Techo, Tagging, and Finding Another Way

Dallas   Sometimes if you can’t be good at least hope you’re lucky.  Once we were on the ground in Paraguay, we were hustling to fill up the dance card of our agenda with meetings.  We had heard the name of a group that was called Techo that was involved in housing.  Ok, sounds good, and finally we were able to schedule them as our very last meeting before flying out of the country, but on our third day in the country, my excitement about the meeting changed dramatically.

We were in a cab going from the Fundacion Bertoni to our next meeting, and suddenly we had seen some young people “tagging!”  Darned, if they didn’t have on white-and-blue t-shirts that said “Techo” on them.  A young woman even put her head in the window with a clipboard, and we told her we were going to meet with Techo in a couple of days.  Andrew Marciniak, ACORN Toronto head organizer, and one of our intrepid team that made it through the Brazilian visa process to see the amazing Igazu Falls, reported to me that he had seen a bunch of Techo folks doing the same thing at the border.  I was excited now:  these were my kind of people!

If you are an organizer and you have never been part of a tagging operation, I’m not sure you’ve really lived.  Tagging is the epitome of street fundraising.  ACORN’s tagging operation, originally pioneered in Columbus, Ohio by Fred Brooks, and then picked up in a number of offices, most spectacularly in New Orleans by ACORN and Local 100 United Labor Unions, involved getting old tennis ball cans, putting an ACORN slogan on the outside, taping the can with a slot for money, and putting largely teens and sometimes staff and members on the busiest streets in the cities with the longest stoplights to go car to car to raise money for the organization.  Devised initially by firefighters hitting the streets asking for donations into their boots and then giving people a “tag” saying thanks, it was repurposed as a grassroots fundraiser.   Don’t scoff either.  New Orleans would regularly net more than $1000 on a Saturday in the 1980s.  When Cecile Richards, most recently head of Planned Parenthood of America, spoke at an ACORN Year End / Year Beginning Meeting she rightly bragged to the crowd about how great a tagger she was!

Meeting Bruno Lopez, the General Manager of Techo Paraguay, and his management team at their amazing headquarters in a donated, rambling house and property in the city, he told us that we had witnessed their annual fundraiser, and though they were still counting, they expected to raise $400,000 USD from their tagging operation, accounting for almost half of their budget.  Techo turned out to work in more than twenty Latin American countries and to have its roots in organizing largely young volunteers to build small scale emergency housing for lower income and displaced people after disasters.  The housing can last up to 10 years!

This is still a huge part of their program, but they have been reaching out and expanding their focus.  Sofia, their operations manager, described their emerging organizing “model,” which had many close parallels to the ACORN Organizing Model substituting volunteers for members, adding dues, and other items.  Bruno and his team were reflective.  They were thinking about making changes and pushing the envelope past the history of their organization and its operations, and were most curious about lessons we might have learned in doing so as well.

Luckily, we all felt as we walked away from our last meeting in Asuncion that we had some how saved the best for last!

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Redevelopment, Resettlement, and the Right to the City

Banco Alimentos

Asuncion     There are more than 500,000 people living in the Asuncion, the capital and largest city in Paraguay, with 30% of the country’s population located in the metro area.  In meetings with Habitat Paraguay, Banco Alimentos, and Oxfam Paraguay we heard a lot about the challenges faced by lower income families trying to meet their basic need for jobs, food, and housing, all of which are being met by these groups in different ways.

The Organizers’ Forum delegation spent a lot of time trying to understand one of the largest, and most contentious, of Asuncion’s current development issues involving the estimated 100,000 people living sometimes in precarious situations because of flooding, mudslides, and inadequate housing along the lowlands running the whole length of the city along the Rio Paraguay.  The city has embarked on massive resettlement plans as well as potential redevelopment of its waterfront in many areas, including near the Capitol buildings and the central area where there is talk of a “new” city center.

In December 2017, the resettlement of 1000 families in Barrio San Francisco in the northern part of the city was officially completed.  The city had constructed the houses and public facilities and services, and the families had voluntarily relocated.  In a special project, Habitat had contracted with the public utility to facilitate the resettlement as an intermediary there and in another redevelopment program being undertaken in Chacarite Alto, a neighborhood on higher ground where housing needs to be secured against mudslides. Barrio San Francisco is seven kilometers from where the families had lived on the floodplain, so Habitat acknowledged that there were transportation issues and more time in travel for families who had walked to work, but were now spending time and money moving from the outskirts of the city to the central district.

Habitat Ex Direct

Oxfam Paraguay was working with a coalition of community-based groups in the same areas.  They told us of families that were moving back to the waterfront neighborhoods from Barrio San Francisco because of the work-travel issues and higher costs of living there.  Water and electricity had been essentially free through illegal connections along the river, but was legal with minimum payments required in the new development.  The city is also developing another 4000 units of housing in the southern part of the city for additional resettlements at a somewhat shorter distance.  Many are joining a “right to the city” movement arguing that they have lived in these areas for generations and want the redevelopment plans to reflect their interests.

These contentious issues of urban renewal, environmental hazards, precarious housing and informal communities, are certainly not new and are common in cities all over the world, but are especially fraught for lower income families.  Banco Alimentos, the food bank, serviced centers throughout these same areas.  The groups were all respectful of each other’s work and when talking about the government’s plans, everyone seemed to be trying to touch the elephant with the rest of the blind, but there was little question that tens of thousands of families face displacement no matter the rationales and justifications with little power to determine their futures, all of which is a prescription for conflict and confusion.

We wished them all well, but feared the worst.

Oxfam Paraguay

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Please enjoy Woman by Cat Power, featuring Lana Del Ray.

Thanks to KABF.

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