Dream Pilots and Scarf Turbans

Dream-InterpretationNew Orleans   There are two other fascinating things that I learned in France that particularly stand out in a life of education and adventure.

At dinner one evening the aunt of one of the ReAct crew started telling me about her work over the years as a “storyteller.” That led to her sharing a reverie about how much she enjoyed flying in her dreams. Now we all know that dreaming in black-and-white is meager life experience compared to dreaming in Technicolor, but flying in your dreams, I had no idea. She told me she flies often while dreaming and over the years has even developed a signature way of taking off with giant running steps until she is in the air. How cool is that?

She told me she was doing a series of shows with her company in the mountain communities around the Alps for four or five nights in a row. She was constructing stories out of the pieces of dreams that the audience would share with her. As a whim she decided to ask people in the audience to raise their hands if they flew in their dreams. The first night there was one dream pilot, the second there were two or three, and then four in the third night. Her company thought she should stop asking and she promised she would but on the last night, everyone raised their hands that they were flying in their dreams.

I couldn’t help myself. The next day I found myself asking organizers in the office whether they flew in their dreams or not. Some did. Some did not. More women were dream pilots than men, but some men also were determined dream flyers. I was amazed, and, frankly, I felt left out. I couldn’t remember ever hearing people talk about flying in their dreams, and not being a dream pilot myself, I never thought to ask, but it turns out that there is secret society of dream pilots all around us. Now that I know so many are flying, I have a simpler question: where do they go?

That life lesson seems more universal than French, but during the weekend training in the mountains way above Grenoble, only a couple of hundred meters I was told from where Jean Paul Killy, the famous French skier won his gold medal in the Winter Olympics held there, the crew would move in the mid-afternoon, as the sun warmed, to the porch of the local utility company’s chalet, accessible to its workers for holidays and arranged by one of the Alliance members. After a half-hour or so I noticed that the majority of the staff had wrapped sweaters, scarfs, and t-shirts over the top of their heads, turban-style, though the sun was still hitting them full in the face. The session was about structure or some such, but after they had exhausted all of their questions, I said that I had one that I would like to ask though it wasn’t exactly about organizing: why were they piling all of this stuff on the top of their heads while they were getting burned to a crisp by the sun at this altitude? Being a red head who can get a sun burn crossing the street and a consumer of the constant skin cancer warnings that come with my breed, I just didn’t get it. Adrien Roux, one of the coordinators, simply answered in English – “insulation.” The rest of the crew nodded in agreement. Sunburn, who cared, for the French it was all about not being a hot head.

France, what a country! For the rest of us hotheads, we’ll just have to dream the best way we can, and leave the flying for the fortunate few.

Notes for My Father from France

last dinner in Grenoble

last dinner in Grenoble

Paris     I brought coffee and chicory from New Orleans so that I was never stranded too far from home even while in Poland and France. In France there was curiosity about my concoction, but a certainty about chicory because though we source ours in Nebraska in order to wave the local banner, chicory is grown widely here, and drunk straight by some, including one of the Grenoble organizers. Like the way the Civil War blockade gave New Orleans natives – and interlopers like me – a taste for it that couldn’t spit out of their mouths, I gathered the inability to get access to any coffee beans in the 20th century conflagrations had led some grandchildren to still brew a cup of chicory having acquired the taste at their grandparents table.

There are little signs that are distinct in France like the five-foot tall pencil on the street signals that a school is nearby in Grenoble. The kiss of greeting on each cheek for everyone being met is a nice, dear touch, though even when I thought I was mastering the task I was told not to forget to make the sound of lips pursing in an air-kiss as the cheeks were touched lightly.

Food is an obsession and bread finds its way to every meal and table. Cheese is almost as constant along with the claims for various regional varieties. It is amazing that people are not gargantuan and obese. My best guess is that practice of continual cultural communal eating meal after meal has decreased the dependence on unhealthy fast food diets fueled by sugar-saturated drinks. Add walking and cycling to work here and there and even though gyms also don’t proliferate in France as they do in the States, people seem pretty trim in the main.

On most organizing staffs lunch is as widely forgotten as remembered, but in France lunch breaks are almost ritualistic, even among the organizers. Often people brought in snacks or croissants and broke to enjoy them as well. The women organizers always in the ReAct office seemed to share a giant chocolate bar on a daily basis that they would walk over and break off a small piece to enjoy off and on throughout the day. At one day’s break that some of the organizers shared with me, the discussion noted with some concern that other organizers down the hall had only shared one lunch during the week with their comrades. I didn’t want to add that the reason was likely that the others were on a community organizing regime modeled after ACORN in Canada and working different hours. Early in the week after I moved from one meeting to another, an organizer asked me if I wasn’t ready for a “statutory break,” referring to the French labor code requirements. I think I made it a joke the rest of my time in France, but I suspect everyone took it very seriously.

Certainly, the rigidity of the French workweek at 35 hours was well respected. The negotiations allowed under the code to move the hours with premiums paid to 39 was reportedly specific and intense. During the weekend training session in the mountains for leaders and organizers, I had to ask what happened to some of the more junior staff when they didn’t stay for Sunday and in some cases took off on Monday. Saturday worked means a weekday off. All of this takes soft paws to a whole new place.

But, what a great culture. There was little doubt when some there was a chance for organizers to watch some film clips on the work, that pizza would be coming, too. It would have also been a giant faux pas if my last evening meal before returning to the USA before dawn would not have brought as many organizers and staff as available out to a community meal somewhere. We ended up in a neighborhood bar not far from where one of the staff lived, and he managed to convinced the bar owner to go into the kitchen and within thirty minutes produce a great meal with a number of local Grenoble and regional dishes “to show the American.”

What a great community and what great fun! Hard not to respect such a culture and what it builds in social capital, and notice that in our capital driven work ethic we are so chained to the wheel, we don’t even give our schedules a second thought. One of the coordinators, Adrien Roux, having spent a month with me in New Orleans reportedly had come back to France and made the comment that for all he had learned about organizing in his visit, he still found it a mystery whether or not organizers ever ate in the US.

The Trials and Tribulations of a Local Group Organizer

Mayor of Grenoble, head of social housing, and other bureaucrats and pols "doing the time"

Mayor of Grenoble, head of social housing, and other bureaucrats
and pols “doing the time”

Grenoble I had spent most of the day in meetings about organizing a domestic workers union in Morocco and expanding the Alliance to Paris, Lyon, and beyond, but there was a chance to watch a mini-action in one of the newer groups involving a meeting organized by the Mayor of Grenoble. The head organizer of Alliance Citoyenne, Solene Compingt, and I literally ran for the bus from the office across town to the school auditorium where the public meeting was being held.

Ostensibly the meeting was designed to get the neighborhoods input or reaction to a redevelopment plan on a specific social housing or public housing project that was on the block for demolition and rebuilding. The Mayor arrived as did the head of the Grenoble office of social housing. City workers were scurrying around in preparation and readiness. A PowerPoint was projected onto the wall at the bottom of the banked auditorium. People kept trickling in until there were perhaps one hundred in attendance at least a quarter of whom were from the Alliance local chapter. The organizer, Emerick Champagnon, was moving from clump to clump to talk to members after they held a short preparation meeting on the sidewalk outside before coming into the auditorium.

head of social housing pretending to listen

head of social housing pretending to listen

The PowerPoint was brief with only two or three slides, spelling out the goals, objectives, timeline and promises of the redevelopment. Quickly, the questions started flying for over an hour as various residents tried to cross the moat and throw themselves against the wall of the city’s strangely constructed fort around the project. The state was funding the project in a partnership of sorts, it was clear, but nothing was clear about what the Mayor really hoped would come from the meeting. On the city’s part there seemed no clear agenda other than to check the box off that said “public meeting,” live through it, and get to dinner by 8pm. After they gave a brief explanation of the project whenever asked a question they pushed the decision over to the state and to every exhortation from numerous speakers in the crowd they resisted any involvement in the meeting with the state by the residents, insisting that they were best able to negotiate in their various interests: a classic “no win” strategy. And, no-win for anyone. The Mayor or his aides had constructed a dead end canyon and for the organizers and members there were few options other than to keep riding around in circles in the ravine.

some of the members trying to get a grip on the debate

some of the members trying to get a grip on the debate

What to do? There was no choice but to organize the members to attend since it was a public meeting on an important issue to the group organized by what should have been a decision maker. Members would have attended individually, if there had not been a collective action to do so. The Alliance questions were organized, but as the information was presented it was impossible to fabricate democratic demands that would resonate with all of the members on the spot, so the organizer in the after meeting wrap up briefing is left trying to offer options for the frustration to be channeled to the next steps the group could take. Not sure that’s what the Mayor had in mind by organizing the meeting in the first place or stonewalling when it happened. They were a classic picture of public officials absorbing the punches in boredom as they resolutely resisted either moving to respond or making a plan to move forward. They were just marking time it seemed. I would bet the group will now leapfrog the Mayor and go straight to the state, complicating the matters even further. While the Mayor has attempted to strengthen his bargaining position, he has likely eroded it.

Solene commented to me as we walked into the night that she “hates these kinds of actions.” How could it be otherwise? A public meeting that makes a mockery of public participation while pretending to be designed for public input is a rat maze, not a merry-go-round, pleasing no one, and adding to the trials and tribulations of life and work of local group organizers everywhere.

briefing after meeting

briefing after meeting

Italian Tenants Withstand Landlord Pushback with Court Victory

ACORN Italy's David Tozzo with the Organizers/ Forum in Warsaw (in the middle in green shirt)

ACORN Italy’s David Tozzo with the Organizers/ Forum in Warsaw (in the middle in green shirt and glasses)

Grenoble    Ever since 2011 when ACORN Italy launched our campaign to take advantage of a unique handle passed by the national legislature allowing tenants to reduce their rent if their landlords were renting to them on the black market without paying taxes, we have been fighting back against the landlord counterattack. The victories for tenants exploiting the law were huge since by triggering registration of the landlord’s property their bounty was a reduction of their rent by 85 to 90% for the four-year term of a standard lease with a four-year option of renewal. The math is clear. If a tenant were paying 1000 euros in rent, they would then only be paying 150 euros saving more than 10000 euros a year, 40000 for four years, 80000 for eight years. Needless to say, the landlords had been happy to avoid paying taxes to the government, and were wild with rage about now having to both pay taxes and receive less revenue from their tenants.

Lawyers were a cheaper alternative for the landlords and they have yo-yoed back and forth to court with us since 2012. We took a hit from the Supreme Court in late 2013 ruling that there was a technical problem with the law. We managed to get legislation through the Senate that prevented the tenants who had seized the law’s opportunity with us from having to pay back the landlords for their lost revenues. We have introduced other legislation to correct the technical flaw and restore the original intent of the law.

Meanwhile another suit had ended up in the second high court of Italy which interprets laws and is called the La Corte Surprema di Cassazione or Supreme Court of Cassation. The decision of the Court which is final at the highest level has reopened provision – and the opportunity – for tens of thousands of tenants throughout Italy.

The Court ruled that if the landlord and the tenant had a verbal, oral contract rather than a written lease contract as required, then they had the ability to push the property to be registered and register the rent at the lower level as allowed by the original legislation. Part of the tenant’s claim and defense would be allowable based on the “moral” or “psychological” pain suffered by the tenant from not having a written lease and having been forced to find housing in the informal, black market so prevalent throughout Italy. The Court’s decision does not reopen the door for tenants with a written, but unregistered lease, but settles the matter for those who were forced to agree to an okey-dokey lease involving tax evasion.

The tide hasn’t completely turned for ACORN Italy’s work. We still have much to be done with our allies in the Senate to both nail down tenant protections and restore the comprehensive opportunity to all tenants, but in the meantime we’re gearing up to get the word out throughout Italy to tenants with wink-and-nod verbal leases that their opportunity is knocking and the door is wide open again. Needless to say, head organizer David Tozzo is drawing up major national recruitment plans to scale up ACORN Italy’s work to take advantage of the opportunity and the membership is soaring.

Structure is a Challenge Everywhere for Community Organizations

Training in Grenoble 2015

Training in Grenoble 2015

Grenoble    Working with the leaders and staff of both the Alliance Citoyenne in Grenoble as well as Bona Fides in Poland and other associations in Rennes and Paris, France in recent days, it was interesting how frequently structure comes up as a central theme and challenge in organizing. The discussions are fascinating when leaders and organizers consider their relationships with each other on a specific case by case basis, but also raise debates in how members are absorbed in governing boards.

The organizers in Katowice, Poland with the Bona Fides organization had put together almost a half-dozen local groups in the city, mostly of middle income families in the beginning, but mentioned that over four years they had not yet brought the groups or the leaders, we gathered, into any kind of joint participation or governance structure in the city. Even as Dagmara Kubik, the talented and energetic organizer in recent years for this group began to embark on a more expanded organizing project, there was also no mention of any structural connection between the Bona Fides local groups and this new organizational formation either. Part of the challenge may be that the local groups are an organizing “project” of the larger Bona Fides agency. There may have been an operating assumption both by organizers and local group members that they were simply a passive component of the agency itself, and therefore not entitled or interested in issues of governance or amalgamating themselves directly on common issues. The accountability of the organizers was likely individualized to the local groups and more structurally to the agency employer at this point. The organizers were committed to seeing the groups build power in Katowice, but frank with us that they were still debating how to link the groups together structurally.

The Alliance has both a simpler and more complex path for growth. As a dynamic community organization in Grenoble they have attracted interest and imitators around France and now in order to both support those associations and expand more aggressively in other areas, they are trying to find a structure that allows them to centralize some costs and consolidate some operations, while maintaining the autonomy of their allied projects and creating more structural participation and direction for their growth. What makes sense doesn’t mean that it’s easy. Moving to a membership based structure and dues system also means integrating an existing leadership board or “commission,” as they call it with a structure that also opens up participation and governance from the members and leaders coming from the local groups being organized directly around Grenoble.

Some of the most interesting discussions over the weekend as we met in the mountains over Grenoble involved the role of the board and the organizers for the Alliance. Does the staff work for the head organizer or directly for the board that has been signing their employment contracts? If there is a problem, is it legitimate to go “around” the staff director to individual board members? How are performance issues handled? The questions and cases came quickly. The discussions on all of these issues were exciting and the importance of their resolution was fundamental in easing their way forward. Structure can allow an organization to grow or kill its future, and leaders and organizers were grappling with how to do it best and do it right.

Most of the weekend we could see the massive mountain tops of this part of the Alps clearly in the sun, but they rose like the tip of icebergs over a sea of fog and clouds. Perhaps this was a metaphor for the weekend’s work of the Alliance. We could see where we were going, but we couldn’t quite see clearly all the ground below us. Luckily as we drove back down in the evening the fog had passed and city around us was bright and clear. Perhaps that is also an omen for the future of the Alliance Citoyenne.


The Polish Rising and Arbeit Macht Frei

Polish Raising

Polish Raising

Grenoble    It was important for the Organizers’ Forum delegation to try and get a grip on the Polish experience, and visiting the country that experience is both inescapable and illusive.  Illusive, especially in Warsaw, because much of what you see in this very old city is new, brand new like the gleaming high rise office towers in the centrum, but also relatively new down to the Soviet-Cold War era apartment blocks along the wide avenues.  The city is old by hundreds and hundreds of years and deceptive in the old city, the Stare Miasto, when you find yourself admiring the castle, churches, and historic buildings and realize you are in a real time Disneyland, because all of it was rebuilt from almost total rubble after the Nazi victory when they dynamited all the buildings in a scorched earth policy to teach the Polish people a lesson about resistance.

There are statues of generals and soldiers everywhere but perhaps the most moving was a dramatic, heroic grouping of figures in several places next to the justice buildings that memorialized the Polish Rising, the valiant, last gasp resistance effort of 30,000 Polish soldiers and Warsaw residents who rose to try to repel the Nazis from Warsaw after their occupation.  This is a courageous tale without a happy ending.  The Soviet army did not follow their lead, despite a promise to do so, and after two months of resistance, the death toll was over 250,000, displacement was almost total, and the city was laid to waste.  We visited a modern, seemingly new, museum built in recent years dedicated to the Polish Rising which was dark, dramatic, and devastatingly detailed in its presentation of the rising and its defeat.

personal belongs at Auschwitz

personal belongs at Auschwitz

We had beautiful weather in Poland, but appropriately on our last day we drove to see Auschwitz and Birkenau in a steady, overcast of intermittent rain.  From the moment you walk under the entry gate of the concentration camp with its lying exhortation “Arbeit Macht Frei,” Work Makes Freedom past the barbwire and electrified fences to the rows upon rows of orderly brick buildings you are lost in a fog of oppression.  I couldn’t get Hannah Arendt’s famous line about the “banality of evil” out of my head.  Entering building after building that documented the horror of over 6.28 million Polish people killed during the war ravages and atrocities, many of them here as well as Dutch, German, and Hungarian Jews, Roma, and thousands of others.

The crowds lined up and the tours marching one after another in lockstep and headsets were frighteningly alive, but there was nothing but death here.  Even entering Auschwitz in a long line, where any bags had to be left behind, and you emptied your pockets and went through airport-like screening made you wonder if you were being asked to relive being there.  Our group peeled off on our own, thankfully, because moving through the buildings and along the graveled walkways by the shuffling steps of the tours and tourists, bodies bundled against the chill and heads covered in the rain, eerily made me feel as if I was being marched to the end as well.  One building in fact had a running moving of people being marched along and the bottom was a mirror with your feet approaching in the same manner down the hallway.

The experience is powerful and necessary, but deeply depressing.  These are monuments to monstrosity that literally boggle the imagination and at least in my case found me sorting through the horrors since World War II and cataloging the cases that though different have repeated the horror with odd twists different perhaps only in degree.