New York City: Organizing is often a matter of drawing the lines as quickly as possible — and as straight and true — as you are able between several points – or people – to bring them all together. Recently, I was cementing just that kind of connection where disjointed and skimpy pieces of information somehow seem to magically come together to make sense in a way that was surprising and illuminating.
First, Mila Thomas, organizing director for a group of SEIU locals in northern California and an Organizers Forum participant told Barbara Bowen, my comrade in the Organizers’ Forum, of a visit to the Bay Area by an organizer from the Philippines she had worked with years ago and wanted us to meet and get to know. Barbara followed up and relayed my invitation for the organizer to write for Social Policy about their experience doing community organizing in the slums of Manila.
Then I was meeting with the Community Organizing Practitioners Association of Kenya (COPA-K) and they mentioned that had worked for several years with organizers from the Philippines. The world is not that big, I thought. Seeing Mila in South Africa I asked if it was possible they were the same people, and indeed they were in this shrinking world of ours – and I learned much more about them and their work.
I also learned from Mila that Denis Murphy and his wife might in fact be in New York when I would be there in mid-October to negotiate with Jackson Hewitt, one of ACORN’s tax preparing predators. She warned me that he was only in New York because he was accompanying his sister to Rome on her 50th anniversary as a nun and had to also go to Japan around the same time to get an award for his work. Nonetheless, threading the eye of the needle, I reached out for Murphy in hopes of being able to meet him and get a better idea of his work in New York, and this put us in a neighborhood diner a block or so away from Washington Square Park for lunch recently.
Denis, his wife, and I spent an enjoyable and educational hour together, but I can only admit to just beginning to understand the range of their work with a network of community organizations in what they called “the slums” of Asian. Currently and at various times in the past from their base in the Philippines, they had helped train and seed autonomous community organizations in India around Mumbai and Kolkata, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Korea among other locations. They were involved in supporting an organizing effort trying to get traction again in Bangladesh. And, yes, they had been active for a period of five years in training organizers in Kenya.
Denis was originally in fact from almost the same neighborhood, Greenwich Village, where we were meeting, and like many of his generation of organizers had begun his work as a Jesuit first assigned to the Philippines in the late 60’s and beginning organizing in various slums in the early 70’s. At 72 Denis had a long and colorful history, which was only partially glimpsed in our first meeting as I tried to ask a hundred questions about the work in Asia, and he tried to ask me the same number about ACORN and its work. I was interested what support the churches furnished in Asia, and he was interested in how a dues system really worked and rued that they had not put one in place in their efforts.
He agreed to write for Social Policy, and I agreed to take one of his organizers from Korea and place him with ACORN for six months during his sabbatical, and we both agreed that this would be the first of many conversations.
What had thirty years of community organizing taught him and others in a variety of countries in Asia? This was worth knowing and understanding – and it’s important, just like connecting the dots…..
NOTE TO READERS: While I am back to writing about work and travels in the United States, more picture and reflections from my recent trip to Africa will be forthcoming.