Citizen Activists in Sicily and Climate Strikers Around the World

Catania     It was pouring down rain, as Laura Saija, professor of community planning at the University of Catania, and her colleagues met me to go to “The Organizer” showing for activists in Catania.  They had been drenched in a downpour with water up past their ankles.  A hair dryer was furiously applied to the problem for some and a quick change for others, and we were on our way.

The venue was breathtaking.  In some way this theater was part of the University of Catania’s other campus, but it engulfed what had once been the gigantic monastery of the Benedictine Order of priests, supposedly the second largest monastery in all of Europe.  It was certainly mammoth, and the theater auditorium matched it with multi-tiered sections and comfortable wooden swivel seats looking into a well offset by a row of speakers’ tables.  I’m not sure “The Organizer” was ever shown on a bigger screen.  It felt like we were somehow seated in an outdoor drive-in that was inside.  I felt out of place, but nothing deterred the more than sixty who poured in out of the rain to watch the film with great interest and anticipation.

It seemed appropriate for activists here to gather in the rain on the day called for a youth Climate Strike around the world.  Only months ago, Sicily had its first hurricane, a category 2 storm, unknown before.  In this island community, like everywhere, climate change is an ever present concern.  I had read a paper earlier by Laura and one of her colleagues about the Simeto River Valley work and that theme was repeated constantly as they sought to reshape the narrative and make their work into a tool of resistance.

Reports on the climate strike indicated there were certainly millions participating in more than 150 countries in one way or another, seeking to send a message to the UN Climate Change conference occurring only days away in New York City.  No one could tell if this mass outpouring of the young and others, including ACORN offices in places like England that joined the strike in solidarity, would have impact there.

A similar concern weighed heavily on the activists in Catania and Paterno.  They had mobilized at times when it mattered.  They had won significant victories on a wide range of issues.  At the same time there was something missing, and it seemed to be the everyday, fighting force that a mass-based permanent organizational formation can bring to the fight.  Repeatedly in small settings and grand halls, these were the urgent questions addressed to me that the example of ACORN inspired.

How could the same lightning be captured in their bottle?  How could they duplicate and scale the work here, not starting from scratch obviously, given the rich history of organizing and struggle, but still, like the climate change warriors and others, with so many of the odds stacked against them?

All good questions in any setting, so whether we strike or just strive, we’ll struggle to find the right answers that work here and elsewhere again today.


Welcome Back to Sicily!

Catania           Sicily is a puzzle to me.  I keep coming back, because we always seem right on the verge of breaking through to be able to start ACORN organizing here, but can’t seem to get all the way through the door.  Usually the problem is money, and money is a huge problem in Sicily for everyone.  Or, even if we ignored the resources problem, there’s no one to really follow through to drag everyone to the next step.  I had set my mind though:  this time was going to be different.  We were going crash through the door somehow or another.

Arriving at midnight from Tunis, we were dragging our wagons to the presentation at the University of Catania which would feature a clip of “The Organizer” on the ACORN response to Katrina in New Orleans and discussion and debate around disaster preparation and response for lower income communities.  Later in the evening there was a full-on showing of the documentary with questions-and-answers in Paterno in the Simeto Valley region not far away where I had worked and visited several times over the last fifteen years.

coming together in auditorium at University of Catania

The questions in both places were excellent and to the point, showing a close watching of the documentary and listening to the presentations, but it struck me around the middle of the question period that night in Paterno that there were other reasons that I loved Sicily besides the amazing opportunity it represented and the demand for action that seemed to constantly cry out to me on a special aural wavelength.  How can I say this well?  They really, really like me in Sicily!  Of course, it’s not just me, it’s the whole idea of ACORN and the notion that you can take their continual commitment to civic action whether it means standing up to corruption and the Mafia, the literal real-life Mafia, or stopping a waste incinerator from being built, or electing reform slates to city government.  But, I get to be the vessel that a lot of this organizing love pours into.  Every question without fail was prefaced with thanks for ACORN’s work and even my role in it all.  One questioner after another would reference a workshop I had run on community organizing fifteen years ago and how much it meant to their work or a meeting in the middle of Sicily they had attended or some other session in Catania at a church or Paterno in an  election training.

Normally, as an organizer, I’ve got to duck and cover to avoid in-coming.  Or, make sure to spit out too much sugar being put in my coffee.  Flattery is an addictive drug that must be avoided at all costs, because it obscures an organizer’s judgement and the ability to listen clearly for what lies underneath and grab reality.  No matter how hard the question that follows the preface, darned if Sicilians don’t seem totally sincere.  I find myself wiping off the sweetness so it doesn’t stick to me, but finding at the same time that it works in another way when it gets into my bloodstream.  It makes me even more committed to seeing organizing happen here, because I guess I want to see ACORN earn their praise by doing the work on the ground that it is already getting for work far from this island that sometimes calls itself the Appalachia of Italy.