The Comodores

Lima, Peru: Six months before I had been in Lima with Donna Bransford, Director of ACORN International, to help in opening the office of ACORN Peru and install our organizer, Isabel Diaz, and meet with our partner organizations, FEMOCCPAALC, who we call the Comodores, and FENTAP, the federation of water worker unions in Peru.  This time we were traveling with Drummond Pike, the President of the Tides Foundation, and Frank Arundel of the Panta Rhea Foundation, both from California because of their interests in the progress of this work. We were also joined by Lisa Donner, ACORN’s Director of Public Policy, who is based in Lima for the next several months.  In short we were a tight squeeze in any Lima cab as we coursed the various compass points of the city.

 The first day in Lima had been a long one.  Sunday had been sucked up by the 12 hours of travel for me to touch base in Peru, though I didn’t complain since everyone else had longer and more difficult journeys.  Monday we were out on the trail quickly.  The weather was a gray spit of a day.  This was my first experience in a Lima winter.   The sidewalks were slick and one could feel a bite in the draft of the buildings, even though it wasn’t really that cold, it still came as a surprise.   There is a certain out-of-body sensation the first 24 hours in Lima – in fact in almost any foreign country – as one adapts to the fact that the blackberry isn’t working and neither in this case is the cell phone.  Internet locations are around, but not necessarily open when one can grab the time to put in the hours.  The first reaction is disorientation as one tries to adapt to a new reality. 

 We first met at the Comodores office – their 3rd new office in as many years as I had known them as they shifted with their finances.  Then we visited a kitchen in the southern part of the city that they had operated in a community for more than twenty years in one of the few buildings that any of the local commodores actually owned.  They had recently gotten a new roof which was a great accomplishment.  More than 100 pr eople were involved in this comodore.  We then visited another comodore in the northern part of Lima in a more middle income area that served another 80 or so people in a collective operation where the kitchen was in the former small front year of a member family.  These field visits are always special.  There is always a humility and pride of accomplishment along with a certain honor and celebration of the visit.  One always learns something new as well, as we get deeper and deeper in understanding the organization.

 The harder meeting was with the leadership of the Comodores after the guests left the room and the field visit was over.  These partnerships are important, but very hard.  The Comodores have an exacting leadership structure where no elected officer of the board can ever repeat in any office the next election, but has to stay out one term before running again.  Though this gives many women opportunities to lead, it also means that there are often shifting alliances and political struggles in the board and that can strain a partnership made with earlier leaders, as ours was.  Additionally, one has to deal with the issues of resources inevitably.  The understanding of many popular organizations of anything from the North or of their observation of NGO’s – non-governmental organizations, is that they are a source of money.  Coming to understand ACORN as a membership-based organization of lower income people, much like the Comodores with a different program is a hard climb for some ambitious leaders who would like to believe differently, regardless of how many times the subject has been joined.  These kinds of sessions are difficult because no matter how clear one becomes by the end of the meeting there is still nothing easy about it and there is no way to save face for any of the leaders who may have been staking their reputation on their ability to move finances. 

 The Comodores have grown to more than 1800 kitchens now serving 150000 meals per day to people, but the government is also intent on a process of decentralization which would change the relationships to the supply of some of the food stuffs and commodities received by some of the kitchens.  This is happening all over the country, and the Comodores are having difficulty combating it easily.  Alliances with other comodores in other cities are infrequent because of the time and money associated with travel.  In fact the plan under debate with ACORN Peru had been about training leaders and organizing forums in Lima-Callao to get all of the comodores on the same page for this fight, which was not unimportant.  Coming to understand that we could help, but not solely finance such organizing had been a stalemate. 

 Coming months will determine whether or not we are finally moving forward together again.

Donna bransford, director of ACORN International with one of the Comedores leaders. (below) Local women working in one of the comedores.

Busman’s Holiday

New Orleans: Just about every year my family takes a vacation before the kids have to go back to the rigors of school which is just about family life – or in union organizing what we call a “captive audience” meeting – in other words all of us in one place and space having to learn to deal and communicate again before we are not able to do so for a while.  These are not kids really but younger adults 22 and 19, and going to school is no longer a trip across town, but at long distances in some cases.
 So, I am now at the tail end of just such a holiday around the house and therefore able to reflect and share what I’ve learned and done with these precious days. 

  • Washed and waxed the truck for the first time in 6 months and put it in the garage for repairs for 3 days.
  • Trimmed the bushes in the yard, because natural selection was setting in.
  • Read two books on South Africa in preparation for a trip there in six weeks.  I need to share that one comes away from the 350 odd year history of this country profoundly impressed with the fact that apartheid was not an aberration but was part of the almost straight-line continuity of dysfunctionality that ruled the country and oppressed the majority virtually from the founding of the colony by the Dutch!   Also read the Naomi Klein’s No Logo with some interest because it had been sitting on my stack too long.
  • Watched a number of videos from Blockbuster that on the whole I could have probably lived without including Monster, which convinced me that Charlize Theron probably deserved an Academy Award for her willingness to look atrocious and scare hell out of people, but that I could probably use more escapism in a movie selection, and that brings me to the other two we watched – Kill Bill 1 and Kill Bill 2 – the recent Quentin Tarantino movies, which are nowhere near as bad as I had read, but like I said, that I could have also lived my whole life well and missed.
  • In driving to Jackson, Mississippi one day saw in a single hour before leaving Louisiana six (6) Wal-Mart 18 wheelers as a footnote to our modern economy and what’s driving it.
  • Ran a different route every morning and took a nap almost every afternoon.
  • Saw a museum exhibit in Jackson from Dresden, Germany in order to remind all of us about the excesses of royalty, allow us to talk about civilian bombing and the intrinsic definitions of war crimes, ponder what one would keep in a dragoon vase, wonder what Vermeer had on his mind when painting, and generally think about something different for a short while.
  • Took the canoe out, cooked on the grill a couple of times, traveled to the local snowball stand three times, and thought about how many more days it would take me to catch up on everything that I still needed to do.
  • Wrote a good piece of a paper on “membership based organizations of the poor” for an international conference in India in 2005, outlined a chapter on organizing Wal-Mart, worked in the office both Saturdays, edited a proposal for $1.5 M that was due ASAP, kept up with the email traffic, and scheduled and snuck phone calls every time everyone else was out and left me a couple of minutes alone, but refused to do more than two hours any day that was just work.  You have to set limits!
  • Went to an open house for the school my son attended between 3-5 and looked at pictures of all of us from 20 years ago, when to a celebration at a local coffee house ACORN and Local 100 SEIU members involved in stopping privatization of the water and sewer system in New Orleans, and attended an open house for our candidate for criminal sheriff. 
  • Talked about and planned our next family vacation and how the children saw their futures.

 The first couple of days were cool for New Orleans.  I saw a kingfisher early in the season and the last of the pelicans flying over.  I looked at where a marsh fire had burned near a bayou.  I talked to my brother-in-law who was finishing a construction job on a guitar store in Baton Rouge and stored a pirogue for him for a while so he didn’t have to take it back to Arkansas.

 I admit on a busman’s holiday, you still are drawn into the vortex of work and worry some.  One can not hide fully and the escape is temporary.  Perhaps it’s not for everyone, but you know, I really have no complaints.  It’s still not work!

My son, Chaco, catching a nice bass.