Getting Down to Nuts and Bolts in Catania

Catania       We had been through a series of meetings in Paterno and Catania.  There were two full showings of “The Organizer” documentary in each city, plus the long Katrina clip at the University for students and professors there. Organizers of the events, led by Laura Saija, had recruited representatives of organizations, activists, students, and others to make sure this was not popcorn and theater but an opportunity for people to understand community organizing, ACORN, and what we might be able to do together to build a mass organization in Sicily.  At the end of this waterfall of activity we were hoping to pool twenty or so of the people most likely to want to move forward at a lunch and workshop at Trama di Quartiere San Berillo.

As people gathered, I got a better handle on the neighborhood.  The Trama was part community center, café, exhibit area, library, and meeting space on the first floor, and two-story squat and rehab project on the top two floors.  The San Berillo Quartiere or neighborhood was only a few blocks from the Opera House and some of the primary tourists’ centers, but was a derelict area of boarded up houses, Sengalese and other immigrant residents, prostitutes, hustlers, and others with the Trama right smack in the middle of it all.  This was more a political project than an organizing project, since the area was so depopulated.  Hustlers came in for an espresso and a trip to the bano.  Amnesty International had a display of photographs and narratives around their migrant project in the display area.

After dishes of hot, spicy Sengalese stew, we got down to it.  I had a bit of time to try to quickly outline the elements of the ACORN organizing model and some of the principles behind it.  Then there were questions, a lot of them ranging from relationships with political parties to technical details on how to construct the organizing committee, and my best attempts at providing some answers.  This was followed by a moderated presentation of some half-dozen students on a project involving a community garden they had done in a public housing area in Catania.

Honestly, it was exciting!  Some people were clearly getting the organizing “bug.” While some queued up with questions others tried to jump the line to ask what might be next steps to actually bring ACORN into Sicily.  Those questions interested me the most.  People had their own reasons.  Some had worked in the vineyards a long time, and were intrigued about the prospects of really building a mass-based organization that took action.  Others were frustrated by the political stagnation of the city, which they often pointed out was now bankrupt, and intrigued by the fact that ACORN was a nonpartisan organization, but clearly a political organization.

We met with small groups after the meeting who wanted more details on the options I had laid out for ACORN’s next steps:  working in coalition, training and support as affiliates, or direct organizing with ACORN Sicily.  I had called these options Plan A, Plan B, and Plan C, and some wanted to get a better understanding so they could make the right choice.

The books are in the library.  The documentary is scheduled several more times.  Mark my words, we’re going to see something happen in Sicily.  As one person kept saying, “the time is now!”

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Citizen Activists in Sicily and Climate Strikers Around the World

Catania     It was pouring down rain, as Laura Saija, professor of community planning at the University of Catania, and her colleagues met me to go to “The Organizer” showing for activists in Catania.  They had been drenched in a downpour with water up past their ankles.  A hair dryer was furiously applied to the problem for some and a quick change for others, and we were on our way.

The venue was breathtaking.  In some way this theater was part of the University of Catania’s other campus, but it engulfed what had once been the gigantic monastery of the Benedictine Order of priests, supposedly the second largest monastery in all of Europe.  It was certainly mammoth, and the theater auditorium matched it with multi-tiered sections and comfortable wooden swivel seats looking into a well offset by a row of speakers’ tables.  I’m not sure “The Organizer” was ever shown on a bigger screen.  It felt like we were somehow seated in an outdoor drive-in that was inside.  I felt out of place, but nothing deterred the more than sixty who poured in out of the rain to watch the film with great interest and anticipation.

It seemed appropriate for activists here to gather in the rain on the day called for a youth Climate Strike around the world.  Only months ago, Sicily had its first hurricane, a category 2 storm, unknown before.  In this island community, like everywhere, climate change is an ever present concern.  I had read a paper earlier by Laura and one of her colleagues about the Simeto River Valley work and that theme was repeated constantly as they sought to reshape the narrative and make their work into a tool of resistance.

Reports on the climate strike indicated there were certainly millions participating in more than 150 countries in one way or another, seeking to send a message to the UN Climate Change conference occurring only days away in New York City.  No one could tell if this mass outpouring of the young and others, including ACORN offices in places like England that joined the strike in solidarity, would have impact there.

A similar concern weighed heavily on the activists in Catania and Paterno.  They had mobilized at times when it mattered.  They had won significant victories on a wide range of issues.  At the same time there was something missing, and it seemed to be the everyday, fighting force that a mass-based permanent organizational formation can bring to the fight.  Repeatedly in small settings and grand halls, these were the urgent questions addressed to me that the example of ACORN inspired.

How could the same lightning be captured in their bottle?  How could they duplicate and scale the work here, not starting from scratch obviously, given the rich history of organizing and struggle, but still, like the climate change warriors and others, with so many of the odds stacked against them?

All good questions in any setting, so whether we strike or just strive, we’ll struggle to find the right answers that work here and elsewhere again today.

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