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.


Lucas – Star Wars – the Presidio

San Francisco:  George Lucas has a place up the coast from San Francisco in the northern part of Marin County – one of the richest counties in the United States – where he does his highly successful film thing.  One reads that it is all state of the art this and highly computerized that, because that is what is required to turn out the kind of movies that make the Star Wars revue.

 In the Regan-Bush days the notion of public-private partnerships had its moment, and part of it was to take park land, like the prime real estate found at the Presidio in San Francisco, and, by god, make it pay.  Originally, that allowed non-profits like the Tides Foundation to create the Thoreau Center there by completely renovating the old Letterman Hospital.  More recently as the ideology of business has become even more sweeping, it has also meant the “privatization” of public lands in blatantly profit making enterprises.

 There had been a building going down the slope towards Lombard which had been this and that, and for years had sat waiting for the U.S. Park Service to make a plan.  As long as the building had sat there, rumors swirled around it about the Lucas interest in doing something with the property – bringing some of their operation from the ranch down to the city.

 A long and controversial process ensued, but with the profit-or-else mandate that rules the Park Service, it was inevitable that some day, some way, there would be somebody, and with the star power of George Lucas, it was probably destined in the heavens.  As I would travel in and out of the area, I had the opportunity to watch this from afar.  One year a building would be sitting there.  Another year there would be a fence.  Time would pass and the building would be demolished.  After more time passed, it seemed to take forever to clear the ground with huge caterpillars and earthmovers everywhere.

 Nothing prepared me though for what I saw this trip as the buildings were now shooting up form the ground.  They were numerous and huge and their footprint seemed to stretch all over the area, not just in the relatively small space the older, ugly building had occupied.

 Is this really what we want on our public lands?  Can this really be the best utilization of the Park Service and its stewardship to allow monstrosities like these to lumber across what used to at least remind one of grass and eucalyptus trees?