Combining Services with Power and Voice

ACORN International Community Organizing

       Heerlen           I was in Heerlen Nord, but it was déjà vu.  If I closed my eyes, I would have thought I was once again in the Cesar Andreu Iglesias Garden in north Philadelphia a couple of months ago.  About the same size, an area for a stage and music, a cooking facility, containers for storage, art work, and more that seemed as if this had been a parallel enterprise developing the same, but differently across two continents.

In Philly, Iglesias had to fight to get control of the land from the city and was still engaged in fighting over other lots.  In Heerlen, the city was all in and had blessed the garden on their property.  The dozen or so residents that had established and maintained the garden also were supported by a community worker on contract with the municipality in Heerlen, which was also not the case in north Philly where the residents were supported by a cadre of volunteers from outside the neighborhood who had been part and parcel of the struggle.

We had walked by the garden without visiting days earlier, but now a group of us were touring the plots and some of the social housing projects nearby with a team of community workers.  Earlier, along with several colleagues from the National Programma, I had met with more than a dozen social workers who were part of the overall alliance and wanted to know more about ACORN and community organizing, as well as the program itself and some of the planned research with university partners.  We had met in a building run by the social welfare agency which distributed information and physical resources from strollers to car seats to diapers to new mothers.  It had been a good exchange, where I was hoping to find several who were interested in being trained as community organizers for our part of the project.

A local community leader was walking us through the housing project or social housing, as it’s called here, where she lived.  She explained that she had joined with five of her neighbors who were friends, and with the help of the community worker they had embarked on several projects in the development.  They had started some garden plots.  They were trying to get the city to clear out an overgrown area behind a soccer field for children’s play space.  For me, walking through a housing project and taking pictures of potential issues felt like old home week.  Garbage left uncollected, units in stages of disarray and repair, abandoned cars, and impenetrable alley ways.

The problem is interesting.  Unlike the US and many other countries, there are both social services like the baby, or in Dutch the “stork” location, and community centers in addition to the gardens, and there is staffing with social workers, youth workers, and community workers throughout Heerlen Nord under contract with the municipality.  There are also some community residents, like those that showed us around, who have joined with a few neighbors on social service projects.

Meeting with city officials and listening to the social workers about the low voter participation, the earlier mortality, the precarious housing conditions, and other issues, it was not a situation where issues were unknown or even ignored.  What’s missing is a real organization where the residents have voice and an opportunity to build and exercise power.  Is there no organization and voice for residents, because there are services on demand and intermediaries to blunt the demands?  Can all of these services continue, combine, and expand with a peoples’ organization, or are they designed to inadvertently pacify the community and instill apathy?

There are a lot of questions in my mind. We’ll find out soon.