Celebrating ACORN’s 46th Birthday

DSCN1298Quito    At the annual Americas’ meeting of many of ACORN’s organizers in Quito, after a lengthy conversation about implementing our plans for an internet radio station to kick off in mid-August with shows from all of the offices interspersed with music replayed from our existing stations, a cake came out and by popular request we did our best trying to sing a recent organizing song along the lines of Drake’s “Hot Line Bling.” The meeting had been good, spirits were high, plans were in place, but at the same time the discussions had been serious and sober, and we were humble to the task.

The challenge for senior staff, including myself, can be the wide view from the front windshield of opportunity, compared to the vast and expansive accomplishments in the rear view mirror. ACORN Canada has become a powerhouse with huge victories and campaigns protecting and advancing the interests of tenants and consumers. Work in France, the United Kingdom, and India is encouraging and exciting, and opportunities seem to increasingly abound for ACORN in Europe, if we can get our arms around them. We may have our first meeting ever of all of our organizers in Africa this fall, which would allow us to potentially turn a corner there for the future. Consolidating and tightening our program in Latin America may allow us to finally solidify the work and victories there over the last dozen years. Reports are starting to emerge that auger for real impact and deep alliances around rural electric cooperatives in the southern United States and accountability for charity care in nonprofit hospitals, lending and financial discrimination in the United Kingdom, and threats to remittances globally. Partnerships with colleges and universities are extending the organization’s reach and resources. Plans for upgrading training tools with better technology and investment could be significant. It was exciting to sit around this table!

At the same time it was a small table, compared to the giant halls where ACORN annual organizers’ meetings were held in the past. 150,000 members globally is not the same as almost a half-million concentrated in one country, like the United States. Frequently, we’re involved in throwback situations to the early and mid-1970s where we’re trying to put twenty pounds to work into a one-pound bag and a stuff a thousand people into a clown car.

But, the key is to keep moving and moving forward, which is part of what emerges at every birthday celebration. The alternatives are devastating, embracing the next day, and the opportunities of life and work are everything.

At 46 years the main celebration is the excitement that the organization and the work continues, and is important and winning. It’s a milestone, but just another day. Next year on the 47th anniversary, we will be at the biennial convention of ACORN Canada in Ottawa.

There’s a lot to be done. Time to think about where we will be when we gather for the 50th!

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Continuing Struggle and Solidarity after Assassination of Berta Caceres

Olivia Zuniga Caceres in center in flowered top with ACORN Organizers in Quito

Olivia Zuniga Caceres in center in flowered top with ACORN Organizers in Quito

Quito   A highlight of the Americas meeting of ACORN International organizers in Quito was a visit with Olivia Zuniga Caceres, the oldest daughter of Berta Caceres, the indigenous, land protection and environmental activist assassinated in Honduras hardly three months ago. Olivia was in Quito to give a talk about the ongoing struggle and accept an award in her mother’s name from a human rights organization in Ecuador. We were fortunate that she was able to sneak away for a bit to visit with us about the fight, express solidarity with ACORN’s organizing in Honduras, and receive the same from ACORN International in this difficult, deadly and continuing campaign.

In many ways Berta Caceres’ story is too common in Latin America still and almost routine in Honduras. As the New York Times noted:

Since a 2009 coup in Honduras, journalists, judges, labor leaders, human rights defenders and environmental activists have been assassinated in targeted killings, with their murders often going unsolved. Twelve environmental defenders were killed in Honduras in 2014, according to research by Global Witness, which makes it the most dangerous country in the world, relative to its size, for activists protecting forests and rivers.

In fact another leader of Berta’s organization, the National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, had also been killed by a Honduran solider during a peaceful protest in 2013. Various international commission’s and human rights organizations had demanded protection for Berta and in receiving the prestigious Goldman Environmental award in 2015 she had talked about the constant hiding and harassment she was experiencing.

The outline of the backstory for those unfamiliar was in her obituary:

Ms. Cáceres, 44, had led a decade-long fight against a project to build the Agua Zarca Dam along the Gualcarque River, which is sacred to the Lenca people. The campaign involved filing legal complaints against the project, organizing community meetings and bringing the case to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission.

That description is inadequate to describe the intensity of the struggle fought to prevent construction of the dam, which included blocking access to construction crews for over a year, sufficient to force out the Chinese partner in the project. Unfortunately, the Honduran business interests were adamant and shifted their work to the other side of the river, less accessible to the protestors, and work continues on the dam.

Olivia Caceres was clear that she and other members of the organization have not relented in the fight. International law requires indigenous interests be consulted before such construction. That was not done and is still being resisted. We discussed where we could assist on an upcoming visit to publicize the fight in the United States that she is making in July as well as where other ACORN affiliates around the world might intersect with her. Her remarks about ACORN and the work and support in Honduras were humbling and inspiring.

Our work is hard, but rarely in our daily labor to we have to assess the risk of life and death faced by this organization, its members and leaders in a seemingly lawless situation with government posturing and inaction, proving once again why we all so desperately need to support and stand with each other.

Olivia Zuniga Caceres with ACORN Organizers in Quito

Olivia Zuniga Caceres with ACORN Organizers in Quito

 

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The Hard Nuts and Bolts of Organizing in Honduras

10293579_812218472164492_6052867961713463478_oQuito   Erlyn Perez, the head organizer in Tegucigalpa, Suyapa Amador, the head organizer and sparkplug of San Pedro Sula, Marcos Gomez, ACORN Canada’s campaign director, and I spent 3 hours trying to get our arms around the great progress of ACORN Honduras in the last several years, as well as the difficult question of whether or not the organization could survive long term in what might be a gold standard definition in organizing of a bittersweet conversation. The work is critical, the membership is now over 3500 in both cities, the victories are local and concrete, but the nuts and bolts of building sustainable membership-based community organizations means that even with great success, we are forced to constantly evaluate whether we can survive.

Looking at San Pedro Sula is almost a case study. We have seven community organizations in the city and the communities that abut the city, especially Choloma where we have worked the longest. Recently we have won some commitments from the Mayor of San Pedro Sula to make repairs on Street 27 there which has been almost impassable in some areas. More needs to be done and 300 homeowners along the street have organized with us to withhold their tax payments and pay them simultaneously when the Mayor agrees to finish the work. An interesting tactic! In some cases there’s just no money, no matter how hard we press. In Choloma where we have been in one campaign after another around potable water, we are now working with our members to put together the pieces to change the water collection system by building three cistern-style rainwater collection depots that will benefit 850 families. In San Manual, we have finally gotten support from the mayor and city officials around a public education campaign to stop the forced migration of children and gang recruitment. It’s good work with clear progress.

But even with 2400 members in San Pedro Sula, Suyapa reports only 380 are paying dues regularly on a monthly basis, and that’s at 20 lempiras monthly which is hardly 10 cents US or $334.00 roughly per month. Another $100 to $120 per month comes into support the office by selling coffee to allies, universities, and labor unions in the area for a cooperative in Marcala, which is affiliated to ACORN Honduras. $450 in US dollars per month goes farther in Honduras, but not quite far enough. ACORN International chips in $800 per month, split between the two organizers to keep things going from its own efforts, which aren’t easy either. It’s hard to raise the dues because membership projects like the water system in Choloma mean more business and family donations. In Tegucigalpa the story is much the same with the addition of a youth group that we’ve organized to stop migration chipping in more for the office there and free workspace in a community center we won in a neighborhood. The Mennonites recently decided to provide a grant to Honduras ACORN for the work that impacts migration, but that $10,000 has to get us closer to sustainability as well as almost an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

So, all good this minute, but our conversation in Quito was where would we be in 2 years, in 5, in 10? When would ACORN in Honduras be able to completely stand on the shoulders of its members in Honduras? What would happen if ACORN International couldn’t subsidize the organizers, where would we be and how would the members respond?

This is hard work done by great organizers with amazingly deep commitments from them and from leaders and members, but hard discussions even over pinchos, can’t be escaped, and require clear eyes about the future even as we twist the nuts and bolts into shape.

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First Victory in Paris!

DSC1195-700x450New Orleans    Part of what sustains organizers is the almost irrational belief that each new group, may be the best community organization ever; each new action may be the most powerful action ever; each new victory could open the way to unimaginable victories; each new member could be a leader of a lifetime; and each new organizer could build the future.

The first meeting of our ACORN’s Parisian affiliate occurred recently, launching the Alliance Citoyenne d’Aubervilliers or the Citizens’ Alliance of d’Aubervilliers, a diverse lower income, working community on the outskirts of Paris. Good crowd and a large, exciting committee of leaders were elected. The first action was immediately set with another coming.

The report from the first action was exhilarating. The members who were tenants in a large complex had been required to pay a 20 euro fee at the car park as part of their monthly payments. But for two years there was no security there and the gate to the parking lot was broken, essentially meaning that the members were paying for nothing.

The action was feisty, and the outcome was total victory.

The housing managers agreed to refund 240 euros to each of the tenants, and of course immediately repair the car park and get security there.

These small victories are what starts the peoples’ avalanche rolling towards enough power to move everything out of the organization’s way. In d’Aubervilliers this will be the making of an instant legend, and the word will spread among tenants and others throughout Paris like wildfire.

This is why they join. This is why we do the work!

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Leaders Taking Charge in Rapidly Growing ACORN Canada

ACORN Canada leaders national board meeting in Ottawa

ACORN Canada leaders national board meeting in Ottawa

Toronto    Pushing thirteen years old, ACORN Canada is like a teenager going through a growth spurt, making it exciting to hear the passion and discussion of the ACORN board as they debated new directions, campaigns, and other initiatives. It was a time of transition with new leaders coming on board in full strength for the first time from Nova Scotia, new delegates elected from Ottawa and British Columbia and summer plans that could expand the organization into Winnipeg and Calgary in the western states for the first time. Yippee, kayay, here we come!

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The reports from the testimony made throughout the country via Skype teleconferencing to the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) on our demands for “internet for all” were, believe it or not, moving. And, they moved the head of the CRTC, who was honest enough to say so himself. The new delegate from Ottawa repeated the testimony that brought tears to her eyes, when one of the members had told the story of her 7-year old coming to her and asking if he could be sent to a foster home. A foster home, what in the world?!? The child said, if he were able to live with another family, then he could get a tablet and connect to the internet. Her face turned red as she told the story, and tears came to her eyes. Were the rest of us not so jaded, we all would have been weeping – such a sad, terrible, true story. We’re going to win something, but we may not win all we need to make sure 7-year olds never say this again, but we won’t stop until that day!

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There was also an exciting discussion, as I listened carefully, about the need for a national housing policy in Canada. Yes, inclusionary zoning and landlord licensing were huge issues everywhere, but the leadership wanted to figure out a way to double down, to increase security for tenants, to open up opportunities for home ownership, and to dramatically increase the pool of affordable housing. The discussion was so animated that lunch was late and the queue for more points to be made saw everyone around the board table throwing out suggestions. I was excited when the board passed a motion to investigate, research and move forward on finally doing what it took to win a community reinvestment act in Canada along the lines available in the United States for almost forty years. As importantly, the board unanimously demanded in the same motion that banks fully disclose not only their lending statistics for home mortgages but also for smaller consumer loans. Movement in this direction seemed natural since the refusal to by banks to lend small sums was forcing our members into fringe banking outfits like our payday lending nemesis of long standing.

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So sure, there were internal decisions made that were necessary to keep the big wheels rolling: officers elected or re-elected, a decision on the location of the 2017 national convention, and clarification, given the growth of the board, on different rules and best practices for all levels of governance. There was discussion of a huge summer program which will pace student organizer-trainees in new cities and provinces as well as Ontario and British Columbia. Mainly, though even as the reports were given and the leaders analyzed the progress in the last year, there was a spirit and a conviction that the organization was taking off and the members – and the country itself – hadn’t seen anything yet!

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Please enjoy Eric Clapton’s Catch the Blues. Thanks to KABF.

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Buying, Rather than Building, Affordable Housing

demo3-460x250Ottawa   In one city after another we’re getting closer to winning landlord-leasing rules, some rent controls, and inclusionary zoning programs. But, even as victories come closer to hand, the scale of the need for affordable housing is overwhelming our capacity to deliver change. It is not that our eyes are bigger than our stomach anymore. Our stomachs are ravenous and are outstripping the vision we can see with our eyes.

Social Policy does a trade-out with Shelterforce, and I happened to have a recent copy in the stack of things I brought to read on the plane and started flipping through it over breakfast at Carleton University before the beginning of the ACORN Canada national board and annual general meetings. Some of the pieces were a bit out of my league. I wasn’t sure what to make of something called “trauma-informed community building” or TICB, as they proceeded to call it, but I knew I was uncomfortable having poverty medicalized, no matter how good the intentions

On the other hand there was a fascinating piece by Alan Mallach, a senior fellow at the Center for Community Progress and the National Housing Institute that looked at a different direction that the French had taken to developing affordable and mixed-income housing. They were buying it, rather than building it. Mallach discussed the disastrous and well-documented French housing policy in the 1970s when many projects were built on the outskirts of the city and went down from there. The good news, according to Mallach, is that the French learned something from the experience that might teach us something in the United States and Canada as well.

“Now, when French developers build subdivisions or condo projects, nonprofit housing corporations enter into turnkey contracts with the developer to buy blocs of apartments or houses, up to a maximum of 50 percent of the units in the development. Based on those contracts, the nonprofits apply for a package of government loans, grants, and tax breaks so they can both buy the units and make sure they remain affordable. When the projects are completed, the nonprofit buys the units and operates them as affordable rental housing.”

In transferring the French lessons to the USA, Mallach made a couple of comments that made sense in many cities. First, he noted that “most parts of the United States have large inventories of good-quality existing housing available.” If Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) funds could be utilized by nonprofit housing developers to buy blocks of these houses either from developers or on the market and convert and manage them as affordable housing, it would both save money, and immeasurably diversity communities, benefiting our families, and potentially serve as a bulwark against blight as well by keeping the housing maintained, viable, and affordable. He also made the case that private sector market developers can create reasonably good quality housing for a price point that is often significantly lower than nonprofit developers utilizing LIHTC monies. Maybe so? Maybe no? I haven’t really looked at that closely, but where I think he is absolutely right is that buying existing housing stock or buying into developments already in motion, drastically reduces the lead time and opportunity cost, meaning more affordable housing is developed now. And, now is when we need it!

This is worth a good look in a lot of places.

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Please enjoy Eric Clapton’s Alabama Woman Blues. Thanks to KABF.

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