Good Company

Ideas and Issues International Personal Writings

Berlin Two of the meetings I had while riding the rails between the Netherlands and Germany were actually fun and involved good conversation and even some good food on a trip marked by a lot of baguettes in — where else? — train stations.

One evening on my wild day in Berlin I had a very pleasant dinner with Leo Penta before having to run and catch the sleeper. Leo is a actual community organizer in Germany, building several projects around a hybrid “old school” model in Berlin and the area. Leo is also from the States and worked with the IAF in Brooklyn and Philly 15-20 years ago, but then finished his doctorate in political philosophy in Germany and decided to stay there. He is a professor in a college in the city, which has provided him with a base and some support as he has gotten more and more involved in building community-based organizations in two areas of Berlin. When asked about the impact of the work, he told me a of fascinating and complex campaign where the organization had won the consolidation or federation of five different colleges or institutes into one location and program in the community to spur what they hoped would be long-term community development there. Clearly, a tricky and serious piece of work! It was also fascinating to hear what it took for the organization to be able to move the various units of government and the politics around them. The work is still the work wherever you find it.

Leo’s slow and building commitment to become an organizer in Germany, having left the work in the US, and then making a commitment to the long, lonely, and difficult process of building an organization over 20 years is admirable and epitomizes some of the best of the sense of deep “mission” that drives our work, particularly the importance of trumping place in order to build power. When he failed to convince others to do the job after what he seemed to describe were years of endless meetings — and we all have been there, too! — he reconciled that he would do it himself. The wall had fallen. The times were historic and exciting, and he was close enough to the Finland Station to understand that he needed to be there and to be in the mix.

Peter Waterman’s story was also compelling and oddly similar when I met him in the Hague, where I had a delightful lunch with him, an associate from the institute from which he had retired, and his partner, Gina Vargas, the great feminist from Lima, who happened to be in town trying to raise money, just as I was. He had been a UK true believer in Prague in 1968 working for the World Trade Union Federation when the tanks rolled in to crush “Prague Summer.” He then found himself back in Britain and belatedly then to university and got his doctorate there before moving to Haag so that his Dutch girlfriend could be closer to home as they raised their children. He spent 20 years teaching and writing about the progress and demise of labor unions and their role in dealing social movement issues. Peter believed that the term “social movement unionism” was originally his, and whether or not that is the case, the advocacy for labor’s role in the broadest terms has driven his scholarship and advocacy. Both Peter and Gina are active in the World Social Forum (Gina on the governing committee of sorts), so it was interesting to get their perspectives on that ungainly and important amalgamation of energy and ambition. Peter had found my paper on “Majority Unionism” in his research and had sent me an email out of the blue asking some questions about the piece and advocating its arguments, so it was delightful to pull the circle together.

Both Leo and Peter were also kind enough to provide real insights into how people lived and worked in The Netherlands and Germany from tenants’ issues in Berlin to the price of houses in the Haag and a host of subjects in between. Best of all on a long and hard trip they provided good company, good conversation, and good food to a weary traveler looking for normal conversation where there was neither a pitch or an ask.

It’s a big world out there, and it is interesting to see how people have negotiated their ways along the road.

Leo Penta