Finding a Way out of the Maze: Citizen Wealth Centers

communityStaffordshire     In organizing low-and-moderate income people both in the workplace and the community, one of the most vexing organizing problems has always been the Sisyphean dilemma, that no matter how many issues the organization might address, and even resolve, there were always scores of others, both personal and collective and often both, that were not being addressed, but were frequently equally important and sometimes dominating our members’ lives.    In membership organizations, this problem is particularly acute because not responding to the membership effectively dramatically weakens organizational ties, limits resources, and creates political tensions for officers.

In unions, the response has often evolved into the “servicing” model of representation, which can be responsive and even effective, especially when empowering job stewards, but when bogging down union representatives, lawyers, and others, thereby draining resources from organizing and political work and skewing the work of the collective enterprise into something akin to personal service in the workplace, has been the central internal factor in the weakening of the labor movement.  Even when working as its advocates would promote, the issue range is limited to work and work-related concerns, which might then also include health and retirement, but rarely include housing, education, and the community.

In communities, the response to individual issues is basically social work, not organizing, and has become so segmented and specifically addressed that the organizations created and resources dedicated swamp those expended in building concerted responses and organizational vehicles to address these issues.  Nonetheless what plagues organizers eternally is that even when building effective organization, in fact perhaps particularly when building effective organization, the demands for the organization and its staff to address individual issues increases dramatically proportionate to success.   Furthermore, outside of some dated experience in producing grievance systems in welfare rights and consumer advocates in other organizations, most community organizations have not done spectacularly well in creating an empowering response to the problem on a member to member level.

In ACORN our notion of how to deal with these problems was also segmented though aligned with the rest of the work in civic engagement through integrated voter registration and separate political organizations, in housing where counseling and development operations worked side by side with the organizing in more than one-third of our offices, and less successfully in work issues where we had labor operations in less than ten percent of our offices.  We finally tried to broaden our response by creating the ACORN Service Centers which originally specialized in handling taxes and then were taking the time to ensure that benefits were being received on all entitlements to the 50,000 coming through that operation.

Currently, we are recreating some of this broader response by organizing Citizen Wealth Centers which we are constructing in several cities on the twin foundations of healthcare and tax services.  Enrollment in the Affordable Care Act is a trigger for much of this, but in handling such recruitment it also opens up the other needs members have for representation around health needs, health bills and overcharges, and decision making around insurance choices.  The enforcement of the ACA is through the IRS, which already links our capacity to assist in tax preparation with the health issue.  In talking to our members about education issues, housing, and basic representation in dealing with the myriad governmental and corporate bureaucracies inundating modern life all fall on the list.  Our notion is that by creating a system rooted in affordable fees for service and creating a trained and able staffing capacity with wide ranging support, representational, and advocacy skills, we can begin to finally build a broader platform to respond to our members and the larger constituency.  Furthermore if we can get the fee structure right, we believe the Citizen Wealth Centers will be self-supporting and perhaps even create resources for the organizing.

Either way, the path to resolve the organizing problem in building collective capacity, seems to be one of decoupling the servicing from the organizing, so that both can be allowed to build each other, though separately, rather than draining energies and resources and still watching the rocks roll down the same hills.

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