Category Archives: Community Organizing

Summer School for Social Change

Montreal: In June it is hard not to love this city where old and new, French and English, all come together in a different mix every day.  What made Montreal especially interesting to me though was the opportunity to spend a couple of days going from class to class in a very unusual summer school – sort of a summer school for social change held here annually for the last dozen years, but perhaps unique in all of North America.

 I had been hearing about the Institute for Management and Social Planning directed by Lance Evoy off an on for a while, as my ears had been more tuned to work in Canada.  I was intrigued.  I would hear that close to 1000 folks from all over Canada participated.  That’s a big number that focuses ones attention.  I wanted to know what this was all about?

 Lance describes himself as a former organizer in Montreal, involved in a number of projects over the years.  He described getting Concordia to establish the Institute and to host the summer program the way organizers describe campaigns – a set of actions and demands about Concordia College answering community needs and interests – for a change!

 For a day and a half I was a hummingbird buzzing from flower to flower, trying to understand what was going on in this or that class or presentation.  The program is diverse and uneven.  Running a curriculum over a full week with volunteer professors on topics that engage their interest regardless of skill and demand is always going to ride the edge of the curve with a much change of coming around well as careening off the cliff.  Dave Beckwith, a former community organizer in the United States and now executive director of the Needmor Foundation in Toledo, who has frequently participated in the school – described the experience well to me by saying that he had come frequently either as a “producer or a consumer.”   One got the feeling; Dave’s experience was not unique.  Like so many of these experiences, trial and error created its own patience, and reward. 

 The participants were as interesting as the program.  The preponderance were well intentioned veterans of the not-for-profit social service systems that remain in Montreal and elsewhere in Canada, particularly in the eastern part of the country.  A lot of folks identifying themselves as working in community centers, social (public) housing, social work of various stripes, and so forth, but this crowd of service professionals was still not jaded about change and they were well peppered by younger folks and students still engaged in activism, committed to social change, and part of the community of struggle no matter the current or daily pursuit.  In short a good group trying to spend a week getting a grip on how to do better and create change while they made their daily bread.

 I attended a a great workshop for a bit run by Joe Szakos, a highly skilled, thoughtful, and veteran organizer hills and hollows of Kentucky and Virginia.  I got to sit in for a while – by good luck and happenstance – on the beginning of a two-day session on understanding community organizing being done by Eric Shragge of Concordia and Bob Fisher of the University of Connecticut at Hartford, and to my delight noticed that Bob was going to using ACORN’s recent campaign against H&R Block as an object lesson for the good! 

 I left with notes about the Genesis Project and the Immigrant Workers Centre in Montreal, and the history of feminist organizing, and stories about welfare rights organizing in the early 70’s.

 Summer school is a good place to go to learn what you missed during the year, and I found myself being taken “back to school” in a good way myself in Montreal, thanks to Lance Evoy and the work of the Institute at Concordia.

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Rights

San Francisco  It is important to understand that more and more of our collective work is not longer about dreams and aspirations but simply and earnestly based on actually securing rights in reality that we have been guaranteed in principle.  This may be a measurement of how troubled our path has become, rather than an assessment of a significant plateau we have achieved.

 This point was brought home to me listening to a discussion recently at a retreat of the Tides family of organizations at the Golden Gate Club on the Presidio grounds – or what’s left of them – between Antonio Romero, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and john powell, director of the Institute on Race and Poverty and a professor located at Ohio State University.  Some years earlier in his career powell had been director of litigation for the ACLU.  In the back and forth between them the point that emerged clearly was that civil liberties have become civil rights have become human rights in increasing degrees in this society and in the world.

 This seems a simple point, but an important insight.  Every morning’s daily newspaper seems to underscore the facts.  Seeing human rights as global, civil rights as racial, and civil liberties as the elite concern of the dominant culture in the United States is not helping us move forward.  Instead it is creating silos that segregate realities and struggles in a way that prevents us from creating the common ground to get traction and move forward.  Not lowering the boundaries between these concerns – a point both men made it seemed to me – allows our very concerns to become wedges for our opposition.

 George Lakoff, a distinguished linguist at the University of California at Berkeley, makes the same point in a different way about “framing.”  It matters how we both present our issues and how we respond to attacks, and of course organizers know that instinctively, but Lakoff argues to wider and more diverse audiences that the creation of a moral imperative in our politics within the progressive forces has to be part of our common methodology.  The lowering of rights based barriers is part of this same construction that we need to increasingly pursue in creating common cause between social movements here and elsewhere.

 In getting position on the forces of reaction all of this has to become part of what we are about.  Scenes from a prison in Iraq or of child prostitution in Thailand all have to be linked to what we are sometimes overlooking here as we try to assemble issues and constituencies like tinker toys, rather than building blocks to a larger movement.

Tony Romero of the ACLU and john powell of Ohio State focusing on rights.
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