Bricks and Sticks are Important, but Different than Social Change

view of the grounds and neighborhood from the terrace on 4th floor

Bratislava       We had an interesting set of meetings scheduled at a new enterprise launched during the last year in Bratislava that involved creating cultural and community spaces in an experimental building.  After hearing about community centers of various sorts and sizes throughout Slovakia, we were finally going to get to see the urban version on steroids.

The backstory told to us by several of the four founding members and their staff was fascinating.  It had begun as an effort to try and take over an old textile mill at the outskirts of town, but that effort had faltered when a big-time developer outbid our heroes with a well-financed plan to build high-end, luxury apartments.  Instead, a more realistic search for an equivalent space enlisted the municipal government and after much negotiation and some luck in financing, an abandoned school building connected to a dormitory building was acquired by four partners with a half-million-euro loan to rehab and a 25-year lease from the city.

principal member of four owners of building space

The progress made in just one year was impressive.  There were a wide variety of tenants, the manager told us there were now some seventy rent payers at 6.50 euros per square meter per month for space that averaged about 80 meters.  Walking through the building we saw spaces rented by artists, a performance area, a film area, a bakery, photo and print shop, clothing and toy stores, a café, day care center, co-working center, and a kitchen that served lunch inexpensively to the community of 200 to 300 that were in the building at any one time.  The dormitory will eventually offer housing for about 80 small units.  Much work still needs to be done, but it’s an impressive complex, garnering a lot of interest.  For example, their first open house was attended by 7000!

tenants,  co-working space

One of our delegation asked the staff how they saw the building creating social change.  It turned out to be a surprisingly difficult question for the core team to answer easily.  They didn’t want to see themselves and their internal group or “community” as fixed in a landlord-tenant relationship, but the more they talked the more it seemed they were caught in a box between the four partners and the burden of paying off the bank loans, and their hopes that the building would be successful and supported by the community.  One woman was the sole voice for social change when she spoke of creating models and access for affordable housing.  Most of the rest, whose hearts were pure as goal and intentions lofty, were focused on the role of the building for the community of tenants, rather than the role of the community around the building.


I was reminded of advice I had gotten almost a decade ago now about having to make the decision about what was important, “bricks-and-sticks” or power and people.  They have an interesting operation, and the principal partner told me about a network of similar projects, and I had visited one building in an old armory not long ago in Hamburg, Germany that seemed very similar, but there’s a tension in the goals and objectives when one gets to the bottom line.  Social change is not just a building.  Common space is important, but it doesn’t equal change, and is a long way from building power.



Technology in the Service of Social Change

Santa Cruz   I drove over the mountain, as they say in this area, and ended up on the top of a hill with a dramatic view of the valley and water, while visiting the stunning campus of the University of California at Santa Cruz. I was there to talk to students who are part of the Everett Program there, where ACORN is new partner, along with other nonprofits. My other motivation was an effort to get a better grip on what the program was all about, as a rookie to the enterprise.

I had gained some sense of the operation over the last year through a series of Skype calls and emails. We are fortunate to have three of the Everett Program students working with our organizers in Bengaluru, India this summer to help create a CiviCRM database for ACORN’s 35,000 member hawkers union there, so this also offered the opportunity to meet the interns face-to-face and shape the effectiveness of their upcoming two months in India with us.

The background I learned from the director, Chris Benner, and veteran staffer and organizer, Katie Roper, indicated that it had been a program for several decades at UC Santa Cruz, but has recently been expanding. Every fall, they begin with about 100 students and by the end of the spring quarter they have about 30 ready to embed in various projects. Historically a lot of the efforts have been California-based, so ACORN is a beneficiary of their growth and expanding vision. Being on the ground I was able to do an early pitch for a team in 2018 to work out of New Orleans to support the tech needs of our organizing both domestically and internationally, which was a nice piece of lagniappe.

Most interestingly was the opportunity to talk to the students for a minute and more importantly to hear their questions and get a feeling for what they were thinking. Spoiler alert: they have a foreboding sense of the world and how it views change and organizers who are part of that process.

Over the years I’ve talked to a lot of classes and groups of young people, but now in the Age of Trump and hyper-polarization,  I was still surprised when the first question asked me whether or not I had ever been threatened in the work and how frequently organizers were assaulted. Later in the session, another young woman asked a question that went to the heart of whether or not a young person in their early 20’s could even play a role in the work and whether or not it was worth the risk to jump into the struggle. At one level, this is encouraging. Young people are taking the temperature of the times, and learning that it’s not pretty out there with love, flowers, and constant applause. If these kinds of questions are any true sampling, they are less naive, and therefore will be better prepared, if they take the leap into the work, to weather the constant storms and flying brickbats. On the other level, it is worrisome whether in these beautiful, redwood towers, people might feel intimidated and fearful of taking the plunge to work in the hardscrabble countrysides and mean streets of the city.

We need an active army of organizers and people ready to work in the allied trades, and that was my message: there’s a role for all of you, but everyone has to put their shoulder to the wheel and help to win the fight in this struggle. I hope they heard me. We need their help.