The Questions Bulgarians Ask about Organizing

Valentina Gueorguieva introduces The Organizer at Rainbow Hub

Sofia       In a task of herculean proportion, Valentina Gueorguieva, my program fellow in community organizing, had translated the entire documentary, “The Organizer,” into Bulgarian and managed to embed the captions in perfect timing sequence into the SRT file.  Sadly, I only know the rough outline of the technical requirements that I’m describing.  A perfectionist, she was disappointed that she had not had time to finish the last three minutes that ran during the final pieces of Lucinda Williams’ great song, “The East Side of Town,” that plays in the fading minutes of the coda before the credits, so there were English subtitles there.  Amazing to witness!

And, it mattered, which made Valentina’s work worthwhile.  Though most of the more than two dozen viewers spoke English fluently, many stood or came closer to the screen in order to better appreciate the full nuance of the English translated in their native language.  It was a testament because of the seriousness of the crowd that gathered at the Rainbow Hub, an organizing and social center supporting the LGBT community in Sofia.  Besides the LGBT activists several were community organizing fellows, others were anarchists that were part of the Fabricka center, there were environmental and Roma activists, feminists who are engaged in organizing an upcoming rally, colleagues of Valentina from her university, citizen participation and anti-corruption activists, and others, including a teacher in the Teach for Bulgaria American spinoff, all of whom had come to get a better grip on ACORN and most importantly, organizing.

Bulgarian subtitles

It is always fascinating to me that the questions are almost always ostensibly about ACORN and its experience, but really about whether something similar is possible or practical in the local context, which in this case was obviously Bulgaria.  My favorite questions were once again on proud display.  There are always several that attempt to probe the nuts and bolts of how the organization was built underlining the hope in so many audiences that they might see a film that looked under the surface at the methodology.  Then there are the ones that ask how they can do this in their city or country, and I try to find them later to urge them on and follow-up.

The more difficult questions, but also ones that I have come to expect in our polarized politics and tense relationships among each other, marvel at the diversity of ACORN’s leadership, especially African-American women, and whether such a miracle might also be possible through the community organizing process in a segregated and divided community like Bulgaria, still battling traditionalism and unresolved discrimination against the Roma.  A penetrating question about the prospects for labor organization in Bulgaria and elsewhere that offered me an opportunity to continue to promote organizing informal workers clearly arose from an analysis of the weakness and conservative nature of the Bulgarian labor movement.  This was a political and activist crowd, so they were critical in their questions about the influence of foreign donors and the un-accountability of the nongovernmental organization crowd in contrast to ACORN’s membership dues base.

I knew some of the moral of “The Organizer” story had hit home when the final announcement, with a bouquet throw to the message in the film, was an “ask” for donations from the crowd to support the Rainbow Hub.  That’s progress worth the work as well.

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“The Organizer” a Big Hit at the Festival des Libertes

mural on National Theater commemorating the Festivale and a critique of the war

Brussels      Perhaps the most interesting question I have gotten at a screening of “The Organizer” in a long time came from Professor Philippe van Parijs of the University of Louvain in Belgium, a noted scholar long recognized over many decades as an expert and advocate of universal basic income.  He asked a several part question, as many did, but the second half was the unique part of his inquiry.  After watching the movie and living along with the audience the ups, downs, and ups of ACORN and the victories and defeats I had experienced, he wanted to know how I managed to weather the storm and seemed “so relaxed and happy” as I stood to answer questions after the showing?

My answer was my usual.  My perspective on the work – and life – as a struggle to be met every day in a battle to resist, persist, and sometimes prevail.  Perhaps in fairness, he might have observed what should have been obvious to the audience.  It was hard NOT to be relaxed and happy.  There was a full house for this first ever showing of the film with French captions on the biggest screen I felt I had ever seen, partially perhaps because I had ended up after a TV interview sitting on the second row on the aisle feeling like the whole film was sitting in my lap.  The hosts had been prepping Adrien Roux of ACORN’s affiliate, the Alliance Citoyenne and me, about the details since shortly after noon – six hours before, so it was great to finally have this part over and hear the repeated and appreciative roar of applause from the audience.

Somewhere in the heat of the experience was also just the wonder and adventure itself, and my feeling of pure luck at getting to be a part of it all.  Not knowing what to expect from moment to moment, but being open and ready to accept the experience, enjoy it, and even learn from it, is part of the key.  The Festival des Libertes was not your usual film festival.  It was a multi-media kind of event that focused on empowerment and social change.  I had not realized it until the afternoon, but the “debate” listed on the program was not another word for question-and-answer period, but after the screening and the Q&A, it was actually a back-and-forth about the value and impact of community organizing.  How great is that?  No matter what rocks might be thrown, the fact that the film and the story of ACORN’s experience had triggered a discussion already proved the fact that community organization was steel plated.  Opinions had to be registered and weighed.  Organizing and building organizations, unions, and social movements was serious business and had to be considered soberly as a subject of inquiry and engagement.  Debate?  What debate?  From the opening bell, we had already won any possible argument, leaving the rest to naysayers and back-benchers.

More than 100 people had saddled back up for this second session and, unbelievably to me, they hung in until after 10pm, way past the point of common sense and good judgement.  I was tired and hungry, but I couldn’t have had more fun or been more honored to have been able to participate and in such a great event.

the crowd filling up the seats for the screening

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