Toronto: It was a relief to walk out of the airport into the night air of Toronto on a late July evening after record breaking heat waves in Phoenix, Chicago, and everywhere we turned and find a cool breeze coming off the lake into Toronto and to suck in the air without a straw for the first time in weeks. It was a similar relief to see the organization of the initial board of both ACORN Canada and ACORN International come together at Emmanuel College of the campus of Victoria University. Behind the ivy covered stone of these distinguished halls a mere 100 meters from Queen’s Park, we almost felt out of place talking about what it took to build power in countries like Canada and around the globe.
And, if not for the pride of our presence and the exhilaration of the tasks at hand, perhaps we would have stepped back, pinched ourselves, and asked each other would we have every imagined ourselves not in this place, but in this space and making plans for the empowerment of the poor around the globe. When the leadership takes charge and moves an organization forward, it is indeed heady stuff!
This initial meeting seemed appropriate as the leaders one after another in their own special accents and voices spoke of their experience and aspirations for ACORN. First, Malik Zeeshan reported from Scarborough, then Esmeralda Lima, who volunteered to act as secretary and record the meeting, followed by Sharon Shrieve from Northwest Toronto, then Cindy Ransom, the newest leader from the just opened office in Vancouver, welcomed by Maria Polanco, ACORN Secretary now of New York City and Johnny Clark, ACORN Treasurer from Dallas, then Marva Burnett also from Scarborough, and finally Imran Anwar Butt of the Midlands in Scarborough. We were missing the delegates from ACORN Peru, who were not able to get a visa to enter Canada in time for the meeting, which also seems symbolic in its own way.
The business of Canada flowed easily back and forth between the parallels of structure and the requirements of the Society Act for non-profits, the issues for tenants, progress of the national pay day lending campaign, and the need to amend the Toronto Act to establish more “home rule” powers in the city. After a break to record the meeting with a picture segueing from the first meeting of the Board of ACORN Canada to establishing the board for ACORN International seemed to erupt with a different passion.
There was no guessing about the global connections of experience among delegates whose stories of immigration, won, lost, and denied were still often new and raw. The discussion flowed from the collective stance of elected leaders from local groups to sharing the very personal experience of coming from St. Vincent, Portugal, Pakistan, the Dominican Republic, and the United Arab Emirates. Following the membership home was an organizing strategy with very real human faces!
In a one world epiphany Johnny Clark looked closely at Imran Butt knowing that somehow he knew him, and Imran in telling his story turned towards Clark and mentioned the year he had worked in Dallas with his brother while trying to make it through the maze, and Clark realized that before his recent retirement he had in fact delivered mail to Imran at the one-stop gas outlet where he worked. What are the odds? Somehow at this meeting with these leaders, the odds seemed better than one might have ever imagined in these new times of jet planes, mobile phones, and internet messages moving at hyper speed.
But, this was also so old school! A message written by hand and moved — like so much of organizing — hand to hand, from one door to another door, from one part of the world to another in an unbroken circle that cycles men, women, and work all around the globe passing through the invisible screens of addresses, and confusion, and chaos to community and organization and power. For these ACORN members and leaders the business of building the organization from neighborhoods to cities to states and provinces to countries and around the globe seemed simply matter of fact. They loved their countries, their homes, and communities, but these were citizens of the world who recognized a mandate as straightforwardly and simply as others might walk across the street.
There is no going back from the first step.