The Pleasures of Meeting with Local Leaders

Grenoble   Your average person on the street would say that sitting in a meeting for a couple of hours conducted in a foreign language with only occasional translation would be right there on the list with watching paint dry, but they would be wrong. For perhaps the fourth time in the last two years I was a guest at the local board meeting of the Alliance Citoyennne, ACORN’s affiliate in Grenoble, and, as always, it was a pleasure. As a leader said during our meetings in Paris earlier, “Grenoble is the Little Rock of France,” meaning that just as Little Rock was the founding city of ACORN, so does Grenoble have the pride of place in starting the Alliance on its successful path.

It was hot in Grenoble and though the office has small fans propped on many a desk, and none of the humidity of New Orleans, making it all still highly tolerable, meetings quickly move to the shade of the trees in front of the coop offices. A card table holds the papers, and chairs are clustered around. I enjoyed the fact that when I sat down, I knew everyone of the board members now from my last visit, so it was like seeing old friends. Even the one member who missed his train, was well known to me. Rather than stumbling through the cheek kissing greeting of France, I could appreciate the good will of greeting people again. It was cool in the shade and there was a steady breeze, so who could complain?

The agenda before the board was difficult. There had been a hard slough of conflict with mistakes made and tough lessons learned throughout the last year. Some leaders had left. There had been difficult staff transitions. The mere fact of conflict itself had been trying on everyone. I could repeat how natural and normal this was in a new organization’s life a million times, and that would not have made anyone feel any better. The board had grown though. These were now veteran leaders well used to each other and prepared to lead. The board had also completed the transition to a governance structure that was almost completely composed of members elected from the local group membership which also made a difference.

The hardest issue the board tackled was how to deal with the decision around a new head organizer for the Grenoble organization. They had a strong 3-person staff, but that almost made the process more difficult, wanting to both keep everyone on the team, but also pick a leader of the team. Any decision would set an important precedent throughout the organization about how much the leadership wanted to manage and direct the process, and once in, would there ever be a way out? There was a lot of discussion back and forth and various proposals, including individual interviews with each organizer. The added difficulty had been the fact that the staff had proposed a candidate in recent weeks, but the board had not come to consensus around the candidate. Finally, the board directed that the overall Alliance head organizer needed to meet with the staff and essentially, work it out, and come to agreement with the staff and then make a recommendation that the board could either accept or reject, while protecting its position to determine policy. It was the right decision.

Talking about the future, they planned a discussion on an exciting campaign to run their members and leaders to the government boards of all of the public housing projects where they had strength. The elections are held every four years and the next is in 2018. This is the area where leadership that has been developed in these kinds of struggles can shine. I was enthusiastic.

The meeting ended on a high note, and, this being France and Grenoble, and this great group of leaders, then we ate homemade chocolate cake with raspberries and whipping cream on top! C’est bon!

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Sorting Out French Labor Law – What a Country!

Plaza in Grenoble

Plaza in Grenoble

Paris   Finishing up my hella-Euro-road trip as the heat hit the 90’s in Grenoble and Paris, I felt like I was catching the last train out of town before the whole country – and in fairness, most of Europe – shut down for the rest of the summer. You notice the small signs when almost every follow-up email is greeted with an auto-return saying, I’ll be back in mid-August or more likely August 29th. Meeting with the Alliance and ReAct staff before leaving Grenoble, my bags were packed, but so, seemingly were many of theirs. Hitting Paris in the attic loft where I stay I had four pages of instructions on how to make sure the house was closed tighter than a drum because they would be out for weeks. Every meeting, ended as we’ll follow up in September. Fascinating! After years of experience with the summer months as primetime for organizing, the notion that I had woken up somewhere between Christmas and New Year’s except it was hotter here! But, hey, viva la difference!

church in Brussels plaza

church in Brussels plaza

I used to write some “notes for my father” on things that he would have found fascinating from my trips abroad, but this time I felt I needed to write a note to myself after the head organizer of ACORN’s French affiliate gave me a short course of French labor law and how it caged organizing and field programs. All staff has a contract. The contracts can be short term for 6 or 12 months, but after several of these short stints, the law requires employees be made permanent or released. Or of course the Holy Grail for workers occurs when you might finally receive an open ended permanent contract. Annually, the head organizer has to do a formal evaluation with the staff members as part of the renegotiation of these contracts. Describing the process, it is definitely a negotiation. Where previously she might have negotiated full time hours from 35 which is the standard work week in France to 39 by paying the premium for those extra hours, staff can propose to go back to 35 and can even make proposals on the content of the work, which for organizers might even mean having to discuss nonnegotiable issues like time on the doors or the number of groups maintained by an organizer. It just takes your breath away! But, as I overheard an organizer in Paris say about the government’s attempts to modify some of these labor laws, “we can’t give away what our grandfathers fought for and won.” Well, you put it like that…

On the other hand, managers may have contracts but in exchange for the discretion and professionalism of their jobs, there is no restriction on their hours, and different than in the United States, this is regardless of the amount they are paid. At the ACORN affiliate everyone is on a minimum contract whether short term or open ended at this point, meaning they are paid a minimum wage as set by French law. The minimum wage in France is set at the after tax rate which is a good thing and is indexed to inflation and/or legislative action so goes up annually, which is also a good thing. Once you sort it all out it was about equivalent to what ACORN’s starting wage was for all staff about a decade ago, so not bad at all really in terms of a living wage.

church in Budapest

Danube in Dusseldorf

This minimum contract is not unusual and sometimes even includes a period where a new employee is paid by social benefits the first year and then in direct wages the second. I happened to meet the head of the ATD-Fourth World in France, which is their largest operation for the social services and organizing operation for the poor. All one-hundred of their fulltime staff, who they call volunteers, are paid on a minimum contract, which is interesting when we think about what it takes to build community organizations and unions of lower income and lower waged workers.

The package, as we call it in collective bargaining, is great in France as the country shuts down for the season over the coming weeks, but once you add it all up, backwards and forwards, it may be a maze to navigate, but there’s still a way to get there from here.

Country roads, take me home!

Danube in Dusseldorf

Church in Budapest

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Grassroots Democracy is Scary, but Essential as Grenoble Paves the Way

Grenoble ACORN Alliance Citoyenne city board convenes outside

Grenoble ACORN Alliance Citoyenne city board convenes outside

Grenoble   The highlight of my last full day in Grenoble before beginning the multi-city trek back home was getting to sit in and observe the city board meeting of ACORN’s affiliate the Alliance Citoyenne Grenoble. The board is still new and in transition from the “old” Alliance governance structure composed of various people in the larger community and the emerging governance structure composed of elected representatives of the membership coming from each of the five existing local groups. In some ways, the leaders have been invested with the responsibility of writing on a blank slate how they will work in the future, and given the fact that Grenoble is the largest of the emerging organizations in France, there will likely be precedents set by almost every single decision these new leaders make. This is grassroots democracy at its best and to build a strong and powerful organization, it is essential, but that doesn’t mean it’s not also scary at times watching leaders navigate the future.

Grenoble is a lovely town in the valley dominated by the Chartreuse Mountains. The evenings are pleasant, but the days heat up considerably and fans and air conditioners are not common. Not embracing the heat, the board was meeting on tables and chairs outside of the cooperative office complex where they share space, mixing the seriousness of the meeting with some of the atmosphere of a picnic, as people sat around drinking juice and eating chips as they held their agendas.

 a leader makes a report on a recent victory

a leader makes a report on a recent victory

The reports from the local groups were a litany of victories in the wave of success the members are having in winning improvements from local housing authorities. This group had gotten a commitment for more than 30 doors and locks to be replaced. Another was winning a timetable for replacing windows, long in disrepair. Everyone had a good story to tell of actions and negotiations. One group was fresh from an exhilarating meeting where the Mayor had attended to formally sign the agreement was, according to her report, credited the Alliance with their work over and over again. Big smiles all around!

There were some thorns on the roses that inspired more debate. Transitions are hard, and one board member had resigned in a bit of passion at the last meeting and then several days later retracted her resignation, so the board had to puzzle out how to deal with that situation at several junctures in the meeting. Should it go back to the local group to sort out? Should there be a “grace” period for reconsideration? Conflict isn’t easy and the leaders searched for common ground to work out relationships that could make hard decisions in the future without much concern for the precedents it might create or experience with principles and practice they could rely on for guidance.

board breaks into 2 groups to brainstorm

board breaks into 2 groups to brainstorm

The most critical decision they faced was on whether or not to continue to expand and organize new groups. There is no issue like the continual tension in a membership organization between maintenance of the existing membership and expanding to add more groups and membership among the unorganized. If an organization doesn’t decide to grow, it dies. Without growth, the organization would be unable to empower the membership sufficiently to achieve their aspirations. At the same time nothing is ever perfect, there are never enough staff and resources, more can always be done, so there’s always a temptation to slow down, wait, and take a more cautious route. I watched nervously, realizing the proposition they were debating was way more serious than they likely reckoned. Without knowing French, I was relying on body language and words here and there and the passion that pushed them along with an occasional aside in English from the organizers, listening just as I was. They decided unanimously to expand, which was exciting – and a relief — and also moved affirmatively on investing responsibility and accountability in the staff for evaluating which areas should be next and how to add the next organizer.

 decisions on expansion and staffing require debate before voting

decisions on expansion and staffing require debate before voting

At the end I couldn’t help feeling, as we all shook hands and expressed good wishes for the work done, that the board had come out of a thick forest and it was in the clearing now. There would be many hard decisions to come, but having made these tough calls tonight, they had a new confidence and solidarity with each other, an emerging trust and confidence in the staff, and were ready to face the future.

Democracy works, but it’s a constant struggle.

 decisions on expansion and staffing require debate before voting

decisions on expansion and staffing require debate before voting

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Figuring Out How to Grow Globally, One Country at a Time, One after Another

action-mie-4Grenoble   Finally with the last of our meetings over in Paris, we headed for Grenoble to focus on our own business, the internal and external work of ACORN International and its affiliates, most importantly, the Alliance Citoyenne and our joint work through ReAct globally. Where do we begin? Well of course everywhere, but we continue such conversations in captive audience meetings on trains from Brussels to Paris and then into the night along the three hour journey between Paris and Grenoble. The conversations were wide ranging, charts and diagrams emerged, maps were drawn, boxes were ticked off, pros and cons debated, and endless lists emerged for follow up and implementation. It’s trite to say that it’s a big world, but true nonetheless, and the opportunities are boundless, but how are organizing models built except through similar processes of selection and rejection.

In France, progress seemed to have been made after our recent staff meeting to expand significantly in an area close by to Aubervilliers, where we are now organizing, in the lower income and immigrant suburbs. The devil is in the details, but there seems to be some blessing emerging for such a plan that could be a rocket boost for the work in Paris. Vision drives the timelines and trying to build a national organization, would find us still fledgling in 2017 at the next national election, but more realistically would allow us to concentrate multi-city growth and development by 2022. Lyon is the third largest city in France and only a bit more than an hour away from our powerhouse in Grenoble, so it’s an obvious choice to develop perhaps within the next year. St. Etienne is also in this cluster and about the same size as Grenoble, so would seem inevitable within coming years. We have an ally in Rennes, which takes that off the list for now, while discussions continue, but what else is possible? Marseilles is the second largest city. Lille has been mentioned in the north. Nantes is worth thought for size and location. Without some strategic thinking Paris and “greater Grenoble” could take us years, so this will be interesting to cobble together.

With a meeting of all of our Africa-based staff, thinking about France seems easy compared to trying to determine where we can build a showcase operation to root the model and the work in Africa. On the Anglophone side, we have a deep and lasting commitment in Kenya, but have had trouble breaking out of the Korogocho slum, given its size (450000) and complexity, and certainly can’t pretend that we are contending for power anywhere else. Meetings in Germany and earlier in London, put South Africa on the list based on the prospects of developing a training program for community organizers there, but who is to know. ReAct has done extensive campaign work and direct organizing in several countries in Francophone Africa so their experience drives this conversation importantly. Cameroon has shown the most promising success and our work in organizing more than 1000 plantation workers in several areas of the country also proves that the base and campaigns can be built in more rural areas as well. Our meeting in the fall is going to be held in Douala, so that city, one of the largest in central-west Africa, immediately becomes a primary candidate, so we’ll have a chance to take a good look. Another argument was made for an even larger city, Abidjan, the economic capital of Ivory Coast and West Africa. The political climate is slightly less stable, but the potential there is huge.

The one certainty is that to organize effectively in countries throughout Africa, we have to build a showcase operation in several places just as did in the United States starting in Little Rock, in Canada starting in Toronto, in Honduras now for Latin America, Bristol in the United Kingdom, and Grenoble in France in order to drive the growth. These conversations are always heady and exciting, but the decisions that follow and the commitments they entail are permanent, so care and caution must match vision and dreaming in such planning.

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French Organizers Try to Teach an Old Dog New Tricks

picture of the game in the Aubervillere office

picture of the game in the Aubervillere office

Paris   The first ever meeting of ACORN related organizers in Europe is at the midway point and continues to produce real work and encouraging plans and programs for the future. For many of you that’s just blah, blah, blah, good luck and who cares, so let me share a couple of tricks our French organization is trying to teach me, some with more ease than others. Who knows what will take, but the process itself is interesting and educational.

We always say that for organizing and actions to work well, it’s also important that they be fun. Sitting in our office in Aubervilliers, there was a children’s game of some kind next to where I had perched my laptop for a minute trying to catch up on email in other time zones after the first day of meetings with the Alliance organizing staff about organizing drive mechanics. It was obviously some kind of children’s toy, and since we were sharing the space with some other organizations, I just assumed that it was something someone had left to occupy their kids when they were trying to get something done. When Solene Compingt, the Alliance staff director, came in, I jokingly asked her what was up with this thing. It had four different colors and was obviously a game that eliminated choices between the players. She explained that they had bought it for their Parisian staff. There had been three organizers on the Paris team, all hired at the same time, all equal, so sometimes, not unusually, they had some challenges being able to make decisions. In a poignant, but good spirited way, Solene had broken through the problem by getting them the game, so that they could play it and – with tongue in cheek – make a decision based on whoever won. Ingenious!

picture of open forum wildness

picture of open forum wildness

In making the agenda for the meeting with the Alliance team, especially Adrien Roux, I had not clearly understood something called “Open Forum,” which I thought was just a bridge introduction to the workshops, many of which were listed, and that we had reviewed in several revisions back and forth. When the national coordinator in Britain had suggested another topic after the drafts were out, Adrien had simply said, no problem, we’ll deal with it in the “open forum” and take suggestions on additional workshops. Oh, OK, I’d thought, whatever, we’ll add it later, and away we go.

the first is also of the open forum process

the first is also of the open forum process

Here’s what I learned from this French twist on the workshops. None of the workshops were set. The ones we had listed, were only suggestions. When we got to that space in the meeting during the afternoon, Adrien passed out a sheet of paper to the more than 20 organizers in the room and asked them to suggest a workshop they were interested in and willing to take responsibility. Adrien had drawn six columns on the white board with the time slots and everyone was given a sticky substance to fix their sheet on the board where they wanted. There was confusion, because all of the participants who were not French were game, but clueless about the process, nonetheless we marched with the program. Then everyone had to write their names on the sheets to indicate which workshops were the ones which they wanted to attend. In truth Adrien kept his thumb on the scale, even when claiming this was totally participatory, because he wrote separate sheets on some of the workshops, where we had previous agreement, and posted them up on the board as well.

workshops go well

workshops go well

It felt like chaos and verged on anarchy, and it took time, by my reckoning almost an hour from start to finish to sort out the workshops and get them started, though by brother Adrien, swore it was only thirty minutes. The actual workshops though went reasonably well in terms of content, and in truth there were some that would never have happened on our previous agenda, particularly on more sensitive issues like affiliation of allied organizations to the Alliance without this process. The downside is that the workshop leaders were interested, though not necessarily prepared which does impact the productivity of the workshop in the exchange for the participatory process. Additionally, in my old school system, the workshops are heavily weighted to organizational priorities and content that we’re trying to move forward. Some of that might happen in an “open forum” system, and some might not.

the last is the organizers' reward for having lived through, a climb up Montmarte and a view of Paris

the last is the organizers’ reward for having lived through, a climb up Montmarte and a view of Paris

Nonetheless, even if some old dogs don’t adopt new tricks as their own, that doesn’t mean we don’t pay attention and try to learn a thing for two along the way.

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There’s No Substitute for Winning

Tunisian women at a rally in Tunis marking the 5th anniversary of the 2011 revolution AFP PHOTO / FETHI BELAID

Tunisian women at a rally in Tunis marking the 5th anniversary of the 2011 revolution AFP PHOTO / FETHI BELAID

Paris   It was the usual traveling ordeal of multiple plane changes, little sleep, weak coffee, and a lost bag when I hit Paris, but years of travel have taught that it’s best to solider on. Furthermore it’s worth it, as I found ordering a single espresso at a sidewalk café in the late afternoon in the city, as we moved from table to table to escape the moving sun.

I was meeting with organizers active in communities in France and Tunisia. A board member of ACORN’s French affiliate, Alliance Citoyenne, was originally from Tunisia and had talked to me about the extensive time he had spent working there with younger people in recent years after the Arab Spring, and this meeting gave us an opportunity to explore in more detail how events had developed in that country with other activists as well.

Tunisia had often been presented globally as the one bright shining success of the Arab Spring, especially given the disappointment that has marked so many of the recent events in Egypt. The narrative holds that a coalition of business, labor and other forces had come together to ally with the street protests and the anger of youth, many of them unemployed or underemployed, to win agreements for change in the country. The coalition, which remarkably included the largest national federation of labor, received a Nobel Prize in recognition of their accomplishment.

Talking at the café, it became clear that the opportunity was still immense. Local elections are set for the spring of 2017. Certain powers are being devolved from the national government to local governments. The World Bank had funded an extensive pilot in participatory budgeting. There were calls for citizen participation and input.

Assessing these recent years though the organizers’ conclusions were bittersweet. People had responded to the calls to participate with thousands individually attending meetings, but were coming away disappointed with the lack of action and follow through. They were being told that they had a voice, but still couldn’t be heard. NGOs doing the mobilization were being pressured for next steps as if they could substitute for community-based organization especially in some of the lower income areas of Tunis with populations between 20,000 and 50,000 folks where the needs were the greatest.

The problem wasn’t simple but it was common. No organizations were being build that could be sustained without donor assistance. Without organization there was no follow through and worse, there were no “wins.” People were finding themselves in an endless loop of frustration because their action wasn’t resulting in change. We found ourselves telling each other the simple stories of winning things large and small after building organization whether in the US or Canada, France or Cameroon.

There’s no substitute for winning. The question in Tunisia becomes whether in the midst of tremendous opportunity for change, it is just the right time for community organization, or whether or not we are too late for this moment and would have to build for another in the future.

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