Geneva In Krakow, the Organizers’ Forum got a chance to meet community organizers, activists, and campaigners in a unique setting in space provided by a pilot in the municipal soccer stadium, attempting to get more use of the facility than a fourteen-game schedule would normally allow. Once we realized we were found, not lost, we enjoyed our one-and-only time in a skybox of sorts overlooking the green fields of the stadium,
We had been prepared for this visit through a Skype call earlier in the week with Chuck Hirt, a veteran trainer and adviser of organizers and organizations largely in Eastern Europe through ECON, the European Community Organizing Network. Chuck is based in Slovakia, and along with Paul Cromwell in Berlin, has been spreading the gospel of organizing for close to two decades. (See their essays in Global Grassroots!) Chuck felt there was great progress as he looked over his time, particularly in the way more and more organizers were willing to embrace doorknocking. He warned us that community development was still the dominant ideology, though sometimes it was misnamed community organizing and that scarce resources and a tentativeness about asking for money, like membership dues, was still a barrier for organizational autonomy and sustainability. In fact he advised us that in the historical shadow of state control and communism in some of the Eastern European countries where ECON specialized, it was more common for activists to embrace the notion that they were organizing “initiatives,” rather than ongoing organizations. In his view the work had advanced the farthest in Hungary, where it was spreading, and more recently in Poland.
Fortunately, we were meeting with one of ECON’s star groups and its staff, Dagmara Kubik, who until recently was the lead organizer for Bona Fides in Katowice, a medium-sized city and the regional capital of Silesia, about an hour away from Krakow and her replacement and colleague Iowna Nowak. In four years, Dagmara and her team had organized a half-dozen largely autonomous associations through home visits and using the local issues that are the staple of hundreds of community organizing drives. Loose dogs and their mess had all of our delegation nodding their heads with empathy. We all had been there and done that. They could see more head scratching on the issue of parking lots, so they quickly explained the issue of older block apartment buildings constructed before cars had more recently become ubiquitous. An association can be registered with as little as fifteen people, and some are trying to lower it to five we heard, but their groups met monthly, had some elected leaders and a working group or committee structure and occasionally were involved in some accountability actions. Iowna and Dagmara frankly shared long conversations with us that they had been having about leadership development and structure, which were engaging. Dagmara’s next project, besides stepping into a larger leadership role in ECON itself, is organizing something she called Common Thing that she hopes will expand the work.
Dagmara had also invited several other activists to meet with us. One was also from Katowice and DIY Fix Your City, Agatha Janko, a young student organizer who told us a captivating story that illuminated the issue of trying to revitalize abandoned properties into community, art, and cultural space with some success. A unique challenge they face is re-purposing the 500 city-managed properties they have identified, as many have been unused for seventy-five years to the war displacements, and in Poland, the former owners or their heirs have the right to reclaim the properties. This is not your usual urban abandonment situation, given the fraught history in the region. Agatha’s enthusiasm was contagious and her small volunteer army have already had some success with what they called an “air brick” race of more than thirty teams of three which “raced” around the city finding the vacant properties proving not only their enthusiasm, but also that imagination is the DIY strong suit.
We also met Magdalena Koztasto of the Polish Smog Alarm group that began in Krakow where it turns out in this beautiful, old city there is often severe air pollution. Their efforts, initially driven largely by volunteers and fueled by social media, has put more than one-thousand people on the streets of Krakow. Their demand has been curtailing the use of coal and wood fires in boilers on an accelerated basis and required immediate replacement of older boilers. They have also won a subsidy program for lower income families. Five percent of the Polish populations still heats in this way leading to severe health problems. We were almost embarrassed when she excused herself because she had to prepare for a meeting with the President of Poland the next day where they hoped he would sign an order reducing pollution, though they feared he would instead assign the issue for more policy study. Their success has allowed them to expand their staff and is leading to similar, associated groups forming in other cities throughout Poland.
In our week in Poland, many people had told us about the weakness of civil society and the organizing community, but the work of Chuck, Dagmara, Iowna, Agatha, and Magdalena certainly gave us reason for hope.