Strong Civic Movements around Catania

Being Introduced by Father Salvatore Resca at Santi Pietro e Paolo Church

Catania    After a great farewell on Friday night from my new friends (I better warn my family that I’ve invited them all to New Orleans – and they’re coming!) and colleagues with La Citta in Paterno (sausage pizza and a dessert that was chocolate cake from heaven!), only hours later it was full steam ahead to make a presentation in Catania, the 2nd largest city in Sicily, about how community organizing strategies could build active citizenship.   Who knows if the topic had been carefully considered or pulled out of the air, but after a week of immersion in civic movements from all around Sicily in Palermo and with La Citta and others in Paterno, the comparisons between these “civic movements” and “community organizations,” was much on my mind.  A question about lessons one could learn that Laura la Manna with another emerging civic movement had asked me in Paterno was also much on my mind.

This all seemed appropriate since if Sicily is at the heart of the civic movement phenomena in Italy, in some ways Catania has been at the heart of civic movements in Sicily.  In fact we were meeting at Santi Pietro e Paolo, a uniquely progressive Catholic church which had been at the center of the civic movement Cittainsieme in Catania, which means “city together.”  It was an honor to be in this crowd of 50 on a Saturday morning.  Walking around introducing myself, it seemed that virtually everyone there had earned their stripes in one major movement or campaign after another whether saving the Port itself or making sure the water was both clean and not privatized or pushing for bike lanes or more seriously facing down corruption and organized crime.  I was humbled to be introduced by the fiery, progressive priest who had been a sparkplug behind many efforts and supporter of all of them, Salvatore Resca.   I absolutely invited him to move to New Orleans where we needed a priest in the city again to really shake up the church and put it once again on a progressive path.  He agreed, but I’m afraid he didn’t really mean it!

Crowd at the End of a Very Long Question

I offered the simple lessons and rules I could share about mistakes NOT to make from 40 years of organizing (things like, “when it comes to money, the most important thing is to ask!”), but as always what was most interesting were the amazing questions.  The first had to do with a powerful movement that had risen – and won! – in Syracuse not far away and was now struggling with how to maintain its autonomy after having so quickly won a change of government in that city.  I wish I had had time to visit there and see this first hand.  There were other questions about how to integrate values with issues in building organization, which couldn’t have been timelier if asked in any community meeting in the United States.  A long question followed up later afterwards revealed an interest in organizing a living wage movement in Italy and Europe as a whole!  A bright, young community organizer asked questions that ranged from how I ended up in this work to how to fund organizing (see above!).

Perhaps most moving was a side discussion provoked by a question about ACORN’s experience in voter registration over the years and the firestorm that activity provoked in 2008 and the consequences of the rightwing attack that shattered the organization in the USA by the end of 2010.  The perspectives of these movement veterans were mature and wise.  They knew battles and had scars from both victories and defeats.  Several rose to argue to me that this was just part of the process, and we needed to simply build even stronger in the future.  They know how victory and defeat tastes here in Sicily, and have learned something about resilience in their commitments and organizing.

What a wonderful session for me!  I wish I could have made more of a contribution to all of them!

Maybe in a small way I did.  At the end of my remarks, Paolo Guarnaccia suddenly wanted to say one last thing after I had thanked everyone.  He wanted to “pass the hat” and ask for anyone who wanted to make a contribution to continue the effort to build civic movements and community organizations.   Later in surprise he shared with me that he had never done so before in his life, and in shock reported to me that almost 100 euros had been gladly pitched in to support the work.

That one small lesson leaned might move mountains and create many movements and organizations in the future!  Perhaps I had done my work here after all?

Ps.  Yikes, I invited all of the group in Catania to visit New Orleans as well, so here comes Sicilia!

 

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Hard Choices, Right Process: Deal Making in Paterno, Cairo, & New Orleans

Everyone is Happy with the Decision and Crowds around Candidate Vittorio Lo Presti (middle/blue sweater)

Paterno     After days of discussion sometimes heated and dramatic, the leadership of the La Citta civic movement in Paterno had come to the crossroads where they had to make decisions.  The right-leaning party had chosen a candidate for mayor and attracted some support from the center as well.  This meant that if La Citta could come up with a choice that was attractive, then there was a viable coalition that was possible with the left-party.  Other movements were beginning to announce their lists of candidates for councilors.  A newly organized movement like La Citta needed time to work through its program and get its people organized, but time was now the last thing it had.  The right steps might propel the movement from nowhere to the top, if they could figure out a way to reach consensus.

The leadership assembled in the campaign office and for two hours I listened to what I knew was a serious, well reasoned debate even with my marginal understanding of Italian and an occasional word of translation from my friend and comrade, Paolo Guarnicca, who had invited me to Paterno to help on technical questions and organizational development.  The debate involved classic questions.  Is it important to win or to make a point?  Is the process more important for the organization than choosing the right candidate?  How would any choice be received by the movement’s emerging constituency that wanted change and something different, if an existing politician was supported and the endorsement was not transparent?  Order was required and the speakers went around the room, one after another, sometimes at length and sometimes loudly, but always yielding to the next turn.  Some were adamant for someone new.  Others felt that they had someone who could win in the head of the water society, a lawyer who had joined their movement.  Others worried that he had previously been involved in the right party and the message would look expedient, rather than principled and kill the movement.  Paolo was even suggested as a possible candidate.

Team La Citta: President Biaggio Di Caro, Vittorio Lo Prestion, Paolo Guarnaccia

Finally, Paolo offered a compromise.  Vittorio should be supported but the president of La Citta should be the official bridge to the movement and Paolo should be part of the team as a consultant to the future mayor’s government to implement needed reforms, if he was victorious in the election.  Quickly, it was clear that there was now something for everyone.  A candidate would be on top of the ticket that might be able to win and a sense of a team guaranteeing change that would also be a signal to the left.   The men were ecstatic.  Bonds were formed.  Handshakes and hugs were everywhere, and pictures were taken.  It was the right decision for the organization.  Who knows if they can now do the work to win, but finally they are in position to do so.

Making deals is so difficult after long struggles, when even victory can seem bittersweet and not quite enough to settle the stomach.  Certainly this was true here in the small city of Paterno, but I had the same thought reading the story in the Times of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt now preparing to finally call for the military to step out of power on the eve of Mubarak’s resignation as they realize their base is now all of Egypt and not simply their members, long cloistered in secrecy and silence.  If reporter David Kirkpatrick is right, the liberal parties seem to still not be willing to join the Brotherhood on even a call they support, but rather seem to want the Brotherhood to rise and fall on their own steam.  A deal is hard in the middle of a revolution half-won and half-lost.

I looked at a picture sent to me from New Orleans.  Vanessa Gueringer of A Community Voice, formerly New Orleans ACORN, was wearing her ACV button as she put her foot on a shovel along with Mayor Mitch Landrieu and other city dignitaries as they broke ground for a park in the Lower 9th Ward.  Vanessa has been a constant advocate and thorn in the side of the city officials for years about how little is done to rebuild the Lower 9th and she is constantly showing them how half-full the glass is from the residents’ perspective.  Nonetheless, as a great leader, she knows when the situation requires grace and it’s time to put the shovel in the dirt and celebrate a true victory no matter how many times she might have wanted to swing that tool at the nearest city official!

ACV Leader Vanessa Gueringer, Councilman Jon Johnson, and Mayor Mitch Landrieu at Ground Breaking of Oliver Bush Park in Lower 9th Ward

We are often so long out of power that when we win, it is hard to make the deal, no matter how badly we want it.  If the process is right, then the hard choices will be right, too.

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