Beginnings in Marseille

Marseille         After a truck key exchange in the New Orleans airport with our son, returning from Turkey and Bulgaria, we flew to Newark and then onto Geneva, where we experienced the most efficient customs and luggage handling experience ever, putting us at the ticket counter for the shuttle train into the main station within thirty minutes of our arrival.  Rather than running to make the 905, we found ourselves having an espresso with time on our hands.  A shuttle to the Geneva station and then a train change in Lyon found us arriving in Marseille to a warm sun and sea breezes on a promenade outside the station overlooking parts of the city.

Hours later we met Jason and Arthur, two young men who had been working since September to build an organization in what they told us was the poorest population district in Marseille and the country as a whole.  I had thought that Aubervilliers, where we have a strong organization in the Paris suburbs, held that title.  They clarified that Aubervilliers was the poorest municipal district, but this area around Belle de Mai in Marseille was the poorest area within any city in France, similar to what we would call the poorest census tract in the USA.  The area was a haven for a mix of recent immigrants and lower income, working families in apartment blocks near what had been a factory district for sugar, tobacco and other imports coming in as raw resources from French colonies and made into finished products within minutes of the central train station and the port.

It was a warm day and a hot night, and people were all over the streets, as we made our way to the office space near where they were organizing.  Adrien Roux, head organizer of ACORN’s affiliate Alliance Citoyenne, had spent most of the day doing training with their emerging organizing committee.  Arthur had worked previously for several months with our group in Aubervilliers.  More than a dozen folks assembled to watch The Organizer documentary and ask questions about ACORN, its roots, and its work elsewhere.  There were some technical issues that delayed the film as the transfer was made between disks, links, hard drives and computers to get the French translation right.  We filled the time with a preview of the film and questions and answers about ACORN.  One veteran of earlier sessions in Frankfurt was a surprise member of the team, so there was an “old hand” of sorts there as well.

Finally, the film was rolling, though we stopped it a bit after 9 pm, following the time-tested rule of respecting people’s time in meetings.  The questions were more pointed now.  Fake news and Fox News were common themes in Marseille due to Trump’s now long forgotten screed about neighborhoods that people were afraid to go near in Europe because of the Muslim menace he keeps trying to use to incite his base.  We talked about lessons and voter registration which turned out to have been an earlier discussion in the training as well.

They are off to a good start.  We wished we could stay longer, because Marseille could be an important organizational link for our development in France.

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Building Political Clout from Scratch

San Francisco    The last session on this tour of Milwaukee and Amani United’s steadily progressing leadership development had a curious title:  platform.  Curious, because the organization had a fairly detailed issue agenda formed over recent years.  Much of the scope of my work with them initially had been helping them construction programs and campaigns to put the platform expressed into action.

Once the leaders were assembled, it became clear that the real topic was how to get others, especially public figures, to take the organization and its issues seriously.  Elections for city and county offices from the top executive posts down the ballot, including alderman and county council members, were set for early in the coming year.  Filing was right after the beginning of 2020 followed by a mid-February primary and an early April general election.  The question before Amani United was really the classic one:  how does a nonpartisan community organization build power for the powerless.

A default option is usually holding a community forum, and that made sense here as well.  It’s an opportunity to showcase organizational issues and ask candidates to respond and make commitments.

As usual, easier said than done.  The organization had tried one with partner organizations in the past and watched as two critical problems developed.  At one level, the meeting was hijacked by an outside group whose questions then sucked up all of the air in the room, allowing all candidates and officials to walk out glad handing.  At the other level, the outreach effort was weak, giving outsiders and officials the opportunity to ignore the community because it was disorganized and not present in force.  Lesson learned, get ready for the next test!

The plan became to utilize the regular monthly meetings on the first Saturday of every month to invite existing elected officials including the three aldermen who represent different pieces of the Amani neighborhood to come to a portion of each meeting in the last half-hour to answer questions.  With seven Saturdays between now and filing, members would have an opportunity to measure responses of existing candidates in advance and by the invitation, their new unity, and clear questions send a message that there’s a new game in town this time around with Amani United.  There’s also a regular meeting on a fixed Tuesday every month, which would give Amani an opportunity to also invite rumored and perspective candidates to come to meet the members and get on record on Amani issues as well, offering more bites at the apple.  Additionally, killing two birds with one stone, it would help attendance.

Once the outline of the plan was fixed, then the discussion became about voter registration deadlines for the election and how to take advantage of new legislation in Wisconsin allowing same day registration as the election.  Amani produced 98% turnout of all eligible voters in 2008 when Obama was on the ballot, so it has already proven that when it cares about issues and candidates, they are unbeatable.  The emerging platform plan will allow them to remind officials to pay attention.

This plan isn’t enough to build power for the powerless, but coupled with a steady diet of campaigns and actions on the drawing board and already being put in practice, look out Milwaukee, or whatever community and city that is willing to do the work to win with people power.

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