Periferia and Global NGOs

Periferia

Brussels    Leaving Grenoble we jumped on the tram to then take the train to Paris, once there hopped onto the Metro to switch between the Lyon station and the Paris North station, grabbed another train to Brussels, disembarked to a local tram near the station until our directions said turn right at the corner when we saw the Lidl grocery store sign and walk until we found the address in this suburb of Molenbeek, made famous last year through the televised images of a street-by-street police search in this diverse community for terrorists.   What we found instead were the offices of Periferia, an interesting international non-profit where Adrien Roux of the Alliance Citoyenne/ACORN and myself were warmly greeted and almost immediately stepped into a meeting with them, one of their colleagues — the director — on Skype in northern Brazil, and several representatives from CIDSE, a global coordinator of religious donors, including Misereor.

I was inclined to like Periferia almost from the time we sat down when I opened a short pamphlet they had produced in French about community organizing.  Regardless of my language deficiency, when I counted five pictures of our French affiliate the Alliance Citoyenne in the tract as well as a lead picture from the ACORN Chicago convention and an excerpt from Lee Staples, Roots to Power, where he reprises an ACORN doorknocking rap, I might be sitting in Brussels, but I knew I was at home among friends.  Periferia is also sponsoring several days of community organizer training that we are doing in Brussels for local organizations as well as colleagues from Germany and the Netherlands.  Besides promoting community organizing, they have worked extensively on participatory budgeting projects pioneered in Porto Allegre, Brazil.  In fact, the name of the nonprofit comes from their Brazilian experience at working on the periphery in marginal communities and then transferring the lessons learned back to Belgium and the European context.

We talked less about that than the fact that Periferia’s staff also acted as a consultant to Misereor, the German Catholic NGO that distributes resources from the government as part of the German foreign aid program and historically has been a key funder of organizing and social action projects.  Patrick Bodart was preparing to tour a number of countries in Latin America to evaluate Misereor projects and also described an exchange they had facilitated between several Brazilians and several activists from Mozambique involved in fighting land grabbing and how that had worked.  One thing led to another with our CIDSE friends as well as Adrien and me once we got to talking about land grabbing, squatting, land trusts, and all manner of projects involving peoples’ struggles with land ownership and occupancy in both urban and rural settings.

Adrien and I learned a lot and shared out opinions frankly.  We wanted the funders to do more, especially in supporting grassroots community organizing and direct action.  There was a great, healthy exchange.

And, then we ate apple crisp, as my mother and grandmother used to call my absolutely favorite of all times dessert – ok, next to maybe jam cake, but that’s only for Thanksgiving and Christmas.  When you’re eating apple crisp and drinking coffee after a three-hour meeting, what’s not to like about Brussels and the Belgians!

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VioMe

mural

Athens      Perhaps nothing so epitomizes the “crisis” in Greece, as it is universally called, than the VioMe, a former metallurgical factory in the industrial district not far from the airport.  In 2011, when the full brunt of the economic collapse hit the country and the Greek owner of the plant suddenly shut the factory down, the workers took over and occupied the factory to protect their jobs and in outrage that they were left holding the bag and owed back wages.  At the time of the occupation, the fact that the workers were the primary creditor made it impossible to evict them, though in the “new” Greece seven years later that issue has now become contentious.

health clinic

While I was in Thessaloniki my visit overlapped a festival being held on the grounds of the factory.  I toured the location and visited with many participants along with my newfound friends. Banners commemorating the occupation had been hung for the festival.  Murals had been completed or were in progress.  Space had been set aside in the cavernous vastness of the factory for large and small workshops and discussions about any number of topics from the political situation currently to the promises and potential of cooperatives, like VioMe.  There were booths and stalls assembled along the runway between buildings where local producers and some other cooperatives and artisans were displaying their goods from jewelry to wine to potatoes.   There was of course a coffee and tea stand.  The fire was lit for barbecuing skewers of meat and sausage.  Stages and sound systems were being set up for a final concert later in the evening of my visit on the last night of the festival.  People milled around, taking it all in.  There was a good spirit.

workshop

I visited a workshop run by Omnia.tv, an investigative journalism organization based in Athens and Thessaloniki.  They had dug deep into police attacks on youth.  Like similar web-based news sites in the US and elsewhere, they were stepping into issues where larger papers had deserted the field.  I talked to reporters with the public television station who were covering the festival.  I was impressed with their commitment to keeping the story alive.

 

The workforce had gone as low as eight, but had now somewhat rebounded to twenty.  Unable to repeat the prior production regime, now the factory produced high quality soaps, dish washing liquid and other bio-hygiene cleaning products sold throughout Greece and in some neighboring countries.  I had heard of this operation originally in Sofia, Bulgaria earlier in the year.  Talking to various people around the event, enthusiasm for the project was mixed with concern.  The crowds were not as large as they had been in the past.  There was no defeatism, but the continuing crisis had worn down both activists and workers who worried about next steps and sustainability.

Part of the objective of the festival turned out to be to raise some funds to support worker defense in coming court cases where the previous owner and the banks were now challenging VioMe.  Banks in the new political economy of Greece had now displaced workers as the primary debt holders, endangering the future of VioMe.  They were accused of taking equipment illegally.

Workers have responded similarly in other crises.  Factory takeovers were common around Buenos Aires during the financial issues there also triggered by debt.  These are valiant struggles to align priorities with people rather than profits, but the very nature of these fights makes the odds long without a rethinking of people as the first order of every business.

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