Action Wins in Grenoble

Grenoble   On my whistle stop tour of almost all of our offices in France and the United Kingdom, of course my first stop had to be in Grenoble.  It seemed like I was in store for a heat wave as the temperature was predicted at over freezing for my first time in over a week.  Instead as I left to catch a tram and bus to be part of an action by ACORN’s affiliate, the Alliance Citoyenne, it felt even colder, as I trudged through freezing rain in the most miserable weather to date.

Adrien Roux, the head organizer of the Alliance, shrugged as we all gathered across the street under an overhang to assemble, saying the horrid weather made the point, since our demand was for new windows to replace the old wooden sashes in this public housing project which let the wind into the units in freezing gusts.  Many of the members had wrapped blankets from home over their winter coats to make the point, and they were glad to have them in this weather.  One of the organizers had brought a fox stole which various leaders tried out.  Telling the story to an organizer in the States, she said, “how French!”  Repeating her line to all of the French organizers later, they said, “we thought it was so American!”

on our way

The action was at the regional housing authority office that was responsible for social housing in that district.  We had won on this issue the year before at another housing project, but still when we hit the door and all 25 of the members crowded around the front counter, the staff of the agency seemed surprised and couldn’t control their outrage, just adding fuel to the fire.  One man at the counter, egged on by the staff, started yelling at the members, and when Adrien moved to calm him, he briefly shoved Adrien, and the members surged forward in a wave of their own anger.  Managers finally regained their composure briefly, allowing almost everyone to go to a conference room to hear them out.  I stayed in the waiting room with half-dozen of the leaders from other projects, and for over an hour there was a constant tag-team argument and shouting match between the counter staff and our leaders, as they continued to rail in displeasure at our tactics.

the target

Inside it was much the same in the beginning, but I could see clapping finally through a space in the window, and a bit later the door opened after more than an hour of negotiations and I could see many of our members moving to leave.  Much of the press had remained waiting to hear the results, and no matter the agency’s shouting, we walked away with a victory when they committed to inspecting each of the apartments immediately, and then moving to replace the windows in any that were not blocking out the cold.

up the stairs

all inside

brief melee

breaking up the negotiations

out the door

At noon suddenly, metal gates came down all around the housing authority building blocking any entrances as the agency shut down for an hour-and-a-half for lunch, barring all tenants from entry.   How French!

leader does press briefing

Our debriefing was quick, even though the rain had stopped and the sky was partially clearing.  People were excited, and there were plans for an evening meeting of the Grenoble board to discuss the victory and plan for next steps.  How ACORN!

debriefing with key leaders after the action by Adrien Roux

celebration with Grenoble board later that evening…”let them eat cake,” so we eat cake!


The Pleasures of Meeting with Local Leaders

Grenoble   Your average person on the street would say that sitting in a meeting for a couple of hours conducted in a foreign language with only occasional translation would be right there on the list with watching paint dry, but they would be wrong. For perhaps the fourth time in the last two years I was a guest at the local board meeting of the Alliance Citoyennne, ACORN’s affiliate in Grenoble, and, as always, it was a pleasure. As a leader said during our meetings in Paris earlier, “Grenoble is the Little Rock of France,” meaning that just as Little Rock was the founding city of ACORN, so does Grenoble have the pride of place in starting the Alliance on its successful path.

It was hot in Grenoble and though the office has small fans propped on many a desk, and none of the humidity of New Orleans, making it all still highly tolerable, meetings quickly move to the shade of the trees in front of the coop offices. A card table holds the papers, and chairs are clustered around. I enjoyed the fact that when I sat down, I knew everyone of the board members now from my last visit, so it was like seeing old friends. Even the one member who missed his train, was well known to me. Rather than stumbling through the cheek kissing greeting of France, I could appreciate the good will of greeting people again. It was cool in the shade and there was a steady breeze, so who could complain?

The agenda before the board was difficult. There had been a hard slough of conflict with mistakes made and tough lessons learned throughout the last year. Some leaders had left. There had been difficult staff transitions. The mere fact of conflict itself had been trying on everyone. I could repeat how natural and normal this was in a new organization’s life a million times, and that would not have made anyone feel any better. The board had grown though. These were now veteran leaders well used to each other and prepared to lead. The board had also completed the transition to a governance structure that was almost completely composed of members elected from the local group membership which also made a difference.

The hardest issue the board tackled was how to deal with the decision around a new head organizer for the Grenoble organization. They had a strong 3-person staff, but that almost made the process more difficult, wanting to both keep everyone on the team, but also pick a leader of the team. Any decision would set an important precedent throughout the organization about how much the leadership wanted to manage and direct the process, and once in, would there ever be a way out? There was a lot of discussion back and forth and various proposals, including individual interviews with each organizer. The added difficulty had been the fact that the staff had proposed a candidate in recent weeks, but the board had not come to consensus around the candidate. Finally, the board directed that the overall Alliance head organizer needed to meet with the staff and essentially, work it out, and come to agreement with the staff and then make a recommendation that the board could either accept or reject, while protecting its position to determine policy. It was the right decision.

Talking about the future, they planned a discussion on an exciting campaign to run their members and leaders to the government boards of all of the public housing projects where they had strength. The elections are held every four years and the next is in 2018. This is the area where leadership that has been developed in these kinds of struggles can shine. I was enthusiastic.

The meeting ended on a high note, and, this being France and Grenoble, and this great group of leaders, then we ate homemade chocolate cake with raspberries and whipping cream on top! C’est bon!