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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