Cantemir and Cahul, Moldova – from Skepticism and Threats to Hope and Victories
Inspired by community organizing trainings in Romania and Paris, Sofia Ursul accepted the challenge of doing community organizing in her town of Cantemir, Moldova. In 2007, Ms. Ursul did 70 face-to-face visits with residents, listening for concerns and visions they held for their town of 5,000 residents. Their first effort was a self-help project, raising money and volunteering to repaint and renovate their children’s’ elementary school cafeteria. “I first needed to give the volunteers an experience of working together for the common good, an experience they often did not have during previous times,” stated Ms. Ursul.
Following this first success, Ms. Ursul trained 11 volunteers to conduct 210 additional face-to-face visits. In January, 2009 fifty persons who had been visited attended an assembly in which they voted to address the problem of garbage collection for residents in high rise apartment buildings. No adequate containers for garbage existed and collections were infrequent, creating serious health risks and a lack of beauty in the neighborhoods. Following a few months of research, their newly formed community organization entitled “Association of Citizens with Initiative” began meeting with the mayor, town council, and town-contracted private garbage company. While the citizens negotiated in good faith and their demands were reasonable, tensions grew with public officials, leading the council members to accuse Ms. Ursul and the volunteers of being “terrorists”. But the Association persisted, eventually winning new fenced-in garbage containers and more regular garbage pick-ups.
In early 2011, Ms. Ursul and the Association of Citizens with Initiatives were awarded a grant from the Open Society/Soros Moldova Foundation for an eight-month campaign to continue the community organizing in Cantemir and to expand to three surrounding villages. Ms. Ursul and an assistant helped citizens to form initiative groups of four residents in the three new villages who then conducted dozens of face-to-face visits to identify priority issues. In December, 2012 a conference was held with 77 persons from the four villages and guest from other villages. Each group reported on their issue successes – the renovation of a sport complex for young people, the purchase of needed medical equipment for the village hospital, the renovation of a main bus stop, and the building of a children’s playground. In all cases, the volunteers had used community organizing strategies to lobby and pressure their local village governments to invest resources, as well as, conducted their own fundraising campaigns to augment government funding. And a remarkable thing occurred during a closing question and answer period of this December conference. After being accused by the Cantemir town council two years previously of being “terrorists” because residents had become active, a mayor from a new village asked at the December conference, “When will you come to my village to help organize our residents? We need active citizens in our village!”
Another person who attended the community organizing trainings with Sofia Ursul in Romania and Paris was Silvia Strelciuc of the CONTACT organization in Cahul, Moldova. In late 2010, she was approached by Ruslan Trisca who told of a major problem in his neighborhood of three high-rise apartment buildings and daycare center. A field in the middle of the neighborhood which had been previously promised by the city to be developed as a park was now being sold to a developer who wanted to build a high-rise office building and disco on its ground floor. Residents felt betrayed and angry, but were scared to act. Mr. Trisca began visiting residents, building trust and respect, and brought them together for common action. Their research revealed that the field had been sold illegally to the developer. On a Saturday morning in the Spring of 2011, over 200 residents marched to city hall to oppose the sale. Police approached to break up the rally outside the city hall, but eventually backed off when they learned why the residents were there. “Two years ago, this type of rally would have never occurred in Cahul. People were too scared. But now, people are beginning to stand up for their rights,” stated Mr. Trisca. Following the march, rally, and much media coverage, the sale was stopped. The field was preserved and with the help of fundraising and volunteer efforts of the residents, playground equipment and picnic pavilions are being installed.
Community organizing can occur in a “strong market” or a “weak market” environment. This means that in some cities and villages, governmental and other resources exist but are not fairly distributed, in which case the demands of community organizations revolve around the fair distribution of services and improvements. But in a “weak market” environment, local city or village governments are lacking the resources to help residents solve their problems and achieve their visions. This is the case in Cantemir and Cahul, Moldova. This has had two main consequences for the community organizing by the Association of Citizens with Initiative and CONTACT. First, they have turned to the government for help, but then have had to also do their part in asking residents to share their resources to make needed improvements. Secondly, the Association and CONTACT recognize that for significant change to occur in their villages and throughout Moldova, community organizing needs to expand and connect with each other to demand reforms at the regional and national level. The Association of Citizens with Initiative and CONTACT are currently building relationships with funders and others to help develop a long-term plan for the expansion of community organizing to other villages and cities, including the creation of a “Moldovan Center for Community Organizing” which can provide training, consulting, and help unite local efforts around regional and national issue campaigns.
Residents and public authorities in Cantemir and Cahul have moved during the past four years with community organizing from skepticism and threats to hope and victories. And they have a vision for the future of building sufficient citizen power to be able to win victories at a regional, national, as well as, local level.