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The CO Multiversity 

A Vision,  A Place,  A People

Over a quarter century has passed since a band of newly trained community organizers pioneered a different kind of organizing on the Tondo Foreshore. Issue-based CO, as it has become known, enabled poor people to deal with powerful groups, not as meek subordinates but as equals in decision-making. With support from COs affiliated with the Philippine Ecumenical Council on Community Organization (PECCO), the Zone One Tondo Organization (ZOTO) showed that, although initially poor and powerless, organized people could overcome traditional barriers to participation and gain access to resources and power. In the process they could exact a greater degree of transparency and accountability from government and business elites.

Despite constant surveillance and harassment by Marcos forces, COs expanded in the 1970s from Tondo to Metro Manila, Infanta, Naga, Legaspi, Cebu, Bukidnon, Davao and other sites. When the EDSA uprising greatly enlarged the political space for organizing, thousands of new NGOs seized the opportunity. Today, COs of every stripe and political shade directly or indirectly trace their roots to PECCO as the first group of NGO community organizers, and recognize ZOTO as the pioneering People's Organization that emerged from this historic partnership.

ZOTO's members were ordinary men and women – cargadores at the piers, food vendors, hairdressers, barbers, carpenters, scavengers, dressmakers, tailors, waitresses, clerks, teachers, and small entrepreneurs. Their rural counterparts were tenants, small cultivators, agricultural wage earners, non-farm workers and fisherfolk. The common experience of achieving victories through community organizing strengthened their resolve to overcome societal constraints on their innate wisdom, dynamism and interests. A renewed self-confidence and effectiveness in bargaining with government or landlords gained them access to decision-making and enabled them to begin counteracting the inequitable situations that had kept them poor and powerless. The many strong People's Organizations today attest to community organizing as a significant force for social change and as a methodology that can transform ordinary people into extraordinary protagonists for a just and humane development.

How does the Community Organizers Multiversity fit into all this?

In 30 years of country-wide organizing since ZOTO's founding, CO heirs of the PECCO-COPE tradition have dreamed of a place which would be theirs – a place where they belonged, a place where they could build up their skills and capacities. After years of intensive grassroots organizing, they wanted to be better at their work by expanding their knowledge, interacting with all kinds of people, debating and arguing with friends and critics but also savoring moments of tranquility and quiet reflection. In this CO haven, they would identify and address their needs. They could seek a more sophisticated understanding of organizing and conflict resolution, or reach out to academic institutions and specialized NGOs to comprehend better the complexities of agrarian reform, environmental management, ancestral domain claims, micro-finance, local governance, gender analysis or child protection.

The CO university, as the dream was initially called, would also enable COs to master technologies, like computers and web sites, accounting and bookkeeping, proposal writing, documentation, video-making, or GPS mapping. It would allow a focus on the well- being of body and mind, not only as concerns worth pursuing in themselves but also important for preventing “burnout”. Advocacy and networking would likewise flourish in the context of this organizational innovation.

Further, COs wanted to tell their stories of people empowerment over the years and the role in it of community organizing. Documentation and analysis were important, both for training programs as well as for analyzing CO/PO case studies in their own right. Do these accounts show the CO process as capable of generating a concerted social movement toward a sustainable human development paradigm ? To answer this question, the COs sought to enlist the aid of social scientists and communications professionals in collaborating with POs and NGOs in writing and video workshops. Spinning off training materials in Pilipino and regional languages comprised an important part of that process.

But first things first. The most crucial need had to be addressed at the outset—intensifying issue-based organizing. Thus, CO-TRAIN was created. Even as it achieved its intensive training goals, the clamor for a CO university persisted. By then veteran COs had discovered that the term “university” was misleading. The general public took it to mean a conventional academic higher education institution with an established faculty and formal curriculum supervised by the Department of Education, Culture and Sports (DECS). COs, on the other hand, stressed the alternative concept of linked learning centers. These represented a state of mind as much as they did places at which COs could pursue their interests. Hence they could realize their learning needs and revel in diversity and multiple partnerships with NGOs and POs throughout the Philippines, all the while drawing on built-in activist and academic strengths. And so, 1997 saw the birth of the Community Organizers Multiversity.

In turning a dream into reality, the CO Multiversity relies greatly on our closest NGO allies – COPE (Community Organization of the Philippines Enterprise), a direct descendant of PECCO, and Urban Poor Associates (UPA), whose activities similarly trace back to Tondo Foreshore days. Other key partners have emerged in areas of the country where issue-based COs and their successors have continued organizing people for power, often without funding support. Yet the very nature of the CO Multiversity demands new partnerships as well, drawn from NGOs, POs and even government and business entities engaging in all kinds of organizing and interested in Multiversity partnerships for people's development. 

While we pinpoint the early 1970s as the era of CO emergence in the Philippines, we recognize that we are standing on the shoulders of giants who came long before -- men like Ka Kiko Baltazar, who fought for peasant rights during the Huk period, and Macli-ing Dulag, who died resisting government dams along the Chico River that threatened Kalinga homes, culture and land. Struggling beside them were the unnamed, militant women collectives and the youth who contributed immeasurably to their collective success. All have set us solidly on the path toward justice, equity and solidarity.

The CO Multiversity stands ready to carry out its mission in long-established ways as well as through new forms of service to community organizers, NGOs and POs throughout the Philippines. In addressing this mandate, it will need the collaboration and good will of all civil society stakeholders. Its time has come.

- Introduction to CO Multiversity Annual Report 1997-1998
Mary Racelis
January 31, 1999

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