Peer Power, Crowd Sourcing, and Fixing Cities

New Orleans   The New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board broke up about 10-feet of the sidewalk in front of my house to do something with their pipes six months ago.  Three months ago a truck with two of their workers parked in front of the house and looked at it without getting out of the pickup.  I asked if there was a plan or a timetable to comeback and finish the job by repairing the sidewalk.  Oh, yes, they replied.  We’re making sure it’s on the list now!  Living in the broke-ass City of New Orleans, I’m pretty relaxed about the sidewalk.  I only really remember the problem every time I mow the yard and the pebbles come firing back at my legs.  If I could choose, I would have some of the potholes that almost swallow my truck fixed elsewhere, but of course that’s a different city entity with different funding sources….

In the spirit of neo-liberalism, transferring the responsibilities for common issues to regular citizens rather than public authorities, I constantly read of these magical solutions brought to us by either the internet or….each other?  Some of it sounds great and in fact would be a real contribution.  We were big fans of what crowd sourcing might do in the Korogochu slum in Nairobi if we could have figured out a way to get text messages on cell phones to alert people about crime and security issues in the community and pressure police for action.  The lack of confidence in the police acting and technical problems stalled that notion, though it still seemed promising.

Reading the Wall Street Journal recently, an op-ed book promotion by Steven Johnson touted “peer power.”  He told of an organization in New Haven, Connecticut called SeeClickFix, where “ordinary citizens” have reported “potholes, abandoned cars, graffiti.”  He claimed that “city governments have used the data to address more than 125,000 cases in neighborhoods across the U.S.”  Interesting, but is reporting really the problem or is the real problem the actual fixing?  Having worked in organizing communities for decades, I’m really pretty sure it’s the fixing part of the equation where we stumble.  Cities may prefer getting a message via the internet rather than a screaming rant from an unhappy taxpayer or worse a group of neighbors showing up at City Hall or Public Works, but all of this ignores the real problem by promoting something that is nowhere near a solution.

Even better or worse, Johnson celebrated something called “neighbor.ly” which had created a classic neo-liberal “solution” and created a “Kickstarter-style platform where people can propose and crowdfund new projects in their communities:  bike racks, community gardens, playground swings.”  Well, at least they weren’t funding basic city services on a voluntary basis, but neither are these kinds of initiatives creating public consensus on quality of life issues.  Instead they are creating a facility for self-funding separate projects not based on community decision making but on self-certified and resourced groups.  Tending a community garden may be one thing, but why aren’t bike racks and playground swings pure-and-simple public goods and therefore public responsibilities?

Where Johnson was right was in promoting “participatory budgeting” based on the Porto Alegre, Brazil model, but that’s a whole different situation where a municipal budget is cobbled together in a city over a million people with an elaborate – and equitable – system of full citizen participation to make decisions about how to spend their public dollars in the best way.  Not surprisingly the access to potable water and building adequate sewer systems increased dramatically once the ruling municipal party, the PT or Workers’ Party, instituted this process.

Porto Alegre is a model for real citizen empowerment, not the replacement of public functions by private citizens.  We need to not be confused.  Apples are not oranges anywhere in the world, and the right and the neo-liberal advocates should not be allowed to hide their efforts to push public responsibilities onto private citizens by conflating real power with an artificial substitute.

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Mexico’s Assault on Workers and Visiting Neza

Delegation with Laura in front of symbol of Workers University

Mexico City  The day started ominously in Mexico City as I walked at dawn towards the Zocalo.  First the Alameda, one of my favorite parks in the world, was encased in a plastic, invisible wall indicating some form of construction for some indefinite amount of time.  Then the Palacio Belles de Artes was blocked by police barricades and armed, bivouacked soldiers, which I later understood was in preparation for the funeral of Carlos Fuentes, the Nobel prize winning Mexican author.  Later walking to the Universidad Obera de Mexico in the light of day with the whole ACORN International delegation, the sun was shining and life on the streets of the city invigorated everyone.

Laura Juarez Sanchez, a researcher at the UOM on the effects of economy, migration, and other topics had prepared a briefing for us that was sobering to say the least.  With elaborate charts and carefully chosen words she laid out the case against neo-liberalism that was stark in the Mexican context.  The heart of her argument rested on the stagnation of the minimum wage for Mexican workers compared to other industrialized countries, including the USA and China.  She argued that the wage was now in comparison, the lowest in the world and the growth in the minimum wage had been miniscule, all because Mexico was trying to hold on to its place in the “race to the bottom” by competing against China and other Asian countries on the basis of wages even as maquila jobs were leaving the country.  The assault on Mexican workers was not simply based on low wages, but also included abnegation and dilution of the labor laws, privatization and reduction of pensions, limited health care, and increasing barriers to education.  We were glad to see our companera, Laura, at UOM and to meet in their lovely library, but there were no smiles on our face about the news she offered.

Similarly, we toured the Neza (Nezahualcoyoth), where ACORN Mexico has done most of its organizing in recent years.  Our leaders said there had been some progress in the struggle for water, but it was mainly around increased water pressure and access to more homes of water adequate for bathing, washing, and so forth.  Potable water for drinking and food preparation was still the issue and for many ACORN families sucked up 40% of their monthly income!

Besides the issue of potable water, we spent some time along the drainage canals and the rio negra  as our members called the rivers of sewage discharge that were floating out of Neza without any treatment.  The coming summer rains inevitably would lead to floods and the sewage once again overflowing into many homes and sections of Neza.

Rio Negra -- sewage discharge into river at Neza

The reports indicated progress, partially by exploiting the opportunity to pressure the parties in the face of the coming national and local elections on July 1st.  Federal elections only come every six years, so our campaign cannot depend on this opportunity, because we are unwilling to wait.

Everyone with ACORN Mexico Neza members


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