Wednesday Mar 21

“We have described for you a mountain. We have shown you the path to the top. We call upon you to do the climbing.”

Senator Murray Sinclair, Ojibway leader, former Manitoba Justice and chair of the National Truth and Reconciliation Commission, issued this challenge to Canadians in the summer of 2015 as he released the commission report into Canada's shameful residential school system for Aboriginal children.

During the seven years of hearings, it was almost impossible to miss hearing on the nightly news, indigenous witnesses weeping inconsolably for loss of family, language, culture, dignity and hope. Person after person spoke about the hunger, the physical, psychological, emotional and often sexual abuse they endured at the schools.

The commission was only one several national self-examinations held over the past 30 years but it reached farthest into the Canadian psyche. It’s meant taking a hard look in the mirror but in 94 calls to action, the Commission also pointed Canadians towards the future, and towards a new relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. It has called upon Canadians from all walks of life to build new relationships with Aboriginal people, founded on a different understanding of property and ownership, and to build a just and equitable society.

Well, Canadian unions are all about working for equality and social justice so it’s not surprising to find many unions have been taking steps along the path.

Union webpages are awash with posters and statements of solidarity, especially on June 21, National Aboriginal Day. Aboriginal elders open labour conventions and conferences. Meeting rooms at union HQs have been renamed in Ojibway, Cree, Inuktitut, Nuu-chah-nulth or other languages. Everyday meetings often don’t start without acknowledgement of the first nations on whose traditional territory the meeting is being held.

This could all seem like so much wallpaper, if stereotypes about Aboriginal people weren’t so corrosive. It will take a lot of “preparing the ground “with union members to achieve broad social change. Even a solidarity statement that recognizes Aboriginal people, and values their contribution runs very much counter to popular opinions.

Still, validating culture is now common in contracts as diverse as Alliance agreement with Nishnawbe Aski Police Service Board, or the Steelworkers contract with Placer Dome mines. Standard clauses guarantee Aboriginal members the right to pursue ceremonial or tradition economic activities like hunting, fishing, or rice harvesting without loss of seniority.

Unions have also adapted internal procedures, like grievance and arbitration to integrate Aboriginal processes to resolve conflict and restore harmony.

A UNIFOR agreement with Dilico Anishnabek Family Care in Thunder Bay, for example, allows a griever  to invite an elder to provide “wisdom, guidance, and assistance” in resolving the grievance. Similar provisions in the contract between Waasengilzig Nanaandawe Iyewigamig and the Ontario Nurses Association, allow a griever to request a community member as mediator or decision –maker on their case.


In a Steelworkers’ agreement with Keno Hills Mine in the Yukon, the Chief of the nearby Nacho Nyakdun Band gets notice of any grievances and both parties agreed to consider the chief’s recommendations and advice.

But the call for new relationships seems a bit stalled in the healing circles, and one- off leadership conferences with the words “ building bridges” in the title.

Certainly many unions and federations have set up Aboriginal councils, committees, caucuses, and round tables ---and these are important congregational opportunities.

But then there aren’t many Aboriginal union members anyway. So while any opportunity to self organize within union structures is useful, an Aboriginal council meeting a few times a year or a biannual conference is not likely to be upsetting the power balance any time soon.

The small number of Aboriginal people in unions in part reflects high rates of Aboriginal unemployment. There have been organizing successes in health, education and child protection in particular as these services have moved to Aboriginal authorities. But organizing in Aboriginal workplaces has its own complications, and as it happens Aboriginal employers aren’t any more enthusiastic than other employers when the union comes knocking.

In some instances though, reconciliation efforts have put union recognition on the table.

The Ontario Public Service Employees’ Union (OPSEU ) recently signed a memorandum with the Mississauga of the New Credit First Nation. It’s a result of the union’s ambitious and energetic reconciliation activities. The memorandum explicitly supports first nations jurisdiction and sovereignty and establishes organizing as a joint priority on and off reserve.

The BCGEU, organizing at the Xyolhemeylh (Fraser Valley) Aboriginal child and family services agency, found itself engaging elders to discuss the unit’s bargaining goals and rationale for demands. But the power relations on reserve, not to mention band politics, can add a layer of complexity that is insurmountable in an organizing drive. That’s not to say that unions have been shy about using political factions. At Pine Acres, a long term care facility operated by Westbank First Nation, when contract talks hit an impasse over contract- stripping, and the employer’s refusal to adopt an employment equity program at the facility, the union appealed to the women elders, whose moral authority helped end the lockout.

Some of the most successful work of reconciliation has been advocacy for improved public services —an activity that is second nature for Canadian public sector unions.

The Public Service Alliance of Canada supported an Aboriginal campaign #wedonotexpire demanding an end to an annoying federal requirement that Aboriginal people renew status registration every 5 years.

The BCGEU Closing the Circle campaign created tremendous public pressure on the BC provincial government to improve services for vulnerable Aboriginal children, youth and families in a system that has been culturally unsuitable, under-resourced, and understaffed. The final report contained a forward penned by Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, President of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, and was endorsed by other Aboriginal leaders.

An increasing number of coalitions have united environmentalists and private and public sector unions behind indigenous campaigns. The BC Teachers’ Federation, Unifor, BCGEU and others joined 130 First Nations in the Yinka Dene Alliance opposed to the Enbridge Gateway Pipeline.

Some heavy lifting on sharing the benefits of development was started quite a few years ago by private sector unions on large development projects.

Steelworkers contracts with employers at Voisey Bay, at Keno Hill Mines, and Cameco in Saskatchewan; and the IWA with Niigaani Enterprises, all contain detailed language establishing preference for Aboriginal workers in promotion, training, apprenticeship or transfer, and recall. It was significant to have provisions that set aside seniority in the interests of Aboriginal workers.

Employment equity language can now be found in agreements as diverse as York University and its Faculty Association, the Professional Association of Canadian Theatres and Actors’ Equity, OXFAM and CUPE, or Manitoba Hydro with IBEW.

But it’s the rare agreement that involves Aboriginal people in the planning from the outset or in the implementation or assessment. And it’s not clear what has actually been accomplished through these agreements. Of course there are also unresolved contradictions most evident when there are clashes over the developments themselves.

Take for example the hydro-electric mega-project at Muskrat Falls, Labrador, being constructed by Nalcor Energy -- a corporation owned by the government of Newfoundland and Labrador. In project labour contracts signed with this employer, the Resource Development Trades Council, and other unions inserted meaningful employment equity language including priority hiring, training and apprenticeship programs for Innu on whose territorial lands the reservoir will sit.

But two other Aboriginal peoples in the area are opposed to the project in its current form. Inuit downstream from the dam on the Lower Churchill River believe that engineering defects threaten their lives and livelihood. The Inuit government of Nunatsiavut has unsuccessfully demanded changes in the reservoir construction to prevent the release of toxic methyl mercury into the downstream food web. They also protest that the reservoir as planned will be too heavy in one area and that the dam will collapse, flooding their communities. Land Protectors blockaded the site last year, delayed construction for 3 months, have gone on hunger strikes and been arrested for their troubles.

In case anyone missed the point, Inuit protesters held signs saying So in the narrow field of contract rights, building trades have done the right thing, using power at the bargaining table to open opportunities for the marginalized. But there is no indication they addressed any of the larger issues raised by the project, or supported Inuit in their campaign against the environmental and health dangers.

A similar uneasy situation exists on the West Coast, where another controversial hydro-electric megaproject, the Site C dam, is under construction. When completed, it will flood 100 kilometres of the Peace River Valley. Bands in the Treaty 8 Alliance are opposed to the construction because it will flood hunting areas, fishing grounds, and burial sites. The BC Building Trades Council loudly supports the controversial project. But at the same time in different meeting halls, the building trades have been working hard in an honest effort to figure out what reconciliation means.

At their convention last fall, the BC Building Trades Council agreed on a three-point plan that every one of the 14 member unions will put before their membership. It commits them to take on discrimination and racism on worksites and to educate members and staff on indigenous constitutional law and land title. They also promise to address barriers real and perceived (sic) that have prevented indigenous people from participating fully in their local economy. Notwithstanding the residual sulkiness in that text, this could mean real change for Aboriginal workers who need access to trades training and apprenticeship, to unions and to jobs.

But what’s missing from this and even the most detailed employment equity programs is involvement of Aboriginal people and their representatives in planning, development and implementation.

Even well-intentioned unions seem to be operating in labour’s default position--doing good deeds for other people, when more lasting reconciliation would mean applying an organizers’ approach to social change-- empowering others to determine their own goals, and take their place at the table.

Canada’s international commitments will soon force everyone, including unions to think deeper and go farther towards reconciliation.

The country signed on without exception or quibble, to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. One section, Article 26, stipulates indigenous peoples have the right to “own, use, develop and control the lands, territories and resources they possess by reason of tradition, ownership or other traditional occupation or use.”

This has very broad implications given that 89% of the Canadian land mass is owned by or claimed by the Crown (provincial or national governments) and is leased out for logging, and for mineral, oil and gas extraction with non-Aboriginal people making the decisions and claiming almost all of the benefits.

Reconciliation demands changes that will honour and breathe life into articles like these. And this is at the heart of what the Commission has demanded —a change in the understanding of property and ownership, and a change in the power relationship between Aboriginal and non Aboriginal peoples.

So far unions have done good work as far as recognition, acknowledgement, validation, and cooperation -- but not power sharing. Power sharing is a hard one, since workers and their unions haven’t had much say in economic development, in corporations, or in job creation. And, any power workers do have, they’ve fought very hard to get.

As Grand Chief Steward Philip has said pointedly “Reconciliation is not for wimps”. So now unions are called to think deeply about what role we can and should play in building authentic relationships. We should appreciate the forgiveness, and the patience we are being shown. Our task is to bring equality and justice to a nation founded on exploitation. We may find that there are victories for all working people in that transformative change.

During an Organizers Forum trip to South Africa one of the Durban activists we met recounted how as a young man he had been arrested and brutally interrogated. In the post-apartheid years he often saw his interrogator driving around town. And the organizer made a point of smiling broadly and giving a big old wave in his direction; just to say “I survived!” The former interrogator would turn tail and head swiftly in the other direction.

Aboriginal people at the moment are giving Canadians a big ol’ wave. And although Canadians -- and union activists in particular -- are not turning away in shame, we need to do much more than just wave back.

Mary Rowles worked for over 30 years in Canadian public sector unions and labour federations.

ACORN Bristol recently celebrated victory after winning our campaign forcing the Bristol City Council (BCC) to retain the Council Tax Reduction. Council Tax is a tax collected by local British authorities and used to fund public services and social care.

Many British people are critical of the regressive nature of Council Tax because the amount a household is expected to pay is determined by the value of the house or flat as of 1991 (if the house was built after 1991 then it would be assigned a council tax ‘band’ of a similar sized house in the area). There are 8 Council Tax bands, A the lowest up, to H the highest, and people in band A houses in Bristol are charged just over £100 per month for 10 months of the year.

People on low incomes, pensions or in receipt of certain benefits used to be eligible for Council Tax Benefit, a centrally administered benefit which was scrapped in 2013. Following this, the Government passed on the administration of any Council Tax relief to local authorities. Since then councils have been running Council Tax Reduction Schemes through which individuals can apply for a reduction in the amount of tax they have to pay. Those on the lowest incomes were eligible for a 100% exemption (unemployment benefit in the UK is around £70 per week, it would be incredibly difficult for individuals to lose £25 of that to Council Tax).

These Reduction Schemes legally have to be revisited every year by local authorities and under the economic context of austerity and further government cuts, Councils across the country have opted to reduce the support they offer to low income households by setting limits on the amount of reduction people can apply for. The most common method has been to impose a minimum charge on all households, so that everyone would have to pay, for example, at least 25% of the bill for their area.

Being the last major city to still maintain a 100 % exemption policy, Bristol City Council planned to scrap this from April 2018 when the new tax year started. In July this year, they created an online consultation which offered Bristolians three options for the Council Tax Reduction Scheme; cut, cut or cut. Each option would have seen those on very low incomes having to pay around £5 - £10 per week. That may not sound a lot of money to some, but when you are trying to survive on unemployment benefit, that money can be the difference between putting food on the table and heating your home.

At our July quarterly meeting, ACORN members outraged by these proposals to take even more money from those struggling the most, voted to challenge the council’s proposals and to campaign for them to keep a 100% reduction for people on low incomes. This was a move
away from our usual focus on housing, but many members would be directly affected if the changes went ahead, and in the climate of zero-hours contracts and low job security many of us could find ourselves unemployed with little warning and having to worry about paying council tax on top of everything else. It was also a conscious effort to make a move to becoming the multi-issue organization we’ve always intended ACORN to be.

The campaign began with members running two evening strategy sessions in August in which they conducted a power analysis, evaluated our own organizational resources and explored the leverage we could bring to bear upon potential targets. An escalating campaign strategy was developed with direct action to coincide with key developments and dates and the decision that if necessary we would co-ordinate a council tax strike and defend members from eviction due to rent arrears arising from the change in policy. It was also clear that exerting pressure on the politicians through the grassroots of the ruling Labour Party would be vital.

Members also identified the three most affected areas of the city in which to concentrate our organizing efforts that also rank among the most deprived nationally: Lawrence Hill (where our offices are based and close to our heartland of Easton), Hartcliffe – an estate on the South West edge of the city, and Lawrence Weston – an estate on the north-west edge of the city.

Making a virtue of necessity, we run an extremely tight ship, staff-wise, and instead rely on our members to take on as many traditionally staff roles as possible. Not only is this essential for our survival as an organization but it also increases the democracy and sense of ownership and investment members feel for ACORN. Member organizers are divided into teams with a particular remit to facilitate efficient division of labour.

Given the iron grip that centrally-imposed austerity is exercising on local government it was clear that fighting solely on the human cost would be insufficient to sway politicians facing disastrous city finances and without the political will to mount a meaningful existence. Our campaign therefore also had to demonstrate that the proposed plans would have the opposite to intended effect and actually cost the city money. Our research team found studies confirming our belief in the false economy of these measures and that the short-term savings would increases larger problems such as homelessness, and can lead to a greater strain on public services.

A change of this sort necessitates a public consultation, a recommendation by Council Officers (high-level unelected council managers) to the Mayor’s Cabinet who in turn make a recommendation to Full Council to vote on. The Cabinet meeting was scheduled for the end of
October and the council vote for December. We would need to convince dozens of Councillors from the ruling party to rebel in order to win a straight vote, so our best case scenario goal was to kill off the plans before they got to that stage.

Given the time constraints dictated by the Council’s decision-making process we were limited to only two weeks on the ground in each area meaning that we had to hit it hard and fast. Members were out at least three times a week between late August and early October. Taking each in turn ACORN members hustled their way into tower blocks to knock doors and held stalls outside shopping centres, schools and other community hubs. We focused on generating ‘none of the above’ responses to the Council’s consultation and on gathering signatures on an online and offline petition to build our mandate and network.

Local meetings were organized and then mini-actions where residents and ACORN members would meet with Councillors and let them know that we expected them to vote against the proposals should it come to it and work to prevent this. Largely due to time constraints, the first two public meetings were small, prompting a shift from hit and miss doorknocking to a centrally-located stall to both engage greater numbers and allow follow-up conversations as we became more of a fixture. This approach seemed more successful for the couple of weeks spent in Lawrence Weston, however we found out that we had won the campaign before holding the public meeting, so a full evaluation of the relative merits was not possible.

Online outreach has been a key part of our expansion in Bristol and for this campaign volunteer organizers from our communications team created videos of ACORN members explaining what the loss of income would mean for them and their families. Social media was a very
important tool as its provides a very public platform, not only to spread the campaign but also to engage with Councillors and apply pressure to them. Given our lack of office staff, our data team was also invaluable transferring contact details from paper to our database in short order; allowing quick email follow up and circulation of campaign updates and media content.

Our initial focus on mobilizing responses to the consultation to deny the Council a mandate and a petition to build our own was very successful with the Council forced to admit that 40% of all responses had come via ACORN and called for ‘none of the above.’ This, coupled
with the 4000 petition signatures gathered made it clear where public feeling lay and who commanded it. ACORN members also organized within the Labour party to pass several supportive motions at both the constituency and ward levels, applying upwards pressure on Councillors and a Mayor already coming under fire from their own grassroots for their lukewarm opposition to austerity.

Bristol’s 73 seat council is comprised of the ruling Labour party with 37 seats and the rest divided between the Conservatives, Greens and Liberal Democrats. We had already secured commitments from the Greens and Liberal Democrats to vote against any changes, and we had discounted Conservative support given that they had attempted to bring in these same measures in February. To win a Council vote we would need to swing large numbers of Labour Councillors and convince them to defy their Mayor - no easy task as the Labour Mayor Marvin Rees had expressed public support for the proposed changes when questioned by the media. We were asking councillors to vote against their party leadership but with their wider party values.

We felt a better option would be to make the issue so politically damaging to the Mayor that rather than face a public rebellion of Councillors (even one with insufficient strength to win the vote outright) he would abandon the plans at the earliest possible stage.

After conducting an analysis of Labour Councillors and their relative sympathy with our cause, members made plans to visit them in turn with a small delegation to demand that they support our position should the issue go to a vote. We first went after the low-hanging fruit of those most likely to rebel in order to publicize our gains and so pile on the pressure on those less ready to put their heads above the parapet. In the first week we got commitments from four Councillors ready to defy the party line while the same number again committed to working behind the scenes to pressuring the Mayor to scrap the plans. We were told several times that we were winning the argument among Councillors but that the Mayor was holding firm. A sympathetic Councillor told us of an upcoming weekend retreat where the policy would be discussed and suggested we prepare a document for the Councillors laying out our position. We did this, highlighting not only the economic arguments but also the incongruity of a Labour administration penalizing the poorest given the national party’s rhetoric of ‘For the many, not the few’ and committing ourselves to exacting the maximum political cost. We circulated this widely on social media, so that no-one could claim ignorance.

With 24 hours to go a Councillor ally and ACORN member leaked us a document prepared by the Mayor’s Office that attempted to discredit our position and very worryingly, the result of the consultation, stating that because we had mobilized people to participate in the
democratic process it had somehow become invalidated! Rather than issue a rebuttal and so endanger our source we prepped several Councillors with counter-arguments and left them to it.

Allies within the Council meeting indicated early on that we had successfully persuaded a majority of Labour Councillors to support our position and that Mayor and his supporters had conceded defeat, agreeing to keep the scheme unchanged. This was confirmed a few days later by way of the Mayor’s ‘State of the City Address’ speech.

Our initial plans for the campaign saw us preparing to apply serious pressure in the form of a non-payment campaign or the threat of such, right up to mid-December when the vote was scheduled. As it turned out our ground-level operation, quality research and ability to organize/apply pressure within the Labour Party, combined with a willingness to take serious direct action meant that the Mayor decided the political cost was not worth battle. The end result then was ACORN’s biggest UK win to date, delivered under budget and two months ahead of schedule translating to up to £8 million saved for 25,000 low income Bristolians and developing increased experience and confidence in our leadership.

Nick is a founding staffer and South West Regional Organiser of ACORN UK. Anny is a founding member of ACORN Bristol, the first Branch of ACORN UK and has been a key leader ever since. She recently completed a four month internship during which she headed up the ground operation of the Council Tax campaign referred to in this article.

During several decades of teaching community organizing to university students, I (Moshe) tried to help them shed their naïveté about power and conflict. I asked them to imagine what it would be like to be swimming with sharks, which they did by reading a humorous essay on the subject. The students quickly realized that “How to Swim with Sharks” works as a tongue-in-cheek introduction to the characters and circumstances we encounter in community organizing.

The shark analogy works because our grassroots organizations are often in conflict with malevolent and unconscionable adversaries. The major stockholders and executives of America’s massively consolidated corporations satisfy their greed for money and power at the expense of others. They consign millions to poverty, oppression, and injustice, and ultimately to injury, sickness, and death. Their institutionalized evil, chronicled in the public record by legislative committees, commissions, courts, journalists, and individual victim-witnesses, has left no way for us to avoid seeing them as death-dealing predators on the public.

When students read the cartoonish characterization of the community organizing arena in which they will be working as organizers after graduation, many ask: How are we supposed to survive and succeed in the dog-eat-dog world of power and conflict? How can we organize
successful grassroots campaigns against such ruthless, sophisticated, and moneyed adversaries?

As it turns out, recently graduated students are not the only ones with these questions. Even veteran organizers may be working without the conviction that they have an effective strategy to countervail the “sharks.” They are aware that, despite a half-century of successful grassroots
organizing campaigns (relying on one-to-one base-building in face-to-face communities), reactionary Republicans control most governorships, state legislatures, and all three branches of the federal government. Their electoral defeats are only temporary knock-downs. Withal, the reactionary forces are successfully implementing retrograde public policies and right-wing judicial appointments, and sabotaging progressive ones. Billionaires, ripping off the population and the planet with impunity, are bankrolling them and their reactionary fellow-travelers with the profits of their global corporations, except when occasionally obstructed by the courts.

Leadership Deficit

The first step in countervailing “sharks” is assessing the strength of community organizing’s leadership, since the development of leaders is the underpinning of virtually all organizing objectives. If an organization or movement is developing dynamic leadership at all levels, its problems diminish in proportion to their numbers, strength, and distribution. But to the extent that a movement has few skilled, strong, and inspiring leaders, nothing it does will enable it to meet its challenges.

Professional organizers know that leadership is the basic building-block—it is both the method and the objective—of all organizing efforts to empower the grassroots, to countervail the power of the “sharks.” Whatever the problem or pressure faced by a community or constituency, its prospects are always better with more and stronger leaders. Sustained, accelerating powerbuilding, whether by solo organizations, coalitions, or federations, requires exceptional leaders.

Unfortunately, inspired and inspiring leaders, capable of leading a grassroots-driven national progressive movement, haven’t been standouts in the alliances and federations mounting statewide and national campaigns. Not long ago, for instance, one faith-based federation promoted a national campaign in response to the Trump administration’s immigration policies. The federation’s spokesperson for a nationwide “conference
call”—seemingly aimed to unify staff and leadership on campaign objectives—was a top staff director. It’s not difficult to grasp what’s missing in the way of leadership. Where are the leaders who can lead in organizing a consolidated and unified national movement? Where are the leaders with the stature to take on the “sharks,” as did the great leaders of the American revolution, the antislavery movement, the populist movement, the labor movement, the women’s suffrage movement, the civil rights movement, and the Vietnam anti-war movement? This missing leadership is existentially damaging to progressive grassroots community organizing, because leadership development is community organizing’s long-term strategic counterforce for “swimming with sharks.”

Moreover, in every successful movement, the most dynamic leaders at the top came up through the ranks from the bottom—pushed up from the
grassroots, challenged to lead because of their character, competence, commitment, and charisma. For example, national Nonpartisan League organizers pushed the nomination and election of leaders who were not opportunists, warning members before their first organizing meeting “. . . repeatedly . . . against men who sought office of any sort.” The League’s newspaper reinforced this idea:

Farmers must keep in mind that they cannot expect right service and a square deal at the hands of a man who goes gum-shoeing for political preferment. Farmers do not need in office a man who seeks the glory of political prestige. What we farmers want is a man who knows the farmers’ needs, a man who is engaged in the same business as a regular farmer—not the farmer who farms farmers. Not only so but they want a man who is so adverse to political preferment that he must be drafted into service.

Throughout history, some folks have claimed that, because “the end of the world is coming,” it’s pointless to invest in long-term social-change fundamentals, such as leadership development. No doubt there were such people in North Dakota in 1915 at the beginning of the National Nonpartisan League. Nowadays, we hear apocalyptic predictions that we may permanently lose the Bill of Rights, free and fair elections, democratic government, public education, progress towards justice for all, and much more. Certainly, we are facing constituencies and events
that threaten what we treasure most in our way of life. But organizers, of all people, should not exaggerate the threats. Those who want to destroy the heart of the nation do not necessarily have the wherewithal to do it. We’re not facing anything like the Nazi war machine of World War II or the conditions that contributed to the inevitability of the Civil War, both of which the country managed to survive. So, although in the Trump era we’re responding to the belated offspring of those threats, we should not abandon all our other long-term organizing tasks, including leadership development.

Commitment to intensified grassroots leadership development may be far less exciting than one-shot mobilizations of millions or even thousands in marches and demonstrations that attract nationwide media attention. But experience shows that leadership development ultimately has a greater influence on government lawmaking, policy-making, and agency practices than those mobilizations. Its potential contribution to a future of more progressive government is greater.

“Pushing Up” Extraordinary Leaders

The greatest promise for organizing a consolidated and unified national progressive movement lies in commitment to the ideal of continuous broad-based leadership development within every alliance, coalition, and federation, and within their member-organizations, engaged in the movement. But this is not what we’ve seen to date in progressive grassroots organizing. If this prerequisite seems far-fetched, consider the extent to which corporate America has adopted a unified strategy and set of tactics, including sophisticated training programs for individual companies, to defeat union organizing and undermine existing unions. A national progressive grassroots movement that seeks to countervail corporate power should hardly expect to do less.

What first distinguishes this prerequisite is that the initiatives to nurture leaders must be continuous, which demands far greater commitment than what ordinarily passes for leadership development in the community and faith-based organizing projects with which we’re familiar. Second, such an effort must be broad-based, which is to say, operating with the presupposition that it’s possible to produce not two or three, but a phalanx of extraordinary leaders.

Why aren’t community and faith-based organizing for grassroots empowerment “pushing up” extraordinary leaders in large numbers? We suggest two possible reasons for this failure. Organizing has been “professionalized” in the last half-century. Professional staff, along with
their training-center consultants, have easily dominated grassroots leaders. Understandably, professional organizers believe that if organizing is to build and wield power, the members of their organizations must respect proven principles and practices. So, they often dictate those principles and practices, appointing themselves as the arbiters of their observance and, as a practical matter, acting unrecognized as the top-tier of organizational leadership. Additionally, diminishing financial resources available to community and faith-based organizing projects limit their commitment to conventional leadership development training. Many foundations and religious denominations previously supportive of such organizing have now concluded that they can achieve better results by funding social services. And grant-makers increasingly demand “wins,” seemingly indifferent to the necessity for the “builds” to achieve them, such as leadership development.

A commitment to continuous broad-based leadership development has inevitable implications. It requires that we not treat leadership development as an occasional activity, something we do before campaigns, twice a year at leadership retreats, or even once a month. It requires that we view the moment-to-moment life of our organizations as presenting challenging opportunities for individual leadership development, and that we view all our interactions with members as opportunities to connect them to those challenges.

If we want to understand the impact of transitioning to this continuous approach to leadership development, we will need to reimagine our day-to-day work—not as a series of tasks to accomplish worthwhile objectives, such as asking staff or leaders to carry on fundraising or one-to-one
membership recruiting or preparations for research or accountability actions, etc.—but as a series of challenges that we gauge and pose to individuals.

Committing ourselves to broadly based leadership development will also have implications. No longer will we approach leadership development as a process for identifying and training a handful of individuals to meet immediate organizational needs. On the contrary, we will view virtually every member of our organizations as having the capacity to demonstrate some form of leadership at some point under some circumstances for some purpose, even if only to ensure phone calls before an action or cleanup after a meeting.

We acknowledge that neither we nor anyone else has a simple, quick, or cheap solution to meeting the challenges of continuous broad-based leadership development. The strategic model we’re proposing, however, leads beyond the unattractive choices of either abdicating our professional responsibility to teach the essential principles and practices of organizing, or infantilizing leaders by assuming they can’t answer critical questions as well as we can.

Taking Risks & Trusting Leaders

We have seen professional organizing staff in leadership training sessions engaging their members in identifying problems, cutting issues, and in planning and evaluating campaigns, actions, and negotiations. And we have heard organizers making statements about what they defined as the absolute requirements of building grassroots power. Our own community organizing training, for
instance, taught us that we should “make sure”—at virtually all costs—that the members and leaders of our organizations do at least one planning meeting before research and accountability actions. The principles are good, but that organizers don’t trust leaders to adopt them for themselves if asked whether they think they’re useful or necessary, is not good.

When this happens, leadership development is like a one-way street that doesn’t work well with wrong-way drivers. Organizers taking charge, even subtly, amounts to driving in the wrong direction. Instead of making statements about the inflexible ground-rules, organizers ought to be asking members and leaders the same questions the organizers asked themselves to conclude that the rules are indispensable. With this approach, organizers may be taking greater risks that leaders and members will make mistakes, but also that they will grow in capability and creativity, becoming more inspired and more inspiring to others.

Moreover, if organizers put the questions to leaders as a group, there is less risk. There is far less likelihood that one loose-cannon, cool alternator, or know-it-all will lead the group astray. Then, too, we learned many years ago through administering the “NASA Exercise: Survival on the Moon,” that the knowledge and intelligence of the lowest-scoring groups is far greater than the highest-scoring individuals, which has also been our experience as community organizers. Average groups learn and make decisions far better than the brightest individuals.

We’re also proposing that leadership development activity—specifically, the time, resources, energy, and spirit devoted to it—must go much deeper than what we have seen in our experience of faith-based and turf-based organizing. Organizers must build leadership development initiatives into the culture and structure of grassroots organizations such that it plays out in their day-to-day, hour-to-hour, and minute-to-minute activity. Nothing is more important or deserves a higher priority in the internal life of grassroots social action organizations. But how, practically, do we nurture the potential for extraordinary leadership? How do we produce what many might regard as a surplus of competent and committed, inspired and inspiring leaders, both formal and informal? Who, precisely, do we most want to suit-up for leadership, and how do we identify them?

Identifying Potential Leaders

If we survey the public on how they identify individuals as potential leaders, many might say, “I know one when I see one.” (Possibly that limited criterion was operating with maximum effect in the election of Donald Trump.) Others, however, might well help us generate a list of markers of leadership potential. We think that many organizers would subscribe to such a list, possibly even believing that the most promising individuals with leadership potential can produce:

• Inspiring visions
• Successful strategies and tactics
• Better work from leaders and staff
• Effective teams
• Creative processes and solutions
• Improved communication
• Expanding resources (i.e., members and money)

There are always individuals who have knowledge and skills which tell us of their grassroots leadership potential. They often have a following that pays attention to them and follows what they say and do; and they may produce a variety of resources by dint of their relationships, experience, and force of personality. Such individuals appear to have valuable wherewithal, and we may encourage them to take on leadership roles, for they will step up to the demands of leadership in response to professional or personal “rewards” or to threats to themselves, to their loved ones, neighborhoods, communities, and jobs. But relying on the few who possess these qualifications will effectively place a low ceiling on the total number of individuals we consider for leadership development.

Moreover, our experience is that it’s often a mistake to focus initially on knowledge and skills when identifying leadership potential. The incentive to do so may be to get quick results when there’s a high-priority task that’s hanging fire. When we respond to that incentive, we may overlook signs that the individual we have identified as a potential leader has problematic aspects of character and personality, which typically come back to haunt us. Then, too, when we measure leadership potential primarily by the ability to build relationships and produce resources, admittedly important qualities, we often end up with leaders who are facile talkers and occupy positions of prestige in the larger community. A preoccupation with their own careers may very well displace a dedication to the commonweal and to the grassroots empowerment required to achieve it.

With this approach to leadership development, we can burden ourselves with leaders who do not inspire others with a moral vision, who fail to model the spiritual (nonmaterial) satisfactions of taking great risks and making great investments in a long-term struggle, who do not exhibit unquestioned integrity and selflessness in their use of power, and who are unwilling to make the substantial sacrifices necessary to achieve a future of greater righteousness, truth, and justice, freedom, peace, and compassion. No movement for the commonweal can succeed without these moral spiritual leadership qualities.

A more productive approach when looking for potential leaders is to begin by identifying individuals who exhibit qualities of character and personality. These attributes include:

• Moral and ethical integrity
• Actively working for justice
• Showing backbone and courage
• Expressing compassion
• Serving the needs of both individuals and larger social causes
• Taking every opportunity to involve and learn from others
• Revealing little or no ambition for personal possessions, privileges, position, or power.

This approach to leadership development recognizes that if individuals have the character and personality suitable for leadership, including humility and curiosity, we can help them to become effective leaders through day-today education and training. And this approach, places a far higher ceiling on the total number of individuals we can consider for leadership development.

Pivotal Goal of Leaders

But even this last view of leadership potential, with all its value, has one debilitating deficiency. It does not convey that the pivotal goal of every grassroots leader must be the development of others as leaders. This is the key to achieving depth and breadth of leadership, whether in a local grassroots organization or a grassroots-driven national movement.  A leader’s efforts to develop others as leaders has greater influence on organizational survival and success than any other initiative, because it has these predictable effects:

• It improves virtually all measures of organizational performance, such as launching new projects and campaigns, developing new revenue streams, improving recruiting and training, and reducing administrative and operational costs;
• It lessens organizational vulnerability, whether from external forces, self-inflicted internal causes, or the inevitable loss of experienced leaders; and
• It raises the morale of leaders and staff, which enhances almost all other measures of organizational performance.

Pillars of Leadership Development

Suppose that we have in mind to accomplish the above pivotal goal. How should we proceed?

Experienced organizers know that people rarely come to understand their potential for leadership through talk or intellectual information, but almost always by engaging in action. So, we ought to avoid trying to convince someone to become a leader. Instead we should challenge the individual to do a job that requires leadership. But how do we do that?

Successfully challenging an individual requires individualizing our challenge—that is, that we recognize we’re building a relationship with a unique individual, that we provide direct support to that individual, that we gauge our challenge to that individual, and that we hold that individual accountable with positive mentoring.

Building relationships that foster trust is community organizing’s sine qua non. It requires empathy, genuine interest and ability to understand the feelings and concerns of others, coupled with the ability to communicate that understanding back to them. Such relationships, in turn, support risk-taking, which is the foundation of leadership development. Growth in leadership capability, not only in knowledge and skill but self-confidence and courage to act, occurs when trusted staff or leaders challenge individuals to take on tasks that require them to risk going beyond their previous experience and comfort zone. The relationship of trust implicitly assures them that the job is necessary, worth the risk, and doable; that they have the attributes to do it; and that others are not simply using them as organizational cannon-fodder.

Direct support addresses what people most often fear when asked to lead—failure, burdensome demands, and unending commitment. We make it more likely they’ll take a risk by promising and then arranging support that speaks to their practical, emotional, psychological, and moral-spiritual needs for reassurance. Our offers of support should clearly communicate the specific resources available to those we challenge. The most effective expression of support, however, is that we personally have their backs.

Gauged challenge is based on the resources—experience, skills, emotional wherewithal, learning, etc. of the person we intend to challenge—which of course we should assess before making the challenge. And before making the challenge we also want to help the person understand
the implications of what we’re proposing. The challenge works best when we’re asking rather than telling. We are suggesting in effect that the person consider doing something he or she hasn’t done before. We don’t want to make the challenge so small that it’s not challenging or so large that it’s overwhelming. We want to resist the temptation to talk people into doing what we want them to do, so we always make the challenge in the form of a question—such as, “Would you be willing to _____?”— after which we stop talking and wait for the answer. And we want to consciously propose challenges with a neutral tone of voice, which allows the person to accept or to refuse the challenge without a loss of dignity. We do not take refusals as definitive, however, recognizing that circumstances change and that it’s appropriate and necessary to pose
additional challenges. We’re familiar with the alternatives to this approach. We can steam-roll, manipulate, bamboozle, and shame people into doing what we want them to do. But we don’t think those methods produce the kind of leaders we want.

Accountability mentoring requires that we budget sufficient staff resources to ensure that follow-up to our challenges doesn’t fall through the cracks. We do follow-up whether the individual has met the challenge successfully or not. When the individual has failed to meet the challenge, it’s important that we give credit for commitment and effort, and that we help the person understand what happened and what it means. We avoid causing embarrassment by focusing on what resources the person would want to have for a similar challenge in the future. Then we pose another challenge, which offers an opportunity to reattempt the task and succeed. When an individual has successfully met a challenge, we credit the accomplishment and pose another challenge that builds on the confidence and skill acquired from meeting the first challenge.

When staff concentrate on this model of leadership development—on building relationships, direct support, gauged challenge, and accountability mentoring—the practical effect is to construct the strongest possible footing for all other organizational goals and objectives.

Supportive Organizational Context

This model can only work if the organizational context is healthy and supportive. The presence or absence of several policies and practices can determine the success or failure of the model, including:

• The modeling of competent and trustworthy leadership;
• The presence of material benefits and shared beliefs that encourage individuals to take leadership initiatives;
• The existence of organizational culture that values admitting ignorance and mistakes, and willingness to learn and grow; and
• The commitment to evaluation as a regular part of healthy organizational development.

Our strategic model of leadership development can only remain dynamic if supported by formal organizational structure—for example, through policies implemented in the organization’s bylaws or operating procedures (e.g., rotating leadership roles); and if encouraged by the culture
of the organization—for example, by informally setting and reinforcing expectations about leadership with new members (e.g., recognizing that occasional mistakes are inevitable, but repeating them is not).

The benefits of rotating leadership roles include restricting the growth of incumbency-fiefdoms and excessive power-brokering by “maximum leaders,” and expanding opportunities for many individuals to acquire leadership knowledge and skill. We may rotate leadership roles through the organization’s structure by limiting time-in-office, and by establishing prerequisite leadership experience for any specific position—for example, requiring that eligibility for the presidency includes having served in at least two other officer-positions (e.g., vice president and director of  communications).

The success of our leadership development model also depends on organizational supports for conscientious implementation of the model on a day-to-day basis. For example, it’s essential that staff record daily practice notes that describe in detail their experience and the performance
of members and leaders in relation to leadership development. Each week’s work should begin with a staff meeting, providing an opportunity to discuss upcoming leadership development challenges and to draw on the experience of the entire staff in formulating responses; and each week’s work should end with a staff meeting to review the week’s one-to-one numbers and outcomes, successes and failures, and lessons learned for future practice.

Follow-on evaluations of one-to-ones, meetings, actions, and campaigns are the hallmark of all competent organizing. Our view, however, is that the focus of these evaluations should be leadership development. We should be evaluating the types of opportunities available for leadership development, the extent to which staff and leaders were effective in transforming the opportunities into challenges for individuals, the relative abilities of individuals to meet the challenges, and the effectiveness of follow-up accountability mentoring by staff.

Humor also plays a role. Even in wartime, which has no equal in “seriousness,” humor is not only acceptable but essential. So, we ought not to inadvertently encourage organizational culture that treats humor as undignified or demeaning to the weighty purposes of the organization. People don’t voluntarily commit themselves to organizations that promise nothing more than endless dour and demanding struggle. In a similar vein, voluntary participation in organizational life—even though it serves a higher purpose than the interest or ideology of the individual—must nonetheless be individually fulfilling. People don’t voluntarily commit themselves to organizations exclusively dedicated to meeting larger social needs, entirely ignoring their individual needs.

We do not recognize any defensible rationale for excluding leaders from full participation in setting leadership development objectives. When staff monopolize the process, it has the effect of infantilizing leaders, treating them like children we want to lead around as their minders. In contrast, combining the contributions of leaders and staff promises to produce the most relevant and useful objectives. The most constructive role for professional staff is to know, given the status of the organizing, the strategic and tactical questions requiring answers—not to answer them but to propose them to the appropriate levels of leaders. It’s professionally unbecoming and ironic in several respects when organizers argue or work against full participation of leaders in setting objectives for leadership development.

Organizers should not, but often do, ignore endemic burnout of leaders. Burnout feeds on conflicts within an organization, some of which are inevitable. In personal conflicts between members, the practice of triangulating leaders places them in the middle of exhausting emotional firestorms. Staff contribute to the problem by acquiescing in the misguided notion that it’s the responsibility of leaders to resolve every conflict. However, leaders themselves can short-circuit triangulation. Employing formal policy and informal practice, they may refuse the “fixer” role and instead insist that individuals resolve their personal conflicts by meeting together face-to-face to mediate their differences. This rule in no way precludes requesting a leader to facilitate or simply observe and make an unimpeachable record of such a meeting. Regarding intra-organizational conflicts which are not personal, committees, panels, and boards should discuss their implications and then decide the best course for their resolution; or, when fitting, leaders should apply an existing operating procedure, policy, bylaw, or constitutional article to achieve resolution.

The ultimate purpose of a supportive organizational context is the development of new and stronger individual leaders. So, how do we evaluate whether the people we’re challenging are growing in their capacity for leadership?

Evaluating Growth of Leaders

We can confirm our progress in leadership development by specific milestones, including various degrees of recognition of the following by the individuals we’re challenging to lead:

• The primacy of challenging and supporting new leaders, and not becoming threatened by the contraction of one’s own leadership role, authority, and responsibilities.
• The certainty that all members and leaders of an organization possess expertise and commitment in various proportions, and that effective leaders act to ensure that their organization benefits from all of them.
• The need to identify tasks, define roles to fill them, and challenge individuals to take them.
• The crucial importance of teamwork—building teams and teaching the essentials of participation on teams—to accomplishing organizational tasks.
• The need for both “wins” and “builds” in the organization’s campaigns and other major initiatives.
• The knowledge of one’s own strengths and weaknesses, and the importance of active commitment to one’s own professional and personal growth.
• The need for and essential roles of informal leaders, and the willingness to serve as one when helpful.
• The need for and essential role of informal meetings, particularly with small groups and individuals.
• The need to invest one’s resources in strengthening and unifying the organization before considering one’s own professional and personal interests.
• The difference between appropriately keeping confidences (e.g., when someone shares a personal problem or fear of taking on a task for the
organization); versus keeping silent when someone offers to make an unhealthy covert contract (e.g., proposing cooperation with police surveillance of the organization’s members). Of course, leaders should silently honor the former and openly reveal the latter.
• The need for non-threatening ways for members to give candid feedback to leaders. We can’t rely exclusively on individuals speaking up in open meetings to achieve ongoing leadership accountability. Questions and doubts often remain unasked and unexpressed in open settings for fear of giving offense, becoming a pariah, engendering retribution, dividing loyalties, or sounding stupid, ignorant, or naïve. So, it’s critical for leaders to create non-threatening ways for members, other leaders, and staff to question and criticize them.
• The wisdom that there is not one ideal decision-rule for all organizational decisions, such as “popular democratic” decision-making that includes the entire membership or “executive leadership” decision-making that singularly empowers a maximum leader. This recognition depends on understanding the variety of settings in which organizational decisions occur—such as direct staff work with individual members and leaders, supervision of staff, training of leaders and staff, project management, project policy-making, and decisions about the organization’s constitution. The principal criterion to structure decision-making involves balancing the need for decision-speed (by limiting participation) and decision-ownership (by expanding participation).
• The constructive role of democratically established organizational policies, rules, and discipline in contrast to management by ad-hoc, seat-of-the-pants, executive decision-making.
• The value of multiplying and carefully considering alternatives in a crisis, in contrast to prematurely grasping ready-made solutions.
• The need for negotiating compromise when there is disagreement, and for modeling graciousness and respect towards others despite disagreements, thereby encouraging a culture that enables constructively surfacing and resolving conflicts.
• The usefulness of carefully qualifying people and opportunities before investing time, energy, material resources, or spirit in them, in contrast to making rash, emotionally driven unproductive investments.
• The necessity to promote reasonable and widely understood expectations regarding appropriate and inappropriate roles of leaders, paid staff, and volunteers.
• The need to model organizational discipline, not only regarding major decisions and actions, but with “basics,” like punctuality and preparedness in all organizational matters.

What are the most critical questions we can ask to assess the leadership performance of staff, leaders, and members, and to assess the outcomes of their initiatives?

The questions are surprisingly uncomplicated:
• How many members, not previously considered leaders, have staff and current leaders identified andchallenged this past year?
• What verifiably new and useful contributions to the organization have those challenged to lead made in the past year?
• How many additional members, as documented by staff, are the newly emerging leaders actively challenging?

The significance of these questions is numerical. If the pivotal role of leaders is to cultivate other leaders, who in turn become committed to identifying and nurturing still more leaders, there is a potentially infinite multiplication of organizational leaders. This is the key to the survival and success of grassroots organizations and movements.

Moshe ben Asher and Khulda bat Sarah are the founders and Co-Directors of Gather the People (, which provides resources for congregational and community organizing and development, Moshe has organized for ACORN, Citizens Action League of California, and one of the PICO projects (OCCCO); he was Assistant Director for Organize Training Center; and he teaches sociology and social work at
California State University, Northridge. Khulda has organized for the North County Community Project and the Marin Congregational Organizing Project.


i See Richard J. Johns, “How to Swim with Sharks: A Primer,” Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, 16(4):525- 28 (Summer 1973).
ii Massive corporate consolidation—the formation of Big Energy, Big Tobacco, Big Food, Big Pharma, Big Guns, Big Chem, Big Porn, etc.—has led to market domination by a handful of companies across numerous sectors of the American economy. Regarding the economic impacts, see: “Too much of a good thing,” The Economist (March 26, 2016); and see also: Stacy Mitchell, “The Rise and Fall of the Word ‘Monopoly’ in American Life,” The Atlantic (June 20, 2017), and “Monopoly Power and the Decline of Small Business,” Institute for Local Self-Reliance (August 2016) [].
iii Robert L. Morlan, Political Prairie Fire (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1955), pp. 47-48.
iv See Moshe ben Asher and Khulda bat Sarah, “The Blinding Rapture of Mobilization,” Social Policy (Spring 2017).
v See Brian Johns and Ellen Ryan, “Leadership Is Not A Deliverable,” Social Policy (Winter 2013).
vi See Michael Silver [Moshe ben Asher], The Destructiveness of Cool Alternators, in The ISA Model of Community Organization and the Leadership Crisis of La Vecindad Unida/United Neighborhood-ISA (University of California at Los Angeles: MSW thesis, June 1974), pp. 39-40 [].
vii Available at and We first administered the exercise to individuals in a large group, then to smallgroups comprised of the same individuals, and then we compared individual and group scores.
viii See Moshe ben Asher and Khulda bat Sarah, “Leaders Mentor More Leaders,” National Jewish Post & Opinion (January 31, 2007) [].
ix See “Relationships are . . . critical to forging the shared understandings, commitments, and collaborative action that constitute a movement” in Marshall Ganz, “Leading Change,” in Nitin Nohria and Rakesh Khurana, eds., Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice (Boston, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010), p. 532. [].
x See Moshe ben Asher, “Writing Daily Macro Practice Notes: A Primer for Community Organizers and Developers,” paper presented on COMM-ORG: The On-Line Conference on Community Organizing []; and a later version is also available on the Gather the People web site [].
xi This requires tracking the number and character of organizers’ leadership-development one-to-ones, the number and character of one-to-ones done by those the organizers are challenging, plus reports from those the organizers are challenging regarding their own one-to-ones, if any. Organizers should dictate such information—the name of the person challenging, the date, the name of the person challenged, the specific challenge, and followup—while driving, waiting, or during other dead time, using a hand-held device, with output later fed directly to Dragon Naturally Speaking software to produce text easily included in a weekly report.
xii See Moshe ben Asher, “Meeting Miscellany,” Organizing (Spring 1995) [].
xiii According to the Human Rights Watch website: Accessed November 2017
xiv U.S Department of Labor: Bureau of International Labor Affairs for Morocco Labor Rights Report, 2004
xv According to Economy of Morocco website: accessed November 2017
xvi According to Economy of Morocco website: accessed November 2017
xvii Hector Tobar, Deep, Down, Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 men Buried Alive in a Chilean Mine and the Miracle that Set them Free (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014)
xviii Pope Francis, Laudato Si, 41.
xix Amy Sonnie and James Tracey, Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels and Black Power: Community Organizing in Radical Times (New York: Melville House, 2011).
xx Olga Khazan, Why Are So Many Americans Dying Young? The Atlantic, 13 December 2016.
xxi Charles Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 93.
xxii Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler. Crucial Conversations Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High, Second Edition (New York: McGraw-Hill Companies, 2011).


Bulgarian Black Sea coast became over constructed in the first decade of 21st
century. Byala is a small town, with 2000 inhabitants on the coastline.
Four miles north-east of the town is Karadere, one of the last remained wild
areas on the coast, that the town Council plans to develop.

The preservation of the area is supported across the country by activists, citizens and tourists’ professional organizations and some of the citizens of Byala. The mayor, the municipal councilors, the investors and some of the residents are in favor of the development of the area. The future of Karadere will be decided by May 2018 at the latest with the development of the City Master Plan – it will define the area either as preserved, or as a resort.

Remote with no roads, access to water, electricity or mobile phone coverage, Karadere remained outside the inventors’ grasp. The first development project for 4000 apartments had been stopped by the financial crisis in 2009.

The battle for Karadere started in 2014 when an offshore company obtained a Golden Investment Certificate to build a resort with four hotels, including recreational and leisure activity areas. One of the architects who developed the project happened to be brother of the leader of the ruling party at that time. The Certificate had been granted despite the project not having the compulsory Environmental impact assessment and being in violation of both environmental legislation and the

Investment Encouragement Act (IEA). The government stepped back from signing the investment agreement after thousands went into the streets to protest, furious at the apparent corruption scheme and outraged at the violation of laws. We managed to prove that the investor was not complying with the IEA since the jobs promised were only for the construction period and the hotels were meant to be luxury seasonal apartments for sell.

Several months later the company sold half of its property and a month later a new project for a luxury camping resort with 2 -3 floor villas had been approved by the Regional Department of Environment. The Department withdrew its decision, and the company appealed the rejection to the court. The case was won at the Supreme Administrative court a year later.

Although the construction has been stopped for now, the opportunities to restart further developments remain. Research of the documentation filed for building in the area proved that over the years all necessary documentshave been issued and serious violation of the legislation have occurred. Starting from the city master plan, the statutes protecting the forests in the area have been altered, converting them into urban zones in order to facilitate the construction permits. Despite the violations, everythingremains permissible, even if illegal until challenged in court or until the institutions are charged. Currently most of the construction permits have been weeded out. Nonetheless, the major authority allowing development of the area – the master plan and the land statutes -- remain into force.

Now the story comes to its final chapters. The new City master plan will decide the future of the area. This time it will certainly comply with the legislative framework, and there will be fewer grounds to sustain challenges. There is a third way, although an unlikely option – to introduce a special amendment for protecting the nonconstructed areas on the coast under the Black Sea Coast Development Act. A national representative survey of Gallup International conducted showed that 82 % of the citizens support a ban of construction in the remaining wild areas. Yet none of the political groups have committed to introduce the amendment because of the interest of the developers and the investments they made.

Karadere matters to many different groups of people - citizens of Byala municipality, tourists in Karadere, friends of the area, and residents who have properties surrounding Karadere.

The activists for protecting Karadere live across the country. An active part of them are organized via social networks in Facebook. The “Save Karadere” group has 5721 members (averaging over 10 new members per week). The activists have different background, love the area,
value sustainable development, are against corruption, and in favor of enforcement of environmental laws. The love of the area unites them as a community with coherent identity. There is as well a smaller, operational group, Will Save Karadere, with 30 members with different backgrounds – ecologists, economists, teachers, and lawyers. The success of the campaign has attracted ad hoc experts who volunteer when needed.

The citizens in Byala live 270 miles from Sofia, but some of the activists in Save Karadere group live there, others spend the summer there (I travel there frequently).

The citizens from Byala, some of whom moved to bigger cities, are still engaged with the area. The informal talks
face-face during the summer demonstrate that the majority of the citizens support the preservation of Karadere, but they are afraid to voice opposition publicly that is contrary to the mayor. The main source of income is tourism, many of the residents have guest houses or family hotels, and the permits – therefore their livelihoods -- depend on the local government.

A third group emerged during the spring and the summer in 2017 – residents, having properties in the area. There are over 100 citizens of other countries, the majority with Russian backgrounds, but also French and Czech who we met in Byala and who have an active position in relation
to Karadere. They are also in favor of protecting the area and see its preservation as an asset for their investment.

Would it be possible to organize the citizens of Byala so that they publicly oppose the local government their business depends on, and will we manage to raise a broad public campaign strong enough to set an amendment of the agenda of Parliament? We will see in 2018. The future of Karadere depends on it!



Our organizers from ReAct France and Morocco—Marielle Bencheboune, Laila Nassimi and Bouchra Rhouzlani—created a full action packed week for the delegation of community and labor organizers from North America and Italy. During the week in Casablanca and Rabat we met with a wide variety of organizers and activists working in the following areas: free speech and press; labor unions, theatre groups, women’s organizations, political prisoners, the Hirak movement in the Rif region, freedom of religion, LGBTQ rights, and domestic workers’ rights. The impressions of Moroccan organizing and activism I describe here were filtered through translations (French to English), and we realize in just a week there is no way we can understand and describe the full depth and breadth of organizing happening in Morocco today.


A journalist in one of our first sessions described Morocco as “the most neo-liberal country in the Middle East.” Journalists and academics argued that in the 80s the ruling regime in Morocco endorsed a strong turn toward a neo-liberal agenda. For the past 30 years the regime in power has diminished the public sector in the areas of health care, housing, water supplies, electricity and education. One journalist reported that 80% of children are currently enrolled in private schools; (according to him) these schools function primarily to support the current regime and offer little in critical education. A majority of the population has no health insurance, and hospitals are understaffed and lack adequate supplies and medical equipment. Corporate interests have influenced the water stressed agriculture sector to grow products for export markets, such as flowers, rather than prioritize food products for local consumption. Free trade agreements have opened up Morocco to foreign corporations by offering cheap labor, little or no taxes, no regulation, and a harsh anti-union environment resulting in what was described as a “Maquiladora” zone in northern Morocco. A major example of this was an expansive call-center industry employing some 75,000 workers in low paying jobs, with difficult working conditions, and oppressive anti-union management structures.

Another activist we met with described King Mohammed VI as the “first banker, first insurance company, and first farmer” suggesting the ruling family owned huge swaths of the corporate sector in most major industries. While less than 6% of workers are unionized a majority of urban workers are in the informal sector working for modest pay with no benefits.

One of our host organizers, made the oppressive organizing atmosphere perfectly clear when she described the three tier process the authorities use to harass activists: 1) Intervene in an activist/organizer’s personal life by getting their landlord not to renew their apartment lease (resulting in eviction), and/or getting their employer to fire her/him. 2) Arresting the activist and imprisoning her/him for 30 days or so. If these first two tactics fail to deter the activist, the third method is active surveillance and assassination attempts. The organizer stated her friend Rabii Houmazen, who was a prominent leader of 20th of February Movement in Kenitra, experienced all three forms of harassment and was currently on-the-run and hiding from authorities. As this article goes to press Rabii Houmazen has made it safely to Tunisia, and is currently seeking asylum. To naïve westerners, whose pre-visit impression of Morocco was a stable, cosmopolitan, tourist friendly country—the environment for organizing seems harsh and challenging at best and quite dangerous at worst.

Organizing Through Theatre

Listening to all the speakers we heard during our week in Morocco it was difficult to tell if the Arab Spring uprisings had any positive lasting effects on organizing for social and economic justice. The people we met with that appeared most positive and optimistic about the direction of Morocco were leaders in two different theatrical organizations Racines & Theatre of the Oppressed. They felt the 2011 Arab Spring demonstrations had opened up “the square” and other public space to artistic/cultural expression that their theatre groups (among others) were taking advantage of. They used theatrical performances in public spaces to entertain and educate children and others. The theatre group Racines adopted a slogan “Culture is the Answer” as a direct challenge to the Muslim Brotherhood slogan “Islam is the Answer.” While the theatre leaders were optimistic and ambitious, it was difficult to see how quickly this type of organizing would produce material improvements in people’s lives in areas like jobs, housing, or health care.


The only session the Organizers’ Forum had on housing painted a fairly grim picture of the status of affordable housing for low to moderate income families. We met with an official from the Housing Committee of the Moroccan Association of Human Rights. On the positive side, for many decades many Moroccan families benefited from rent control that allowed modest rents from the 70s and 80s to be inherited by younger family members who remained in long rented apartments. In recent years it has become common for the owners of old apartment buildings to allow the physical structures to deteriorate to such an extent that the building can be condemned, tenants removed, and the property either sold for development or rehabilitated into expensive condominiums. The impression given was that landlords are doing whatever they can to get around or phase out rent control laws in Casablanca. The housing committee receives numerous complaints, on a weekly basis, from families who state they are being wrongfully evicted. The housing committee sometimes intervenes to stop evictions, but it appeared they are only able to temporarily delay evictions rather than stop them completely.

The practice of eminent domain seemed heavily biased toward government and corporate interests. According to the housing official, low and moderate income tenants are often displaced from central city neighborhoods (where they were conveniently located near jobs and markets) to social housing built way out in the suburbs of Casablanca. He described these new locations as very disruptive for the families relocated to the suburbs. One tactic that the Housing Committee has used with modest success is getting historic buildings declared “landmark” status which prevents them from being torn down. The committee won landmark status for two buildings, but it was not clear how many units of affordable housing were saved by these declarations. Like many cities, the fight for decent and affordable housing and against gentrification in Casablanca seems like a steep uphill battle.

Political Prisoners

During the week, the Organizers’ Forum was scheduled to visit the family of a Adil Lbdahi, a political prisoner sentenced to three years in prison for blogging about a local politician involved in political corruption (never clear on what he was officially charged with but exposing corruption was what upset the authorities). The family lived out in the suburbs of Casablanca, in what local parlance calls a “popular” neighborhood. “Popular” appeared to be a euphemism for low and moderate income neighborhood. The pre-visit briefing, by local organizer Laila Nassimi, got everyone’s attention quickly when she warned us that the family is under surveillance by the authorities, and while visiting the neighborhood we might be followed and the authorities might even hire local gangs to harass, intimidate, rob, or resort to violence during our visit. In dramatic fashion she said we should all think about this seriously, and make our own, individual decisions about whether to take this risk or not. If we decide to go we should leave laptops, cameras, and large amounts of cash back at the hotel. This was definitely a more sobering preaction prep session than the one’s we are used to in Canada or the USA.

As it turned out, the scene when we arrived at the family’s home was 180 degrees from the worst case scenario we had prepped for. We were warmly greeted by 15-20 local activists, neighbors and family members who seemed excited about our visit. Between our group of 10, and assorted family and friends we packed the front living room for presentations and dialogue; people were sitting on the floor, jammed in the doorway and out into the hall. Cameras were out and videotapes rolling for the entire session. The excitement in the room suggested this was the most highly anticipated dialogue of the entire week in Morocco.

While it is difficult to get an accurate count of the number of political prisoners currently locked-up in Morocco, the Hirak uprising in the northern Rif region has resulted in some 300 people detained for nothing more than participating in protests against police harassment and for free speech, job opportunities, electricity, clean water and more funding for education. Adil Lbdahi was involved in the February 20 protests associated with the Arab Spring and had continued to blog on a website titled “Body of Moroccan Life.” After posting a video that showed a corrupt deal between a local politician and “the mafia” he was arrested. The judge at this trial also served as the jury and he was promptly sentenced to three years in prison. When we visited his family Adil was still in solitary confinement and his mother had not yet been allowed to visit him even though he had been imprisoned for over 30 days. At the end of our dialogue Adil’s family and supporters invited us to a protest the following afternoon at the Oukacha Prison in Aïn Sebaâ (another suburb of Casablanca) where he is incarcerated.

After the Organizers’ Forum delegates debated the pros and cons of a handful of westerners participating in a local action, we decided to honor their invitation and attend the protest for one hour the following afternoon. The protest was in full-swing when we arrived around 1:30; over 50 local supporters were singing, chanting, carrying signs and picketing peacefully in an empty space some 25 yards from the prison entrance. Since all the chants were in Arabic or French it was challenging to join in, but considering the chant leaders did not have a bull horn it was some of the most boisterous chanting we’ve ever heard at a demonstration. The protest continued with no intervention from the authorities who were massed on the opposing corner of the wide boulevard in front of the prison entrance. The prep session for this rally was not as ominous as the one before the neighborhood visit, but we were explicitly told not to speak to any reporter milling about asking questions. We were told that the authorities pay informants to pose as reporters, who infiltrate the protests to try and collect whatever information they can that would be useful to authorities.

While it is difficult to ascertain if our presence had any impact on the treatment of the political prisoners, Laila Nassimi reported that following the protest Adil was allowed to have a cell phone for the first time so he could call his family, and 37 political prisoners from the Hirak uprising were let out of solitary confinement and they promptly ended a hunger strike they had been on. The local organizers had the impression that the presence of westerners at the demonstration, “who were not just here for tourism” seemed to have helped the prisoners cause. If this is true, it does not bode well for the treatment of the prisoners after we left Casablanca.



Having spent only a week in Casablanca and Rabat and listening to the views from the ground of 15 activists/organizers it is difficult to say which way the “moral arc of the universe” is currently bending in Morocco. One piece of evidence suggested there was probably a lot more organizing going on, beneath the radar, beyond what we were exposed to during our week in Morocco. On the second night of the conference our delegation assembled in a large meeting hall waiting for the arrival of youth from four progressive political parties. The topic for the evening was “Workshop on the current radical left.” After waiting some 45 minutes for the arrival of the young radicals, our local host got a call that another organizing opportunity had arisen that the youth had to jump on immediately so they would not be able to speak to us that evening. It was hard to glean everything through the translation, but it was pretty clear that there was more movement on the ground than we could keep up with during our brief week in Morocco!


Fred Brooks is a professor of Social Work at Georgia State
University in Atlanta.


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