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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Tenants Groups Coming Together in Dublin

Dublin    From the bus stop in central Dublin until we reached the upstairs meeting space in the pub, we seemed to be on a tour of one housing struggle after another.  We had our pictures taken by the inspirational statute of a famous labor leader on the main boulevard of Dublin.  We had a mid-afternoon Irish breakfast at a spot across from a long occupation where buildings were squatted for quite a time after tenants were evicted.  We passed apartment blocks being built by private companies for students on public land in a massive giveaway, while social housing was not being built for lower income families in the city.  Nick Ballard, ACORN UK’s head organizer and the primary driver of the ACORN Tenants Union in England, and I were excited to finally be getting the full picture of all of the tenant groups and their activities in and around Dublin.

Seamus Farrell of the Dublin Central Housing Group had sketched out a map for us earlier that gave us the geography that various groups covered.  Several worked in north Dublin with a smattering of groups in the surrounding counties as well as other activity in the south and southwest.  The Irish Housing Network provided support for groups around Ireland.  We already had a sense of the housing affordability crisis in the country.  Many of the groups were active in eviction defense and handled casework for tenants trying to get them through the excruciating procedures in the civil and housing courts to win their rights or deposit returns.  Seamus told us about their outreach for the meeting, expecting perhaps twenty of the key activists.

We started on the stroke of 7pm to a receptive crowd of forty representing all the various tenant groups in the area.  This was the third straight night for us to deliver the ACORN one-two-punch after great experiences in Limerick and Galway, but Dublin was the heart of tenant organizing and action in Ireland, so we were anxious to get to the questions and see where people might take the discussion.

These were veterans. They knew the housing issues.  One question after another indicated that they wanted to grow.  They wanted to know how to big bigger and involve more people.  When they recounted their experience, one after another listed the number of activists between ten and twenty and members or followers rarely ranging above one or two hundred.  They were hungry to create the impact that a mass organization could bring.  Over and over they asked pointed questions about how to build an organizing committee, how to approach people and issues, and how to replicate an ACORN organizing drive.

The singular advantage that many in the room shared was their experience in doorknocking.  Several teams were going out to hit the doors as we approached the meeting.  They were not afraid to approach people, they just didn’t know how to glue everyone together.  They wanted to see the diagrams on structure in Nuts & Bolts.  They wanted to see how conflict was handled and diverse people turned into a collective force.  It was an exciting dialogue.

Towards the end when asked how they could become a part of ACORN, I replied that first they needed to come to a consensus among themselves after this meeting that they wanted to be part of ACORN.  The threshold to join was low, but it required them to decide – through voting or consensus – that they wanted to be a part of ACORN, either singly or collectively.  For ACORN’s part, we were excited about Ireland and wanted to be a part of their success and support the process in every way possible.

Three days in Ireland, three great meetings, and we’re sitting next to the phone and glued to the computer screen, listening for their call to build a tenants and community union in Ireland that can take the next steps in the great march so many have already begun.

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