The Activists of Paris Are Ready for a Movement Now

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a workshop for activists at the labor union hall

Paris   On the bus to our meetings in Paris we were clogged up in a huge traffic circle where the Bastille, the infamous prison of the French Revolution was located. On that site now is a quite grand appearing Opera House. My colleague had earlier reprised stories of Charles De Gaulle and his comeback after the worst defeat of the French Army “in 2000 years,” as he called it. We met members of several local political parties in the afternoon at a café, where even I could translate the original sign saying this was the Café of the Unions. Down the street we met that evening in the a vast building constructed by the unions after the mid-1800’s Paris Commune, when workers concluded that they had insufficient space in Paris to meet, discuss, plan, and take action. In the room where we met a score of local activists, a translation of the sign on the door was that this was the room “of the little strike.” History seemed everywhere around us, but even surrounded by history, this is where things start.

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In Grenoble, our leaders were focused on the hard problems at the basics of organization. How to build their local groups and keep the members active? How to balance growing the organization with maintaining the existing pace? How to navigate their role as leaders between the staff and membership? In Paris, our colleagues had vast political experience in the labor movement, student unions, mobilizations, political parties, and more, but they were looking past the grassroots specifics to the grander vision, and they were hungry to ignite the movement that would bring back the good times and create the big changes of our dreams. They knew the work of our affiliates and partners, Alliance Citoyenne and ReAct, and the idea of ACORN excited them about the possibilities they could see in the future.

Answering Questions

Answering Questions

The questions probed recruitment, campaigns, and of course politics and how ACORN handled these issues around the world and historically in the United States. Ironically, where with the leaders I had tried to gently pull them towards looking at the bigger picture of their opportunities, with this crowd of seasoned activists I found myself pushing them to the concrete realities of the work and what it took to realize those dreams.

For example, one great question spoke of the decline of the workers’ movement in France and Europe and seemed to ask if ACORN could be the modern vehicle to revive those times of sweeping change. The question took my breath away with its excitement, but the enormity of the project and our place in it, forced an answer that must have disappointed many, when I argued that we would simply be one force of many and that we in fact couldn’t make it all happen without a wider array of organizations, especially labor, moving in the same direction. I had to remind my new friends that despite the growth and success of ACORN in the USA over its years, there was still galloping and growing inequity, the end of welfare, stagnant wages, declining incomes for many of our families, and abandonment of support for much of the urban America where ACORN members struggled and fought.

one of our leaders in Aubervillers and Solene Compingt of ACORN's affiliate Alliance Citoyenne

one of our leaders in Aubervillers and Solene Compingt of ACORN’s affiliate Alliance Citoyenne

Nonetheless, this was a hopeful crowd ready to do the work, and that was exciting in itself, and challenges us to do more in Paris and across France and Europe. It was refreshing finally to answer questions that came from one of our leaders in attendance from Aubervilliers, a Paris suburb on the brass tacks of negotiations, something I could handle more confidently. I even got a question on whether dues should be lower for a 23-year old member where with relief I could simply answer, “No.”

As we left in good spirits together after several hours of dialogue, we passed the door to the giant auditorium on the main floor. A peek inside saw people lined along the walls of the great expanse. They were singing, and we left the building to a joyous noise.

adrien roux of ACORN partner ReAct listens in on a small group at the end of workshop

adrien roux of ACORN partner ReAct listens in on a small group at the end of workshop

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Worrying with the Leaders of a New Organization

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the Grenoble chair brings people together to review

Grenoble   We had gotten a lot done in Grenoble during my visit. I had arrived on a weekend before a “bank holiday” for All Saints Day, meaning that many also took off what they call the “bridge” day here, the day before the holiday, leaving the office pretty much to our teams, the phones a little less busy, and fewer items on the list that had to be taken care of that minute. The highlight was going to be a workshop the leadership had requested on ACORN so they were clearer about both ACORN and their own work in building community organizations in Grenoble, Paris, and potentially all around France.

The workshop was the workshop I’ve often given. It consists of the highlight reel: the founding, the expansion, some victories, and now the work internationally. What is always interesting, especially with emerging leadership is the questions they ask and the answers they want. Every country is different of course, but many of the questions are the same with a tinge of local color, culture, and history.

leaders break to get organized after leadership's ACORN workshop

leaders break to get organized after leadership’s ACORN workshop

One of the first questions among this highly politically aware leadership was whether or not ACORN groups found the need to ally closely and identify with a political party. The fact that membership-based community organizations are political, but at the same time are nonpartisan is often a wide river to cross in the beginning. ACORN’s work in the United States on basic democratic practice like voter registration, get-out-the-vote, initiatives and referenda are not duplicated in many countries that have automatic registration of all citizens and multi-party politics forcing the organizations to walk tightropes through many political waters.

There rarely is a leadership meeting with an outsider where some leaders don’t take advantage of the opportunity to try and probe whether their situations are usual or abnormal. Are their local groups getting enough servicing by staff organizers? What is the true role of the organizers as opposed to the leadership? The questions sometimes run the gamut, between why do we need them, to how can we live without them? With a membership dues organization like ACORN and its affiliates it also includes where staff fits into the exchange of dues being paid to the organization versus work being done by the members. All of these questions came up in one way or another in Grenoble as well.

in small groups the exercise will be how to "present" the Alliance

in small groups the exercise will be how to “present” the Alliance

Even in another language it was easy to follow both the curiosity and the passion of many of the questions. It was even easier to take the temperature of the leadership’s struggle to come to consensus when various leaders would catch me to the side and lobby me.

One man wanted to gauge how much he should be concerned about the expansion of the organization to Paris as they tried to build and stabilize their base in Grenoble. I wasn’t sure whether I assuaged his fears or exacerbated them when I raised whether an expansion to Lyon, the huge, neighboring would be more comfortable. A woman wanted to lobby me about tactics. She was a veteran of struggles from the last century and she was frustrated by the tenor of neighborhood campaign tactics and wanted to know essentially when the actions would involve more pepper and less sugar. I assured her it was all bound to come, but it depended on the targets and the campaigns, but once the campaigns became citywide, “people get ready.” One woman showed me an article in English in a plastic encased, yellowed newspaper from Binghamton, New York with a picture of her father that wrote about how he and her brother had been killed in the Resistance. My English was inadequate to adequately express the right emotions to her for sharing something I will never forget.

one small group with Solene

one small group with Solene

It went like that. They broke into smaller groups after our two hours to discuss how best they wanted to present their organization to potential recruits. When they finished there was little doubt that we were in France. We then sat down to talk and, of course, ate cake.

in ACORN we work first, and then we have cake!

in ACORN we work first, and then we have cake!

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