Archive for the ‘Renewing our spirit’ category

As raw as it can get. Tears in my eyes drown me.

January 31, 2015

Aida Poem

The words are from a friend activist-poet, Aida Santos.

On the way to Tacloban airport, she saw people awaiting the bodies of some SAF (Special Action Forces) who were killed in Mamapasano.

The words introduce three short poems she wrote.

The week-long national conversation about the killings in Mamapasano have been cacophonous. My work schedule did not allow me to join in, but also because I couldn’t find words that are superior to silence.

Cautionary words in prison

When I was in prison during the martial law years, fellow activist-prisoners from Mindanao expressed to me their criticism about “Imperial Manila.”

They said that Manila-based people, whether elite or ordinary citizens, including activists, tend to think we have the solutions to Mindanao issues, and that our intervention is always helpful and welcome.

Since then, I have followed this rule. I don’t go to Mindanao unless invited. And in judging events and issues in Mindanao, I give greater weight to Mindanao-based friends and kindred spirits.

Silence. Tears. Words.

When the news broke about the death of 44 SAF fighters (with little mention of MILF fighters killed, nor of civilians), there was understandable outrage, expressed publicly, targeting not just what happened but directed to those in authority.

At the same time, there were fears, also publicly expressed, that he emotions of the moment would be exploited by those who do not agree with the peace process and initial peace agreements that the government has signed with the MILF.

I wondered what public comment my friends from Balay Mindanaw would post.

Kaloy Manlupig chose the response we learned and liked from the recent visit of Pope Francis. How fast things change. The deaths in Mamapasano happened only 10 days after the Pope left..

Silence. Because realities are greater than our ideas.

Tears. Because eyes washed by tears see more clearly. But only after tears have dried. Tears cloud our eyes and hearts.

And difficult it may be, words. To help each other understand what is in our hearts and minds.

Prose and Poetry

The national public conversations are mainly in prose, so with the conversations inside us and among us.

We need prose, for analysis and for perspectives, historical and structural, that help temper the immediate and existential.

But we also need poetry. Not as an evasion, but as a way to join the conversation even when we haven’t fully sorted out our stand.

Aida Poem 2

Justice and Peace 

There are calls for justice. There are calls for peace.

Last year, I was invited by Balay Mindanaw to facilitate a synthesis session of a peace building conference in Myanmar.

I shared with them my difficulty in framing the link between justice and peace.

My activist history and sensibility have been focused on justice, and its associated call to take sides in a struggle. From this perspective, “peace is the fruit of justice.”

Peace builders who acknowledge the link between un-peace and injustice pursue “peace as the path to justice.”

Are these simply different starting points in the same direction? Or are they contradictory?

Is this an example of a reality that is greater than our ideas, and words?

Rest in peace. Thank you.

Fallen 44



The Silences of Pope Francis

January 25, 2015

Pope Francis in the rain

A week after Pope Francis left the Philippines, the “struggle for interpretation” of the papal visit continues.

I am reminded of Anais Nin’s “We see the world not as it is, but as we are.” We remember Pope Francis not as he is but as we are. We choose what to remember about his visit, and with whom to remember.

Our remembering is not just about his words – what he said publicly and the texts of his prepared speeches, though undelivered. Our remembering is even more about his actions, especially about his symbolic “gestures” – the word he used to describe what impressed him about us Filipinos: “The gestures moved me. They are not protocol gestures. They are good gestures, felt gestures, gestures of the heart. Some almost make one weep.”

I want to add my remembrance about his silences.

1. The silence of not giving easy or simple answers

This first silence is the most eloquent.

In Tacloban, faced with the prayerful attentive silence of the people in the rain, the Pope acknowledged their unspoken questions, and said: “All I can do is keep silence and walk with you all with my silent heart.”

In UST, his silent answer to the tearful question of Glyzelle was a hug.

A refreshing change from the usual reaction of a facile reply, or even a rant against those responsible. Instead, a respectful acceptance of the gravity of the questions, including the unspoken.

There are answers to the questions, of course, but they are neither simple nor easy.The time and circumstances were not right for expounding answers, for words that are superior to silence.

2.  The silence about the rural poor and rural issues

Unlike the first, this second silence bothers me.

Pope Francis talked a lot about the poor, but mainly urban, especially street children.

He had specific messages about women and youth. In his message in Malacanang, he mentioned indigenous people and indirectly Muslims by supporting the peace process.

But he said nothing about farmers, and agrarian reform or rural development. In his closing response, Cardinal Tagle did mention farmers and fishers, but not the Pope.

One explanation for the silence is that there was no activity, no context that called for a message about farmers and land reform, unlike the visit of Pope John Paul II that included a trip to Negros,

Instead of blaming the Pope about this silence, I pose questions in self-criticism to ourselves and fellow advocates for rural development. Why was there no space negotiated for rural issues? I asked NASSA’s Fr. Edu Gariguez about this, and he also wondered why.

3.  The silence about organising the poor for their empowerment

Another silence that disappoints me is about organising the poor.

The Pope had clear forceful messages about the dignity of the poor and their centrality. But his messages came across as mainly addressed to the government and the church and to the elite to care for the poor and to help them.

I wish that he also addressed the poor to tell them, as in Mater et Magistra, that it is their right and also responsibility to organise themselves to press for their rights to uplift their lives. In the Latin American social vocabulary, to be “protagonists” – subjects and not just objects of history.

Again, one explanation is that there was no context for the Pope to deliver such a message.

If Denis Murphy’s dream proposal happened and the Pope visited the no-build zone in Tacloban, he could have talked about it, since the site is the organising area of the Urban Poor Associates. It would be like Paul VI’s visit to Tondo to the area organised by ZOTO.

Another occasion could have been in Palo, if there was time to present the REACH program of NASSA which includes a component on community organising.

Given such contexts, I trust that Pope Francis would have said something about organising the poor for empowerment. In his address to the World Social Movements, he included the idea of the poor as protagonists. He encouraged the social movements to pursue their struggles,”with courage, but also with intelligence, with tenacity but without fanaticism, with passion but without violence.”

What about our silences?

After the visit of Pope Francis, it is fair to ask questions about the actions and words of Philippine church leaders, and also about their silences.

Community organisers can draw inspiration and support from the papal visit for our efforts to break the “culture of silence” among the poor members of the churches.

There is a useful silence for those of us who trace the roots of our activism for social justice to the social teachings of the Church. Having learned the language of structures, strategies, and ideologies, I find it fruitful to reflect in the silence of our hearts on the Pope’s words and gestures as a way to revisit and deepen the ground for our preferential option for the poor.


Pope Francis: “Don’t focus on me. Focus on Jesus.” Which Jesus?

January 15, 2015

The welcome has been described as “rapturous.”

The MMDA estimates that 800,000 to one million Filipinos waited for hours to catch a brief glimpse of Pope Francis along the route from the Villamor airbase to the nunciature. Millions more watched the Pope’s arrival on their TV screens.

Even for a while, I can understand if Pope Francis, and Cardinal Tagle who sat behind him on the Popemobile, forgot their pre-arrival message: “Don’t focus on the Pope. Focus on Jesus.”

The Vatican’s instruction to replace the image of the Pope with the image of Jesus came too late. But even if it was issued much earlier, I doubt if many would comply.

Focus on Jesus, rather than the Pope?

When I first read the call to focus on Jesus instead of the Pope, I felt ambivalent.

Barely a week before the Pope’s scheduled arrival, there were millions who did focus on Jesus, on the feast of the Black Nazarene. What message was delivered by that expression of popular devotion?

Given the prophetic pronouncements of Pope Francis on justice and the poor, and his compassionate words and actions, wouldn’t focusing on the Pope offer better inspiration and instruction?

To avoid the dichotomy of focusing either on Jesus or on the Pope, I used Matthew 25 to interpret the call to focus on Jesus: “I was hungry and you gave me food…Whatever you do to the least of your brothers and sisters, you do it to me.”

I visualised this through this hurriedly done e-poster.

Pope Francis message

The three faces of Jesus among the poor

Thinking further about this identification of Jesus with the “least of our brothers and sisters,” I reflected on the three faces of Jesus which represent three different ways we look at the poor.

The first is the Santo Nino. This is the Jesus we see among the poor who are victims, without their fault. Innocents, needing our mercy and compassion. This is especially easy to imagine when we see street children.

The second is the Black Nazarene. This is not just the Jesus whose suffering gives meaning to the suffering of the poor who identify with him, as Rey Ileto essays in his Pasyon and Revolution. It is both the suffering of the poor who do not yet struggle, and also the further suffering of those who are struggling, but still frustrated and unable to achieve their goals. They call for our solidarity.

The third is the Risen Jesus, so transformed that Mary Magdalene could not recognise him, nor Thomas until they saw his scars. We see the Risen Jesus among the empowered poor who have managed to break out of the “culture of poverty” and whose struggles have achieved some visible transformation of their lives and communities, that we can celebrate.

Which Jesus do we focus on?

These three faces of Jesus are present in different degrees among the poor. The official theme of the Pope’s visit, “Mercy and Compassion,” tends to emphasise the Santo Nino and the suffering part of the Nazarene. Among the images of Jesus available in our churches and religious posters, we rarely see one of the Risen Jesus.

Shall we interpret this as a reflection of the state of the poor in the Philippines? Or does it reflect how most leaders of Church and State look at the poor, focusing mainly on their needs, without believing and investing in their possibilities?





Human Rights Day 2014

December 10, 2014

In biblical numerology, the number 40 means ” ä very long time.”

That’s what I feel, thinking back to 40 years ago when I was first arrested on Friday the 13th of December 1974. (I should have been superstitious).

Ironically, three days earlier, on Human Rights day,I watched President Marcos on TV speaking to foreign journalists asserting that “no one has been tortured” under martial law.

Three days later, in a series of raids, over 30 of us were arrested. Most were tortured, some very heavily. I recall asking why one of us, Samby, had to be carried because he couldn’t walk. I was told that he was arrested while he was ironing his pants. During interrogation, his captors pressed the hot iron against the soles of his feet.

My memories of those days in December 1974 are spotty and fading. I will have a chance to refresh them when our group of political detainees gather for a simple reunion at the Bantayog ng mga Bayani this Saturday afternoon. Maraming salamat to May Rodriguez for taking the initiative. Her partner, Butch Rodriguez (a former student of mine in the seminary) wore a sleeveless T-shirt while playing the guitar at the Christmas midnight mass I requested the camp commander to authorize. I was shocked to see his upper arm – black, blue and purple from being beaten by a 2 x 2 wooden club.

Reflecting on the struggle for human rights in 2014, I can only fall back to my framework – Between Honesty and Hope. There are signs of hope, not just in the persistence of the human rights advocates, but also in measurable gains. But honesty makes us acknowledge how much more need to be done, and how fragile some of the gains are.

Surfing the web, I found art works posted on Facebook for Human Rights Day. Pablo Baens Santos, one of the social realist artists during martial law posted an old mural ” Tumba” on extra-judicial killings, and a recent work “Teargassed” which is part of an exhibit which opens tomorrow at Galerie Anna in Megamall. Boy Dominguez refers to the killing of Gomburza in his piece “Garute.”

I was inspired to do an e-collage, and included an old pen and ink sketch I did in prison “Tulos Kandila.” The protest rallies outside prison reminded me of processions. When processions passed by our homes, we would place lit candles on our window sills, in solidarity,

It is good to light our candles, even as we rail against the darkness.

HR 2014 between honesty and hope

Lav Diaz and Our Remembering Self

September 22, 2014

Sine ni Lav Diaz

Daniel Kahneman writes in Thinking, Fast and Slow, that we have two mental operating systems – our experiencing self and our remembering self.

The first is voiceless and immersed in the moment. The other is occupied with keeping score and learning from experience. His proposition is that it is our remembering self that is more dominant.

Remembering Mula sa Kung Ano Noon

Yesterday at the MOA Centerstage, for over five hours, my experiencing self was immersed in the flow and life-rhythm of Lav Diaz’ Mula Sa Kung Ano Noon.

Girlie and I had traveled across town to experience the movie together, as our September 21 act of remembrance. Thanks again to Joel Saracho (Father Guido in the movie) who kindly reserved tickets for us.

The day after, before I sleep, I want to write my initial remembrance of what we experienced.

Had it been our first Lav Diaz movie, it would be its length that would be most memorable. But Girlie and I had already watched his four-hour Norte: Hangganan ng Kasaysayan.

Thanks to different reviews, and especially the interview done by his fellow film maker Pepe Diokno, I had even acquired basic literacy (and appreciation) about the film vocabulary of Lav Diaz.

Some critics’ describe the black and white film as “luminous.” It is.

As I write my remembrance of Mula Sa Kung Ano Noon, I can’t help but relate it to the remembrance by fellow activists of martial law and resistance, which are posted on our Facebook timelines and group pages.

Both teach us that remembering is selective. There are memories that are sheer survivors from the inevitable process of forgetting. There are memories that we consciously choose to remember, even with painful effort.

The remembrance of a community

Mula Sa Kung Ano Noon is the remembrance of a community and its stories – specific, personal, in their complex simplicity.

Although the stories are about people, nature is more than a backdrop or a stage. The images and sounds of fields and mountains, river and sea, rocks and mud, rain and wind are an integral part of the stories. In sequence after sequence, Lav shows people first as barely perceptible figures at a distance, and after they leave the frame at the foreground, the camera lingers for a while on the scene.

With this approach, indigenous beliefs and rites do not come across as esoteric. They make sense, even though unfamiliar.

The pace of the movie is slow and lingering. It reminds me of a note Grilie wrote to me in prison, which cited a line from a poem about the “slow furious passion of a snail.”

At some point, my mind strayed to the young people in the audience, used to a faster-pace in movies and life. Would they be thinking “Let’s move on”?  Stop dwelling longer on more details. We get the basic picture. Get going with the action. But Lav Diaz asks us to look longer than we are used to. He offers no quick relief, no easy resolution.

No wonder the audience laughed extra loud at the comic relief provided by the Batanguena vendor. But later, toward the end and her revelation, her persistent laughter was met with silence.

The remembrance of a movement

On the way back to Quezon City, I texted Joel what Girlie said, that we found Mula sa Kung Ano Noon a different but  effective way of remembering martial law.

As movement activists, we tend to remember martial law as part of the larger national narrative. We tend to start with the general theme of political repression and resistance, and from there, consider the impact on specific sectors and communities.

Mula sa King Ano Noon tells the stories of a community in its own terms. But it is also a metaphor of the national community, neither forced nor comprehensive. Lav leaves it to us to make the comparisons.

Our history and location in Metro Manila make us part of the national discourse, but the movie spoke to my preferential interest in the discourse of the local community – komunidad, pamayanan, katilingban.

But local communities, no matter how remote, are not insulated from outside forces and processes. Between neglect and intrusion, what is preferable?

The movie’s critique of the national government is clear and compelling. Its comment on the revolutionary movement is implied and open ended. I hope there is a movie about that in Lav’s combined memory and imagination.


7 Days in September 1972

September 22, 2014

Plaza Miranda 1972

On the afternoon of September 21, 1972, I was one of the speakers at a protest rally in Plaza Miranda.

Why did we dare to hold a protest rally on that day, and why were we able to hold it without being dispersed and arrested? Was it not on September 21 that Marcos signed Proclamation 1081 imposing martial law?

The simple answer – We did not know that the proclamation was already signed.

What we did know was the persistent talk about martial law being imposed soon. In response, we reconvened the MCCCL (Movement of Concerned Citizens for Civil Liberties) to spearhead an alliance to warn against the imposition of martial law and to oppose it. Within that alliance, we formed the CCL (Christians for Civil Liberties) and organised a delegation to join the march and rally on thursday, September 21.

Thursday morning, I taught a class at Assumption College in Makati. My students noticed that I had a haircut and wore a polo shirt. I explained that I was going to speak at a rally, assigned to represent the “middle forces.” I had to look the part.

I rushed to the assembly point at the Welcome Rotunda, and was initially disappointed to see that only a small crowd had gathered. But eventually, we mustered a sizeable number and marched down Espana. A line of police blocked us, but we were determined enough to confront them and negotiate our passage to Quiapo.

The next day was a blur. I am told that I spoke at a forum in Maryknoll College. Rumors were circulating that offices of activist organisations would be raided. Julius Fortuna of MDP (Movement for a Democratic Philippines) asked if I could put him up in a safe place for the night. I brought him to my aunt’s place at Marcelo Green Village in Paranaque, and returned to Quezon City to sleep at the office of the Khi Rho movement.

It’s a good thing I did.

Early Saturday morning, I was awakened by my companions. All radio stations were dead silent. Must be martial law, they said. Jerry Araos passed by and confirmed the news.

Looking back, I must have internalised being part of the “middle forces.” How explain my foolish decision to go to Christ the King Seminary? As soon as I entered the gate, a group of seminarians frantically shooed me away. “The military came here early morning,” they said. “They knocked on your room to arrest you and take you to Camp Crame. They left when you couldn’t be found. They can come back any time.”

I thought of Julius, and took a taxi to transfer him from Marcelo Green Village. But to what safer place? I called my contacts among the Assumption nuns and asked if they could hide me and an activist companion, at least for a few days. After a quick consultation, they said Yes.

The nuns were very welcoming. The room they gave us was spacious, complete with a bath tub. As I turned on the faucet to fill it up. Julius asked: “Where are the bubbles?” He must have been thinking of bubble bath scenes from movies.

To help us settle down, the nuns gave us books to read. For Julius they brought out their copies of the Selected Works of Mao. For me, they gave their Jerusalem Bible.

Those were the books we had while listening to the official proclamation of martial law that evening

There were no cellphones then or computers. Our only communication link was through telephone. We hoped that not all phones could be tapped. Fortunately, we soon managed to establish links to some fellow activists who had evaded arrest and had managed to regroup.

The next three days, it was difficult to sort news from rumours. We could confirm the names of those arrested and held in detention. It was much harder to check reports of safe houses being raided and fire fights. Pepe Diokno sent a message from prison, advising us to stop any plans to launch open protest actions. They would only lead to more arrests or even deaths. We sent back word that there were no such immediate plans.

As we reconnected with activist units, we couldn’t stay longer in a convent. The Assumption nuns found some families who were willing to offer a safe place in their homes until we could establish our own safe houses.

I remember the first family that hosted Julius and me. The parents were informed by the nuns about our true identities. But they decided that it would be better to introduce us to their children under pseudonyms.

But the following day, as we sat at the breakfast table, their children greeted me with a knowing smile. They showed me their copy of the last issue of the Manila Times, and pointed to my picture at the back page.

So much for cover stories.


Remembering Jesse Robredo

August 19, 2014


Jesse Robredo and CO

The Local Government Code she signed into law toward the end of her term is a less acknowledged legacy of Cory Aquino’s presidency. But for those who have persisted in the work of organizing people for power at the basic community level, this provided a framework for new possibilities. But also new challenges to classical organizing.

After EDSA 1986, the focus of those who wanted more than a mere restoration of pre-martial law democracy was on new spaces at the national level – constitutional provisions on more direct democracy, like initiative, referendum, and recall. Later, the provision for special party lists.

Coming from the years of struggle for national issues, against the central government, most activists especially those in Metro Manila did not give as much attention to engaging local governments.

My own experience is illustrative. When I visited my hometown of Naujan after my informal exile in Europe, my high school classmate Nelson Melgar, who was the town mayor, challenged me: “When will you help your own hometown?”

We decided to work together to train the devolved agricultural extension workers in community organizing. After that, we scanned the barangays for national NGOs working in the area. We found a number of them, but they were not in touch with the local government.

Participatory Local Governance

The more systematic introduction I got to PLG – participatory local governance, came from Gerry Bulatao who headed a consortium with two key partners, Balay Mindanaw in Misamis Oriental, with Kaloy Manlupig and Ayi Hernandez, and Teody Pena of Quidan Kaisahan and Paginupdanay in Negros Occidental.

Although they were a national consortium, their focus was on local governance and development, in mainly rural communities. Hence the contentious issue of agrarian reform remained a central concern. But what interested me most was their organizing innovation to form sectoral people’s organizations and to forge their partnership with the local government at the barangay-bayan level.

Their field staff would train leaders of people’s organizations in CO-CD (community organizing for community development). The barangay officials would be given a separate training on provisions of the local government code on people’s participation. Then the two groups would come together to do joint participatory rural appraisal, followed by drawing up a barangay development plan, whose results were presented to a pledging session with government and non-government agencies.

The new approach had uneven results, especially on issues like agrarian reform that could not be resolved only at the local level. The organizers had to develop additional skills, especially in alliance work.

PLG had the perspective of SIAD (sustainable integrated area development). That’s why Kaloy called the community organizers SIADO – sustainable integrated area development organizers. It also communicated the orientation that the organizers should have, to be unobstrusive like shadows and focus on the growth of the PO leaders and barangay officials.

A similar orientation and approach was used in the programs of ANIAD in Antique, with Arnold Vandenbroek and Goldie Chan. They asked Oca Francisco and COPE to train their field staff in the classical organizing methods.

What about conflict-confrontation?

The challenge of PLG was how to balance the emphasis on helping mobilize people to act independently on their issues, and helping them and the barangay officials to work together on agreed upon priorities. There were still confrontations and negotiations, not so much with barangay officials but higher officials.

The default mode of classical organizing is to treat officals as unwilling to respond except under democratic pressure. As the people experience positive partnership with some local officials, they had to adjust their understanding of people power, as not just for resistance but also for engagement.

Jesse Robredo’s has said that “Good local governance can be the conclusion of our unfinished revolution.” He followed this up with words that could be, but should not be misread, as discouraging militancy: “This revolution can also be anchored on people like you, who serve rather than criticize, collaborate rather than divide, build up rather than tear down. People who engage to understand.”

Institutionalizing People Power: The Naga City People’s Council

Those of us who advocated popular democracy, to include principled partnership with reformers in government, still prefered to look for ways to institutionalize people power outside the existing power institutions.

We were pleasantly suprised at Cory Aquino’s call to make people power permanent in the form of people’s councils, and held consultations at the national level on how to implement it.

It took the NagaPopdem activists to establish this on the ground in Naga City. It helped that the city mayor was Jesse Robredo, open to engagement with the citizenry. But the bigger factor was the strong presence of NGOs and people’s organizations in the city. They set up the Naga City People’s Council, and used this as the platform for engaging the elected city officials.

They went one step further. With the encouragement of Mayor Jesse, they successfully lobbied for the passage of a city ordinance that recognized the Naga City People’s Council and formalized its access to the processes and structures of the city council.

The NCPC experience deserves a more in depth study, since it is still a work in progress, with its share of success and challenges. But it poses an important question to those who are committed to organizing people for power. As we build strong people’s organizations through issue-based mobilization, conflict-confrontation, and negotiations, is our perspective to use this power only to elect or be elected as officials?

Or is a people’s council the way to institutionalize people power independently while also seeking to enter the established institutions of power?

The challenge is how to insure that the members of the people’s council maintain their initiative, and not let the secretariat do the work. And for the people’s council itself to pursue independent action and not limit itself to joint work with government.

This reminds me of an idea from the revolutionary movement on alliances – “Independence and initiative within the united front.”

New wineskins and new wine

Naga City had another innovation called “reengineering the local school board.” Jesse Robredo opened the local school board to citizens’ participation beyond its traditional members. Legal constraints did not allow the new participants to vote, but they had full rights to take part in the scrutiny of how the special education fund would be spent.

In this case there was greater initative from the government compared to the citizens. Ideally, a reengineered school board should have a counterpart base in an independent coalition of education advocates and stakeholders, similar to the Naga City People’s Council.

In rural barangays, some NGOs pursued the idea of a council of people’s organizations independent of the elected barangay council. But as PLG programs developed, instead of setting up these people’s council, organizers chose to use the mandated Barangay Development Council as the structure for institutionalizing people’s participation.

The Barangay Development Council is mandated to have at least 20% of its members from community leaders other than the elected officials. And the BDC has the power to allocate the barangay development funds for priority projects which are identified in the process of developing the barangay development plan..

These structures are like new wineskins. But they also need new wine. Otherwise, the danger is that they will be new ways of coopting and taming the people’s energies, rather than new ways of tempering them in these new sites of struggle.

Beyond Islands of Hope: Toward an Archipelago of Hope

Participatory local governance and good local governance are a welcome source of hope for organizers of people for power. They offer useful lessons. And their numbers continue to increase, symbolized by the Galing Pook award winners for excellence in local governance.

The award gives much weight to the leadership of the elected officials and the impact of their projects. The criteria include people’s participation, but this is not as well measured. I am glad to hear from Eddie Dorotan of the Galing Pook foundation that they are developing an award for citizens’ participation.

Although we celebrate and value these local “islands of hope,” we ask ourselves: What about the national level? How do we work toward a whole “archipelago of hope?”

At a workshop organized by Synergeia, I heard this question posed to Jesse Robredo, a multiple Galing Pook awardee. He didn’t know then that he would have the chance to do something about it.

As Secretary of the DILG, one of his innovations was initially called BUB, “bottoms up budgeting” based on local poverty reduction action plans, LPRAP. This was meant to make the local government involve the people’s organizations in making their local development plan. Another is his full support for the option of “people’s proposals” for resettling urban poor settlers from endangered sites.

What more could Jesse have accomplished had he not died?


Wanted: Community Organizers

July 6, 2014

On July 11 at the PRRM, we are launching the third edition of Organizing People for Power.

Two-thirds of the book is a slightly edited reprint of Felipe Maglaya’s 1974 Manual for Organizers. The remainder are short comments on the text and short reflections on organising in the Philippines since 1974.

One of the sections of the Manual lists the desired qualities of an organiser – irreverence, a sense of humor, creativity, flexibility, tenacity, and a deep respect and love for people.

I made a simple poster of these qualities for easier recall. But added other qualities mentioned in an unpublished manual written by Francia Clavecillas for AFON, which was partly based on the Felipe Maglaya Manual.

Qualities of Organizer


A Trinitarian Look at CO

July 3, 2014

Fourth excerpt from the Manual for Organizers.

CO PopEd

This manual focuses on organizing people and communities, but I want to unbundle the concept. Instead of what may be called a unitarian understanding of organizing people for power, I prefer a trinitarian interplay of organizing, education, and leadership.

Of course, the process of organizing includes education and learning, and also the identification and development of leaders. But its primary indicator is of people acting together on common issues, and after a series of mobilizations, setting up structures that represent their collective power.

In addition to the learning that happens while preparing for mobilization and reflecting after, organizing programs include more purposive education activities. And if there are competing theories and methods of organizing, there are also competing theories and methods of education.

In the classical organizing tradition in the Philippines, Saul Alinsky and Paolo Freire represent the key ideas that have exerted explicit influence on our understanding and practice of community organizing (CO) and popular education (pop-ed).

Although there is an organic interplay between organizing and education, there is often a disconnect. Organizers may focus mainly on actions and numbers, quality of issues and mobilization, and results of negotiations. Educators may focus mainly on individual learning and the change in consciousness.

The late Odette Alcantara had this quotable quip about the disconnect between organizing and education, parallel to body and spirit: “Ang katawang walang kaluluwa ay bangkay. Ang kaluluwang walang katawan ay multo.”

In the trinity of community organizing, popular education and grassroots leadership, I identify most closely with the third. That’s why my institutional base continues to be the Education for Life Foundation, whose core program is “grassroots leadership formation for grassroots community empowerment.”

Like organizing and education, there are also competing theories and methods of leadership formation. But as Fr. Paking Silva declares: “Our bigger problem is not poverty, but lack of leadership.”

birds fish

This metaphor of birds and fish has been a continuing source of insights into the relationship between the committed professional, as organizer, educator or formator, and the grassroots communities and leaders.

Birds that fly can change change course quickly, almost as fast as our minds. From their vantage point, they look down on the fish below the surface waters and ask “Why are they not moving?”

The fish could answer: “Come down into the water, and you’ll realize it is harder to move in it. It is thicker than air, and polluted. But come close enough and you will also see that we are moving, though not so visibly to those flying far above.”

The bird must do more than a flying visit. Learn to swim with the fish. In organizing, we call it immersion. Swimming with the fish, the bird will understand the structures and culture that make them reluctant to change. But also appreciate that the fish are trying to change as much as they can in the given circumstances.

An educator from the Carribean said that we should not be too hard on birds asking questions from the outside. There is value in an outsider asking, “How is the water?” The fish may very well answer, “What water?”

The bird, having swam with the fish, can then talk with great credibility about swimming with the fish. But is that all? Be an advocate for them, even a sympathetic scholar? Could the bird not teach some of the fish to fly, to also theorize and not just to give personal testimony?

I dream of a learning community that is a partnership of birds who have learned to swim and fish who have learned to fly. The name of that dream is Komunibersidad.

Another story of birds and fish

There is the story of a bird who saw a fish struggling in the water. Thinking that the fish was drowning, the bird dove into the water, plucked the fish and brought it to the safety of its nest.

Will the fish die, or will it adapt and become a bird?

This one made we wince, because of my background in TESDA: “If fish were assessed according to their competency to climb a tree, no one would be certified.”


Make Our Learning Greater than Our Experience

July 2, 2014

The start of a series of reflections on Organising People for Power in the Philippines


The following short reflections on organizing people for power are written as a series of blogs. Hence I decided to use the same title of my regular blog at

Between Honesty and Hope is a framework that I have chosen for my work and my life, because it because it captures the tension similar to what Gramsci called in another context “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” The phrase comes from the 1968 collection of documents from the Latin American Bishops Conference.

I was much taken by the phrase because it captured the two realities – persistent problems both structural and historical, and persistent efforts to bring about changes toward a better future.

Hope is the driving force. An obsessively honest look at the dominant present can lead to anger, depression, cynicism and despair. Hope gives us the energy not only to imagine a better future, but also to see and pursue present possibilities.

But to avoid illusions, we must temper our hope with honesty. Honesty about the daunting obstacles and the power of those who resist change. Honesty about the state of our own shared commitments and capabilities.

But hope. Nonetheless

Make Our Learning


Soon after turning 64, I felt a sudden intimation of mortality. Was I about to enter the pre-departure lounge for the other life? But I was not yet ready to write my memoirs. As a lifelong learner, there was still a lot to learn, and as a social activist, a lot more to be done.

To shake off that mood, I browsed a bookstore to find some reading that may inspire me to continue achieving. A title caught my eye: The Laws of Lifetime Growth by Daniel Sullivan.I thought of buying it, but the price was too high and I didn’t have enough money. What I did have was enough time, so I was able to speed-read the book.

Make your future bigger than your past. This first law made immediate sense. But I thought “bigger” is too limited and limiting, so I added “better”and “brighter.”

Obviously if our past is not particularly significant, this is easy advice to follow. But it is quite a challenge if we apply it to the past of organizing people for power in the Philippines. We have a history that we can be proud of, more significant than what has been remembered in print. It has even been mythologized because of EDSA 1986.

So, how to make our future bigger, better, brighter? The second law offers us part of the answer: Make your learning greater than your experience.

How do we make our learning greater, to help us make our future better?

First, we need to reflect more regularly on our experiences. In addition, we must also allow ourselves to be “interrogated” by others outside our circles. An outside view can help us discover angles we may have missed. We also need to compare and exchange experiences and learnings with other countries. I think especially of Korea which had a parallel organizing program in the 1970s, supported by a similar international ecumenical coalition.

The “classical”approach to organizing described in the manual is strongly influenced by Alinsky’s ideas. These ideas traveled to the Philippines via Korea, through Herb White who was trained by Alinsky. He had been invited to Korea to set up a new training program for organizers. From there he was asked to come to the Philippines to set up a community organizers’ training program sponsored by PECCO.

In both countries, the organizing program developed in the context of an authoritarian regime, and a resistance movement that pursued a radical political alternative. Some of the passages in the Felipe Maglaya manual can be better understood if they are read as a response to concerns raised by radical political activists.