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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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.

 

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