Bringing Home Lessons from Spain’s Activists

Members of the NYC to Spain group meeting with the Spanish counterparts in May (Photo by Dolly Martinez via Facebook)

Members of the NYC to Spain group meeting with their Spanish counterparts in May (Photo by Dolly Martinez via Facebook)

A cadre of about 25 New York City activists are drawing inspiration from their counterparts in Spain, who last May were able to rally popular opinion to carry leftist organizations to victory in municipal elections in Madrid and Barcelona. In a bid to tap into the energy and strategies followed by Spain’s anti-austerity coalitions, the New Yorkers who spent time in Spain during the run-up to the May elections are now looking to apply the lessons learned back in NYC.

“Part of the importance of global solidarity is to be able to learn from other movements,” said Lucas Shapiro, a New York-based community organizer and promoter of the trip, at an event held in July at CUNY’s Murphy Institute. There, participants presented the delegations’ conclusions, and noted that they are planning another trip in November, to coincide with the Spanish national elections.

Spain, with one of the highest unemployment rates (22 percent) in the European Union, is still recovering from the 2008 financial crisis. Since then, the country has witnessed a powerful upsurge of popular movements against the various anti-austerity policies that both socialist and conservative governments have tried to implement.

In the months before May’s local elections, some of these groups decided to run in the local elections along with PODEMOS, a leftist political party that grew out of protests and is akin to Greece’s Syriza. Shapiro had been closely following these movements.

“I started noticing these very interesting experiments that were bringing together people who had always avoided institutional politics,” he said. “I saw that it could be a tremendous learning opportunity.”

Along with the Spanish photojournalist Elia Gran, Shapiro organized the trip and invited applications from across a diverse and multipurpose group of New York-based organizations. Of 30 candidates, 20 were selected for the expedition. A $10,000 grant from the Institute of International Education helped fund the trip and the rest came from the pockets of the participants.

Among the associations represented by the activists: Make the Road New York, WhyHunger, Churches United For Fair Housing, Retail Action Project, Jews for Racial & Economic Justice and movements such as Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Sandy and Black Lives Matter.

In Madrid and Barcelona the delegation visited social centers and met with politicians and members from different progressive groups, from housing advocates to union leaders, and feminists to healthcare professionals.

The climax of their visit came when they witnessed the victories of new progressive candidates for mayor in Barcelona, Madrid and Valencia, the three largest cities in the country, along with half a dozen more.

“We have seen how people who are not part of traditional parties can create something new that can win, can open up the politics so more people are able to participate and organize cities in a more participatory, transparent and fair manner,” said Shapiro.

In Barcelona, the success of Ada Colau, leader of the Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (PAH), or Platform for People Affected by Mortgages, resonated in a special way for Anthony Romano, organizing director of Homes for All, a housing advocacy group. In two years, Colau has traveled an extraordinary distance, from having been arrested by the police during anti-eviction protests to holding the mayor’s baton of the second largest city of Spain.

“It was really moving and inspiring, it reminded me of some things we have dreamed of,” Romano said. “But we are so far from that.”

Since Romano came back from Spain, he has been working along with other housing advocates in putting together what they call “the PAH laboratory,” a document to brainstorm and adapt ideas collected in Spain that might be effective in the fight for fair housing in the city. For example, in some instances, rather than utilizing the staff of housing organizations, they want to encourage the participation of volunteers to provide extensive support to residents who face eviction.

Another main takeaway of the trip was that, unlike in New York, Spanish social movements are not professionalized and lack staff. Their results are closely tied to the work of volunteers.

In Spain, “there isn’t a nonprofit industrial complex with a funding culture that forces movements to specialize and creates competition,” says Jessica Powers, director of the National Hunger Clearinghouse at WhyHunger. “Activists [in Spain] rarely do social change work as a job or career: it’s a way of life.”

Shapiro, Powers, Romano and other participants also noted that Spanish activists tend to share social time together, especially in social centers, which play a crucial role in organizing alliances across communities. One of the main conclusions of the delegation is that there exists a need for such spaces in New York City.

“Having informal social time together or going out for a drink afterwards helps to cut some of the tension with the people you might disagree [with] strategy-wise,” said Powers.

One of the conclusions of an internal document with the expedition takeaways is also that these spaces provide a home for organizing projects, ways to reimagine society and a celebratory culture.

“We need to create places that people can go to feel the energy of social movements, where people can celebrate, create community, have a drink together, watch a movie or just discuss community issues,” said Shapiro.

The experience in Spain has pushed the participants to get involved in the construction of Mayday, a new community space in Bushwick that will function as “a dynamic space for social justice organizing,” according to its website. Shapiro says the space will open its doors by the end of the year. Mayday, says the organizer, will be influenced by the Spanish spirit. Some NYC organizers like him believe this center could become a good place to start a new kind of revolution.

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