Taranto My second day as a “professor” at La Scuola di Bollenti Spirit, the School of Hot Spirits, we were set to dive into how to look at campaigns. Roberto Covolo, the school’s director started with an exposition of some of the differences in the Italian understanding of “state” responsibility and reflections that he and some of the students had come to as they rehashed some of our first day of discussions of community organizing. From the discussion his helpful chart illustrated, we were able to look more seriously at some of the changing focus on public and private targets by community organizations that had arisen in the cross currents of neoliberalism and devolution. We were off to a powerful start!
Next thing you know we were planning a jobs campaign on ILVA, the giant Taranto, Italy steel mill with 11,000 workers. The bigger they come, the harder they fall. We actually found a lot of handles and a bounty of leverage points fairly quickly in the conversation, which got the hot spirits thinking just maybe this was all possible.
Next, they wanted to tackle a problem almost literally under their feet, the abandoned properties in “old town” Taranto. Where once there had been a community of 20,000 people, perhaps now 500 families lived in this section of the city. Houses had fallen down, been condemned as unsafe, and ended up in the hands of the municipality which lacked anywhere near the resources needed to rehabilitate the units. The students told me that anyone could buy a unit for as little as 2000 euros, but it might take 70 to 100,000 euros to rehabilitate the properties, though no one seemed to know for certain. I broke them into small groups to see what they might come up with, and they harnessed themselves to the task with interesting results. They were getting this organizing thing, finally it seemed.
Later in the afternoon, we visited a partner organization of sorts where I later learned some of them were likely to be assigned. This huge building had also reverted to city control in the new town area of Taranto. In a former life, it had been a workers’ center of sorts, located cheek to jowl with the naval facilities. This had also been the site of the Occupy encampment in the city, and continued to operate as an informal youth center of sorts with the tacit consent of the city but no resources including electricity and so forth.
Talking to the various groups in the afternoon that had come to visit with us in the space we could all easily hear the same refrain we had heard earlier in the workshops from the students themselves. There were many lost communities. One woman, when asked what she expected from the meeting, essentially said that she hoped to find “allies.” She lived in an abutting neighborhood and had not been in the space since she was a small child with her father picking up presents being given for Christmas by the workers. The young people in the group still occupying the site were searching for the same thing without much sense of how to find people and with some estrangement from organization even though they were also looking for the “tools” to build organization.
The school and many of its projects were experiments and innovations. The students were exciting and excitable, talented seekers hoping to make contributions and create real change for themselves. Over and over though it was impossible not to hear the search for community where people now felt a void and to hear and see the hope for organization expressed in so many ways. The students have another exciting 6-7 weeks to go in the school. For my part, I’m going to have to figure out how to act on what I’ve heard in southern Italy and see if there isn’t a way to deliver something in real demand: community organization!