Local Leaders Rule

Citizen Wealth International Labor Organizing

bc scenicVancouver A phone call from Springfield, Massachusetts early in the morning and then a morning spent with more than 100 local leaders in the southeast region of British Columbia, who were activists and stewards in the British Columbia Government Employees Union (BCGEU), reminded me how transcending, essential, and transforming the development of great local leaders is to building democratic and powerful organizations.  It is certainly what we all say and believe, but there is nothing so moving and humbling as being reminded how local leaders change when they gain an organizational voice and how they change the lead the organization.

The call was an out-of-the-blue inquiry from a reporter from the Springfield Republican who was writing a little piece on the events 40 years ago in mid-October involving the Springfield Welfare Rights Organization I had put together.  He read me a quote from Carmen Rivera, one of the great leaders of the Puerto Rican community of young, fiery women who led the organizing in Springfield’s North End, when I was starting there.  She was still active and vibrant 40 years later in her community.  He asked me how to contact Vera Smith, a great and courageous leader from in Hill area, and when I said I had lost contact with her over these many decades and for all I know she might be back in Tuscaloosa, Alabama where I remembered she was from, he quickly corrected me and said, “no, she ran for city council in Springfield several years ago.”  What!?!  I’ve spoken before of Barbara Rivera (not related to Carmen) who had also been a great organizer and leader in welfare rights who went on to found a large and effective service organization in the north end and whose daughter has been an elected legislator from Springfield for some years.

Just as these events in Springfield were life changing for me and set me on a straight path as an organizer for the last more than 40 years, the rest of the story and in fact, the real story, is the difference that organization building and campaigns had in changing the way silent, unknown women on welfare were allowed to see their role in the community and find voice to continue to lead and direct the community over all of these years.  What a story!  Hearing of them again was both humbling and swelled me with pride to think of what they had done after our short six months together in 1969.

Talking to local leaders of BCGEU in Kamloops gave me the same feeling.  I challenged them to lead a revival of labor and its purpose not only in the workplace but also in the community and, joined by Judy Duncan, ACORN Canada’s head organizer, and John Anderson, the ACORN Canada sparkplug for BC, we told stories of old campaigns discussed in Citizen Wealth and new efforts around living wage fights in BC and informal worker organizing in India where we were partners with BCGEU.  I was lobbying them from the stage, so to speak, to change the paradigm for labor organizing in the same way that they had led the way in British Columbia so often.   When we got to the questions throughout the sessions over and over again, thoughtful, serious local leaders were musing over their points and feelings, as they probed for new directions, and I could almost feel the gears grinding to some new places and challenges for some of the leaders.  One particularly blew me away by standing up and turning not to Judy and me, but to her colleagues in the room, and essentially repeating the challenge and grasping it with two hands and embracing the future in part of the stewardship and contribution that BCGEU is so unique in being able to offer.  Her words were better and more inspiring, but that was the gist of what she said.  And, she was not alone, as others throughout the morning repeated similar themes and told stories of courage, commitment, and, real leadership that had put them in the room and without mentioning it had made their union the powerhouse in British Columbia that it has become.

Getting to Vancouver after a pleasant drive through the mountains and the Frazer Valley, a score of us stood in my friend Joel Solomon’s living room (thanks to him and Dana!) with the gorgeous view across the water, talking about Citizen Wealth. BC ACORN leaders Dave Tate and Canada Drouin were there.  Canada at the end of some short remarks and questions, talked about her own reaction and thoughts on the work and her thoughts on having read my book.  You could hear in her quite conviction and passion the same torch being lit in Vancouver to be carried forward into the future, as many of us become shadows along the wall and distant memories within the bosom of our friends and families, the arc of our work and the changes it creates in so many lives reaches forward into time in a way that transcends memory itself.

Spending a morning this way in Kamloops and such an evening in beautiful Vancouver was one of those rare gifts that an organizer gets from time to time, if they are as lucky as I have been, that can propel you past hard times and hard work because it reminds you how life changing, dramatic, and powerful the impact of our collective work and small contributions in transforming peoples’ lives and communities.  I’m ready to finally go home after a month on the road now!  I may be tired and beat up, but another bunch of Canadian gifts sucked the whine out of my psyche and put enough fuel in the tank for another long run.