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Hopeful Stories of Communities Organizing

Evening in Barcelona neighborhood sheds ideas

Festival de Sants, Barcelona, Spain photo by Cameron Conner

By Cameron Conner

As streetlamps burst into life and the alleyway flooded with light, the small table I sat at with six others became part of something larger—250 diners lined plastic card tables down the alley.

The dinner party spanned the width of the street. Red and green paper tablecloths were covered by containers with empanadas, fruit, fried croquettes, tostas de tomate y jamón and the rich saffron-yellow of homemade paella.

The illumination changed the atmosphere from an intimate conversation with tablemates in the dimming light of a Barcelona evening to that of a public gathering.

This gathering of the Sants neighborhood, a community in the Southern end of Barcelona, was one of many neighborhood feasts during the weeklong Festival de Sants in late August.

Across from me sat Agus Giralt, one of the evening's main facilitators. Agus grew up in Sants, attending more of these dinners than he can recall. I was his guest. In addition to being a community member, he is coordinator of La Lleialtat Santsenca (Loyalty to the Community of Sants), one of the area's several neighborhood-managed community institutions.

Like U.S. community centers, La Lleialtat provides a space for neighbors to create groups of mutual interest—from rock bands and time banks, to dance troupes and robotics clubs. It also gives community members access to resources like computers, transport and language classes.

Unlike U.S. community centers, La Lleialtat is democratically managed by neighbors. While Agus facilitates its day-to-day operations, larger decisions are made at quarterly assemblies.

While setting up for festivities, one neighborhood leader said their recent decision to start a small-business incubator program in La Lleialtat had led to founding several local, worker-owned businesses.

The celebration, organized by a deliberative process, took place in the alley beside La Lleiltat's main building. Seeing people packed shoulder to shoulder, passing dishes up and down the table and the alley's walls reminded me of the place I associate with such community gatherings in the U.S.: Church.

It reminded me of the annual Jamaica festival at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church, a large Hispanic Parish I worked with in West Dallas. Like the festival in Sants, the Jamaica at Lourdes brought together hundreds of parishioners over food at long communal tables and mixed a cacophony of voices with upbeat summer music on loudspeakers to celebrate a shared community.

I asked Agus if he was happy with the turnout. He looked tired but nodded enthusiastically. "We are still rebuilding from the pandemic," he admitted, "but tonight we are reweaving the fabric of our community."

Thinking of my community in Washington, I wondered: How are we reweaving the fabric of our community after the pandemic?

We may host one-off gatherings or see each other spontaneously at activities like "Pig Out in the Park," but no common institution binds us all together.

An "institution" is characterized by common values. It hosts regular gatherings to spark/strengthen relationships and has a sustainable source of income—dues or tithes—to keep it going over the long-term. An institution provides stability and accountability. It can tell when someone falls through the cracks.

Outside of churches, we have few institutions like this in the U.S.

In my lifetime, I have seen people become increasingly isolated and siloed. This is perhaps the biggest difference I find between the U.S. and Spain. The number of institutions people belong to here, like La Lleialtat, is remarkable.

Anyone who has tried to work with other human beings knows that being part of a community is not all fun and dinner parties. Conflict is human and natural. It happens.

Agus did not hide that La Lleialtat has its share of fighting, resentment and jealousy—like any space where people gather.

That's not the point. I am not in Sants looking for a place where everyone gets along. I am here to understand how people can build power and win. Any community that can bring together 250 people on a regular basis has power.

Their power rests in their relationships. These 250 people know each other, but that does not mean they have to like each other. 

Over the last 100 years, their relationships have allowed residents of Sants to effectively organize and win victories:

• They pressured the city to build new affordable housing instead of a mall.

• They stopped an overpass from bulldozing through their neighborhood.

• They transformed an old factory into a community park instead of luxury condos.

Festivals at Our Lady of Lourdes in Dallas also have impact. The hundreds of people who show up for the food and festival also show up when we organize neighborhood listening sessions.

When safety was identified as a top shared concern, hundreds of people organized and turned out more parishioners for an accountability session with the Dallas Police Department to win commitments to improve policing. They made announcements at Mass, used church funds to print fliers and connected their mission with the values of Catholic social teaching. All that would have been impossible without an institution.

Strong institutions, like Our Lady of Lourdes and La Lleialtat Santsenca, are critical to strong organizing.

The networks of relationships they provide make it possible to identify common issues and mobilize to address them.

In Barcelona, they have built institutions across the city that have made these neighborhoods safer, healthier, happier places to live—not to conduct business, be productive or find convenience, but to live.

What would it look like to do the same in the Inland Northwest? 

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Copyright@ The Fig Tree, October 2023