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Compte Rendu of the April 12-13 Conference on « Organisation de collectivités : Théorie et pratique/ Community Organizing : The Theory & The Practice » - Grenoble, France

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Compte Rendu


le Vendredi 12 avril 2013

« Pratique »

 9h : Accueil par Francis Feeley, Professeur de civilisation américaine à l’ Université. de Grenoble-3.

 Professor Feeley welcomed a large public of more than 30 people on the first morning of this third and final two-day conference on “Community Organizing.” He explained how this project was first conceived in the fall of 2009, when one of his graduate students, Souleymane Guissé, began his master’s thesis on the life and work of Saul Alinsky. (This thesis is now published on the CEIMSA site at the University of California. See: http://dimension.ucsd.edu/CEIMSA-IN-EXILE/publications/Students/Guisse.pdf.)

 After a sort description of the history of this conference series on community organizing, he proceeded to introduce program that would unfold over the next two days.

 In Spring 2012, he explained, the plan to organize these three conferences began to take form. He contacted several dozen people who had much experience in community organizing of one kind or another, and he suggested specific topics and three dates over the academic year 2012-2013: October in Grenoble, November in the Paris region, and again in Grenoble in April 2013. Eventually, the speakers and the themes for each conference crystallized:

 The first conference was integrated with the Festival Vivre l’Utopie on 11-14 October 2012. These discussions were held in Room Berlioz, located on The University of Grenoble Campus in Saint-Martin d’Hères : On Friday, 12 October, he invited University of Grenoble representatives of  the Syndicat national de l'enseignement supérieur (SNESup) and the professional association, Ingénieur, administratif, technicien, ouvrier, service (IATOS) to discuss with me the history of the suppression of CEIMSA (Center for the Advanced Study of American Institutions and Social Movements), and the powerlessness of SNESup and IATOS to defend this research center in the fall of 2004. The general topics of this discussion were : Why do we organize? How did we do it? How do we make decisions? What are the benefits of collective action? The specific context was the unsuccessful attempt to protect a research center on American Studies at the Grenoble campus after four years of successful activities.

 Again, on  Sunday, 14 October, he participated in a discussion on community organizing, this time with Christophe André , founder of Association Entropie. Together we led a co-training workshop, where each participant took his/her turn in occupying an apprenticeship position; then in turn explained his/her findings. The subject was how to prepare ourselves to create alternative societies, and we looked closely at some of the ideas of one of the founders of "community organizing" in the United States after the second world war, Saul Alinsky (1909-1972).

 The second conference in this series was entitled Thinking Globally and Acting Locally: the art and science of community organizing, from the Intifada and the Indignados to the Arab Spring, the Greek Resistance and Occupy Wall Street in New York City and beyond…. and the encounter took place on 12 November 2012 on the campus at The University of Paris 10 – Nanterre, from 9:00 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. At this meeting 20 participants were invited to participate in three roundtable discussions, followed by a presentation by Michael Albert on the concept of “Participatory Economics” and his organizing experiences around this concept. [This entire conference was filmed and is available on YouTube at : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1vhHMHouwec.]

 The problematic at this one-day conference, on 12 November at Nanterre, included examinations of our political experiences and the effects these experiences have had on our thinking and our behaivor: Are our political experiences the outcome of a multiplicity of community interests, or of social class conflicts, or do they derive from general the subordination of individuals to relationships within a consumer society ?” The emphasis of this second conference was on the political consequences of personal experiences.

 Today, Francis concluded, we are about to embark on the third and final conference in our series of meetings, this time to discuss  community organizing in theory and in practice. He then proceeded to introduce the program and the various speakers.

 9h30h – 11h30 : Table ronde n°1                                                          

Modérateur : Francis Feeley                                                      

Objectifs, obstacles et compromis :

(Dans le milieu religieux, le milieu étudiant, et dans les quartiers populaires.)

 « Organiser dans la société, le rôle des étudiants et des intellectuels . »                                                                

Ronald Creagh began this roundtable discussion by raising the question of how an intellectual’s milieu affects his work. The academic discipline of geography, he pointed out, originated in the context of territorial expansion and the requirements of militarism. But intellectuals are not only the servants of elite power; their knowledge can serve popular causes, as well. In fact, Ronald  argued, intellectuals lose their intelligence directly in proportion to their “professional” commitment to “masters”. He also criticized left-wing intellectuals, who too often produce a negative criticism of social power. The role of an intellectual, he insisted, is not to speak truth to power, but rather to listen to ordinary people, with the understanding that ideas always reflect affective needs.

Kathy Coit described the objectives, the obstacles and the compromises with which she engaged when organizing in the 14th arrondissement of Paris between 1975 and 1977. Street by street, the association with which she worked organized the neighborhood, forming committees of self-defense encouraging families to refuse to move out of their neighborhoods. Local restaurants began to appear where resistance was further supported. It was necessary time and again to compromise in order to win small victories, which was very palpable when witnessing some buildings torn down, while others were saved. A major obstacle appeared when a “pro-destruction” committee appeared in the neighborhood, but it was quickly recognized as an instrument of the developers, practicing a “phony democracy”. One important lesson that Kathy stressed was that whenever political elites are divided, democratic initiatives have a better chance of success.

 L'Alliance Citoyenne de l'Agglomération Grenobloise was represented at this roundtable by Solène Compingt, Mathieu Perdriault and Bernard Pinault.  Bernard began by discussing the concept of « collective representation ». The Alliance is made up of between 30 and 40 independent Associations with very different interests and experiences. At meetings they learn more about one another and often experience anger at the injustices they learn about. Thus a feeling of solidarity is born. Mathieu continued this discussion by pointing out the powerlessness of an individual: “You can do nothing by yourself.” Democracy is more than just an idea; it is a necessity. He cited Saul Alinsky, when he pointed out the need for networking. Mutual aid is fuled usually by Anger; we must look for the creative role played by anger: Individual anger can lead to collective anger, which is less easily crushed than an individual.

The AC is the “outside agitator” creating “disorder” in order to “re-order” the community. Whether it is femmes de ménages you or organizing, or students, or professors; an organizer must first listen carefully and locate the problem. He/she must carefully define the issues; then propose appropriate solutions which can be accepted, rejected, or modified. Solène’s experiences organizing foreign students provided good illustrations for the efficiency of collective action.

Jean-Paul Vienne introduced another dimension to this discussion when he suggested the necessity for collective action “contre les projets inutiles”; citizens must organize at every level –from local to national-- against governmental waste. Kathy, recalled that neighborhood associations has organized internationally by 1976. This reminded Ronald of the “équipes volants” that served to raise morale and distribute important information reinforcing the connections between local and international organizations.

13h -14h30 – Conférencier d'honneur :                                             

Charles Lancha : « La Théologie de la Libération en Amérique latine ou l'échec de l'Eglise                  

des pauvres normalisée par Jean-Paul II et Ratzinger. Le cas argentin. »

Charles Lancha developed the idea that the Roman Catholic Church in Latin America has been the home of a strong humanist tradition since the days of Bartolomé de las Casas at the time of the Spanish conquest of Cuba. In fact the history of the Catholic Church has been a mixed legacy, of imperialist violence and paternalistic concern. In 1891, Pope Leo XIII issued the famous encyclical on labor and capital, “Rerum Novarum,” in which he condemned socialism and envayed upon capitalists to remain humane in their relationships with workers.

A historic turning point was reached, however, between 1962 and 1965, according to Charles, when Pope John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) which introduced radical reforms in Church dogma. The practice of justice soon became seen by many Catholics as a religious act.

The writings of Gustave Gutierrez, Enrique Dussel and Paulo Friere became very influential over the years that followed, particularly in Latin America. Poor people’s movements became the focus of popular support, where prayer and political engagement were seen as inseparable. The gap between Marxist theory and Catholic doctrine was rapidly diminishing in the 1970s in the context of Latin America’s colonial past and the scares it had left.

However, with the election of Pope Jean-Paul II in 1982, “la cause de la pauverté” was greatly weakened. A counter-offensive against Liberation Theology was launched, and the Cause: “to liberate the poor and to preserve the earth” was interrupted. Under the auspices of Jean-Paul II and later Pope Benedict II, the Church experienced a historic rupture, when the leadership came down on the side of military repression in Nicaragua and El Salvador. Since 1980, the Catholic Church has lost 25% of its membership in Latin America. The Church has been used to advance the ideology of neo-liberalism. In Argentina and in Venezuela the church tolerated the terrible crimes of the state. In Chile the Church was more protective of ordinary people.

Charles concluded his talk with a brief description of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who was recently elected Pope Francis. His indirect involvement with the Dirty War in Argentina has left an ambiguous record, at best. Nevertheless, Liberation Theology is not dead. It has served to inspire both religious and non-religious activists in Latin America and beyond. While the future of the Roman Catholic Church is uncertain, there can be no doubt that the human urge for liberation is stronger than ever, and that the collective will of the people, wherever they are organized, is a force that must be reckoned with.

14h30 – 16h30 – Table ronde n°2                                             

Modérateur : Nicolas Haeringer                                                

Objectifs, obstacles et compromis : 

(« Action directe » opposée aux systèmes du pouvoir des délégués ; Centralisme  démocratique opposé à la politique de consensus ;  langue privée opposée à la communication de masse ; « mobbing » :agression passive opposée à agression active ; révolte opposée à révolution.)                        

« La communication : La relation entre expériences, idées et information.                     

Gilles Bernard Vachon opened this roundtable discussion with a comment on the nature of language, which passes from the interior intimacy of an individual to the social exterior. Aesthetics, he asserted, is essential for any social organization, and the role of poetry in not to give answers; rather, it allows us to see far into the horizons. La Maison de la Poésie  was founded in 1987 by Gilles for the express purpose of contributing to the cultural, social and political consciousness of the community.

 Jo Briant presented his rich political autobiography, explaining the origins of his interest in direct action in Grenoble and his involvement with the Centre d'Informations Inter-Peuples in Grenoble. The growing diversity of cultures in the metropolitan area presents a challenge, which will require a greater commitment of democratic principles and the learned practice of tolerance.

 Vicki Briaut presented her view that the “mother of all contemporary problems is capitalism.” She developed this idea with illustrations from her experiences living in Africa. After seeing the effects of European imperialism in Africa, you can never see European society in the same way. The imperialist relationships are evident everywhere at home, in the family, in the neighborhoods, everywhere….

 Peter Ergenzinger presented the incredible case of Professor Carmen de Jong, a geographer teaching at The University of Savoy and until recently directing an international research center. It is the story of systematic sabotage, personal discrimination, and more recently a financial attack against her family. The origins of this display of violence was Professor de Jong’s research activities in the neighboring region of the Alps, and more specifically the effects of the ski industry on the local ecosystem.

 Finally, Eloise Maulet gave an account of her activities in the Cameroon organizing community support for local factory workers, who are striking for better working conditions. She emphasized that transnational organizing is indispensable today, with the capitalist network organized globally against the interests of workers and against the human rights of communities. Indentifying common interests, and practicing self-help are the sine qua non of any revolutionary change.

17h – 19h – Table ronde n°3                                                      

Modérateur : Simon Morin                                                                      

Objectifs, obstacles et des compromis :

(Leçons du printemps arabe,  directives européennes mouvements anti-austérité, tournant à gauche en  Amérique latine, et mouvements «  Occupy Wall Street » aux Etats-Unis.)                                 

« L'organisation des collectivités. »        

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