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Exchange program exports Twin Cities’ brand of grassroots organizing

Photo courtesy of Mike Griffin/NOC
Anthony Shields and Mike Griffin will be spending two weeks in February in Bulgaria and Slovakia helping to implement new community organizing initiatives aimed to help minority groups.

A United States Department of State international exchange program is sending two Minneapolis community organizers across the globe to help implement the Twin Cities’ particular brand of grassroots organizing.

Mike Griffin and Anthony Shields of Minneapolis-based Neighborhoods Organizing for Change (NOC) are two of 20 national candidates selected by the relatively new exchange program to teach grassroots organizing to marginalized communities in east Europe.

The program — called Sustaining Civic Participation in Minority Communities — places participants from four European countries in the United States for a six-week-stay where they learn about the U.S. legislative system, the relationship between civil society and government, and methods to fight public corruption and develop accountability.

Griffin and Shields will be traveling to Bulgaria and Slovakia for two weeks in February to help their exchange fellows implement what they’ve learned during their stay in Minneapolis. Other fellows will be placed in Hungary and Romania.

This is the program’s fourth year of exchanges, said the program’s project manager Elizabeth Balint, but this isn’t the first time the program’s leaders have reached out to Minnesota organizers to participate. “Working with organizers from Minnesota in the past has been very successful,” she said.

The program, run jointly by the U.S. State Department and Great Lakes Consortium, has placed more than 100 Europeans and 50 Americans in fellowship exchanges around the world, Balint said, but organizers from Minnesota have come highly recommended.

That’s in part because of the strong community organizing that happens in the Twin Cities, she said, and because of the similarities marginalized people in these European countries share with Minnesota minority communities in terms of disparity gaps.

For example, she said, the Roma people in Bulgaria share economic and social disparities seen in Minnesota among people of color. “They do not have enough work,” she said of the Bulgarian minority group. “And because of their skin color, there is a lot of similarities with African Americans.”

Mike Griffin said at NOC they were able to show their European exchange-fellows how to mobilize a large base of supporters connected through social media, and also how to focus on long-term, broader goals like enacting legislative changes.

Anthony Shields said community organizing revolves around tapping into what the community members want and galvanizing them to act on it themselves. And when it comes to mobilizing youth, minorities and other historically marginalized communities, he said, Minneapolis organizers are leading the pack.

He pointed to the Minneapolis budget hearing last week where NOC and Black Lives Matter Minneapolis organized more than 60 people within a few hours to pressure the city council to drop a provision that would have provided $605,000 to the Minneapolis Police Department for renovations to its Fourth Precinct station — the site of recent protests over the killing of an unarmed black man by police.

Asen Tigarcheto Mitkov worked with NOC last fall through the program and said he was very pleased with what he learned from it. And he said he hopes to use what he learned to rally his community against an unpopular mayor in his home town of Vidin, Bulgaria — a predominately Roma town.

Peter Huray from Slovakia said his stay working with NOC last fall exposed him to a kind of community organizing “not established in Slovakia.”

He said hopes to take what he learned in Minneapolis and apply it to youth work he does for a local nonprofit back home.

“Particularly for me it was a great experience,” Huray said. “To go to direct actions, to go to the community and talk to its members, to know their stories and know their background. It was amazing.”

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