The Congolese Diaspora

Meeting with representatives of the Congolese community in Paris

Paris   Several times in the meeting of the ACORN International staff and leadership in Paris, Mathieu Ilunga Kankonde, a member of the national board of the ACORN/Alliance Citoyenne in France and locally in Grenoble, had raised the question of how we might expand to help develop organizing in his home country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. We had always answered briefly about the level of resources required and the long term commitment necessary, but mainly we had postponed the question until we attended a meeting he was organizing with leaders of the Congolese community in Paris before we were to leave the city.

The meeting took a while to come together, but before it was over, there were ten men who came to hear about ACORN and discuss their issues and interests for work both in the Congo as well as efforts to connect Congolese in what they called diaspora. I was interested in these connections. Recently, I had met several of our members from Ottawa at the ACORN Canada convention who were from the Congo as well as Gabon, on the western coast of Africa. They had been willing to tape videos for our members and leaders in France and Cameroon of their great experiences with ACORN Canada. Even before the meeting began, Mathieu texted a close friend who was now in Chicago for additional ACORN information. A quick Google search indicated there were over 200,000 Congolese in France now.

Mathieu Kandonde, an ACORN/Alliance leader from Grenoble prepares to start the meetiing

Several of the men had come by at various times during the weekend meeting for several hours to listen and get a better idea of ACORN. Others were interested in learning more for the first time. After Mathieu gave an opening introduction based on his experience over recent years, and I briefly outlined where we worked and some intersections of interest to the diaspora, like our campaign to lower the cost of remittances or money transfers, I solicited questions and comments from the group.

There were a range of opinions. Some were concerned about the political situation in the Congo and erosion of what they saw as democratic principles, including the fact that the President was still in office though his term had ended. Many were bothered by the level of self-interest and corruption in public life that had alienated so many people from participation. Some thought there needed to be new political parties or that existing parties needed to be reformed. I wondered if these men saw themselves as Lenins at the Finland Station at this room on top of a cafe along a Paris boulevard.

pictures at the end of the meeting

Others commented with anger over the exploitation by transnational companies from the France, Britain, and the United States of the Congo’s wealth and natural resources. They felt there was a trail of blood and bodies on their history that also clouded their future. They seemed more desperate to find a megaphone that could channel their voices and speak to their grievances than an organization that could empower them, but the dialogue was frank and open.

No decisions were made, and none were expected. There are probably a lot of names for conversations like this, but in organizing, we have always called it “testing.” These meetings open some doors, and close others, but under any circumstances they are necessary, and they point directions to the future, even if not taken.

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Political Break Movements

Lieke Smits of SP/N leads conversation on new political developments

Paris  One of the more intriguing discussions at the ACORN International leaders and staff meetings over these several days at the offices of the Confederation Paysanne in Paris looked at the changing political climate for our work in various countries. There was special interest in what ACORN UK head organizer, Stuart Melvin, referred to as the “political break movements” in so many countries, especially the UK, France, and the US, when one examined Trump, Sanders, Corbin, and Macron.

In a lucky, last minute invitation, I had reached out to Lieke Smits, the campaign director of the Socialist Party of the Netherlands, who I worked with closely last fall in devising a field program for the election there where they had also faced a populist disruption. Lieke began her remarks by noting that many of these break movements were reactions to forces long building after decades of difficult policies for working people in the wake of neoliberalism. The impact of globalism, trade, job loss, displacement and the movement of millions had been unsettling, and despite wide recognition, these changes had been inadequately and ineffectively addressed. Voters were moving to the fringes of the right and left to find effective voice and protest to force policies to address their concerns. Families were torn over the fact that their children were not going to have the security and well-being that they had. Parties, particularly professional politicians, had not done enough to address these changes, opening space for new movements and other voices to emerge and gain support.

Stuart Melvin and Jonny Butcher of ACORN United Kingdom talk about politics there

Lieke described their current program in the language of community organizing, making me feel like I was with them once again in their discussions in Amersfoort! One-hundred of their chapters were embarking on an outreach program to listen for local issues where they could organize and take action. The party had pushed dramatically on changes in the national healthcare program in the Netherlands which have left almost one-million people without coverage. Now they were taking the same kind of organizing and campaign insights and drilling down more deeply to reinvigorate their base and expand the lessons from the campaign where home visits and phone banking to new people had opened up new opportunities.

Beth from ACV details fundraising principles

In the UK, the surprise performance of Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party in the recent election demonstrated that there is both class and generational appeal for progressives as part of the movement. Bernie Sanders was an equally unlikely surfer dude on the wave of change being demanded, particularly by the young. It is unlikely that it was a coincidence that both had tuition-free programs for students among other appealing platform positions.

Leaders and staff from Grenoble and Aubervilliers listen carefully

Adrien Roux, head organizer of ACORN’s French affiliate, Alliance Citoyenne, argued that times of political upheaval in France that were demonstrated in the Macron and Marche upheaval that crippled established parties, usually meant great organizing opportunities at the local level and around institutions. There were clear opportunities now in France.

The same could be said in the United States. The challenge is whether or not we have the capacity to convert the opportunities to enable our constituency to build power.

ACORN International Board Meeting

leaders and staff at ACORN International meeting

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Maximizing the Expanding Organizational Footprint

Making a point, Jill O’reilly from Ottawa ACORN

Paris   Listening to the reports from the head organizers in the United Kingdom, France, Canada, and operations in the United States was so exciting. There had been real progress in one campaign after another.

Questions were fired back-and-forth on the details of various campaigns. Exactly what was involved in the landlord licensing victory won in Toronto? How had the Sheffield organizer used Google keywords to find a mention of the codicil in the giant Spanish bank’s Santander’s lending agreement to UK landlords that forced a rent increase annually – that a quick campaign was able to upset. It was exciting to hear about our new organization in Aubervilliers beating back Veolia’s efforts to raise water prices and privatize their system, especially since Local 100 had long experience with the same company where we represent clerical and accounting staff for the New Orleans regional transit authority.

Beth from A Community Voice

Raising the hood on the nuts and bolts of the organization in report after report, it was impossible to ignore the impact of social networking recruitment efforts that were being bolted on the basic organizing model. Where we had begun counting “provisional” members in ACORN over the last dozen years who had expressed a threshold interest in ACORN and were in a targeting process to move up the ladder to full membership, the advent to so many other measures of social network indicating support were also being measured more intently. Petition signers and other overt expressions of support were being databased and integrated into meeting and turnout calculations, assembled into phone and autodialer programs, and counted reliably in the same way as regulars and full-pay members.

The numbers add up. With ACORN Canada at 110,000 members, 80,000 are associates and provisionals. ACORN in England has utilized social media in their basic organizing more aggressively than many other operations given their extensive base building among private tenants. Provisional and associate members now number 15,000 in the less than three years of the organization’s work. In Scotland, there are 3000 in the provisional-associate category. The organizing in France has been more traditionally based in social housing but still counts more than 800 supporters in Aubervilliers after only a year of organizing for example.

Stuart Melvin, head organizer ACORN UK

The high level of internet access and smartphone proliferation in our English tenant base has led to an exciting level of experimentation by ACORN in Bristol, Sheffield, and Newcastle. Tools by Action Network have been valuable. They have had more experience in using Slack than many of the other organizing operations who are more reserved in their utilization. They are using Facebook creatively to set up recruitment meetings that result in an extremely high sign-up success rate. I had heard something similar in Hungary from some organizers that were still able to use Facebook events on turnout, which we had largely discounted in the USA. They felt they were able to reliably count on one-of-three to attend.

As always there are changes and new technology, so the organizer were eagerly soaking up skills and techniques to see what might make their organizing more effective.

Melva Burnett, president ACORN International and ACORN Canada

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Hot Topics for International Organizers

Paris   Ok, perhaps the very first question on your list was not, “What do community organizers working around the world talk about when they first get together?” Too, bad, because it is actually a wild run of issues snatched from here to there.

First on the list was the demonstrations by tens of thousands in Hamburg, Germany who organized a greeting party for the G-20 meeting there called “Welcome to Hell.” Knowing, as we all do, the long meetings and back-and-forth correspondence that accompany the art of “titling” any big demonstration, we all had to admire how clear and specific the Germans made their intentions known for their demonstrations. Hamburg has a vibrant progressive movement and long tradition and clearly took the whole siting of the G-20 meeting as almost a personal affront. The footage shared around the table made the whole affair appear like a barely contained mini-riot, and the reports of arrests and police cars burning had a certain “hellish” flavor. The Times had mentioned that President Trump tried to establish some of rapport with Chancellor Merkel by sympathizing with her about the demonstrations, something he has learned about firsthand in the early days of this presidency with the flourish of the resistance.

And, then as our ACORN Kenya organizers call it, comes “sharing.”

There was a lot of interest in the work in the United Kingdom in reaction to the Grenfell fire massacre in London, and ACORN’s work in trying to make sure similar buildings are identified and tenants protected elsewhere in the country. Others reported that French organizers, in contact with British organizers working with McDonalds workers, were complimentary of the ACORN delegation representing well in a recent London march around these issues. One world, indeed, as the message was shared that plans for a strike at McDonalds in September sought ACORN’s support in the effort.

There will be much more of this when the full meeting convenes as other organizers arrive from Canada, France and elsewhere. One major topic of interest on the agenda was a discussion of what UK ACORN head organizer, Stuart Melvin, had referred to as the “political break” movements of the recent year, Trump, Sanders, Corbin, and Macron, and how they would impact these countries, and of course, our own work and planning. Lieke Smits from the Netherlands will be joining us for that conversation as well, which will be exciting for everyone.

There were catch-ups and reports of organizers not able to make it to this year’s meeting. Eloise Maulet is still in Cameron working with the organizers to launch our ACORN-Alliance organization in Douala. Their first action last week at been exciting to see, and as we were meeting word was coming in that they had won a commitment that potable water will be coming to their neighborhood. A chapter meeting had just concluded in Aubervilliers, where we are organizing in Paris and they were celebrating news that they had won a reduction in water rates after their campaign.

The work is hard, but everyone was excited to hear that they were making progress, and it was good to come together.

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Hard Changes Coming to France?

Paris   The day began with an ominously when I woke up at 2:05 AM for my 2:45 AM ride to the 3:17 AM train to Budapest. After taking a shower, I realized that in the dark, I had misread the time, and it was now 12:20 AM, not 2:20 AM. It was going to be a long day!

The 3:17 AM to Budapest was a workers’ milk run to the city. Tired men and women would slump into their seats and then immediately doze off in a practiced part of their routine. The train hit Budapest 4 minutes late, and I knew I only had 8 minutes then to find the ticket machine, get a ticket, find bus 200E and make to the airport for my 6:25 AM flight, where I could doze off in my practiced routine.

And, then on to Paris. With the election of the Macron government and his new party, Marche, which has disrupted French politics, hard changes were projected with hard fights in the future to see whether he would succeed or would the resistance.

The first change I noticed though was the McDonalds in the guts of Terminal 1 at Charles DeGaulle Airport. Of course it was huge. That was predicable, but it was also all automatic. Orders had to be placed on a eye-level robotron machine where you picked through your selection, to go or in-house, card or cash, and then went to a counter to pay and pickup, or not. Where you would think automation would mean less workers, I had never seen so many. There were people to help you learn the machine. If you were eating there, a worker brought you order to your table. Yes, to your table! Everywhere we looked there were staff people by the dozens. Our affiliates in France had been working on the McDonald’s organizing campaign and the fight for higher wages and workers’ voice there, as well as the opposing the use of GMOs, which are largely vilified in France. I noted all of this with interest, mentally tabulating the contradictions.

Meeting later in the afternoon with several union and community organizers, there seemed to be a feeling that the constant assault on long established labor rights that had endured in France for generations against almost constant attack were in real danger from the new government. Though Macron had run on a merging of left and right policy positions, and had formerly been a minister in the ruling Socialist Party before resigning to pave his own path, there seemed nothing moderate in his proposals for amending labor rights. The rigid and exacting labor rules that make it difficult to displace workers in an arbitrary fashion have long been targeted by business interests. Labor unions are girding for the fight of course, particularly the CGT, which has militantly drawn the line in the past even though a competing workers’ federation has been trying to play a more accommodating role with the new government. All other business, including new organizing, seems to have been pushed aside for the coming struggle.

Nonetheless, even if labor’s efforts were heroic, my friends seem to feel success would be defined in how much was saved compared to how much would be lost in measuring the level of the defeat, rather than optimistically predicting a victory.

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A Hungarian Training Space for Non-Profits

Kunbabony, Hungary   Almost as interesting as the various workshops at training at the Citizen Participation University was the facility itself and the special space it provided for this community of organizers, educators, community developers, and wizards of many varieties and skills. The history and mission embeds the facility as deeply into the community as the program itself.

I only know the backstory in bits and pieces. The administrator of the Collegium is the Civil College Foundation, directed by Mate Varga, but the property was originally a school building in the area that had fallen into disuse. Mate’s father had bought the property years ago for this purpose so it has had many lives and seen many changes and improvements over time.

The main building includes a couple of classrooms and something like a half-dozen sleeping rooms with single cots that would seem – and felt – the size of the bottom half of a bunk bed, somehow missing its natural second story. A new improvement was the opening of Le Mat, a cafe, and kitchen area, where people were served breakfast and could get an espresso or beer throughout the day. The building and the cafe are now run by a local cooperative, as is the farming operation behind the building, making the Collegium a community building project itself as well as a meeting and training center.

The business of the center though maximizes the location. This is a nice place and well made and presented, but it puts on no airs. Though there are sleeping rooms in the main building, the majority of the participants were literally camping on the grounds in tents of various shapes and sizes. A new addition since the last gathering was the installation of an improved shower, which some of the campers were still mastering when the topic came up in the opening session. A collection of hammocks also got heavy use for breaks, naps, and turning the pages on books in the afternoon.

The dining is under canopies and simple local soup and basic food is served. The meetings were held in various sized venues. One was a large geodesic dome of sorts. Another was under a yellow and orange patchwork of parachute material. A smaller covering was fit for only a half-dozen chairs. An area called the marketplace had tables under a corrugated roof. Benches popped up here and there on the grounds. The place was fun and functional for everyone.

meeting dome

The space itself seemed to accommodate easy discussion as people got to know each other and for veterans of these meetings, caught up and reacquainted. Without a lot of fanfare or fancy evaluation forms, it was obvious that the space itself had become a special place to everyone involved, giving a boost to the discussion and training.

morning exercises

shower area and tents

storage shed for the straw-filled bags used as seats

parachute meeting place

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