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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Making Sense of Current Hungarian Politics

Mate Varga (w/ pony tail)

Kunbabony, Hungary  The opening session of the 8th meeting of the Citizen Participation University began with the traditional welcome by Mate Varga, the head of Civil College Foundation. Varga is an open-handed and open-hearted man with a ready ability to laugh, often seeming to be chuckling to himself, so his welcome would normally be met with open faces and wide smiles, but this year must have seemed more subdued and sober to CPU veterans.

Mate’s remarks were tempered by the times. He described the protests recently in Budapest around the government’s new restrictions on nonprofits. The crowds, the excitement, the anger, and the disappointment that their protests had been unsuccessful. Nongovernmental organizations that receive any foreign funding are now required to publicly label themselves as “foreign funded” on their literature, website, and so forth. Grants from the Norwegian government are being held up over the dispute. The Civil College has been mentioned in coverage newspapers and television stories along with others including George Soros, the Hungarian-American billionaire, who is currently the boogie man of Hungarian conservative politics. In fact Mate warned that the very location in Kunbabony where we were meeting had been the target of journalistic interlopers, who might be seeking unsolicited interviews.

Nick Thorpe, a veteran BBC reporter stationed in Budapest and reporting over the last 31-years on Eastern Europe, was partnered with me to provide the keynote to the opening session. He was going to provide context and analysis of the current scene in the region and in Hungary, and I was slated to provide some perspective on how organizations could respond and survive in these increasingly harsh climates. All I would offer on ACORN’s experience in my half-hour could be summarized as “dare to struggle, dare to win,” and never, never ever quit fighting, which was well enough received, but I was especially interested in hearing Nick’s on-the-ground, ringside perspective.

Nick Thorpe (BBC reporter)

He began with remarks about the huge dead-of-winter protests in Romania earlier in the year against corruption. He had spent weeks there trying to solve the puzzle of the protests and the organizers and organizing behind it after being initially skeptical that their efforts had any chance of success, yet the government had fallen to their efforts.

Thorpe warned the assembly that his view on the current condition of Hungarian politics might be seen as contrarian. Despite the foreboding of Mate’s introduction, he felt the government’s attacks might be ebbing, rather than rising. The heart of his argument was that the obsession of the existing government with the Central European University and its support by Soros had crossed a line and had lost support of other right parties and within the governing party itself. Though in the West the situation is seen as a stalemate with a year’s cooling off period, Thorpe’s analysis from his sources was more along the lines that the year was a face saver for the government, rather than the last gasp for the university.

Unfortunately for our comrades among Hungarian NGOs, Thorpe’s sources did not extend sufficiently, at least not yet, to give them comfort on their fight. The same tide had not gone out on nonprofits. On the other hand Thorpe speculated that despite the overwhelming odds stacking the deck for the existing government in the coming election that would require virtually all parties, right and left, to coalesce in order to defeat it, he believed there were signs in the wind that indicated that such a political tsunami might be building. He couldn’t be sure of course, and he could be wrong, but his finger was in the wind, and he could feel currents moving in surprising directions.

All of which made my following Thorpe easier. Where there is even a glimmer of hope, struggle is easier to imagine, and organizing a more obvious necessity.

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Citizen Participation University

Welcome Sign

Outside Budapest   There are a lot of great ways to celebrate Independence Day. There are picnics, barbecues, parades, fireworks, and good times and sober reflections throughout the land. For me this year, it has meant flying across the world to arrive in Budapest and then catch a lift to somewhere about an hour out of the city to a great facility operated by a Hungarian nonprofit where something called the Citizen Participation University has been meeting annually about this same time for several years now. A year ago, I had visited with Mate Varga of the Civil College Foundation which runs the CPU and had promised I would try to come back and lend a hand, and so I have.

participants sharing stories of change under the tent

Shaking off the jet lag, I almost tipped over one of the feed sacks filled perhaps with pine needles or some such that served as seats under the parachute tent where this year’s participants were introducing themselves with stories, some short and some longer, about change. There were more than thirty there, going one by one, of a crowd expected to swell over the week between forty and sixty. My impression had been that most of the participants would be from Eastern European countries. Listening to everyone that turned out to be partially true, but mostly wrong. Yes, there were people there from Hungary of course, Ukraine, and Romania with American expats from the Czech Republic and Slovenia, but they were in the minority of the dozen or so countries represented. The biggest delegation was from Belgium, primarily Brussels, from various community development groups, but there were also several people from Italy, Spain, Turkey, and Norway were represented, along with Denmark and the Netherlands, and an organizer from the Working Families Party based in New York City and of course I was there to wave the ACORN flag as well.

The stories were interesting. Many focused on how people had come into the work at various angles ranging from homeless activism to corporate retrenchment as well as back-to-the-landers and folks just plain looking for a job. There were several people who actually worked as community organizers in a way that we would recognize the concept in the United States, but many self-defined themselves as being involved in community development or various citizen participation schemes, which may be a euphemism for acting as community organizers and may not. The next several days of work will fill in the details on that question.

organizer from Romania tells about his work

There is a cloud hanging over this year’s session in Hungary as the quasi-populist government has joined Russia, India and other countries in an assault on nonprofits and nongovernmental organizations in general. The attack on a university supported by George Soros has garnered much of the news internationally, but the fight has been more intense in Hungary around constant financial inquires and harassment directed at any groups receiving money from international sources.

I may be here as one of the instructors, but I’ve come to learn and put my shoulder to the wheel to protect independence and the rights so celebrated at home yet under assault both in the Untied States and increasingly around the world.

folks join for dinner to continue the conversation

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Cutting Corners on Building Codes Kills

New Orleans  The fire that has thus far counted 79 tenants in the Grenfell Tower, a low income housing project in the wealthy West London Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea has been described as the “Katrina moment” for British Prime Minister Theresa May for her early ham-fisted handling of the tragedy. Katrina involved a lot of back and forth finger pointing for months with some issues still contentious, but in London the enablers of this tragedy are being quickly identified.

The fire is attributed to an apartment refrigerator provided by a company acquired in 2014 by American brand, Whirpool, that had a plastic backing. In the US refrigerators are sold with a metallic backing to provide more fire resistance. Too many think of refrigerators and “cold” at the same time, but the motors running them are hot obviously where the business machinery of refrigeration is happening. The related culprits identified by fire officials point to poor insulation and aluminum cladding on the outside of the building. The cladding was made by Arconic, an American company that is an outgrowth of the better known Alcoa, the iconic aluminum company. Their stock is down 21% and they have indicated they will no long sell the paneling for use in high-rise structures. Buildings over a certain height in the US are required to have two concrete encased fire exists and fire doors, but not so in Britain. Other cities and countries around the world are reportedly hurriedly reexamining their codes.

Developers and owners have been more successful in pushing back building codes in the UK than in the US, but don’t get the big head and start feeling all safe, because it’s just a matter of degree, and it’s still all about the money. Codes are routinely flaunted making them literally “dead letters” without sufficient enforcement. In dealing with “as is” contracts with the Home Savers Campaign we initially thought that the Toledo, Ohio ordinance that required a certificate of occupancy before a contract could be signed might protect families until we hit the doors in Detroit and found that the same ordinance prevailed there, but was simply not enforced. We met a woman in Pittsburgh who was injured in a Harbour Portfolio property when the stairs collapsed underneath her. A man in Akron in another Harbour property told about his sister, now disabled and unable to work, after a ceiling in the shower collapsed underneath her.

Even knowing the cause doesn’t remove all culpability, which is part of my point about the deadly collusion of the authorities, developers and owners, and lax regulators and enforcers. ACORN organizers have played a supportive role to tenants and tenant organizations in the wake of the Grenfell fire, and have noted similarities to ACORN’s work in New Orleans in post-Katrina. The dispersion and evacuation has made it difficult to reach Grenfell tenants now sheltered all over, just as was the case in Katrina, where ACORN was often the only point of contact for many as a membership organization. There will also be a long debate about unheeded concerns raised by tenants at Grenfell about fire safety before the tragedy just as residents of New Orleans 9th ward had voiced opposition to MR-GO, the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, and expansion of the Industrial Canal to hurricane safety.

As organizers, we constantly have to ask whether we should have done more. Building codes are boring, but despite the low value policy makers and politicians put on the purchase of the lives of low and moderate income families, these families, more than anything else, have to be our priority, and the devil is truly in those details, bringing hell and death, when attention is not paid.

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Action Day for ACORN in Ottawa Conventions

Arriving for the dawn briefing

Ottawa  The last day of an ACORN Convention is action day. It starts early because it’s also going home day for the members, as they pack out their gear on the buses so they are ready to roll once the work is done. There were already members sitting on the steps outside of the dorm room at 630 am when I hit the street.

Briefing from the leaders before the action

There were speakers in the morning, local and federal politicians and labor leaders came by, but the real preparation was practicing the chants for the day, so that Fair Banking and Affordable Internet substituted on some of the lines where normally a cry for Justice arose. Everyone was in good form by the time the briefing was finished, the speeches over, and it was time to roll downtown.

assembling for the march and asking drivers to honk their support!

After off loading on Queen Street, the march assembled near the War Memorial on Elgin, picking up some supporters along the way, and pressing cars driving by to honk their support as they sang and chanted. Humid days and sprinkling rain had been substituted for a bright day with a steady breeze breaking the heat, so everything seemed in order as the march set off down Elgin towards the building housing the Ministry of Finance, picking up some bicycle cops along the way as our de facto escorts.

coming down Elgin Avenue towards the Ministry of Finance

At the corner of the Ministry building, Ottawa moved along the side door to the formal entrance, while Toronto went towards the Elgin Street entrance, and Nova Scotia and British Columbia took the other side door. Quickly and efficiently everyone was in the large foyer of the building. Some held banners in front of the building with our demands so that all could see. Banking of any sort in the modern day specializes in security, so there was never any notion that the crowd would get past the foyer, so the chants demanded the Minister come down and meet. After some time when the police threatened to call the paddy wagons and begin arrests, all the members responded by sitting down and continuing signing and shouting their chants for action on fair banking and an end to predatory lending.

Come meet with us Minister

We’re Not Going Anywhere!

A demand letter was sent up as the members moved across the business district to rally in the shadow of the federal Parliament building and in front of the creepily named, Ministry of Innovation. The ministry had acceded to our demands for a meeting and held up announcements on internet access they had privately negotiated with telecoms after we protested our exclusion. This was a “warning” rally, that we were watching and waiting, but would be back in force if we didn’t get satisfaction.

marching to the Ministry of Innovation

Marva Burnett, ACORN’s president, addressed the crowd ending the action, and the convention, as everyone roared and then settled in for the trip home and the fights to come.

Marva Burnett, ACORN Canada and ACORN International President addresses the end of the convention

marching home

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ACORN Canada Was Revving Up and Reaching Out on ACORN’s 47th Anniversary

Ottawa ACORN leads the crowd at the meeting

Ottawa  Rolling out of breakfast, ACORN Canada members found themselves under a huge assembly tent, reminiscent of the Denver airport in my mind. Large delegations from Ottawa and Toronto practiced their chants, cheers, and songs they had devised for the march into the meeting hall. Toronto’s highlighted their expansion from the city into the GTA or Greater Toronto Area as its known locally, but christened Greater Toronto ACORN by the members from now on. They did so to the tune of the “Saints Go Marching In,” which was a nice touch as well. Ottawa of course gave their chant a French twist shouting “Ottawa, Gatineau, and Montreal” with the proper accents.

members coming through the doors

An array of power-speakers addressed the assembly once everyone was in place. The Housing Minister for Ontario was respectful and thorough in listing ways that he felt the existing government had stepped up to the plate on issues that ACORN had fought over. They were preparing to invest half-a-billion Canadian dollars in affordable house and what they called “purpose-built” housing for lower income families. He also professed his government’s commitment to continuing to build social housing as well. He got big applause when he mentioned that he had extended the rent control protection to an additional 250,000 families in significant areas. Landlords are allowed increases limited by the inflation index prepared by Statistics Canada.

Max FineDay of Canadian Roots Exchange drew a standing ovation

Max FineDay from the Canadian Roots was the most popular with the members. He gave a lively and impassioned speech focusing on reconciliation between Native Canadians and the rest of the population. He won people over with both well-timed personal anecdotes and moving descriptions of conditions on the reserved lands. Another favorite speaker was the head of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, known as CUPW, here. He was a familiar friend who had also spoken in Montreal at the last convention. The union’s proposal for a postal bank has been supported by ACORN as a way around predatory lending, as well as a way for the union to fight privatization. The crowd laughed when he told of a government committee claiming that such a bank wouldn’t make money, asking the members who knew of a bank that didn’t make money!

Chris Ballard MPP and Ontario Minister of Housing told us they had expanded rent control

Mike Palechek, Canadian Union of Postal Workers, spoke for a 2nd convention to cheers

In the afternoon, the members paired up in teams and hit the neighborhoods of Ottawa to gain support for the campaign for Fair Banking and an end to Predatory Lending. The winning petition teams filled 39 and 40 petitions in their two hours, including some new members from Hamilton which was exciting to everyone.

role plays before the doorknocking outreach

Marva Burnett, the chair of both ACORN Canada and ACORN International, gave some remarks over dinner that challenged the members about whether they were prepared to lead in building organization globally. She underlined the success on tenant issues and the demands by tenants for ACORN to build a tenants’ union in various countries.

Burnett also mentioned that June 18th was the 47th Anniversary of ACORN’s founding and led the members in singing Happy Birthday to ACORN.

What a great day!

more fun, food and speeches at the banquet

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