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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Looking at Migration from Honduras Up, Rather than US Down

London   Draft rules being prepared by the US Department of Homeland Security, the parent agency for ICE, Immigration and Custom Enforcement, would provide for expedited procedures for anyone in the US over two weeks, rather than two years, immediate deportation at the border, and potential legal action against parents sending unaccompanied minors. Honduras, where ACORN works in San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa, the two largest cities, was frequently leading the list of countries sending children. We were fortunate to have an intern from Tulane University, Jordan Sticklin, do some research to help our organizers in Honduras understand what many of our members and their families are facing. Looking deeply at the situation in Honduras reveals a more complicated story than many might want to understand.

The crisis of insecurity and violence in many lower income communities forcing families to flee for safety is a real issue, which we confront in our neighborhoods daily, and there is little debate that the government of Honduras has not been able to develop sufficient capacity to protect families. The child migration problem though dates back before this time though to the destruction of Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and its continued aftermath. Many families were displaced then, and a US program allowing temporary stay permits facilitated the migration of many Hondurans during the emergency. Families were often separated then with children left with relatives as migrants hoped to reclaim them once they stabilized in the US and legalized their migratory status. The failure of the US to provide a policy solution there has exacerbated the problem.

A Honduran agency found that between 2013-2016, more than 9,000 Honduran children were detained upon trying to enter the US, and in 276 cases they were unaccompanied minors. Inarguably, the issue in Honduras is not unaccompanied children, but entire families fleeing their communities, and frankly running for their lives. Given this fear-to-flight situation, it is easier to understand the harsh reality that negates much of the US policy discussion. Polls in Honduras indicate that 80% surveyed believed that policies under President Trump for migrants would worsen, yet 40% still believed that they had no choice and would still be forced to migrate.

Meanwhile Mexico is caught in the middle with US pressure to tighten up its borders to prevent transit of migrants from Honduras and other Central America countries to the US. In 2015, 91% of the migrants returned to Central America were from Mexico and only 8% were from the USA. The draft Trump deportation rules, if implemented, will increase the pressure – and cost – to Mexico in handling increased numbers of migrants at the border who are now being housed in the US while waiting on deportation or other adjudication, who will now just be pushed back across the border. We can expect to see the nightmarish pictures coming on television similar to the squatters’ camps in France where African migrants try to figure out how to get across the English Channel to England.

We can keep blaming and shaming, but none of this is a solution, nor is it humanitarian or show any respect for human rights or the basic reality of the situation. At best it looks like a way to make Mexico pay for migrants, whether they pay for the wall or not. None of this will end well.

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Easy Is Winning in Technical Organizing Tools

Bristol  We spent hours in Bristol talking about how to use technology and tech tools in organizing including a Skype call with experts in Washington and our folks from Canada, England, and France. The short summary is the one we already knew going in: nothing is perfect. Everything we tried had gaps, hidden costs, and aggravating features. There’s nothing appealing about making decisions where you know from the beginning that no one is going to be completely happy no matter what. Bad memories of endless discussions from different advocates and fans of different database systems when we were forced to decide on one for everybody came roaring back at me like nightmares.

I spent time before that call, talking to Kentaro Toyamo, professor at the University of Michigan, author of Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change From the Cult of Technology,  who suffers through my techno-peasantry while trying to help me figure out a way to milk advantages from tech potential. The question I posed was whether there was a way to combine locational and relational algorithms, similar to those used by Google, Amazon, and others to allow people to find each other – and an organization – when they faced issues in their tenant block, neighborhood, or workplace and wanted to organize to deal with it. The answer was kind of a “yes, maybe,” but the caution he remarked in developing an independent application or something that triggered to a website was the mountain to climb to the find the crowd versus trying to navigate Facebook where the crowd already congregates. The continuing dominance of Facebook almost argued that it made sense to try to develop an app for that, rather than one that was independent, just because of the pure volume of users and the ease of use and adoption.

Though Facebook is made of “likes,” it’s just hard to love from the fake news to the constant advertising, data mining, and self-absorption from the top down.  Yet, it’s hard to argue with success and when you are trying to work with people, there’s no way around going where people are, and that’s Facebook today for many hours of people’s day it seems.

We spent a lot of time and started building some affection for ActionNetwork.org and its tools. We found the gaps obnoxious, but found the ease of use compelling, along with the fact that the nonprofit operation was created by people with organizing experience who seemed as least receptive to our particular needs.We’re likely soon to decide to go in that direction, all things being equal.

We were also taken with Slack.com as well, which is a free service used extensively by the Sanders campaigns to link volunteers and more recently by activists trying to connect and organize in the US period of chaos and resistance. ACORN in the UK has been using Slack to do daily communications with organizers and allow them to add channels for work projects. I’ve been trying it with slightly less success with my research interns at the University of Ottawa as well.Nonetheless, I found it very, very easy, and way better than something like Dropbox to move large documents effectively to the work team, so that’s something to love, but no matter the tool, it only has value if people use it. How an organizer would keep up with 1600 Slack groups is still beyond me, no matter how easy it is to use, but that’s something worth learning.

So we get back to Facebook groups, which we use, and our members love in dealing with tenant support issues in the UK, mental health rights in Alaska, and disability rights in Vancouver. Hard to beat.

No matter what works in theory, we have to go where people are.

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Chaos in the White House Can’t Stop Progress in the Streets

Bristol ACORN

Bristol   Maybe President Trump needs to get out more? Perhaps there’s something in the air in the White House that is clogging up his so-called “fine-tuned machine” and bringing out the crazy? Maybe from the outside looking in, it would be easier for him to understand better why the rest of us are scared sillier every day?

Who knows, but for me it was relief to jump off the merry-go-round of the Trump-Watch and back onto a plane again. And, though sleepless and a walking-zombie imitation, sure enough it was possible to find signs of continuing progress away from the maddening vortex of chaos in Washington.

Visiting with the ACORN organizers in Bristol, the big problem of the day was one every organization likes to have. On the eve of ACORN’s first all-offices, national action scheduled only days away from Edinburgh to Sheffield, Newcastle, Bristol, and beyond against the giant multi-national bank, Santander, they threw in the towel and caved in. The issue was a requirement that Santander attaches on any loans in housing that tenant leases mandate rent increases. ACORN was demanding the provision be dropped from all leases, and Santander announced that it was doing so, and in a bit of dissembling claimed that they had never really enforced it anyway. Hmmm. I wonder if they had told any of their landlords, “hey, ignore that part, we don’t really want you to raise the rents, we’re just kidding, it’s only money.” Hard to believe isn’t it? And, we don’t, but a win is a win, and the action will now become a celebration and a demand that all other banks in the United Kingdom also scrub out any such language.

Back home, ACORN affiliate, A Community Voice, was front page news as they laid the gauntlet down once again around an expansion of the Industrial Canal that divides the upper and lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans. The expansion would dislocate homes and further bisect this iconic and beleaguered community.

Meanwhile, as we get closer and closer to being able to target big real estate operations and private equity that are exploiting lower income home seekers in the Midwest and South through contract for deed land purchasers, there was progress in the courts. A federal judge ruled that Harbour Portfolio, a Dallas-based bottom-fishing private equity operation with a big 7000-home play in FNMA, would have to abide by a subpoena from the much embattled Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and disclose information on its use high-interest, predatory contract-for-deed instruments in its home flipping. As we get closer and closer to having our arms around not only terms and conditions of these exploitative contracts, but also lists of potential victims in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, this is good news, even though far from the relief and victory families will be seeking.

All of which proves that if we can keep our focus away from the chaos created in Washington and our feet on the streets, there are fights galore and victories aplenty to reward the work and struggle.

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Fort Lauderdale Airport Shooting Linked to Inadequacies of Alaska Mental Health System

The building where Esteban Santiago lived in the Fairview neighborhood of Anchorage. He is charged with killing five people and wounding six more at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on Jan. 6. Credit Joshua Corbett for The New York Times

New Orleans   Having been in the small capitol city of Juneau, Alaska within recent months, I have been wondering if some of the powers that be in state government have been holding their breath and waiting for the other shoe to drop after the terrible tragedy of a shooter flew in from Alaska, suddenly producing a gun in the baggage claim area of the Fort Lauderdale airport and killing five people and injuring six before lying down and waiting for the police hardly a week ago. The shoe has now dropped in The New York Times.

This horror has been thoroughly reported of course, as it should have been. A fairly recently discharged soldier who had even more recently turned himself into the FBI office in Anchorage in November because he believed the government was controlling his mind had been the shooter. The fact that this had happened in Anchorage and not Juneau or a smaller city in Alaska should have been a lucky break. The major state psychiatric facility is located in Anchorage, so he was able to turn himself in voluntarily, pretty much right on the spot. Had he been in Juneau for example, the intermediate facilities have been closed and whether he would have even gotten to Anchorage for even the minimal observation given, might not have happened. After four days he was released. There were no curbs on his access to firearms, and of course that’s another troubling question, but let’s just focus on mental health treatment and support for right now, because the horrible consequences of these multiple institutional failures are already clear enough.

Kirk Johnson writing in the Times is clear about the failure of Alaskan governmental authorities to provide for mental health consumers in the state, and therefore the community and public as well. He starts it out badly:

In Alaska when people are involuntarily committed for mental health treatment, the median length of stay, at only five days, is shorter than in almost any other state. Only Wisconsin has a shorter median commitment time, at four days, according to the Treatment Advocacy Center, a national group that works to improve mental health laws and care. The national average is 75 days, with some states, like California, having a median of more than four months.

But then it just gets worse:

The mental health needs are great here, too. Alaska has the nation’s second-highest suicide rate, after Wyoming, and some rural areas are by far the worst in America in rates of self-harm, federal figures say. Alaska also has among the highest rates of adult binge drinking, according to federal figures. A study by the Kaiser Family Foundation ranked it 47th among states and territories in terms of the percentage of mental health care needs being met. At the same time, the number of beds at the Alaska Psychiatric Institute in Anchorage, the state’s only long-term psychiatric hospital, is now half of what it was in the early 1990s, though many other states also cut their mental health treatment systems during the Great Recession.

Admittedly, and the Times acknowledges this, Alaska started dealing with mental health needs only when it transitioned from a US territory to a full-fledged state. Congress ceded one-million acres as part of the transfer of lands to the state to create the Mental Health Trust in order to use the resources of those assets to create the mental health system virtually from scratch. The Times credits the Trust with lobbying for expansion of Medicaid benefits under Obamacare in the state, but didn’t detail the scandals in the first decades of the Trust’s operation that led to the courts forcing reforms or the current confusing upheaval in the Trust’s management and operations, all of which have left people questioning what is really going on with the Trust.

Alaska’s mental health consumers organized MCAN, the Mental Health Consumers’ Action Network, last year which has broad agenda which includes pushing the Trust for more transparency and accountability, as well as better provision of services and support for the mental health community, but with the shooting in Fort Lauderdale state government and the Trust officials both have to be squirming, because it is now crystal clear and beyond any question that mental health needs to be a top priority in the state and is a job undone and woefully handled. Not only are Alaska’s consumers demanding action, but the rest of the country is now clear that Alaska needs to step up, and its failure to do so, risks all Americans, as well as its own citizens.

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Suggestions for the Anti-Inaugural

just some of the protests

Puerto Aventuras   Charles Blow, Louisiana native, New York Times columnist, and committed Trump resistor, wrote a piece on the Anti-Inauguration, as he called it. Blow made sure to point out that everyone needed to keep it positive, etc, etc, so that he could keep his day job, and you could keep yours in the uncertainty of regime change, but he threw a laundry list out there: protest, volunteer, donate, subscribe, read, watch, write, and connect.

Ok, some of this is a bit lame and spitting-in-the-wind, but his heart is good and his anger is real. Subscribe is about keeping the press alive. Read was a mild antidote to fake news. Watch was really just donate under another subhead and involved a California telethon or some such. Write is old school sending letters or emails to your local Congressperson, although between the lines Blow seems to be advocating a bit of hounding and stalking in this area, since he says, “Make them remember your name,” and that involves some persistence if you’re not sending them a big check. Connect is about lobbying your close friends and family, so good luck with that, but I would add that you should make sure you keep the paths cleared and the bridges in good repair so that you can make more progress once some smoke clears and the Trump body count builds and comes closer to home.

Now, protest, well that’s an opportunity worth a look in DC and closer to home, but frankly it’s not really enough, and I have to be honest with you, I’m not sure it’s effective right this minute. Take the Women’s March which is projected at one-hundred to two-hundred thousand, which is great, but from all reports, no demands, which makes it something of a “I am Woman, Watch me Roar” thing. That’s not bad of course, and certainly appropriate, but…there’s no way to get around the fact that protests, to be something more than symbolic, need real targets, real issues, where we can point out the rightness, and even morality of our cause, and where we are committed to hanging in until we win. There will be plenty of opportunities to come. In fact more than any of us – and our organizations – can handle.

Which brings me to “volunteer.” With tongue in cheek I’ve been talking about ACORN and our “volunteer army” for years, but I think there’s a lot that is real in that. My work in the Netherlands over the last quarter of 2016 convinced me of how much can be done when you can put up to 1000 volunteers to work on a campaign. ACORN’s own work around hospital accountability in the USA, electric cooperatives in the rural South, analysis of Bollere scandals in Africa, and banking practices in the United Kingdom has all been done 100% by volunteers. We are finding in our tenant organizing in Scotland and England that volunteers are able to organize new chapters all around the country and take action. I’ve touted the new book by Zack Exley and Betsy Bond on their experience with the Sanders’ campaign which points real directions in this area. If a couple of hundred to a thousand people would agree to volunteer even 20 hours a month, we could organize something different in this country, so, hey, call me maybe!

And, on the “donate” suggestion, I’m all for that, too, go directly to ACORN International  and it will show you how, and muchas gracias!

But, some things not on Blow’s list that anyone can do should include speaking out and reaching out.

Speaking out is hard, but it can’t be someone else’s job. It must be everyone’s responsibility now, and can’t be left to the victims. Injustice must be confronted and can’t be ignored, particularly when it is expressed as racism and misogyny. It’s time for no more Mr. or Ms. Nice on this. When it shows its face, it has to be named, shamed, and stopped.

Reaching out is going to be necessary for everyone as well. There will be millions of victims hit by the train wrecks coming our way from Washington soon. People are going to need help. It’s going to be complicated, obfuscated, and confusing. People are going to need a hand navigating the future for themselves and their families. Reaching out, you could make a difference. Find a way.

There’s no disagreement with Charles Blow on one count. There’s plenty to be done, and the time is now.

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