Managua Mike Gallagher, veteran organizer and longtime friend and comrade, told me after his stay in Nicaragua earlier this year that Bob Currie was worth a visit. On the calendar for the Organizers’ Forum I had marked “small village case study.” I’m not sure if Father Currie had suggested that topic or someone else, but when we opened the sessions for our dialogue we were each greeted by a warm abrazos and a huge smile, each of us must have sensed we were in for something special and there wasn’t going to be anything small about this case study.
From the beginning Father Currie offered us a choice of going right to questions and answers about Nicaragua or hearing about work as an organizer, and fortunately I chose the long road, and it was well worth it. Currie had begun his time as a Jesuit with an assignment to Bihar, India in 1966 at 26 years old and found himself in the poorest state in that country working in rural areas where he was almost overwhelmed by the oppression everywhere around him. Originally from Philadelphia, he had to go home due to his father’s illness, and found himself in Chicago searching for tools he could use in India, and ended up working as an organizer with Tom Gaudette, Shel Trapp, and others in building the famous Organization for a Better Austin, OBA. The turning point for him was having a landlord his group had targeted come looking for him in the office, ranting and raving, and then seeing the landlord eviscerated by his leaders later the same evening at the meeting as they went from anger to power. Back in India he started organizing around land reform and practices, and found himself expelled during the time of troubles with Indira Gandhi.
Back in the United States he ended up in West Virginia, and once again it didn’t take long for him to realize that land was the issue there as well, along with the coal companies that controlled it. Once pushed out of West Virginia by church hierarchy, he ended up working in Kentucky and then at the Highlander Center on seminal research being done by John Gaventa on land control and taxes throughout Appalachia. In the wake of the Nicaraguan revolution, he went to see how to help and in 1988 ended up assigned to work in a cooperative in Arenal, a rural community of 700 families and a combination of five villages with 7000 residents, where he watched and waited, endured the hurricane, and in his words, “farmed for 8 years.” When the cooperative asked him to expand his organizing the result was the creation of a network of education, youth, and other groups that called themselves GRUDESA (Go de Solidaridad-Arenal, the Arenal Solidarity Group).
He counts his work in measured specifics. In working with young people from the area, 90 have now gone to universities and 50 have graduated. In the one piece I could find that Currie had written he described his early work:
It was during this time that three young women of Arenal became our first three university students. We also initiated an alternative reading program for little ones in the community, introducing them to the wonders of reading. We tried to improve the local health center, organizing to ensure the presence of a doctor two or three days a week, and pressuring the government to provide more medicines. We worked to defend the community cooperative against former landlords who were trying to take back the lands of the cooperative by force; likewise, through the cooperative we initiated a nutrition program for children in the community.
Change has involved conflict. He noted that the emergence of women’s leadership in so many of their efforts has upset and disoriented many of the older men unused to this, especially now that they have also organized a cooperative pharmacy to supply generic drugs and many other programs. Controversy is easy to stir up as well. A small Sunday morning discussion on the pros and cons of the proposal by a Chinese businessman and President Daniel Ortega about building a second canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific led to a meeting called of all the party militants in the FLSN in his area to tamp down opposition.
Father Currie was able to shed light on many issues for us that were larger than Arenal from the canal to the new Law 779 on sexual abuse. That law which Currie felt as written was perhaps the strongest “on the continent,” and had been so much of the focus of our earlier meeting with the women’s groups, Currie told us was gutted in many ways by a series of regulations unilaterally issued by Ortega pushing the process back to mediation and private remedies further ostracizing and isolating the women, rather than the judicial process with criminal charges as written.
Currie’s work “in the vineyards” as an organizer and a Jesuit also gave us some ground testing for many claims and contradictions from our meetings, but even when he offered a critique of certain programs and policies, it was with boundless good well and amazing optimism. The strongest groups in the country for change he felt were various national and local women’s organizations and he waxed eloquently on the prospects for women leading changes in the country. No matter how strong the government or how ubiquitous the party, local organizing worked, produced results, change, and power, and was the way forward, and while doing the work, he would always advise, “keep an eye on who is controlling the land.”
I asked him how ACORN should respond to requests to provide help and assistance to local efforts to organize in the barrios and along the Atlantic Coast where people feared relocation by the canal. Were we crazy to even consider it? He pointed to the north and the issues with mining and waved his arms everywhere about the issues with the canal. He again professed how much of a supporter and admirer he had always been of ACORN.
There was work to be done, and he would be doing it in his own inspiring and ebullient way. Father Rob Currie was a good reminder, as he walked away to return the Jesuits’ truck on time, how hard it is for any of us to do anything less than everything possible we can also do, wherever and whenever we are called to do it.