On the Espresso Trail in Torino

Torino It was a good day at the main location of Fair Grinds Coffeehouse on Ponce de Leon Street in New Orleans. Largely due to the inspiration of Cafe Degas across the street from the coffeehouse the Saturday evening after Bastille Day for something of a block party celebration. We do our small part by waving French flags from the balcony and see who wants a cup of coffee before they head home. There’s good spirit, and it’s not one of the military parades that President Trump greets with such relish, since it’s much more of a family affair.

In solidarity, my companera and I walked the streets of the city from dawn until dusk in Italy in the fascinating city of Turin, as English maps call it, and Torino, as the city calls itself. In a full disclosure, I’m a Fair Grinds blend coffee-and-chicory guy. I squirrel away a pound for an over two-week trip like this and try to ratio it so that I can have one or two cups of home brew every day on the road. Mi companera though has become an espresso girl in recent years. She was a stove topper in the manner that we learned in Buenos Aires for a while. Then she went with an Italian brand made somewhere around Milan. I got her an espresso maker for her birthday last year, and recently she got it working to her satisfaction.

recycling in Torino

But, as they say, “when in Rome,” and in this case we were in Torino, and though I was hoarding Fair Grinds coffee-and-chicory, it only make sense and good company to join my companera for an espresso in a bit of field research for our coffeehouses. Howard Schultz, the billionaire behind Starbucks, famously claimed that his experience drinking espresso in Italy drove him to evangelize for coffee and propelled his chain forward. In truth Starbucks did a lot of things but not as much for coffee as it did for milk, by creating a fetish for all manner of drinks that were not simple shots of espresso.

super recycling station

I’ve had some good espressos with perfect crema, the layer of foam on top, but what has amazed me more is the wide variety in pricing. We had a near perfect cup this morning on Corso Vittorio Emmanuel II for one euro a cup and I spent another euro on a delightful nut and confection bar called a “torinocino.” That might not be exactly the right name, so I’ll obviously have to go back and have another and write it down this time to see if we can get someone to make them at Fair Grinds. Darned this field research is hard work. Elsewhere it has been a euro thirty, a euro twenty, and a euro fifty. In France sometimes it was two euros. One euro seems right, since that’s more than a dollar in the States, and no matter how good, there are only a couple of sips to it.

Mi conpanera thought she should help out and wanting something cold she spotted some women at the coffee bar in the marketplace near the River Po spooning a white substance out of their glasses from a machine with Eraclea labeled on it. Turned out this was a granita, and Eraclea makes a bunch of them with different mixes. Hers had a lemon flavor, I thought, and pineapple she felt, so maybe it was both or neither.

one of many public water fountains in Torino

Of course one of the reasons she swears by espresso is that the machines require filtered water to work well, and of course that means no lead to the head. Fair Grinds uses filtered water on all of our machines, and we assume the same goes for the espresso makers of Torino.

There are worse ways to spend your time that trying to figure out the city and stand at a coffee bar and take a couple of quick sips to down an espresso shot.

park bench along the River Po

A glass espresso on Corso Vittorio Emmanuel II

Eraclea granita machine

An espresso along the River Po

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Seasonal Dilemma: Piling on the Work and Building Momentum

Torino, Italy  Bastille Day is a big celebration in France. Heck, President Trump even came over for the party, because he heard there were going to be tanks, troops, and tricolors everywhere. He also reportedly wanted to practice his handshakes, and see if he could get his grip on.

In Grenoble, it was business as usual. We had seen a stage being erected in a city center park the night before, but the streets and passersby seemed the same as always. For our part we were meeting right until we had to shuffle off to catch the train to Torino, the million-person industrial city in northern Italy.

Summer in the United States for a rural membership-based organization is difficult, because farmers and ranchers are working from dawn to dusk, but for an urban organization, it’s “hot times in the city,” and an opportunity to pour it on and make things happen. Looking back on ACORN’s history, I often thought that August was the month when we pulled off some of our largest actions and won some of our biggest victories. Momentum would build throughout the summer as new organizing drives were underway, offices were swelled with staff, interns, and volunteers, and major campaigns were launched before Labor Day in early September. Days were long, so doorknocking could go past 9 PM. Weather was good. Tempers were short. We planted and reaped the organizational harvest in summer.

Planning is hard this time of year for our French affiliate. From almost the middle of July until early September, and certainly most of August, many people take vacations, including our organizing staff, so the month almost becomes an entitled holiday and the organization and its offices virtually shut down as well. That means a flurry of planning and meetings before the end of July, and then the difficult task of reestablishing consensus and rebuilding momentum for a furious September through November, before work comes almost to a stop in December in order to rekindle in January. Organizing prime time is vacation time. Leadership and organizing directors have to puzzle through how to come out of the blocks running in September as everyone drifts back from the holidays. That’s not easy!

We found ourselves in a similar flurry. Timelines had to be established so work could begin on the Organizers’ Forum the last week of September in Casablanca, if not the work would not begin before the August shutdown. The community-labor training outside of Paris at the end of November also had to be sequenced and tasked. Campaign negotiations on both sides of the Atlantic had to be factored in and scheduled. Memos organized, training sites identified for next year, and on and on. Hiring and filling in for staff leaves and transitions had to be factored.

The list seemed endless. Trump caught the fireworks. We caught the train.

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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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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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