First Steps to Building Community-Labor-Political Alliances without Shortcuts

Amsterdam      It was just a first step.  ACORN had joined Ron Meyer and Lieke Smits, the principal officers of the Socialist Party Netherlands, in calling together a small group of twenty or so in the late summer who might be able to come together for a conversation on a Saturday in Amsterdam to share their experiences in trying to build a working alliance or partnership between community organizations, labor unions, and political formations or parties.  Interest was huge.  The only real obstacle was the European holiday schedule where many were already committed or unavailable, as we sent out inquires of interest.  Nonetheless, we had representatives from various organizations including France, United Kingdom, Brussels, and Holland that joined us for what turned out to be a very fruitful and intense initial conversation.

Almost like a neighborhood first organizing committee meeting, the morning introductions when groups reported on their work were peppered with questions and the excitement that comes from people realizing that others are sharing the same experiences with similar issues, and therefore are not alone.  The party representatives from France were thrilled to discover the depths of the experiences of the SP/N with community organizing.  The unions from the Netherlands and Brussels found common cause on issues from organizing – or the lack of it – to institutional and traditional restraints in the way their large organizations of were facing the challenges of declining membership and new work formations and expectations.  The community organizers with ACORN were intrigued at the similarity of methods and issues they were hearing.

Everywhere there were “learning” moments, rather than “teachable” moments.  There was no effort at consensus, but a refreshing frankness served in solidarity.  Different views on the integration of movements and organizations looked for light, rather than heat.  Explanations about cultures of compromise tried to grapple with organizing models based on conflict.  Advice given about quietly fighting within were listened to closely even as others argued for storming the barricades.

One union organizer cautioned others that “assumptions are the mother of all mess-ups,” though he used a different word.  An SP organizer critiqued a former methodology as doing “actions FOR people, rather than actions WITH people,” noting that they had moved their interactions from 90% talking to 80% listening instead.  These were organizers of course so opinions were often challenged with questions about the underlying numbers, whether there was accountability, and how tactics and methodology responded to the numbers.

The evaluations were unanimously positive.  No decisions were made.  No officers were elected.  There was only consensus on one item:  meeting again in January with everyone here and all that could not make it on such short notice.

That was enough, and it was important.

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Museums for the People, Rather than the Elites

Street Art Museum in Amsterdam

New Orleans   Ok, maybe it’s not the very highest thing on everyone’s list, but that doesn’t mean it is not important. Recently, we talked about the efforts to rid books like Howard Zinn’s Peoples’ History of the United States from school libraries and classrooms. We all know that’s wrong, but how about the constant efforts to erase peoples’ history, by just not telling it at all? Or, not making it accessible? Or, the constant elite cultural and political bias reflected in most museums of any kind? Well, it’s not a tidal wave, but there is at least a slow dripping of resistance and activism that is trying to imagine and implement a different kind of museum.

A recent article in the New York Times reported on a unique museum in London called the Museum of Homelessness, which not surprisingly does not have a physical building or location, which given the subject matter seems appropriate. The organizers see their museum as being “about doing something special, about creating events where you’re taken on a journey.” Their venues are often open spaces, including on the streets themselves, or in theaters, shelters, or temporary showings from friendly cultural institutions.

The Street Art Museum in a neighborhood of Amsterdam is another experiment along these lines. This novelty consists of 90 commissioned works in a 1.5 mile square area which are linked through a walking tour conducted by the museum. Another effort is the Museum of Joy in San Francisco which does pop-up operas at mass transit stations and hides happy experiences in gold colored Easter eggs in a dozen branches of the city public library. There’s also the touring Empathy Museum in a shipping container that looks like a shoe box and displays shoes, urging people to imagine themselves walking in the path of those lives.

These efforts have a common theme of bringing museums to people rather than waiting for people to come to them. There are other efforts, some of which we have discussed before, like photographic museums of city life on web and Facebook sites, including the ACORN Museum. There may not be a thousand flowers blooming, but there are definitely some sprouting up around the world.

This is all exciting stuff, but fragile, and perhaps unsustainable. Grants that might support such experiments are largely hogged by huge institutions and on the chopping block with the gutting of the Endowment for the Arts proposed in the current Administration budget. Giving large institutions their due, there are certainly curators who knock on the door of social change with some exhibits and programs, though that does eliminate the questions of access and audience along with cost, all of which are central in considering the collection and distribution of peoples’ history.

A lot of us aren’t throwing away any artifacts or remnants of the silent history of uncommon common people, but there’s still a long gap in knowing where to put them before they end up, like so many other things, in the dustbin of history.

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