Saturday, May 15, 2010

Sudanese leaders learn to strategize with local community organizers

MAY 11, 2010

Community organizers in Chicago met with a delegation of Sudanese government officials to advise the African representatives on employing grassroots organizing tactics to increase constituency engagement within their country.

One of the Chicago organizers, Alie Kabba, said, “We’re going to work with them to develop a message and platform for their issues, which really stems out of our experience in framing complex issues for public consumption.”

The Sudanese delegation, five members of the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement from South Kordofan in central Sudan, was in Chicago on behalf of Northwestern University’s Sudan Good Governance Fellowship Program.

The Fellowship Program, conceived by Northwestern senior William Kalema and funded by Humanity United, brings SPLM officials to the states where they undertake a six-week program aimed at improving their governance skills and effectively implementing the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, a 2005 contract that established a fragile peace between warring Sudanese factions.

Under the peace agreement, the northern-based National Congress Party and the southern-based SPLM agreed to end the brutal 22-year civil war and set a timetable for Southern Sudan to conduct a referendum on its independence. Tuesday’s visiting delegation sought advice from experienced local community organizers on mobilizing constituencies around public policy issues for the upcoming election, slated for January 2011.

Kabba, executive director of the United African Organization, moderated the meeting.

Kabba, a native of Sierra Leone whose organization works on issues of civic participation, social justice and empowerment of African immigrant and refugee communities in Illinois, offered strategic organizing principles to the Sudanese leaders.

“In this society, you have to definitely build bridges with other constituencies,” he said. “You cannot just narrow yourself on your specific issue. You always try as much as possible to know what is affecting other communities, have a broader vision and connect your specific agenda to the broader vision. You have to align common interest with self-interest.”

As an example of building constituencies, he offered his organization's recent work to pass a bill in the state legislature protecting African hair braiders. Prior to their lobbying, Kabba explained that hair braiders were treated as cosmetologists and required to spend 1,500 hours on cosmetology training at a cost of up to $10,000 to learn techniques irrelevant to their practice.

“Since we had developed these partnerships we were able to fight the cosmetology lobby strategically,” said Kabba, who mobilized allies from the Latino, Asian-American, Muslim, Jewish and African-American communities. “And guess what? The cosmetology lobby was forced to negotiate with our organization because we had too many people now pushing this agenda.” It had become more than an African issue.

The same organizing strategies could be employed by the Sudanese officials to publicize their own plight at the hands of an unresponsive and corrupt central government, explained Wilmette-based organizer Lali Watt.

Watt suggested the African delegates promote issues like women’s rights that would resonate with Americans who otherwise might not be concerned with the complexities of government corruption on another continent.

Gail Schechter, a 25-year veteran of community organizing who coordinated Tuesday’s meeting, was thrilled with the result.

“I think it’s abundantly clear today that this was fantastic,” she said. “Alie [Kabba’s] talk about coalition building was invaluable. I think that [the Sudanese delegation is] going to learn to really share their message, which is an incredible message.”

Kabba said that he will continue to work with members of the Sudanese delegation – who are headed to Washington in a few weeks – to publicize their message in the United States. “They would like to see that there is international protection and the resources to ensure that they can continue to engage their constituents around the issues of a consultation process,” he said.

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