Sunday, July 15, 2012

We are the 99 per cent! - or confrontational rural organizing is possible

"We are here and we do not go anywhere."
CCI's Latino Organizing Project
steering committee. Source: FB
I have heard several times from community organizers that it is close to impossible to organize in a confrontational manner in small towns or rural areas. It is possible in Chicago, many say with some exaggeration, but here, where there is no tradition of open conflict among citizens and decision-makers, this does just not work. In rural areas, some organizers say, you cut your organization off from both your members and politicians if you take a confrontational stance. Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (Iowa CCI) shatters this myth. The organization militantly fights against factory farms, for immigrant rights and for a fair economy. Executive Director Hugh Espey and Organizer David Goodner talk about their methods.

Last year you took part in the Occupy movement in New York City and in Iowa. Nation-wide campaigns continue: together with other organizations, you mobilize people to divest from irresponsible banks such as Wells Fargo and Bank of America, which can be made liable for the recession, and urge citizens to put their dollars into smaller banks who reinvest into the community. How do you assess the Occupy movement?

Hugh: Occupy lifted up the notion that most of us belong to the 99 per cent. "We are the 99 percent," says the slogan. This movement made the huge income inequalities obvious and made it common sense that the richest 1 per cent pays less in taxes in proportion to their income and that corporations have a huge influence on our politics and the government. We don't want this energy to be gone. In order for this, in the spring, National People's Action started The 99% Spring program. The building of the movement started with nation-wide leadership development. Thousands of people have already participated in the online trainings. We think that the Occupy is not over yet.

On July 19 you demanded the resignation of two agricultural investors, Brent and Bruce Rastetter. Although it was not meant to be like that, still, the second half of the action could have been a neat antiglob action: ultimately, you stood up for the rights of Burundian refugees in Tanzania against an American investor in the United States.

David: There are, in fact, multiple strands in these two issues. Factory farms have swept off tons of family farms from the market and caused a lot of environmental damages in Iowa. In the first half of the action, we packed the meeting room of Iowa's Department of Natural Resources. Our members, farmers or residents of neighborhoods affected by the environmental damages, took the floor one after the other, and claimed that the commission should deny permission for a new factory farm in Poweshiek County. They criticized factory farms with harsh words and with a variety of arguments, and they spoke from their hearts. All of them demanded the resignation of Brent Rastetter, who was having extremely unpleasant moments at the commission's table. Brent, who is a factory farmer, is a member of the Environmental Protection Commission, which should oversee the compliance with environmental regulations.

Then we went to the Iowa Ethics and Complaint Disclosure Board to file a complaint against his brother, Bruce Rastetter, who used his position in the Board of Regents for the State of Iowa, an institute overseeing public educational institutions in Iowa, to start a monoculture factory farming in Tanzania - on land where refugees from Burundi have lived for decades and who were relocated by the Tanzanian government without a question. As a closing accord, we filled the governor's office, since he nominates the Board of Regents, and demanded the dismissal of Rastetter due to conflict of interest.

You stopped the construction of nearly 100 factory farms, hurting the interests of many business people. The atmosphere of the organizing meetings and the staff meetings reflects that you, as paid employees of CCI, are not kidding and the militant style is infectious to your members. How do you realize this in a fundamentally rural environment?

Hugh: I think the most important thing is that it is part of our strategy that we leave no stone unturned. We never give in and almost never make a compromise and we harass the decision-makers until they fulfill our demands. If necessary, we protest in front of their homes, send a greeting card with our campaign message to their mother, disrupt their businesses and picket in front of their auto car wash. Naturally, we have been told that it is an intrusion into privacy but we think that if somebody does not want to meet us or consider our interests, we need to overstep a boundary. As a result of this, those who are affected by the issues we deal with start to develop trust in us.

There is something in many people which blocks them from expressing their opinion in public. We have learned that decision-makers are clever and they know what they do. How many times have we heard that "He is the mayor. He knows better." Or from the mayor that "You are not aware of what challenges I have to face." Our belief in the superiority of decision-makers must be dismissed because this is what keeps the incompetent in power. People have to give permission to themselves that they announce their opinion if they feel so. They have to allow themselves to be angry and speak from their heart. We have to make the decision-makers accountable. The other big challenge is that there are people who think that cooperation is a sign of weakness. We faced several times when a farmer proudly says, "I can solve my own problem, I don't need anybody's help." We have to dismiss this notion, because we have more power together. For this, the energy, impulse and enthusiasm of a community organizer is necessary.

What are the main characteristics of rural organizing?

David: I think one of them is that we fill a niche. There are not many advocacy groups in the rural areas. We are the ones who get a place at the table of decision-makers for rural people and their issues. The technological lag between rural and urban areas (e.g., the lack of internet) also makes it harder for the community organizer. It is also important that we frame our messages in a way that it tells something to the decision-makers, to the public and to the people affected. We frame our messages in the language of the local people, based on their values. We talk a lot about equality. We lay great stress on leadership development, we form steering committees, we talk through strategies with our members, and we are slowly giving them more and more responsibility. It is inspiring for the community if community members speak up and in a confrontational manner if needed, therefore we need to position the leaders so that they can show their power. Naturally, debriefings are crucial at the end of the meetings. And last but not least, it is important that we have fun!

If somebody comes to us with an issue then we ask them to mobilize other people affected. Last time we received a call from Floyd County that the construction of a factory farm is being planned. It will destroy local family farms, so we should help prevent it. "Can you bring 15-20 other people affected to a meeting?" we asked. Yes, he could. For building the organization, it is also important that these people become CCI members. If we invest in the community, we want the community to invest in us, too. Continuously keeping in touch is also important, but because of the great distance it is more likely that we keep in touch on the phone.

You work with a lot of interest groups, from the immigrants and farmers to those whose homes are in foreclosure. How do you bridge the possible inner conflicts, how do you bring them to a common platform?

David: First of all, the notion that we belong to the same organization is a glue. We have not had such a campaign which could have lined up all the different interest groups at once. Statewide meetings give space for members to get to know one another and to listen to one another's stories. It also happened that Latinos spoke up for clean air at an action organized by farmers. These examples obviously increase solidarity.

Read it in Hungarian.

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