Vladeck and Na Plans

Seoul      The Sunday conversations that I really did have in and around the Y in Seoul were valuable enough in their own right.

First, I finally connected with Liza Vladeck, whose name had been on everyone’s lips when the Organizers’ Forum (www.organizersforum.org) first reached Moscow. She had seen my blog and reached out to make contact to fill in some of the missing pieces in the story. She had not been surprised to have problems in renewing her visa. In the months before her departure she and her colleagues had detected a shift in the official attitude towards unions, especially the independent unions that she was assisting in various ways, who were even called “economic terrorists.” Security officials seemed to be turning up and tailing her. Others were knocking on the door. Where it had seemed a straightforward matter to get her visa renewed, she now knows that she had suddenly turned persona non grata. There is no ambiguity about the fact that she is now barred from the reentry to Russia.

There are personal costs. Her husband is still there. A stepchild is still in school. She is committed to the work and passionate about the country and the entire area and believes that she has found a place where she feels at home and a way to contribute in a variety of ways. She is still piecing together work from the 2nd year of a fellowship at Columbia Law and her relationships and work with NGOs in Russia. She is reuniting with her husband within days for a brief visit in New York, and is preparing to return to the area at the first of the year. At least return as near as she can get, so she has settled on living and working from Kiev in the Ukraine. She believes that this will allow her the best opportunity to continue to support and work with organizers and leaders of the nascent independent labor sector in Russia and to help define what is unique about the challenges they are facing and the organizational strategies, tactics, and formations that they are developing now. She is trying to adjust to learning yet another language and worried that she may lose the pitch and accent of the Russian she has mastered that allowed her to frequently be taken as a native. She has chosen a difficult path with conviction, and one hopes to hear of her success along this journey.

Then I spent time catching up with our Korean comrade, Na Hyo-Woo, who is now directing the Asian NGO Center from Seoul. Na is an experienced community organizer who brought me to Seoul almost exactly a year ago (November 15, 2006!) where I had the opportunity to meet and speak to many community organizers from all around the country. He is also the former director of LOCOA, which supports leaders and community organizers throughout Asia. A year ago we had hoped to be making plans for ACORN Korea by this time, but neither one of us has been able to figure out how to raise the money in this modern, and expensive, country. Over the coming days of this week I will make a series of presentations and lectures to organizers in Inchon, Seoul, and Changwon, who are at the heart of organizing “irregular” workers as contingent and informal workers are known here. Between the two trips over this year I will have connected with a lot of the organizers of primary social movements in Korea and planted the seeds of ACORN’s work and methodology.

As Na and I brainstormed, we developed a new next step that might work better for now which would continue to prepare the soil, since building organization seems just past our grasp at this time. We talked about pulling together the plans to train 10 Korean organizers for several months in 2008 as a joint program between ACORN International, the ACORN Institute, and the Asian NGO Center in New Orleans in the new training center that will be located at 1024 Elysian Fields where are current offices are now headquartered. Na was more optimistic about raising the money in Korea for this type of program, and there were ways that this would dovetail nicely in the development plans for the space and program in New Orleans with both housing availability and training facilities.

It was exciting to have found a way to move forward and continue to support the needs and program of organizers in Korea where serious and exciting work continues to dominate the discussion and the political scene.

Panoramic view of Seoul, South Korea

Warren, Naomi, and I in Korea

Seoul I did not realize that Warren Buffett, the 2nd richest billionaire on the planet, and I were going to be in Seoul at the same time. We could have had a chat about how to reduce poverty? Maybe not?

He seems to have arrived ahead of me from what I read on the plane coming from Hong Kong. He doesn’t get out of Omaha much so this seems to have been big news not only in this neighborhood of Asia, but across the financial markets. He cleared his throat and said he thought Korean stocks were undervalued and he still had a personal stake in one company, and just the speculation that it might be KIA increased the market value by 3% on the run-up on Friday. If he’s an investment guru, it would appear the rest of the market is made up largely of investment groupies.

Korea is one of the most “wired” countries in the world, so it drives me crazy that none of my phones or blackberry works here, and even though there is broadband in the YMCA in downtown Seoul where I stay, it is soooooo slow, I can not get on outlook express. This is what we now call “hardship” travel in the 21st century!

The other disorienting feature here is that it is Sunday morning. Time is changing to daylight savings in the USA. Although I helped the Y-desk clerk try (at his request) to learn how to pronounce “like” versus “liked” (we did not really succeed), we can’t seem to come to grips with this problem of whether or not time has “changed” here in Seoul. So, I may be 14 hours ahead of the US. I may be 13. I may have no earthly idea, which seems the case. I ran this morning along a small creek that runs between two walkways for quite a distance in downtown Seoul. I had found this pathway of walkers, sitters, and some few joggers when I was last here. It runs under a number of bridges and has a number of stepping stone crossings. Quite pleasant, except for the patches of cobbled, rough stones, which is hell on the knees

Here in Seoul on my Sunday I have been finishing Naomi Klein’s new book, Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. I ordered it as soon as I read the pre-release notice from Amazon because I thought her argument would align with some of the case I was making in the draft of my Katrina book. It does I’m sure, but I haven’t gotten to the New Orleans section yet, though Korea and the crash here several years ago is but one of the many countries she reviews in a surprisingly long list that follows a trail of tears from Chile to Argentina to Poland to Russia to Iraq. She has done her homework, and frequently raises new conflicts of interest and information that make you wonder how she was able to get a scoop that so many others seem to have missed, unless, as she sometimes seems to infer, they had an interest in missing the meaning of the information lying in front of their noses. I had been less than enamored of some of her Nation pieces on New Orleans because I thought she was being led by the nose, but this her work in the book seems solid and helpful. This may not have the wide impact of No Logo, but perhaps it deserves more attention and respect, because she has devastatingly documented the human price and ruin of democratic institutions and principles that comes in the ruthlessly blind ideological wake of Milton Friedman, the Chicago School, and their acolytes down to Jeffrey Sachs.

Warren, Naomi, and I could have had quite a conversation at the Y in Seoul today, if we could have gotten our calendars together!