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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USA Voter System a Black Mark for Global Democracy

 Atlanta    In Rome I was talking in the halls of the Italian Parliament to policy makers and others about Democracy in the XXI Century, where we had an engaging conversation about the role of community organizations at the grassroots level increasing democracy and the disturbing trends in the United States through various repressive voter regulations, especially new voter identifications, to suppress the vote of  lower income and minority citizens.   Italians had trouble getting their minds wrapped around this problem because voting is mandatory there and the government provides identification for all citizens, so this is an easy system.

It turns out I was sugar-coating the problem.  Picking up a copy of the Times in the Atlanta airport as I changed planes for home, I was alerted to the new Pew Research Center study on the voter registration system in the United States.  What a mess and a scandal for any pretense we might claim for democratic practice, rather than theory!

Right from the beginning it is clear we need a federal, universal registration system.  The Pew results indicated that 12.5% of active registrations are invalid, while over 51 million people adding up to 25% of the potential electorate are simply not registered at all.  And that’s just an introduction to the mess since they also found that 1.8 million dead people are still registered as active and another million more than that are registered in more than one state.  Another 12 million are in such disarray that mailing to these potential voters to correct the problems would be unlikely to find them without a local post-person breaking a hard sweat in the struggle.

For the Republican-haters, Tea-people, and Fox-fiends-and-friends that constantly try to get lathered up about ACORN’s old voter registration efforts, this should be an indelible and unavoidable lesson.  The real problem is that the whole system simply doesn’t work!  This is not local control, but anarchy!

The Times quote a law professor at Yale saying, “Everyone else in a modern democracy does it [voter registration] better….”  The list of countries that maintain national programs and registries that tower over the US-mess includes of course some European countries like Sweden, Belgium, and Germany but of course the first country to allow women to vote, Australia, which also has mandatory voting, is on the list along with Peru and Argentina, where ACORN International organizes, and which might not be seen as models for democratic practice by some Americans.  I dare say that Italy would also have bragging rights here as well.

The coup de grace for the right and the generally partisan mess both parties have made of this in the USA, has to be the data that Pew reported on the cost of the system to taxpayers with some states like Oregon costing more than $4 per voter in maintenance costs for their system.  Canada, where ACORN International also works, registers everyone at 35 cents per voter and has a 93% success rate in pulling in eligible voters.   Want to save some taxpayers money, right-wing comrades?  Then join with me in making the case everywhere we can for a automatic national registration system (the US certainly knew how to make it work during the draft!) and lower the obstacles to voting including considering realistically the need to join other democracies in mandatory voting.

Meanwhile in the US the identification program being pushed into law in a number of states stands to reduce the rolls by over 2 million voters who will simply not have any identification so will be turned away at the polls.   Fox News is interviewing me about all of this at the end of February, and it’s hard not to conclude that everything about registration seems polarized with the Right trying to prevent voting aggressively and the Left not doing nearly enough to offset the problem or make this the cause it needs to be.

The results are clear.  The United States likes to talk about democracy, just not have to practice it!

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