Students Rising in Albania

Tirana     On our schedule it simply said “Community Organizing Talks” at 6 PM in the evening.  It had been a full day that began with taping a radio interview on a national station, a walk through the central square and a look at some of its museums, and a meeting not too far away with the information officers of the American Embassy in their compound.  Asking more about the audience that would gather in a combination community center and former cinema house that evening, the best I could gather was that students from the nearby public social sciences university had been invited as well as other activists.

Students had been a through line in many of our group’s inquiries.  There had been an unusual and heavy dose of university student protests that began the school term in the fall over a range of issues from increased student fees to deplorable housing conditions including one bathroom for more than 300 students in one location.  The strike and protests had lasted several months and even now, as a relative calm had settled in after the holidays, there was continued unhappiness.  One of our team had been an adviser to the student protestors and several had met with the leaders during our visit, and no happiness was reported.  Some faculty were offering makeup classes over weekends to keep students from losing an entire semester.  The administration at the social sciences university had allowed the protest signs in the lobby to remain posted on an ongoing basis since so many issues were unresolved.  Rows of benched seats were left in position for continuing debates even as school was back in session.

Perhaps unsurprisingly then, the room started filling up way before the opening bell with younger women predominately but a smattering of members of the public as well.  Fortunately, the program was organized differently and after a brief introduction jumped right to a series of explications by the panel on what community organizing was and how it worked.  The sound and lighting also necessitated those of us on the panel to stand up to be heard and seen, which also helped energize the proceedings.  Looking for something to do before we began, I had worked the crowd to get everyone to sign the attendance sheet, so when asked to begin the session, I walked out into the audience and identified all of the people I had recruited to that task as my “organizing committee” coming from different parts of the neighborhood to take leadership roles and do the work to form the organization, which is the fundamental key to the success of the ACORN Model.  Jessica Moreno from Action NC followed me and did the same in a doorknocking exercise.  Next there was a mock action with other members of the panel playing the role of politicians, and so it went.

The audience was engaged and spoke freely in the questions and answers period.  Some with anger at mistreatment, others searching for hope in the work in order to stay in their country.

It’s hard to tell how these things go usually, but in this case, I could measure it precisely.  I counted 55 people in the audience, excluding the five on the panel itself. Looking at the attendance list, there were 55 names filed out.  My organizing committee had made sure the form began with all columns filled out, and sure enough the organizing tool worked with only three blanks left empty, inconsequentially, out of 330 possible squares on this attendance list.  Damn fine work!

And, even better, when in my last comments I asked anyone who thought that they might actually want to become a community organizer to come meet me after the session, six lined up and gave me their full information, so that we could follow up, with one buying Nuts & Bolts so that she could get started.  Ten percent is a decent return on the ask, as we say in organizing.  Three were teenagers 17 and 18 in their final years in high school.

Community organizing has a future in Albania!


Albania in Transition is a Rough Edge Dragging

Triana    We started the day in the port city of Durres where we composed a panel talking about community organizing to a group of sixty, mostly young women, hoping to become teachers in the education curriculum of the University of Alexander Moisiu Durres, named after one of the great European stage actors of the early 20thcentury who had lived in Durres in his youth before a lifetime in Austria.  The panel went well and eventually the questions were quite animated.  I was disappointed to learn later that the job prospects for these young people were abysmal with 30% unemployment and many forced to migrate to other countries in a search for work.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but Durres is the second largest city in Albania, only about a half hour drive from the capital with a port on the Adriatic Sea.  Gantry cranes greeted us to the sea side after the panel, and a malecon along the water invited tourists and natives to swim in the summer.  An eight-hour ferry ride would take a passenger to Italy across the sea and the influence of Italy is everywhere.  Although the Greeks founded Durres 1300 years ago, the Romans extended the Appian Way and similar roads beginning in Durres and running all the way to Constantinople or Istanbul as we now know it.

Later back in Tirana, we met the director of Co-Plan, the nonprofit overseeing the internship program.  We drove to the visit over huge potholes cratering the commercial road in this industrial district until we reached the private university that Co-Plan had founded, and where they were now housed in what the director called a case of the “daughter now taking care of the mother.”  Co-Plan is not an abbreviation but a shortening of their mission which he described since 1997, not long after the fall of Communism in the country, as Collaborative Planning.  The school over the last dozen years has focused on studies in regional and local planning, architecture, and engineering with a claim of placing 90% of graduates in jobs either in Albania or abroad, though he lacked data on exactly where the jobs were located or whether or not they were in the students’ field of study, the director conceded.  The Co-Plan mission was strengthening territorial government from the neighborhood to the region, revitalizing economic development, and improving municipal planning and management, including strengthening the nonprofit sector and other aims.

More frankly the director shared with us his perspectives, and more valuable information on the country and the status of the economy and its political life emerged.  There was economic collapse after the fall of Communism more than 25 years ago with much forced migration because no sector, including the government of course, was prepared to rejigger what had been heavily concentrated in the mining and heavy metal exportation sector.  There have been a lot of false starts by the Socialist government including a national airline which bought planes and computers, but has been unable to get any up in the air yet.  His narrative mixed incompetence and corruption in full measure.

The joblessness has led to a growing concern about the aging of the population and the social security system despite the concentration of youth in the current demographics.  One worker is carrying the pension benefits he claimed for every 2.5 or more elderly.  The retirement age is now in the process of moving from 65 to 70.  At the same time, he claimed that only 25 to 30% of the population is paying taxes.  It then emerged that many workers, including professionals from the testimony of most of those working in the room, were recorded by their employers as being paid the national minimum wage (about $250 USD/month) with the rest of their pay off-the-books as part of the broader informalization of the economy.

If that is the case, it indicates that the corruption, if that is what it is, has permeated every level of economic and social life, making the government as much symptom as organizing system.  Protests were scheduled this week that would indicate whether or not there was strength on the streets to call for new elections, though some of our associates saw little difference between the ruling and opposition party, the director seemed to hope it would signal the need for the government to change its ways.  To an outsider, it seemed the problem might be much more extensive than just the rulers on top of the heap.