Asian Community Organizers

Manila: The meeting of the Leaders and Organizers of Community Organizations of Asia (LOCOA) was fascinating, somewhat exhilarating, and absolutely educational.  Having spent the better part of 4 decades listening to organizing reports, it adds a different dimension when there is a section on the agenda for “country reports.  But, it was appropriate as community organizers from Thailand, Korea, Hong Kong (China), the Philippines, Japan, and India all gave extensive reports.  Other organizers were unable to come from Indonesia, because of the ongoing issues with the tsunami, and from Myanmar (Burma) because the government holds the passports under the repressive martial law there, and refused to release the organizer’s passport for travel to the meeting.  These were not “dog ate my homework” excuses, but almost acts of God.

    Furthermore, many of the organizers had been at this work for years — 20 or more.  The senior hands were Denis and Alice Murphy who seem to have guided by example and direct inspiration — and undoubtedly more — much of the work dating back virtually to the period of Marcos Martial Law in the Philippines.  Hearing how the organizing process worked — or the obstacles it faced — in periods of martial law, general repression, or virtual revolution in Korea, Myanmar, and the Philippines gave a dimension and gravitas to our work that one misses on a day to day basis.

    Saying all of this, I was struck as I furiously took notes and strained to process all of this new information and the familiar patterns and principles of all of our community organizing, at how “old school” much of the organizing was in both the best of ways and in some cases the worst of ways.  There was a certain Ichabod Crane sensation of people frozen in time or perhaps of finding a tribe in the deep jungle that had not heard that men had now gone to the moon.  These were probably the last organizers in the world who spoke of themselves as “Alinsky” organizers who built “peoples’ organizations” as Alinsky used to call community organizations in his books and lectures.  Furthermore, true to the original Alinsky tradition of more than 30 years ago, they — like ACORN — though unlike many of the current practitioners in his name, they organized the poor — the urban poor — as they called them — who were slum dwellers in massive settlements in one country after another.  These two things — the constituency
and the Alinsky talisman — defined them even if one might have to work to draw many other similarities to those golden days of the Alinsky work. 

    They talked of mass demonstrations, marches, squatting, street blocking, building a “poor peoples’ party, recruiting organizers from movements, and so many other things that made them more ACORN than Alinsky, but removed by 5000 miles or more like a separate species of work contributing to the unique biodiversity of struggle.  They talked of a Professional Society of Community Organizers with 300 members in the Philippines and its’ program.  They struggled with how to bring on the next generation and what would drive them to the work and hold their hearts and labor.

    Packing in an hour about ACORN, I felt it was best to give a thumbnail sketch of the pieces and parts, in the way one would look at the vital statistics of an exotic bird in a nature manual, so that they would be able to assemble the pieces themselves for later recognition and experimentation in the field.  So much to cover in so short a period! 

    Driving to the airport at 3 AM in the morning for the days journey back across the dateline organizers continued to pepper me with questions the whole way, mile for mile as we sped through the darkness, passing jeepneys beginning their day, and the early birds trying to beat the solid stream of traffic back into the city of Manila. 

    I had wondered if it would really be worth it to fly for 3 days for 2 days of meetings across the world.

    It was!  There is a long land bridge that we need to build back across Asia to North America again to get some travel back and forth and discover some things that are new and valuable.

LOCOA delegates from Japan, Philippines, and India.
Rabial Mallick from CISRS gives the India report to LOCOA.

Walking through BASECO

Manila, Philippines: I was a visiting guest at the directors meeting of LOCOA — Leaders and Organizers of Community Organizations of Asia.  This was a quick and painful trip — 20 hours flying out from a Friday to a Saturday night and then 2 days in Manila, and 20 hours flying back to hit the states again on Tuesday morning having left on a Friday. 

     It was worth it to have an opportunity in one place and at one time to meet the top organizers from this network of community organizations from Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, Thailand, Indonesia, Myanmar, India, and of course the Philippines, many of whom had been working for more than 20 and even 30 years in this part of the world.  Disappointingly, the Indonesian organizer was still tied up in the aftermath of the tsunami and the government refused to release the passport of the Myanmar organizer to travel, but these things happen in this part of the world.

     On Sunday after a few hours of sleep and I accompanied Denis and Alice Murphy, seasoned directors of the Manila-based Urban Poor Associates, and my hosts, in a tour of the BASECO slum.  BASECO was a former shipyard under Marcos — the Bataan Area Shipyard Company — which had gone belly up after he was pushed out of office, so squatters began filling up the area immediately by building makeshift houses along the river on stilts originally and then increasingly inland wherever they could find empty ground. 

      UPA had been working in the area for a year when there was a mysterious fire, wiping out a whole section of BASECO.  There were two other fires in adjacent areas in subsequent years.  The government acted quickly and under protests there was progress and two NGO’s came onboard to provide housing where the potential owners would provide their own sweat — Habitat for Humanity from Georgia and Gawad Kalinga (Couples for Christ — a Catholic based group) on this ground.  Each unit cost about $1000 USD.  600 were being built by the Catholics and others were being added now by Habitat.

     There had been a long, hard, and ultimately successful fight to try to have the original squatting families eligible for relocation to these new houses.  The local peoples’ organization that UPA advised had been identified as the most responsive organization in the area.  I met with the local officers who then walked me through the community.  Before walking we spent some time in their one room office.  I asked them about a note on the blackboard about membership dues.  It was a fascinating conversation.  The dues were minimal and really provided very little support for the organization, but did cover meals for the meetings and other minimal expenses.  They also had a scheme whereby they would rebate half of the dues, if the family had an emergency.  In a year they collected about $100 USD, but they were on the right track at least.

     The housing was also interesting.  Concrete floors and a form of toilet attached to a septic tank.  The housing groups — Habitat and the Couples — took no responsibility for infrastructure relying on a government commitment — that went painfully unfulfilled.  So electricity was spare and illegal.  No running water.  Sewerage was hopelessly inadequate.  In the Habitat area there was a murky ditch dug between and around the houses, which was troubling.

    Nothing stopped the corporate branding of this community and its tragedy.  The housing groups had plaques and signs indicating the real owners were not the ones who had contributed their sweat — 200 days for one group and 600 hours for another — but Procter & Gamble, Dole, and others.  I wonder if they knew they were creating a time bomb almost as large as the one they were curing.  Branding their names on a sketchy future would seem like something that should carry a lot of risk and some slap back for these global companies on the make.

BASECO — new housing.
BASECO — existing housing.
BASECO — squatters on stilts over.