Citizen Diplomats, Citizen Reporters

New Orleans      For the second year, we have interns visiting New Orleans from Eastern Europe in order to learn community organizing methodology.  Last year we had a young woman from Sofia, Bulgaria.  This year we will be hosting one woman from Albania and another woman from Bulgaria who is an anthropology professor and activist in Bulgaria.  They are sponsored by the Professional Fellows program which gets funding from the State Department.

The Economist reported that 5000 foreigners visit the US annually who are selected by US embassies in “tailored tours” managed by what the State Department calls “citizen diplomats” in 90 non-profit organizations in 40 states.  The State Department believes there are 40,000 Americans that participate in programming their Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.  More than 500 heads of state in other countries have been part of the program.  The cost is about $18,000 per person, and the piece found that most of that money “went back into American pockets.”  All flights have to be on US-based air carriers like United, Delta, and American for example.

I thought of all of this when I read an email exchange this morning with my long-time veteran organizing companeros, Mike Gallagher and Mark Splain.  Mike has been forwarding us dispatches from a priest he met in Nicaragua, who the Organizers’ Forum also visited in Managua several years ago when we held our international dialogue there.  The reports over the last two months have been horrific as he has detailed the oppression being faced by students, the Church, and others in the callous attempts of Daniel Ortega and his family to continue to hold onto power.  Early during the mass protests, the hope and excitement he expressed were palpable with the belief that change and at least reform was possible.  More recently his letters have become more desperate and urgent as the death count has continued to rise.

Certainly, there have been some reports from Nicaragua of the struggle between the government and its forces and so many of its citizens, but none had captured the terror and magnitude of what is being felt at the grassroots level in the barrios and campos.  In an email this morning, Mark had a suggestion:

What we should do is organize young nonviolent brigades of Americans and other progressives to travel to Nicaragua and bear witness & report.

Meeting with a young progressive yesterday who had seen THE ORGANIZER at the Netroots convening, he asked me a disturbing question:  what happened to the notion of a mass movement for peace in the United States.

Both are important points.  Where is the modern Vincermos brigade that helped get the Cuban sugarcane harvest from the fields years ago?  Where are the men and women – of any age – who would go to Nicaragua in significant numbers to talk to people there about what is really happening on the ground and have their voices heard?  Where are the peace marchers when we are in continual war?  Where are the thousands standing at the border with migrants seeking asylum?

These are not problems for social media, though social media could be key in organizing and issuing the call.  These are the cries for justice that have to break out of their email cages and see and be seen and heard on the ground.

Isn’t this what Americans still stand for in the world as “citizen diplomats?”  Who will step up?


We Need More People’s History Museums!

Manchester      “The Organizer” was screening at the Friends Meeting House today, and the members and leaders of the newly organized ACORN branch in Manchester were working, so I had the opportunity to not only visit, but also observe and work from the People’s History Museum and The Left Bank café and bar.  What a great way to tell the story of people’s struggles for democracy in civic life and a voice in the workplace and political space.

Fittingly, the museum is located in the Spinningfield district, named for all of the spinning mills that heralded the Industrial Revolution virtually birthed in Manchester.  Additionally, signaling the working-class roots that made Manchester wealthy and imprinted the politics for years, the museum is retrofitted into an old pump house along the river with some remnants of its former life still visible. The museum was supported by labor unions in the United Kingdom, but also the European Union, national arts councils, and, importantly the Manchester City Council, but don’t think that diluted the message of the museum:  this is people’s history.

The museum had many, many strengths.  Viewers were encouraged to participate.  Pushing buttons meant hearing historic speeches by politicians of all stripes, union leaders, and others.  At one-point yellow police tape was on the floor and when I walked across the entryway and picket line chanting greeted me as it if I had cross the line during a strike, making the experience very realistic and dramatic.  Speckled throughout in various time periods visitors were encouraged to open suitcases to see what people might have being carrying or wearing at the time, or visitors could try on hats that union leaders and managers might have worn. Visitors could open cubbyholes to see whole exhibits.  Very smart!

The museum was also aided tremendously by dramatic visuals.  Sweeping and intricate banners made by early trades group for their meetings and demonstrations were as creative as tapestries we saw only days earlier in the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff.  Posters for demonstrations or political rallies both modern and one-hundred or more years old were fascinating and forceful.  The sections on the suffragette movement and the fight to win the vote for women in England were outstanding, especially the separate pride in Mrs. Pankhurst from Manchester, as they called their native daughter and key leader of the fight.

The development of political struggles from the Levellers and Chartists to the Communist and radical elements as well as the more mainstream Labour Party were well documented.  One amazing illustration on a wall running from floor to ceiling several stories up showed a timeline of British history and the various movements, strikes, demonstrations, and repression that marked the time to either victory or defeat.

Workers, women, and various voices were celebrated everywhere here, as well.  Critically, the museum was not simply about organizations, winners and losers, but the importance of struggle itself.  The People’s History Museum’s motto tellingly was: “There have always been ideas worth fighting for.”