Putting Communities and Environmentalists Together

Lyon     We showed up at the Alternative Bar close to what we thought was showtime to meet a half dozen of the organizers of what was billed as a showing of the documentary and a “debate” on various questions it might provoke.  They said there were more people on the way, and so we chatted and waited.  Seven PM came, and eight PM went, and although the film didn’t begin, to our amazement, the crowd swelled.  When we finally began on this leisurely schedule, the house was packed.  We counted fifty that had somehow squeezed in, and it could have been another twenty if there had been room.  There was a large picture window, and person after person came up, read the sign out front, peeked in, and then abandoned all hope and went on their way.

By 930PM, we cut The Organizer off somewhere around 2007, and the questions began.  Many in this largely young crowd were environmentalists.  They had specialized in direct action.  Before the film one of the organizers told me about a national action in Paris where they had joined 2000 others earlier in the year to protest at governmental and corporate headquarters in the center of the city.  Increasingly, they had recognized that they lacked a sustainable base that was widely representative of the broader population.  Certainly, this is a challenge for many climate and environmental movements, so it was encouraging to hear that they were trying to build bridges to our affiliates the Alliance Citoyenne, ReAct, and our emerging independent union in Lyon, UNITI.

The bar was a money maker, I was told.  They were in a busy part of town, rent was a bit over 1000 euros, the staff was all volunteer, and they sold beer and wine.  It was a meeting place for their issues and others.  Sometimes they hosted events like this one and showed movies.  One of the organizers said the bar was part of a wider movement in parts of Spain and France.  Very interesting!  Sadly, they reported, it did not do well enough to allow them to pay a staff person, but they hoped for the future.

The debate was not a debate, but a question-and-answer about how one starts small and grows.  The notion of “community” is not widely accepted in the same way in France, so part of the questions sought to parse how the concept translated, and whether it was geographical or much broader as we understood it to be.  I had been briefed that there were already some tentative conversations about possible partnerships between our organizations and their efforts.  We encouraged those discussions.  There’s great potential for such a partnership, and, as the documentary indicated, climate and environmental concerns are everywhere for our communities now.



The Questions Bulgarians Ask about Organizing

Valentina Gueorguieva introduces The Organizer at Rainbow Hub

Sofia       In a task of herculean proportion, Valentina Gueorguieva, my program fellow in community organizing, had translated the entire documentary, “The Organizer,” into Bulgarian and managed to embed the captions in perfect timing sequence into the SRT file.  Sadly, I only know the rough outline of the technical requirements that I’m describing.  A perfectionist, she was disappointed that she had not had time to finish the last three minutes that ran during the final pieces of Lucinda Williams’ great song, “The East Side of Town,” that plays in the fading minutes of the coda before the credits, so there were English subtitles there.  Amazing to witness!

And, it mattered, which made Valentina’s work worthwhile.  Though most of the more than two dozen viewers spoke English fluently, many stood or came closer to the screen in order to better appreciate the full nuance of the English translated in their native language.  It was a testament because of the seriousness of the crowd that gathered at the Rainbow Hub, an organizing and social center supporting the LGBT community in Sofia.  Besides the LGBT activists several were community organizing fellows, others were anarchists that were part of the Fabricka center, there were environmental and Roma activists, feminists who are engaged in organizing an upcoming rally, colleagues of Valentina from her university, citizen participation and anti-corruption activists, and others, including a teacher in the Teach for Bulgaria American spinoff, all of whom had come to get a better grip on ACORN and most importantly, organizing.

Bulgarian subtitles

It is always fascinating to me that the questions are almost always ostensibly about ACORN and its experience, but really about whether something similar is possible or practical in the local context, which in this case was obviously Bulgaria.  My favorite questions were once again on proud display.  There are always several that attempt to probe the nuts and bolts of how the organization was built underlining the hope in so many audiences that they might see a film that looked under the surface at the methodology.  Then there are the ones that ask how they can do this in their city or country, and I try to find them later to urge them on and follow-up.

The more difficult questions, but also ones that I have come to expect in our polarized politics and tense relationships among each other, marvel at the diversity of ACORN’s leadership, especially African-American women, and whether such a miracle might also be possible through the community organizing process in a segregated and divided community like Bulgaria, still battling traditionalism and unresolved discrimination against the Roma.  A penetrating question about the prospects for labor organization in Bulgaria and elsewhere that offered me an opportunity to continue to promote organizing informal workers clearly arose from an analysis of the weakness and conservative nature of the Bulgarian labor movement.  This was a political and activist crowd, so they were critical in their questions about the influence of foreign donors and the un-accountability of the nongovernmental organization crowd in contrast to ACORN’s membership dues base.

I knew some of the moral of “The Organizer” story had hit home when the final announcement, with a bouquet throw to the message in the film, was an “ask” for donations from the crowd to support the Rainbow Hub.  That’s progress worth the work as well.