Bristol Meetings with the Alliance Citoyenne organizers broke for a couple of hours of sleep, and then plowed on against the clock. The morning was gray in Paris and cooler after an amazingly warm and clear Indian summer afternoon the previous day, so there was no temptation not to hue to the plan. The conversation was a contradiction in some ways, amazingly nuts and bolts on one hand and global on the other.
Although it was a first for me, it worked out surprisingly effectively when the four organizers role played a standard staff meeting so that I could understand and comment on their process. The uninitiated might wonder how this could be productive, but it actually reveals quite a lot about organizational interactions and process, and, normally, an outsider, like myself in this situation, would only observe such a meeting by happenstance, and in this case had I been in Grenoble with them, rather than Paris, it also would have been in French. So, I learned quite a lot watching them in this brief exercise, and it showed ingenuity that they were willing to put it together and real openness about their “search” for feedback that they also understand why such meetings were critical. Later, we did a role play on supervising an organizer in training, and I wished I had prepared for that so I could have been even more helpful.
In part of the exchange that is at the heart of organizing, they shared with me some of their “tools,” as they called them, specifically some diagrams they used in various meetings with groups and members to explain their organizing. The “Four Steps to Power” was a marvelous graphic that pictured unorganized members coming together almost as Lilliputians facing off at the bottom step against a giant as they organized. In the next step, the organization then articulated issues and demands, getting closer. In the third step, they took action to force change, until they were at the fourth step, eye to eye with their target, and won negotiations. Very creative!
At the other extreme this ambitious group had recognized almost immediately that some of their members, especially more recent immigrants with deep ties to communities and countries in Western Africa’s Francophone countries, were pushing them on issues and conditions back home after their earlier success in Grenoble. They organized something called Project React as a sister organization to the Alliance to support and advance that work. Direct organizing on palm oil and similar plantations, owned and managed by a French multinational company, to improve working and living conditions ended with actions in Cameroon and Sierra Leone led to an agreement for negotiations that are now scheduled in coming weeks. Having this capacity has also led to work with unions as far afield as Cambodia where French companies like their US-counterparts are running call centers with cheaper French speakers, in the same way India and the Philippines have been popular in English.
There are amazing challenges and a list of questions and concerns about this work that could run off the page, but one immediate problem they face is the unexpected issue of the Ebola virus, and the ability to successfully get their people to Paris for the meeting. No amount of planning would have been able to predict the epidemic, all of which made my two days of marathon meetings with the Alliance organizers seem like the walk in the park that none of us chose rather than continuing to use every minute making the most of our time together with the hope of what an effective organization could mean to France. And, it turned out the world.