Organizing Tips from Bulgarian Enviros and Justice for All

Sofia     Organizing is somewhere on the spectrum between craft, trade, and art, so to keep even, much less ahead, of developments in the work, it’s important to pick up tips and examine the “nuts and bolts” wherever you can.  Conversations and observations in Bulgaria were providing me a laundry list of lessons.

On a lunch break I was able to observe a demonstration in front of the Environment building in Sofia of between 150 and 200 protesting an attempted development of a ski resort in the mountains and calling for the government to Save Pirin.  The organizers had fabricated a large sign as the focus of the protest which was quite elaborately constructed, partially on the site, where the pieces were assembled, but individual protestors were allowed their own creativity.  One had made a hand puppet, which drew a lot of attention, clapping in unison with the crowd’s chants as a rooster with a Save Pirin sign.  Another was in a green getup that ridiculed the rich developer who was taking a loan from his own bank to finance the project.  Either the signs were homemade or didn’t exist.

 

I was fascinated as well by the sound system.  I can remember our own routine of borrowing a shopping cart and a car battery to hook up a speaker and microphone for marches and demonstrations.  Here I found a modification of high tech sophistication, complete with its own portable generator, portable hand microphones, giant speakers on stands, and enough gear that I thought any minute we might be broadcasting a local radio show, all of which had been approved by police permit, which was equally surprising.  Quite impressive.

Later in the afternoon, I spent a fascinating couple of hours with Atanas Sharkov, who was not only a tech and app developer, including for the very popular, Taxistars, used by independent drivers to compete with Uber, but also a sparkplug behind Justice for All, a coalition that has been trying to reform the judicial system.  Tactically, they had tried to introduce a referendum to get Parliament to allow a vote on their issue.  The requirements were relatively low, only 5000 valid signatures, but Parliament had the power to decide whether to accept the referenda proposals, which led to easy rejection.

 

We talked a lot about lists, which are part of the lifeblood of organizing drives.  Organizers were not allowed to retain a list of their signature signers or at least all of the information, but obviously they were able to keep a list of their petition circulators which potentially afforded a pool of volunteer organizers to deepen their national base, I felt.  They mainly organized through a Facebook page where they now had 40,000 likes, almost 5000 added in the last 4 months, so a very vibrant tool.  Since Atanas knew his way around the tech side, I was able to get quick affirmative answers on whether or not he had excelled the list and data matched to phone, email, and address records that could fuel an effort to build organizing committees around the country.  Additionally, he was knowledgeable and skilled in the area of predictive and autodialers that could also be invaluable for direct communication to support the  organizing.

Justice for All has the capability to embrace all of these tools to create a mass organization, if they were to decide to take the natural next step and go from social media to street work.  Posting is fine, but doorknocking is calling their names.

This was exciting!

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A Simple Letter is a Strange Welcome to Sofia, Bulgaria

Sofia     New Orleans to Newark, Newark to Munich, Munich to Sofia, and I was there on a gray, chilly, but snowless day dressed dutifully as if for a short hop to the Arctic.  Our delegation assembled and jumped on the Metro at the airport station for a trip downtown, but Lyuba Batembergska and I jumped off early.  It turned out we had someplace to be and needed to be there PDQ.

Lyuba, as part of a professional fellows internship program, had spent a month with us in New Orleans getting an immersion course in community organizing, ACORN-style, with a taste for the city, our work, and our social enterprises.  Part of the program was a quid pro quo return visit where I would spend some time in-country with her now, going over her work and helping make a plan for the various projects she was handling.

One of her avocations, often discussed in New Orleans, was an effort to protect one of the last pristine stretches of beach and waterfront land in Bulgaria along the Black Sea.  As it turned out the reason we powered up the stairs like Sherpas with my luggage from the Metro and grabbed a taxi to drop my bags at the hotel, was that Lyuba and her associates were scheduled to deliver a letter to the Parliament mid-afternoon, so we needed to be humping.

We walked the two kilometers or so to Parliament, fearing we would be late, but when we got to the traffic island across from the building, instead, as we looked around, we were first.  Well, not exactly first, because there were police everywhere.  We were standing beside three police cars with more across the street and a van full next to the park.  There were police on every corner.  Clearly, we were in the right place to meet our friends, and the wrong place as far as the local gendarmes were concerned.

Over the next half-hour, forty or fifty of supporters of the effort arrived on foot or by bicycle.  A clipboard with the letter to the Parliament was passed around so that everyone could sign.  It seemed the issue at hand was a special procedure the Parliament was debating.  Normally, if land is not developed in a timely fashion by law in Bulgaria it reverts to its original use, and for this patch along the Black Sea, that meant it would go back to wilderness, making all assembled happy.  Parliament though was being fiercely lobbied to pass a special exemption that would keep the land available for the wannabe hotel developer.  The makeshift signs brought by supporters or being produced as the crowd assembled accused the developers of being part of the mafia, which infers corruption here.

Everything was calm until the crowd, led by Lyuba and her friends, walked across the street with the letter.  The police immediately mobilized at the curb to stop their progress.  There then ensued a break to negotiate, as people milled around in the increasing cold.  After a bit of stalemate, the alternative chosen was to march to another building where correspondence was normally received.  The usual back-and-forth about walking in the street versus sidewalk ensued, as police marched along with the crowd and other police cars followed.

The press was everywhere, so the message of the action got out around the country, but once there, the letter was also refused.

So far in handling such simple expressions of public opinion, Bulgaria seems like the US, Canada, and a score of other countries.  I’m looking forward to learning something new in Sofia, but so far, it’s same “ol’, same ol’” when it comes to allowing the peoples’ voices to be heard.

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