Students Rising in Albania

Tirana     On our schedule it simply said “Community Organizing Talks” at 6 PM in the evening.  It had been a full day that began with taping a radio interview on a national station, a walk through the central square and a look at some of its museums, and a meeting not too far away with the information officers of the American Embassy in their compound.  Asking more about the audience that would gather in a combination community center and former cinema house that evening, the best I could gather was that students from the nearby public social sciences university had been invited as well as other activists.

Students had been a through line in many of our group’s inquiries.  There had been an unusual and heavy dose of university student protests that began the school term in the fall over a range of issues from increased student fees to deplorable housing conditions including one bathroom for more than 300 students in one location.  The strike and protests had lasted several months and even now, as a relative calm had settled in after the holidays, there was continued unhappiness.  One of our team had been an adviser to the student protestors and several had met with the leaders during our visit, and no happiness was reported.  Some faculty were offering makeup classes over weekends to keep students from losing an entire semester.  The administration at the social sciences university had allowed the protest signs in the lobby to remain posted on an ongoing basis since so many issues were unresolved.  Rows of benched seats were left in position for continuing debates even as school was back in session.

Perhaps unsurprisingly then, the room started filling up way before the opening bell with younger women predominately but a smattering of members of the public as well.  Fortunately, the program was organized differently and after a brief introduction jumped right to a series of explications by the panel on what community organizing was and how it worked.  The sound and lighting also necessitated those of us on the panel to stand up to be heard and seen, which also helped energize the proceedings.  Looking for something to do before we began, I had worked the crowd to get everyone to sign the attendance sheet, so when asked to begin the session, I walked out into the audience and identified all of the people I had recruited to that task as my “organizing committee” coming from different parts of the neighborhood to take leadership roles and do the work to form the organization, which is the fundamental key to the success of the ACORN Model.  Jessica Moreno from Action NC followed me and did the same in a doorknocking exercise.  Next there was a mock action with other members of the panel playing the role of politicians, and so it went.

The audience was engaged and spoke freely in the questions and answers period.  Some with anger at mistreatment, others searching for hope in the work in order to stay in their country.

It’s hard to tell how these things go usually, but in this case, I could measure it precisely.  I counted 55 people in the audience, excluding the five on the panel itself. Looking at the attendance list, there were 55 names filed out.  My organizing committee had made sure the form began with all columns filled out, and sure enough the organizing tool worked with only three blanks left empty, inconsequentially, out of 330 possible squares on this attendance list.  Damn fine work!

And, even better, when in my last comments I asked anyone who thought that they might actually want to become a community organizer to come meet me after the session, six lined up and gave me their full information, so that we could follow up, with one buying Nuts & Bolts so that she could get started.  Ten percent is a decent return on the ask, as we say in organizing.  Three were teenagers 17 and 18 in their final years in high school.

Community organizing has a future in Albania!

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Welcome to Albania

Protest over housing demolitions in Tirana
Credit: Malton Dibra/LSA

Tirana       Leaving Frankfurt was easy and painless even in the early dark rush hour.  My kind host accompanied me all the way until I had my ticket in hand at the counter in the giant airport.  It may not have been necessary, but it was nice to simply be a sheep in the herd on my way, rather than trying to figure out which train, which stop, and the whole shebang.  I was encouraged in Germany.  Exciting possibilities in an exciting time in the country for organizing.

            Getting in and out of Tirana, the capital of Albania, isn’t easy.  I had thoroughly investigated buses and trains both from Frankfurt and then ongoing to my next destination in Sofia, Bulgaria.  I’m exaggerating to say that you can’t get “there from here,” but it isn’t easy for sure.  There were no direct trains and any that would take you in or out would take you forever and on a peculiar and circuitous routes through Greece or other countries.  Buses were the same.  It was almost as if they would stop in the middle, give up the ghost in Skopje, Macedonia, and hope someone would come fetch you some day in the future, depending on when the snow in the mountain passes.

            So, the only easy option is flying and in that case it’s a puddle jump to end up in the capital of Slovenia which is spelled Ljubljana, and may or may not be pronounced Ljubljana.  The Frankfurters laid down a challenge for the next time we meet for me to spell, Ljubljana, which will be easy, so thankfully they didn’t bet me on saying it correctly.   On the other hand, the flight, even though bumpy, into Slovenia was gorgeous.  Looking out the window for miles there were row after row of beautiful jagged, dragon teethed, snow covered mountains until we landed in the plane where the small capital is situated.  We left the plane, went through passport control and then were at the gate to Albania without having to reenter security, which seemed strange, but given that half of the waiting crowd for various gates was composed of the military, no one seemed to mind.

            Landing in the wind and rain, I have no clear sense of Triana yet.  We made it through traffic to one of the inner road loops that circle the city center like rings of Saturn, though that wasn’t exactly the description of the experience.  There had been protests and road blocking on the main road into town.  The government wants to expand the road, but the problem of confused property rights given the on again, off again rule under Communism and now the current Socialist government meant that many had been living for decades not exactly as squatters but without title and facing counterclaims from previous owners.  Now everyone is in the same stew as the government exercises imminent domain and feels the need to compensate no one.

Once the clouds clear, and we get around and about, we’ll try to sort out what is really happening in Albania, for now, we’re as confused about up and down and all around, as the government and these beleaguered, and now, homeless, families are.

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