Welcome Back to Sicily!

Catania           Sicily is a puzzle to me.  I keep coming back, because we always seem right on the verge of breaking through to be able to start ACORN organizing here, but can’t seem to get all the way through the door.  Usually the problem is money, and money is a huge problem in Sicily for everyone.  Or, even if we ignored the resources problem, there’s no one to really follow through to drag everyone to the next step.  I had set my mind though:  this time was going to be different.  We were going crash through the door somehow or another.

Arriving at midnight from Tunis, we were dragging our wagons to the presentation at the University of Catania which would feature a clip of “The Organizer” on the ACORN response to Katrina in New Orleans and discussion and debate around disaster preparation and response for lower income communities.  Later in the evening there was a full-on showing of the documentary with questions-and-answers in Paterno in the Simeto Valley region not far away where I had worked and visited several times over the last fifteen years.

coming together in auditorium at University of Catania

The questions in both places were excellent and to the point, showing a close watching of the documentary and listening to the presentations, but it struck me around the middle of the question period that night in Paterno that there were other reasons that I loved Sicily besides the amazing opportunity it represented and the demand for action that seemed to constantly cry out to me on a special aural wavelength.  How can I say this well?  They really, really like me in Sicily!  Of course, it’s not just me, it’s the whole idea of ACORN and the notion that you can take their continual commitment to civic action whether it means standing up to corruption and the Mafia, the literal real-life Mafia, or stopping a waste incinerator from being built, or electing reform slates to city government.  But, I get to be the vessel that a lot of this organizing love pours into.  Every question without fail was prefaced with thanks for ACORN’s work and even my role in it all.  One questioner after another would reference a workshop I had run on community organizing fifteen years ago and how much it meant to their work or a meeting in the middle of Sicily they had attended or some other session in Catania at a church or Paterno in an  election training.

Normally, as an organizer, I’ve got to duck and cover to avoid in-coming.  Or, make sure to spit out too much sugar being put in my coffee.  Flattery is an addictive drug that must be avoided at all costs, because it obscures an organizer’s judgement and the ability to listen clearly for what lies underneath and grab reality.  No matter how hard the question that follows the preface, darned if Sicilians don’t seem totally sincere.  I find myself wiping off the sweetness so it doesn’t stick to me, but finding at the same time that it works in another way when it gets into my bloodstream.  It makes me even more committed to seeing organizing happen here, because I guess I want to see ACORN earn their praise by doing the work on the ground that it is already getting for work far from this island that sometimes calls itself the Appalachia of Italy.

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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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