For Want of Bread and Yeast: A Call for Renewed Support for Community Organizing in Eastern Europe

I wrote this reflection on organizing in Eastern Europe in October, 2011 during a training swing through Moldova, Romania and Bosnia organized by the European Community Organizing Network. Moldova’s people now fear that their country is next if the Russian invasion of Ukraine is successful. What people need is BREAD to relieve immediate material suffering and the YEAST of community organizing to build their own powerful people’s organizations.

It’s a crisp spring morning in Cantemir, Moldova as Rev. Paul Cromwell and I walk to the strikingly tall local City Hall with local organizer Sofia Ursul and our translators. Sofia tells us about Cantemir, a commune city of 4,000 souls built on the steppes of southern Moldova by the Communists. Five story apartment blocks that would be right at home in the Bronx are the hulking remnants of Soviet economic planning that relocated and concentrated people in dense rural clusters across Moldova. Unlike New York City though, walk ten steps from the apartment block behind our lodging, and you enter a sea of grass and agriculture that stretches unbroken into the distance. 

The walk to City Hall tells a story too. Broken sidewalks, potholes that force drivers to swerve wildly, and crumbling curbs are what happens when entropy meets a revenue crisis of epic proportions. Moldova’s post-Communist economy is severely broken, ranking second in the world at 38% in the proportion of GDP from foreign remittances. There is nothing that Cantemir City or the Regional Government can do to raise revenues, and so the organizing there looks a lot like the work in Youngstown, Ohio and Buffalo, New York. You can’t simply organize a crowd to demand new sidewalks from City Hall. You have to raise your game and organize in new and creative ways just like Sofia and her Association of Citizens with Initiative. 

At City Hall, the training room fills up with community leaders and activists from Cantemir and four nearby towns, three of who bring their mayors! Organizing is a tool to build power, and the mayors want the same thing their citizens want – the power to get things done. 

This is the first of several trainings that I’m due to give on Running Effective Campaigns in Moldova, Bosnia and Romania, including sections on power analysis and self-interest, action and reaction, narrative and the public story, escalating and creative tactics, membership, and turnout. I’d also been thinking about how to do this without writing in English on the butcher paper, because the people in Cantemir primarily speak Romanian and Russian. 

Following Rev. Cromwell’s high energy and engaging discussion of power and organizing and how it differs from service and advocacy, I describe how to run an effective campaign using a step chart and stick figures. I tell a tenant organizing story from the Bronx, figuring that organizing a five story walk up in the Bronx compares well to how it’s done in Cantemir. You start at the top and door knock your way down, identify potential leaders, organize a meeting, move to action, establish an ongoing tenant association, recruit members to the community group. These are the basics, but this is not a time for basic organizing. In Moldova as in America it’s time for organizing that is both local and national; organizing that does more than hold corrupt government officials and CEOs accountable – it should build governing power that takes the prize of government back from elites, corporations and concentrated wealth. 

This training came at a time when National People’s Action and our affiliates are moving to scale with soul, challenging the orthodoxies of organizing (e.g. no permanent friends, no permanent enemies) while deepening our commitment to the universals (e.g. organizing more and more people and challenging them to take responsibility for their own organizing and organizations). Historically our work has had two primary goals – build organizations and win victories. But the world has changed in the past several decades, nowhere as clear as Cantemir. NPA has added new top tier goals to our mission – advance our ideas and narrative; build deep and longstanding alignment between people, institutions, and movements; shift the political landscape; and build a new economy that works for everyone. 

Organizing has to change, because the nature of power has changed. In the last twenty years thirty-nine banks merged, acquired, and gobbled each other up to form four too big to fail (read: too big to exist) American banks – Bank of America, Wells Fargo, JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup. The 2008 economic crash in America only served to make them bigger and more complex. If organizing is fundamentally about the relationship between people, power and corporations, then we must expand our power as Bank of America and Wall Street grows theirs. 

The good news is that organizing is changing. Generational change in community organizing networks in America has opened the doors to new levels of cooperation, such as the alliance between National People’s Action and the PICO National Network. Along with the Alliance for a Just Society and hundreds of independent organizations, the New Bottom Line was formed to coordinate the national campaign to stop the foreclosure crisis, keep families in their homes, and solve the revenue crisis by making big banks and Wall Street pay their fair share. 

Community organizing groups and networks did not start the Occupy Wall Street movement, but pre-planned mobilizations are building on the energy. Civil disobedience is back in style in America, and there is a new wave of online organizing to match the face-to-face relationship building that is a universal. 

The real challenge for me in Cantemir was how to integrate the evolving nature of campaign organizing in America with the very real needs of community organizers and leaders who want tools they can use immediately. The pictograph step chart in Cantemir evolved in Bosnia with the Tuzla Community Foundation and then found its final form in Bucharest, a one-page step chart that shows the direct relationship between action and reaction. Every action we take is designed to provoke a reaction by the target that brings them closer to us, closer to recognition, relationship, negotiation and finally resolution. Along the way our leaders, members and turnout must increase, and we have to use earned media and our own communications to change the public story and narrative. 

In America groups often get stuck when their campaign tactics stop getting a reaction from the target and the group can’t get recognition or move into negotiation. NPA asks four primary power analysis questions to guide the strategy of the campaign, especially when the target is not reacting – what do they fear (and how can you bring this closer to them); what do they want (how can you move this away from them); who do they have influence over (are they willing to talk or be a way in to the target); and who has influence over them (secondary targets who can be a way in to the target). Revisiting a power analysis is the key to unlocking actions that will get a reaction out of the target. If its our own people that are afraid to take risks then we have to challenge them to break the be nice rule – you don’t win anything by being nice. 

My last day of training was in Bucharest with CeRe, a full day session where small groups used this campaign model to map out a local and a national campaign and deepen their collective power analysis. When I returned to America, I created a campaign outline and seven-slide Powerpoint for this new Running Strategic Campaigns training. 

This is an exciting time to be an organizer, in America, Moldova, Bosnia and Romania. The Arab Spring was followed by the European Summer and now the American Autumn. The winter of global discontent has begun, and the demand to put people first echoes across the world — from Cantemir to California and from Bucharest to Buffalo.

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