Notes on Leaving Eastern Europe for My Father

lions in front of the justice building in Bulgaria similar to those in front of NY Public Library in Manhattan

Grenoble     My father and George Washington shared the same birthday, February 22nd.  He would have been 97 this year, and now he’s been gone just short of a decade.  Whenever I would visit countries unknown previously to either of us, he would always ask me to tell him whatever I thought might interest him from my travels.  Having just been to Bulgaria and Slovakia in some depth, I thought I would share some random notes of casual interest.

It is impressive how severe post-Communist modern public art is in both countries.  Dark, heavy, stark and powerful.  No smiley faces on display.  One piece on a local post office was a reminder of the Communist fall 30 years ago.

public art at a park in Sofia, Bulgaria

Churches seemed massive, and religious symbols are ubiquitous.  These are some seriously Catholic countries.  The most interesting older church I saw in the country side outside of Banska Bystrica was built of wood without any nails with the pegs still visible and the church still in business.

Everyone seems to drink espresso.  Filter coffee, as they call it, was fairly rare, even in many coffeehouses, as was much recognition even among progressives of fair trade.  Some of this may be the common myth that espresso beans that are fair trade are inferior.  I did see one fair trade sign on the walls of a family’s kitchen.  I asked and was told they had no idea what it meant, they just liked the signs as decorations.

still have telephone booths in Bulgaria

There were some surprises.  In solidarity and against my better judgment and normal prejudices about cultural elitism, I attended a 50-minute modern dance thing.  Though it was in Slovak, and I had little idea what was being said, couldn’t take pictures or read the program, it was amazingly powerful, and the pure physicality and athleticism of the men and women dancers was incredible.  The choreographer must have had to stage some occasional floor flops just to give some of them a breather.  I later ran into one of the dancers, and he told me that individual duos were put together by the dancers themselves.  Big wow there.

dance poster from Slovakia

Public transit was good, and people still gave the Communist regimes high marks for infrastructure improvement.  Wifi in Bulgaria is among the fastest in the world I was told.  There is also a dish with a potato pancake that for all the world looks almost exactly like an enchilada in Bulgaria.  Garlic soup turns out to be very good, and a bowl of chili I ate in Bartislava in some desperation was excellent.  Way too much bread in Sofia and the local go at scrambled eggs is way too runny.  There were some days I thought we were on a “snack tour” of eastern Europe.

the statue in front of the WWII museum in Banska Bystrica

These are old countries with deep histories.  Roman ruins and medieval castles are not quite as common as the churches, but they aren’t hard to find.  History is deep, requiring the memory to dust off old lessons about the Ottoman Empire and its range and the Austria-Hungarian Hapsburg dominance as well.

religious displays are ubiquitous

I visited the area with a blank slate of expectations, and left worrying about the places and the people with a fondness for both.

a church built without nails

fair trade as a kitchen decoration

a building in Bartislava built narrowly when taxes were assessed based on street frontage


The Edifice Complex and the Tension between Intake and Outreach

most of the CKO organizing team

Banska Stiavnica   The small city of Banska Stiavnica was a rich, mining city in its heyday.  The symbol of the city is two lizards, and the legend has it that a shepherd in the mountains saw them run under a rock.  Turning over the rock, he saw one was covered in silver dust and the other in gold dust, and so the city was born.  Now, Banska Stiavnica is a UNESCO world heritage site built on mountain goat hills complete with historic churches and monuments and new and old castles stationed on high ground as part of the fortress defenses against the Turks and the Ottoman Empire.

The tensions we tried to unravel in an extensive visit with the CKO organizing staff, working mostly in smaller villages around the central region of Slovakia in a project funded by the Open Society Foundation, were historic dichotomies in community organizing discussions, even if not dating back hundreds of years, especially in the European context.  In Europe a common confusion exists between community development and community organization with both terms often used simultaneously.  The development side speaks eloquently of “building community” while the organization side speaks of “communities building power.”  Good manners and aversion to conflict often conflate the two poles on this spectrum, both of which have value, but neither should ever be confused with the other.  ACORN of course through our housing corporation, service centers, radio stations, and other projects practiced community development, but always in service of organizing to build power.  As we listened to the reports and discussions of the organizing team CKO had assembled over the last six months, it became increasingly clear that this was still a confounding problem for the organizing program that was impossible for us to avoid.

The slightly different twist in central Slovakia was a seeming obsession or distraction of purpose and goals involving “community centers,” which helped me also understand better the donor-driven community center in the Roma area we had visited in Sofia, Bulgaria as well.  In listening to the organizers and visiting their projects over several days, the focus seemed more and more to organizing programs and participation in local community centers, rather than building effective community organizations.  In one case we listened to a proposal by an organizer standing in the midst of scores of desperately urgent issues arguing that the 20 or 30 families really needed to establish a community center as a priority.  I was reminded of the famous American labor critique written by Jonathan Tasini decades ago questioning their “edifice complex” in a tongue-in-cheek appropriation of the classic Freudian speculation on the Oedipus complex.  Where union leaders were uncertain how to build membership or deliver to their members, they constructed elaborate headquarters and halls, just as untold thousands of politicians have tried to affix their names to “brick-and-mortar” projects to cement their legacies rather than delivering benefits and progress to their constituents.  These neophyte organizers were uncertain of their work in their communities, so were grabbing at the community centers to define their purpose, it seemed to me.

At the same time as they related their goals, few if any focused on campaigns, membership growth, or other features common to organizing plans.  It became clear they were grasping for an “intake” model for their work, rather than the “outreach” model that defines much of community organizing, especially a door knocking intensive program, like ACORN’s.  If they could find their “members” in the catchment area created by community centers drawing people to them, how much easier would their work be than spending four hours per day on the doors and another hour on the phones talking to people in the architecture of something like an ACORN organizer’s daily work?

You can change the names of the cities, towns, and even the country, but the organizing problems presented in our two days were classic, and common to all organizing debates, and discipline, especially when it comes to constructing a real organizing program that puts power in the hands of the people, rather than the roof of a building over their heads to muffle peoples’ screams of protest over their real issues.