Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Society of Power or the Power of Society?

I started to write this blog in 2012. I participated in a professional development program in the U.S. back then and wanted to share this experience as widely as possible. Several dozens of posts were written about the values and practice of community organizing and about the community organizations I got to know. After my return to Hungary, I was able to write a few posts but then work fully took me away from blogging. I recall that feeling, "Give me the world, I can fix everything!" This amount of dedication led me home. Unfortunately, the world has not become a better place since then. And the problems we face in 2018 in Hungary are very different from the situation 5 years ago. This made me share what has happened in the field of organizing since my last post from 2013.

Shortly after my return, I started to work with the Civil College Foundation (CCF) to establish the institutional framework of community organizing in Hungary. First, we started to train and mentor community organizers and their communities in three settlements, in Bőcs (later in Budapest in the Auróra Community Center), in Kunbábony and in Olaszliszka. Together with my colleagues, we elaborated two trainings, one for community organizers and one for leaders to spread the organizing skills. We write more about this process in this article.

In 2015, our first national campaign was implemented. In 2012, the government stiffened regulations on wood cutting, punishing harsh any attempts to fetch wood from nearby forests. The measure, in practice, criminalized those low-income people who did not have any other means to provide heating at their homes. Simultaneously, in 2011, the Ministry of Interior launched a state-funded firewood program. Taking into consideration the distribution and the scope of the benefit, the measure was nothing more than tokenism, which does not give a real solution to the poor housing conditions of many Hungarians. On the other hand, it was a very appropriate tool to dull the dissatisfaction and arouse sympathy towards a government which handles the resources in an ineffective and unjust way. Several city councils applied for the program even though it provided only a small amount of firewood enough for 1-2 weeks per family. Yet, a large proportion of city councils did not live with this opportunity. Even though this state programme has obvious shortcomings, we thought that it is a waste of resources to leave this pool of money in the state budget. In addition, we made the assumption that this issue is small and winnable to the extent that local leaders could be mobilized in an oppressive environment. With this campaign, thanks to the dedicated local Roma leaders, communities in Borsodbóta and Olaszliszka received firewood worth 2 million and 4 million HUF. We write more about the campaign in this article on page 12.

Encouraged by the results and people's organizing power, through CCF, we managed to support more organizing projects: community attempts to improve conditions of transport and infrastructure, to provide more greenery, to stop evictions and to live in a just society showing more solidarity to its members. In the last 3 years, these communities carried out a lot of successful campaigns. We, together with the organizers, wrote about these victories in two publications, where we also give an insight into the professional support we give to the organizers (results of 2015-2016, results of 2016-2017).

After my return, I continued my activism in The City Is For All, a grassroots housing advocacy group with homeless members and their allies. Although I am not an activist in this group any more, my organizing work is rooted in this organization. I am proud of those people, with whom I had been working for 8 years between 2009 and 2017, and I have a lot to be thankful for them. We had been mobilizing incredible organizing and emotional power to keep the group rolling and make a social change, each of us on a voluntary basis. I was part of the group as an organizer. I write about our organizing methods in this article (available only in Hungarian). My vision has also much been inspired by my colleagues and 5 years of work at the Minority Rights Group International and the vibrant international working environment they provided. It was heartening to get to know organizations and communities in India, Cambodia and Kenya and gain an insight into civil society there.

Years passed, circumstances changed, and in 2017, CCF suddenly became the target of the government propaganda. Since 2015, our work has been supported by the Open Society Foundations and the current government wants to make a scapegoat of this institution by all means. Despite the fact that the foundation had started its work in Hungary before the 1989 transition and dedicated billions of HUF to the benefit of the Hungarian people and the region, depite all this, this institution and the civil society organizations supported by the foundation have become the No. 1 enemies of the current Hungarian government. This happens despite the fact that the Open Society Foundations, upon the call of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, donated 1 million USD to the victims of the red mud disaster in 2010, which Mr. Orbán happily accepted then.

All in all, together with other organizations, CCF (and its employees) did become the target of the government propaganda. The propaganda media happened to mention this blog as well in a negative context as if I wrote about something harmful to society.

But we keep on working. In 2016, together with my co-editor Bálint Vojtonovszki, we published the book Society of Power or the Power of Society? Basics of Organizing, a volume of studies from American scholars and organizers, which, we think, explains the theory and practice of organizing in a clear and inspiring way. The book is available in bookstores and libraries. Look inside.

In the meantime, the stigmatizing government propaganda communication was backed up by stigmatizing legal changes. In June 2017, the government passed a law very similar to the Russian so-called 'foreign agent law', which makes it obligatory for organizations receiving foreign funds to register themselves in a special database. In a campaign called Civilizáció, together with more than 100 organizations, we protested against the stigmatizing registration law, but unfortunately without success. Finally, with half a dozen organizations, we denied the registration as a civil disobedience action. We protested through several means as well as using legal tactics. A few examples:

Lately, last week during the Citizen Participation Week, we stood up for the integrity of civil society, for the solidarity between civil society organizations and mobilized voters for the upcoming elections. The ongoing hate campaign trickles down to everyday life and nothing is more important than expressing our opinion and encouraging other people to do the same.

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