A Fish in the Sea of People

bangkokWashington Pulling last minute pieces together as the Organizers’ Forum delegation moves from their homes and offices in the United States and Canada towards airports heading for Bangkok, the site of this year’s international dialogue with labor and community organizations in Thailand and along the Burmese border, I find myself bouncing back and forth with half my mind in Asia and half still stuck in North America, especially as I reflect on the challenges being faced by ACORN, where I worked for 38 years.

When asked constantly in recent days about the future for this great organization, my answer has been simple:  I have faith in the great strength of ACORN leaders and members and their deep commitment to the organization.

It always comes back to where the work starts and finishes right at the base.  No matter what’s on the front pages, internet, or even TV screens, where the work and connection to the base remains, there ACORN will continue to thrive and build.  There’s both hope and a plan there.  Members and leaders I hear from in recent weeks have been rock solid.  For all of the talk about the ACORN “brand,” it’s still gold on the streets, and that’s where this fight will be won or lost, and there shouldn’t be any confusion about that.

An old friend from the West Coast sent me a note from a posting on an ACORN newsgroup that underscored this point powerfully.  A manager reported that his top door knocking teams were dispatched into one of the ACORN base communities with a petition for signatures and support from people committed in the neighborhood to “stand with ACORN.”  The report indicated that the team didn’t do well.  The manager though listened carefully and found the answers that should not have surprised.  The team on the doors found that the vast majority of folks had no idea what was going on…stand with ACORN against what attack?  The manager noted the obvious:  the staff was obsessed with the crises and checking “Google alerts 3000 times a day,” so essentially had lost touch with reality.  The team actually had to deliver the news which was confusing to people and ask for support at the same time.  All that needed to be done was to send the teams out to build the organization and simply prepare them to answer questions and respond to members who had concerns.  Exactly right!

It’s back to fundamentals.  The hearts and minds have been won in countless communities by ACORN’s fundamental work and the members’ steadfast support and victories on their issues.  That is unassailable.  It can only be lost, if it is abandoned.  The old slogan that the organization is built every day on the doors is true as long as members, leaders, and organizers are on the doors every day.

Tax help?  The IRS didn’t fund ACORN.  ACORN can help lower income people with their taxes and benefits as they always did with new partners.  Housing assistance and counseling, foreclosure avoidance, and so many other programs can still be done with improvements in old partners and by casting the net to new partners.  As long as ACORN has its huge membership and support in the community and privileges its base, then the success of thousands of service and advocacy programs will still depend on ACORN delivery its contribution to the process:  real people with real problems who are ready to roll.  That can’t be replaced easily and will continue to be the key ingredient as ACORN provides voice and structure to the aspirations of its low and moderate income constituency.  It can only be abandoned by a loss of will regardless of any temporary funding challenges from others.

Having spent almost four decades there, I live daily with the courage and strength of hundreds of ACORN leaders and thousands of members I have known.  Most of them were always skeptical about our friends and allies anyway.  Poor and working people are so used to having to rely on each other that it takes a tremendous leap of faith and fancy to believe that those with influence, wealth, and power are ever real friends and allies.  They come and go. In the end you have each other and the organization.

As long as ACORN understands its place in that equation, then there is no question about its survival and its success in the future, regardless of any current challenges.  Where the commitment to the base is maintained and the work goes on, there the organization will be and will build.  Where it doesn’t exist, it will shrivel and have to be rebuilt in the future.

If the voices of the leaders, members, and organizers are clear and heeded in the councils of the organization, then the future is assured.  It is not the lawyers, consultants, accountants, pr people, and others that will win this day and save the organization.  Its people on the street of a thousand neighbors who hold the future of the organization in their hands, just as they did for the 38 years I was there.

If they are allowed to answer the question about ACORN’s future, I know what that answer will be without a doubt in the world.

Off to Thailand to visit with other organizers and organizations that are swimming like fish in the sea of the people!

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