Category Archives: Organizer Training

Community Organizing is on their Minds in Italy Too

New Orleans      Changing planes between Tirana and Sofia, we ended up going through Rome.  Miraculously, my phone was working, so I reached out for David Tozzo, head organizer of ACORN in Rome, and happened to catch him.  It turned out that he was co-teaching a regular class on community organizing every other Saturday morning.  The next one was coming up soon, when I would be back in the USA, but knowing that I would be jet-lagged in a moment of temporary insanity I of course volunteered to do a Skype session with the call at 1130 AM in Rome and 430 AM in New Orleans.

They called right on the button.  As it happened, David had received a link to “The Organizer,” as a Kickstarter contributor, so the class had managed to make it through the English version of the movie, without Italian captions before they had connected with me.

After a brief update on ACORN’s current work, their questions came fast and furious.  I’m coming to expect the mandatory question on whether or not ACORN could have escaped attack, if it had chosen to stay small and precious.  Once we had covered the fact that we were a constituency organization not simply a community group and had to meet the challenge of growing to achieve enough power to protect and advance our membership, the next question was easier to embrace:  what is the “protocol” ACORN uses to expand to new places?

Often, we simply have to say we don’t have the current capacity to reach out to everyone who expresses interest, but more recently we share a simple manual developed by ACORN in the UK for those interested in building a tenants’ union or access to other information for those who want to organize their communities.   More practically, in more developed countries, we offer the opportunity for training in the UK, France, Canada or the USA.  To everyone willing to move forward, we walk them through building an “organizing committee” with the promise that we will recognize them as a chapter when they reach one-hundred members or more, affiliate them formally.

Of course, given the proximity of Albania to Italy, there were questions about my recent visit there.  I made a joke about some people in Tirana arguing that their pizza was as good as Italy’s, if not better.  Several of the group were interested in the difference between organizing in Europe versus North America, and I answered that the expectations of the state and social services were much, much higher in Europe.

I asked about reports of Italy moving to insert an income floor with cash supplements to get everyone over about $10,000 USD beginning in March, so what was the skinny there?  They answered that the downside was that the program was temporary for three years, but the upside is that it was a $9 billion commitment to the poor, and cash was critical.  I asked about the affordable housing situation for tenants, and the answer was simple: “Terrible!”  One woman noted the new normal in terms of little new social housing construction and a decrease in affordability.  She also made a troubling point about increasing divisions being forced between the “have nots” versus other “have nots” in order to prevent them from focusing on the “haves.”  Having heard earlier about hopes for building Roma organizations in Bulgaria, the Italians noted that Roma were being stripped of citizenship rights in Italy.

There’s a hunger for organizing and change.  We just have to figure a way to satisfy the demand.

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The Contradictory European Legacy of Saul Alinsky

labor unions protest in Brussels (Photo by Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Brussels      Saul Alinsky would have wanted to be seen as a realist, so I can easily imagine him just shrugging and saying the equivalent of a “whatever” from more than 45 years ago.   The right seems to read him more closely than the left, both in the US and abroad, but at least some are reading him.  He’d be happy with that.  In the same way that Facebook is seen as the same as the internet in many countries around the world, in Europe at least, and perhaps everywhere, Saul Alinsky is seen as the same as community organizing.  Saul would be ecstatic to hear that undoubtedly.

I thought about this a number of times while in Brussels.  During the debate and question and answer sessions after the showing of the “The Organizer,” there were some questions about Alinsky.  During our training one or two of the people in the session asked about something they had read, often apocryphal, in Rules or Reveille.   Frequently, they want to know if the actions Saul discussed in the book every happened.  Usually not, but the threat is often more powerful than the action itself, so what’s the harm.  Do all actions have to be “fun,” one asked citing Alinsky?  No, many are more necessary than “fun.”  Then in the debate at the union hall the advertisement bringing people to the meeting suggested not only that my colleague, Adrien Roux and I would be there to talk about ACORN, but that we would also talk about the principles of Saul Alinsky and how they might suggest “new methods” for organized labor in Belgium. That would have been hard to do.  In some cases, we were asked to describe how the ACORN methodology was the same or different from Alinsky’s precepts.  On those questions, we had to put sugar in peoples’ coffee often times.

We all owe a huge debt to Alinsky and his work.  He was the great evangelist for community organizing.  In some ways, as evidenced by the interest expressed on the union flyer, he still is.  Our head organizers in France and Italy have both written books about Alinsky.  In that sense, Saul is still bringing people into the work.

At the same time, I think Saul would have adapted to the changes over the last almost five decades since his death.  Organizational and institutional ties have weakened hugely in that period.  To build an “organization of organizations” would leave out more people than it would involve these days.  Alinsky could not have anticipated these declines, but I like to think he might have evolved a model closer to what ACORN has done.  Before his death he was already experimenting with organizations like the Chicago-based Citizens Against Pollution and trumpeting the need to organize the middle-class rather than the poor.  I’m not saying that I agree with his direction, but he was smart enough to know that organizing had to continually adapt and experiment.  The latter day Alinsky followers still stress building from the base of institutions, especially the church, and particularly the Catholic Church.  There is a rationale there, but it also creates something less than an autonomous organization, and one that rises and falls with those institutions as well.

The legacy of Alinsky is alive and kicking.  In Europe particularly perhaps, it is best to simply protect the legend, because the actual organizing methodology would likely not bring as many people into community organizations.

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