Different Crowd, Different Questions about Organizing

Dusseldorf       On a quick turnaround, “The Organizer” documentary had been translated into Dutch for the showing in Amsterdam.  Meeting at a cultural center that was walkable from near the city center with meeting spaces, a hip bar, and an art cinema, there were more than forty organizers and activists that assembled remarkably close to on time for a showing of the film.  Having now seen the film perhaps sixty times, I sit near the back and bring something to read usually if I have the opportunity to sneak out.  I actually watched this one more closely not because of the content, but in order to follow the Dutch words that seemed aligned with English and the construction of the sentences to see how difficult the language might be for an English speaker, not that I really know anything about that.  Regardless, I found it fascinating.

This was a crowd dominated by activists within the Socialist Party of the Netherlands, the organizer of the showing and the translation, so in many ways an interesting audience for the film.  Ron Meyer, the party’s chairman, moderated the question-and-answer period, and asked the first leading questions, based on a deep familiarity with the film and even more so rooted in his deep knowledge my book, Nuts and Bolts:  The ACORN Fundamentals of Organizing, where he has become perhaps my most ardent reader anywhere in the world.  I had autographed his book days earlier in Amersfoort when visiting with the organizers at their headquarters and couldn’t help noticing that his copy was already dogeared with careful underlining on page after page.  Although this is hardly the heart of the book, the fact that he has repeatedly praised the chapter called “Dues and Don’ts” is something I can hardly wait to report when I return home since there were some, including the love of my life, who argued strenuously that I should omit that chapter as too much in the weeds, so I will use his close reading as proof that I knew “my audience.”  After all, a book called Nuts and Bolts is all about getting into the weeds!

But, I digress, because we are talking about the questions from the crowd watching “The Organizer,” not reading Nuts and Bolts.  Where often people comment on the excitement or the issues or the reach of the organization, there was some of that, but not surprisingly there was a deep interest in how politics and ideology were handled.  There is a line in the movie from a 1974 training video, where I say that in ACORN, we are not Democrats or Republicans, socialists or liberals, but something different defined by our own organizational experience and action.  Believe me, they wanted to dig deeper on that point.  They wanted to know where the Democratic Socialists of America stood in the array of parties.  They wanted to know whether leaders and members talked directly about capitalism.  In a very Dutch question, as explained to me later, one woman wanted to know whether there was anyway I could image an organizing model that sought “harmonic convergence” between our members and our targets, to which I answered, no, it was unimaginable to me.

The audience couldn’t have been kinder and more receptive, but when it came to the question of whether organizational experience and action shaped ideology or whether ideology shaped organizational experience and action, there were no easy questions or answers.

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First Steps to Building Community-Labor-Political Alliances without Shortcuts

Amsterdam      It was just a first step.  ACORN had joined Ron Meyer and Lieke Smits, the principal officers of the Socialist Party Netherlands, in calling together a small group of twenty or so in the late summer who might be able to come together for a conversation on a Saturday in Amsterdam to share their experiences in trying to build a working alliance or partnership between community organizations, labor unions, and political formations or parties.  Interest was huge.  The only real obstacle was the European holiday schedule where many were already committed or unavailable, as we sent out inquires of interest.  Nonetheless, we had representatives from various organizations including France, United Kingdom, Brussels, and Holland that joined us for what turned out to be a very fruitful and intense initial conversation.

Almost like a neighborhood first organizing committee meeting, the morning introductions when groups reported on their work were peppered with questions and the excitement that comes from people realizing that others are sharing the same experiences with similar issues, and therefore are not alone.  The party representatives from France were thrilled to discover the depths of the experiences of the SP/N with community organizing.  The unions from the Netherlands and Brussels found common cause on issues from organizing – or the lack of it – to institutional and traditional restraints in the way their large organizations of were facing the challenges of declining membership and new work formations and expectations.  The community organizers with ACORN were intrigued at the similarity of methods and issues they were hearing.

Everywhere there were “learning” moments, rather than “teachable” moments.  There was no effort at consensus, but a refreshing frankness served in solidarity.  Different views on the integration of movements and organizations looked for light, rather than heat.  Explanations about cultures of compromise tried to grapple with organizing models based on conflict.  Advice given about quietly fighting within were listened to closely even as others argued for storming the barricades.

One union organizer cautioned others that “assumptions are the mother of all mess-ups,” though he used a different word.  An SP organizer critiqued a former methodology as doing “actions FOR people, rather than actions WITH people,” noting that they had moved their interactions from 90% talking to 80% listening instead.  These were organizers of course so opinions were often challenged with questions about the underlying numbers, whether there was accountability, and how tactics and methodology responded to the numbers.

The evaluations were unanimously positive.  No decisions were made.  No officers were elected.  There was only consensus on one item:  meeting again in January with everyone here and all that could not make it on such short notice.

That was enough, and it was important.

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