Bootstrapping Campaigns

graffiti on center wall

Frankfurt     The organizing workshop for more than a half-dozen activists from Frankfurt, Munster, and Bremen was all about the basics in the morning and early afternoon. What is ACORN, and what do we do?  How does the ACORN Model work and what are its elements?  What is the structure of a doorknocking rap or home visit, then some role-playing in teams to become more comfortable, underling the point that practice makes perfect?  All of that was invaluable to the team and engaged them fully.

At one of the breaks one of the folks asked me how many times I had done this workshop?  I didn’t have a quick answer.  They asked if it was thousands?  Certainly not.  Maybe a couple of hundred?  Every time seems different and unique to the people trying to learn, so they don’t fit the memory in the same way.   And, of course there are all of the times other ACORN organizers, leaders, and trainers did the same basic workshop with their own spins and inflections, just as I do mine, which must be thousands.  It was great to hear Robert Maruschke, the community organizing specialist in Germany now working for the left party, Die Linke, tell me that he uses a quote from the ACORN Model about the need for a plan in all of his workshops and training sessions, also helping keep that 46-year old document relevant today with a hard-thumping heartbeat!

After the role-playing and a brief break, then it got more interesting for me as we moved into a long stretch dedicated to various questions they had and some that they had been debating for a while.  Given that English is a mandatory subject in German schools and many of those in the room had also gone to university, they spoke beautifully, so I was surprised when one of the early questions asked me to define the word, “rap,” because many for a long time had thought I was saying “wrap.”  That was the easiest one that came my way, thanks to a generation of rap singers and the worldwide phenomena of that distinctive American-bred musical expression.  Others mentioned weird translations in the documentary, “The Organizer,” where power was often translated as electricity, tipping off because giving a tip, among other moments of hilarity they had discovered.

practicing raps

I got on a tangent as we talked about campaigns.  In several of the cities where they had begun to engage tenants, they had ended up tangling horns with the German housing giant, Vonovia, Germany’s largest residential property company.  These efforts are small and isolated, but at one-point Vonovia had whined publicly about pressure from tenants and others about its work, and threatened to stop investing in housing in Germany and move its developments to Sweden, where they claimed they would be more appreciated.  I gave them examples of bootstrapping very local campaigns nationally, from the early 1970s ACORN campaign to downsize Entergy’s White Bluff coal-fired energy plant by engaging their top investors at Harvard, Princeton, and Yale.  Why not reach out to housing and tenant allies in Sweden and have them loudly proclaim that Vonovia was unwelcome there unless it did a better job in Germany?  The same tactic could be used in having organizations in cities declare Amazon as unwelcome based on its bullying in New York City as it tries to extort more tax exemptions.

taking a break

What’s exciting about tactics in big and small campaigns, is the opportunity to bootstrap them wherever needed to turn up the pressure on the target.  It’s always fun to find myself in a conversation that veers in that direction.

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A Hungarian Training Space for Non-Profits

Kunbabony, Hungary   Almost as interesting as the various workshops at training at the Citizen Participation University was the facility itself and the special space it provided for this community of organizers, educators, community developers, and wizards of many varieties and skills. The history and mission embeds the facility as deeply into the community as the program itself.

I only know the backstory in bits and pieces. The administrator of the Collegium is the Civil College Foundation, directed by Mate Varga, but the property was originally a school building in the area that had fallen into disuse. Mate’s father had bought the property years ago for this purpose so it has had many lives and seen many changes and improvements over time.

The main building includes a couple of classrooms and something like a half-dozen sleeping rooms with single cots that would seem – and felt – the size of the bottom half of a bunk bed, somehow missing its natural second story. A new improvement was the opening of Le Mat, a cafe, and kitchen area, where people were served breakfast and could get an espresso or beer throughout the day. The building and the cafe are now run by a local cooperative, as is the farming operation behind the building, making the Collegium a community building project itself as well as a meeting and training center.

The business of the center though maximizes the location. This is a nice place and well made and presented, but it puts on no airs. Though there are sleeping rooms in the main building, the majority of the participants were literally camping on the grounds in tents of various shapes and sizes. A new addition since the last gathering was the installation of an improved shower, which some of the campers were still mastering when the topic came up in the opening session. A collection of hammocks also got heavy use for breaks, naps, and turning the pages on books in the afternoon.

The dining is under canopies and simple local soup and basic food is served. The meetings were held in various sized venues. One was a large geodesic dome of sorts. Another was under a yellow and orange patchwork of parachute material. A smaller covering was fit for only a half-dozen chairs. An area called the marketplace had tables under a corrugated roof. Benches popped up here and there on the grounds. The place was fun and functional for everyone.

meeting dome

The space itself seemed to accommodate easy discussion as people got to know each other and for veterans of these meetings, caught up and reacquainted. Without a lot of fanfare or fancy evaluation forms, it was obvious that the space itself had become a special place to everyone involved, giving a boost to the discussion and training.

morning exercises

shower area and tents

storage shed for the straw-filled bags used as seats

parachute meeting place

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