Hitting the Doors in Ecuador

organizer role plays

Quito  Every country is different, every city is different, and every community is different.  We start from there, and then we adapt what we have seen work in so many places and modify it to fit the circumstances and objectives of our organizing program.  No matter how many times I have done this, it still seems like a glorious miracle when we re-engineer the model, gas it up, put it on the streets, and once again see it work, which is exactly what I have been doing with Marcos Gomez from ACORN Canada over the last week.

In collaboration with Ruptura 25, we have fashioned the ACORN program we call “puerta a puerta y calle” – the “door-to-door and street” program for building contacts and commitments of support throughout the community.  Yesterday we put the organizers who are going to be our potential field managers in Carcelen, an area that our friends thought might be hostile.  Even on their rookie trip, the organizers did very well, so we’re on our way!  “Count-on-me’s” or “Cuenta Conmigo!” as we call them were signed by 10% of the visits almost.  Another 10% agreed to host house meetings (reunions en casa), and we had 25% of the visits rank as #1’s which is too high, but they will get more accurate as we go along.  It’s exhilarating!

In Quito “seguridad” or safety is a constant concern.  We have to navigate the visits through gates, bells, windows, and iron doors.  Multi-story buildings lead us to the house meeting program to build our organizing committees in buildings, much as we learned to do in Buenos Aires and Toronto.  We are pulling the organizers off the streets at 6PM as darkness closes in, so the schedule involves training, then street work among business and high traffic areas in the neighborhood to accelerate contacts on our 10-week timeline, and then four (4) hours puerta a puerta followed by the debriefing.

Some things change, but some things stay the same.  We may be posting the daily results on butcher paper with all the organizers names in our “territorio oficina,” as they call it here, but we’re also posting the daily totals on Google Drive, so other folks can see the results in a timely fashion.  We text back and forth to determine locations on the streets, which in much of our areas are letters and numbers (C-45 for example), rather than having names, particularly where the barrios began as informal squatting settlements.

Today we put out twenty (20) organizers to start the program, ready-or-not, in earnest in Quito Norte.  We made plans for expanding to Guayaquil yesterday.  Plans are moving for next week in Santo Domingo, the 4th largest city.  A trip to Manabi on the coast, will open another front.

Adelante!

Marcos Gomez going over the field plan

Locating Housing for the Poor: Good Intentions, Expediency, and Living with the Consequences

Robert Moses, seated at left in 1959, used his position as head of the Mayor's Committee on Slum Clearance to mass-produce thousands of units of public housing, often near the shoreline.

 Quito    One of the ironic outcomes of recent disasters, whether New Orleans or now New York, is that the public, policy makers, and politicians are finally forced to reckon with where the poor are, and often, where they have put the poor in ways that are hard to escape.  In a smaller way this is true of politics and elections as well, as we have recently seen in the sudden realization of the Republican Party that there are a whole, whopping lot of people out in America that don’t look or think like them.   Like disasters, democracy is an equally transforming experience, as I am also seeing daily in Quito and throughout Ecuador, as new and old parties try to calculate their appeal and power in places they do not know and with people they do not completely recognize because they are foreign to their daily experience.

In New Orleans ignoring the failure of public protection and the levee system, many areas that flooded were in places like the 9th Ward where land had at one time been cheap enough to allow African-American families to buy and build or where swamps had been filled sufficiently to allow developers to create cheaper land for housing expansion as the city grew.  In Quito or Mexico City or Lima, poorer and lower waged workers, immigrants, or migrants moved to where there was land, squatted, and tried to make the best of it, until cities were slowly forced to deal with the burgeoning populations and politicians were forced to figure ways to deliver to leverage their support. 

In New York an interesting piece today in the Times, “How the Coastline Became a Place to Put the Poor,” by Jonathan Mahler, looks at the role of legendary power broker and public developer, Robert Moses.

The Rockaways were irresistible to Moses. Once a popular summer resort for middle-class New Yorkers, who filled its seaside bungalows and crowded into its amusement parks, the area had fallen on hard times when cars, new roads and improved train service made the beaches of Long Island more accessible.

Never one for nostalgia, Moses saw the Rockaways as both a symbol of the past and a justification for his own aggressive approach to urban renewal, to building what he envisioned as the city of the future. “Such beaches as the Rockaways and those on Long Island and Coney Island lend themselves to summer exploitation, to honky-tonk catchpenny amusement resorts, shacks built without reference to health, sanitation, safety and decent living,” he said, making his case for refashioning the old summer resorts into year-round residential communities.

What is more, the Rockaways had plenty of land that the city could buy cheaply, or simply seize under its newly increased powers of eminent domain, swaths big enough to accommodate the enormous public-housing towers Moses intended to build as part of his “Rockaway Improvement Plan.” Though only a tiny fraction of the population of Queens lived in the Rockaways, it would soon contain more than half of its public housing.

In fairness of a sort, Mahler even concedes that maybe some of these re-locations might have not just been based on cheap land and eminent domain, but even “good intentions,” citing the efforts of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia to clean up the slums on New York’s Lower East Side, pushing new housing towards the waterfront, which also flooded in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

What interests me is not that plans go awry over time, that good intentions can create their own hells, or that concentrated high rises for the poor, the old, the infirm, and the challenged can re-ghettoize areas into new wastelands “…without reference to health, sanitation, safety and decent living” in the earlier words of Robert Moses, but the inability of governments, politicians, and the public to abandon their nostalgic notions of what they had hoped might be developed when they pushed the poor out of sight and fully meet the challenge of resolving the handiwork of earlier decisions and their consequences.  Without a doubt, cheap land is going to attract poorer families and poorly funded public works.  This is simply reality, regardless of the intentions, so let’s get past that.

The real problem is that whether governments push people there as in New York City or turn their heads and finally find them there in New Orleans, Quito, Lima, Mexico City, and thousands of other cities, small and large, ignorance of the government is not bliss, and the challenges created by reality have to be faced.  For want of a better way to say this, if housing is going to be separate, at least citizens and families have to be assured that it is equal.  Services have to be provided.  Transportation has to be affordable and accessible.  Jobs and work locations have to have incentives to move nearby.  Decent retail outlets have to be located in accessible areas and subsidized if necessary to ensure success.  Public schools, police, fire, health clinics and hospitals have to be built, supported, and guaranteed to perform at the same or better quality as provided anywhere else in the government’s jurisdiction.

The social contract between government and citizens cannot guarantee that there will never be mistakes or that perfection is possible, but has to warrant that every effort will be made to create equity and in simpler terms, to fix whatever is broken.  Ironically, doing so not only provides more citizen wealth, city stability and security, but on the long run saves money as countless studies have established.

Democracy encourages us to not avoid the messes we create and the problems around us because it allows people to have a voice and creates occasions where these voices cannot be ignored or silenced.  Disasters by definition are terrible and force us to stop ignoring the precarious problems we have created and reckon with the largeness of our “community” in terms of morality and human rights, easily swept aside in the hurry of everyday lives, but now no longer invisible, and recommit to the minimum standards that must be equitably guaranteed to all.

Land use is a public decision and commitment, not a matter of fate and possible fatality.

Governments and Housing: Mortgage Reform in the US and Formalization in Quito Norte

housing in Quito Norte

Quito     Housing was on my mind.

I spent hours yesterday in a pickup riding the steep roads and byways of Quito Norte with our team and local barrio leaders in the area, four up front and three in the back.  We traveled more than a dozen kilometers up, down and around the mountain sides, often with breathtaking views of the rest of the city or the airport or forested areas too steep still for squatting.  No matter what my colleague, Marcos Gomez from ACORN Canada, and I had been told about the roughness of the area, the fear of crime that led to constant questioning of our insistent advocacy of a door-to-door (puerta a puerta) program here, within a half hour I found myself whispering an aside in English to Marcos, that this had to be the best constructed – and serviced – major low-income barrio that I might have ever seen in Latin America.

Certainly, rebar stood everywhere reaching to the sky with its usual plaintive hopes for the future of the family struggling underneath, but these were sturdy, concrete and brick houses.  Some of the side streets were unpaved and we had to abandon one steep dirt road stretch even with 4-WD, but in the main, the streets were nicely cobbled with pavement bricks and even curbs.  As always in the slums, the higher reaches with more recent arrivals, squatting as they built, were rougher than those below, and, interestingly, in Quito Norte these areas seemed disproportionately populated with Afro-Ecuadorians than other areas, but they were still a long way removed from cardboard and plywood castoff structures I had seen in so much of the world.

Talking more to the local leaders and later to an interesting membership based organization, Banco Comunitario Atucucho, with block leaders in 174 blocks paying $1 per month, who had reacted to a cutback in municipal funding by creating a self-sustaining revenue source that sold several crops of maize per year, it became clear that the real differences emerged when they kept mentioning that the settlements on the mountain tops were “still informal.”  The City of Quito and it’s Mayor had finally concluded that the way forward in Quito Norte was to finally formalize almost all of the squatted areas, so we were in something of a construction boom and area-wide normalization led by soon-to-be home-and-landowners and a city finally not fighting, but actually moving in to accelerate the support and building of a public works infrastructure.  There were areas without sewerage still, but these were at the top.  Electricity was common.  Potable water was either there or around the corner with water trucks delivering only at the highest ground.  Government was making a difference by helping these tens of thousands of lower income and working families to become homeowners and build some citizen wealth rather than continuing in the gray area of informal and precarious status.

All of which made me read in full the Times editorial today which correctly identifies the bank toadying and inaction of the Treasury Department and other government outfit as the single largest failure of the domestic program of the Obama Administration.  We now have millions of Americans who are living in an “informal” status as well.  Twelve million as the Times cites, that owe $600 Billion more than their homes are worth.  Three million still awaiting foreclosure.  These are big numbers.  They should be able, just as in Quito Norte, to finally get their government to not just help, but do its job.

So much is undone for US homeowners still mired in the housing mess, fashioned on Wall Street and Orange County, and now aided and abetted by a president who knows better and needs to finally at least work his own administration to his and the peoples’ will, that we have to demand that, finally, we see real action, rather than empty rhetoric about foreclosures and homeowners.   The Times is right:

“…the foreclosure crisis, and its damage to homeowners and the economy, is still paramount. In the next term, the focus should be on debt reduction, refinancing, enforcement and true consumer protection.”

talking with folks of Banco Comunitario Atucucho

sign that says essentially that anyone caught burglarizing a home will be burned

 

 

United We Dream, Training in Quito, and Ecuadorian Volleyball

With Valentina Ramia of Ruptura25 we begin training organizers for first visits in Quito Norte barrios

Quito    Nice to wake up and read the front page of the New York Times and see our companero/companera Carlos Saavedra from Peru and Boston and Gaby Pacheco from Ecuador and Miami, along with other young organizers and activists with United We Dream finally get the credit for their courage and skill in breaking through both the Congressional and professional nonprofit Beltway gridlock to force actions which have now given at least temporary relief for more than 300000 immigrants raised in the shadows of the United States after their parents arrival.    We met with them at length in Washington last year and couldn’t have been more impressed.  They are a case study in how to make change, despite the odds, by creating a narrative around injustice, building and holding onto a real base, and then creating tactics that are not artificial but real demonstrations of anger, courage, and resolve.  We are all so close to seeing real change for so many of these young people, and hopefully many of their families, that even though it is still too early to celebrate victory, it felt great to finally see them get a small measure of the huge credit they deserve.  Viva!  Se si puede!

Speaking of Ecuador, it was exciting to start training our first thirteen organizers preparing to go puerta a puerta or door-to-door to begin building a base in the barrios of Quito as part of our partnership between ACORN International and Ruptura25, an emerging progressive political party in the country.  It was great to see the organizers point out on the large map of Quito, where they lived, as they introduced themselves to each other.  It was also fascinating to listen to them when we got them talking about local issues in their own barrios.  There was excitement talking about the corruption of local officials, unremediated by the national law enforcement apparatus, and having to pay bribes to place their children in public schools, get accepted for public day care, and even see their fathers pay to get professional jobs with contributions to politicians and parties.

While scouting turf in various barrios in Quito Norte, I got to see and enjoy a unique scene:  Ecuadorian Volleyball, or as our companera, Valentina Ramia, called it – EcuiVolleyball.  There are three players to each side, the net is very high, there are very relaxed rules on “holding” the ball, there’s no spiking, and people seemed to have huge fun with crowds gathering along the fence and in the stands for these specially built courts, in order to watch the action from one group of players after another.   Valentina told me she has seen other courts even in New York City, but it was news to me, and wonderful to witness!

Ecuadorian Volleyball

Welcome to My World on Thanksgiving!

photo from ACORN in Buenos Aires

New Orleans   On the eve of the USA Thanksgiving there is a long list of chores and cleanups, some long postponed, that have to be sorted out as family and friends assemble.  Normally, these times signals a momentary lull, a chance for a breath, but believe it, working in the world is not like that at all, and the pace quickens.   While so many are getting ready to put their feet up and feedbag on, I thought I would share:

  • Canada has Thanksgiving, but almost a month ago, so it’s just another workday and the emails keep rolling, especially on their release of a new remittance report.
  • Pictures in this morning finally from Buenos Aires on a recent human rights workshop in La Matanza, which the organizer had time to send since a general strike yesterday shutdown the city and most of the transportation.
  • Skype conference call today to prepare for our setting up the field program next week in Ecuador for the national elections in five provinces.
  • The election may be over in the USA, but ACORN International members are examining slates, programs, and plans for elections this coming year not only in Ecuador, but also in Honduras, Kenya, and Indonesia.
  • Work slowed in Mumbai as our operations in Dharavi with many Muslim members battened down the hatches as the shock troops of the right parties hit the streets to mourn the death of communalist instigator Bal Thackery.  Newspaper reports indicate that police have picked up two young women who questioned the respect being given this man on Facebook.
  • Social Policy went to printer yesterday for the fall issue, so proofs have to be checked out today, so issue hits mails internationally and domestically next week.
  • Interesting hour long conversation yesterday with David Moberg, labor reporter at In These Times, about organizing strategy and the work being done by UFCW at Walmart these days in USA.
  • Interesting reports from ACORN Italy on new legal services support being rolled out for our members there with more details to follow.
  • Early morning email from Belgrade where a former ACORN organizer in Ottawa is starting the process of seeing if an ACORN Serbia can be built there in coming months.
  • As I write this, I’m bouncing back and forth on Skype notes, about how to integrate community organizing into an on-line medical training course being offered globally and recently accepted as a pilot for 500 med students in Sudan.  They asked that I block dates in November 2013 to speak with them at their conference in Thailand potentially.
  • Double checking the schedule at Fair Grinds Coffeehouse so we can fit in the meeting after the holiday on how well we are doing on our environmental footprint and sustainability measure, making sure we are staffed fully on Thanksgiving because our community needs us, approving another group to play soon and another yoga and dance time slot, and getting ready to host the Tides Foundation JBL Awards presentation next week.

There’s always a lot to be thankful for on Thanksgiving and this small sample reminds me how lucky I am many decades ago to have found work that teaches me daily and resists boredom no matter the tedium of tasks, and where so many of us have developed small skills that can make contributions to the work being done every day around the world to bring justice, equity, and security to so many people.

Ecuador: Another Progressive but Contradictory President, Oil Fed Economy Boom, Assange

progressive organization in Ecuador

Quito   A couple of days filled with meetings with the leadership of Rupture 25, an progressive political party in Ecuador working on its field operations plan for the upcoming national election next February as a crash course in the subtle politics of the country, exposing some of the contradictions in the general world view on the left branded President Rafael Correa and the hackneyed narrative about this group of current national leaders.  Correa, a former economics professor, has done an outstanding job with the economy with robust annual growth rates during the current global recession.

No small amount is driven by oil.  There is a long term sourcing contract with the Chinese who will buy much of what is produced from the country from 2015 to 2030.  A new refinery is being built with their loans, now totally $8 billion last year.  Spain which was investing $250 million a year, is now investing less than $2 million given the hardships in that country.  At lunch today, we watched a large delegation of Korean business people leave from the backroom.  They are also big players here.  There is talk to moving away from the oil economy, but that takes years as well.

Similar to the conversations we had recently heard in Bolivia, there was some disappointment by progressives inside the country with Correa.  One observer felt that 90% of what Correa was doing, particularly with the economy, was great, but that “10% is driving people away,” and this particularly had to do with human rights, press freedom, and other critical democratic norms.  Rupture 25 had been in a coalition with the President’s party, heading four departments, with 100 members working in government, and 90 left en masse in protest of policy directions.

Julian Assange and the Correa nose thumbing move to provide him sanctuary in London was a non-issue and a yawner in Ecuador.  Many felt this was just another split screen perspective that played huge worldwide but had no impact inside the country.

Nonetheless, there was no indication despite a number of parties assembling in the field and candidates including some very well financed, including a banker with a network of over 1000 microlending branches around Ecuador, that Correa was in any serious trouble facing re-election.  I listened to one conversation where the argument was whether he would win in the first round or have a runoff, but consensus seemed to say he would be back.

The politics seem less right or left, but open government versus consolidated and centralized power.  There’s mandatory voting (hurrah!) and a robust and contentious election ahead, and this will be another country worth watching as a harbinger of the future.

Quito North -- part of the party's priority base work in Quito