Is Direct Membership Organizing “Old School?”

ACORN doorknocking in Toronto

Sheffield   In a meeting in London, I was briefly taken aback when one of the participants said that they had heard a critique of ACORN that we were “old school.” The quizzical, surprised look on my face from another person at the meeting prompted him to say, essentially, no problem, Wade, I believe in the old school.

Admittedly, I was testy about the issue during the meeting, saying things like, hey, when their school builds a half-million member organization or even a 150,000 member organization, I’ll go for lessons. You know stupid stuff like that. Luckily, I said stuff that was slightly smarter like, yo, we bolt new social media tools on the old school feet on the street, bottoms in the bus seats to build power. No harm was done.

I get it though. It’s a natural evolutionary tension within the work. It was long ago that mass texting and the Orange Revolution were the “new” school, while the rest of us had to catch up and learn the new steps. Flash mobs had their time in the sun as well. Then Twitter had its moment in Iran when change was coming through a “twitter” revolution, even though it became quickly evident that only a miniscule number of Iranians were actually on Twitter. Tahir Square for an equally brief moment was marketed as a Facebook revolution before the story of systematic, long term organizational efforts that triggered the protests became widely known. Now whether Black Lives Matter or the Women’s March on Washington, the tools and platforms that assemble protests are undoubtedly touted as the future of organizing.

It’s easy to understand why Alinsky, who forged his organizing methodology in the 1950s, was dismissive and threatened by the mass movements of the 1960s. This old school warrior won’t make that mistake. For power to be built, for change to occur, for organizations to survive and thrive, they have to grow or die, and that means constant adaptation to whatever moves and has meaning to people. At ACORN, we embrace the new social media tools and methods of mass communications, but of course taking the new courses doesn’t mean that we abandon identifiable membership, internal democracy and accountability, and the importance of having a mass base which can take action, respond to attack, vote when needed, speak loudly when necessary, and fight to win.

An experiment is not an organizing model. Trust me on this, if a better model of building mass organization is developed anywhere by anybody in the world, ACORN will be among the first adapters.

But, there are lessons in some of the new school experiments too. Lessons in Egypt and Iran, and the change that didn’t happen once the rallies ended. Lessons about whether change can be won or power built without an organization. There’s still just no substitute for people, no matter how slick and fancy the new tools. And, that means going through the time and trouble of building real organization even while we are able to mobilize differently in this magic moment.

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2 thoughts on “Is Direct Membership Organizing “Old School?”

  1. I’m working on a book (that is at this point more of an idea) that lays out 4 different approaches to individual membership organizations: a kind of “organic”/sub-area approach used by Tom Gaudette in his early work in Chatham, and then in the Northwest Community Organization, and in the ongoing Iowa CCI; the block club/subarea approach used in the Organization for a Better Austin and Cleveland, among other places; the house meeting approach of the Community Service Organization, and ACORN. (The block club approach stretches the definition a bit.) Each seems to accomplish somewhat different things and seems to fit different contexts. But all require organizing people one by one (even though some organizations masqueraded as institutional organizations [e.g., NCO])..

    The point is not that we can simply recreate these approaches today, but that the different models they represent show that there are a whole range of ways one can successfully organize fractured communities through one-to-one engagement. The idea that there aren’t effective options for doing this this kind of work today is ridiculous.

  2. Based on what little I know about this, I would think that the mode of organizing would depend, to a great extent, on what was being organized. For example, In terms of Alinsky, organizing neighborhoods in south Chicago would require a different approach and different technology than organizing to end a criminal Imperialistic war. The size of the issue is also a determining factor according to a book, Rules for Revolutionaries, that has been recommended.

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