can ask for, we shall ask for it; and if we’re denied it, we’ll take it ourselves.”  The Turks of the Ottoman Empire after a speedy trial, quickly hung him.

Similar organizing notions had been proposed to me for organizing in Bulgaria, including a network of 60 local committees with 15 members a piece that would scale up to 100,000 almost magically.  Another variation had saw various organizing committees seizing issues and then, following Nuts & Bolts doorknocking to build an action base with dues and contributions.  Neither were quite the Levski model or the ACORN model, but doubtlessly the Bulgarian adaptations were influenced by the oft repeated facts and legends of Levski and a Samuel Adams and Paul Revere of independence.  Valentina Gueorguieva, my colleague and fellow, told me a common joke or fable in every Bulgaria town was to ask local residents “where they hid Levski when he visited here.”

My first full day in Sofia, it was February 19th, which some still celebrate here and recognize as the anniversary of Levski’s execution?  Fate, perhaps?  Coincidence, surely!  How could a traveling organizer not love – and learn from – the story of Levski and of course a visit to the national history museum!

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