This is re-posted from Grace’s travel blog, Not All Who Wander Are Lost
Last week, I was in Bucharest, Romania for the annual meeting of the European Community Organizing Network (ECON) comprised of organizers from 7 Central and Eastern European countries. The theme of the meeting was “Organizational Structure.” The week was filled with many stories, not only during the actual meeting, but also during breaks and over meals. Two of the great qualities of organizers are great listeners and wonderful storytellers. I listened to many stories of successful actions and empowerment of community, but also of some of the struggles, not just for power, but for democracy. This is partially why the discussion of organizational structure was so important and crucial.
The trainer for the discussion on organizational structure was an American by the name of Bill O’Brien. He has been organizer for over 30 years and is currently working in Detroit. I learned a lot from him and greatly enjoyed our discussions not just on organizing, but about life in general. He provided the group with tons of stories and concrete examples on how to overcome some struggles related to organizing. Although, he painted a grim picture of Detroit, he maintained hope and gained inspiration from this group of organizers who also appear to be working against impossible odds.
Two major discussions stand out for me during the meeting. The first was on the obstacles to organizing and establishing structure. This list contained cultural barriers, some of which are hard to comprehend as an American. I was sitting there, thinking that structure is usually the first thing established within a group. We need it to create order and divide responsibilities. Usually, it is informally created with at least one or two people taking leadership. But such ideas of leadership and structure are almost like dirty words here. So much oppression and pain are associated with leadership and structure. There seemed to be only two extremes: either the structure and leadership would be oppressive, Stalin-isque, or there should be none.
Oddly enough, rather than having a leadership structure, people opt for equality. Equality–a basic tenet of the socialism that so many found oppressive and unbearable–people cling to. Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America wrote much on the love of liberty and equality. Democracy is founded upon these two principles, but they must be in balance. Liberty and equality are always in tension. In the United States, one could argue, we have favor liberty over equality and are still learning what equality exactly means. Yet, here in countries with a long history of equality, liberty is somewhat lost. People underestimate their power and they underestimate what it means to be a democracy.
The organizers that I met during the week do seem to understand what it takes to have a democracy. I don’t want to belittle their power or leadership, however, they are only a very small handful among millions of people in this part of the world who do not fully understand the meaning of democracy. Nor am I arguing that the United States has it all together either. I do not think that most Americans even understand the responsibilities of being part of a democracy. The United States, however, has had a longer time in trying to figure this out.
The second major discussion was on values. Values. In some respects, it seems superfluous to have to state one’s values. Why should I say I value respect? Shouldn’t everyone value respect? Yet, there is question around what that means. During this discussion, many issues and examples of discrimination were brought up. Although it was not explicitly stated, ECON values respect; that much was clear from the discussion. But, what happens when a racist group exists, one that excludes and does not promote this value? Underlining the value of equality, I think, is the value of respect. The discussion illuminated the tension that exists between the idea of equality and respect. Some people are more equal than others. Another implicit value that I took away from the discussion was trust. There is so much skepticism and mistrust in this part of the world–an unfortunate gift left by socialism.
The struggle for democracy is never ending. As an American I understand this, but it was very different to hear first hand accounts of these struggles. I learned about myself over the week and the education I have received. I am very grateful to have gone to the meeting and to have made new friends.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead.
Also, if you’re interested in learning more about ECON and their work, here is the link to their website: http://www.communityorganizing.eu/
Grace Badik was a long time student worker in the CFJ who just graduated in June. She is currently traveling Eastern Europe as a Brueggeman Fellow. When she returns, she will be moving west to Portland to serve for a year in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps.