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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