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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Lives They Lived: Denis Murphy and Asian Community Organizing

Denis murphy and Alice

Puerto Aventuras   Recently my friend, comrade, and brother, Na Hyowoo from Korea, sent me a message asking if I knew Denis Murphy had passed away. Denis was the father and founder of many initiatives in community organizing, certainly in the Philippines where he mainly lived and worked, but also in India and Asia where his work also inspired many organizing programs among the urban poor. He and his wife, Alice, also a community organizer, trained and inspired organizing in Kenya as well. Denis and Na had invited me to several meetings of Asian organizers in Manila in the LOCOA, a network of Local Organizers and Community Organizations of Asia. I had visited with him as well in New York City, where he would spent a month or so living in Manhattan near Union Square with his sister, who was a nun, just as Denis had been a priest. His organizing was old school, focused on building “peoples’ organizations” among the poorest and most powerless, so he saw many affinities with ACORN, though always scratched his head about dues, he invited me to the Philippines to tell the story and teach the model. His shadow is long over the work in Asia, and his passing will be missed, but also honored for its contributions.

Here is an obit from the Philippine Daily Inquirer:

Denis Murphy: As Filipino as most of us

By: TJ Burgonio – Deputy Day Desk Chief Philippine Daily Inquirer / 01:14 AM October 10, 2016

Denis Murphy cut his teeth organizing the urban poor in the late 1960s. It became his lifelong advocacy even after he left the priesthood. He even tried to convince Mother Teresa to get involved in it, his widow said.

The founder of Urban Poor Associates died on Oct. 2 at 86, capping more than 40 years of community organizing in the Philippines and in other Asian and African countries.

In death, many remembered Murphy for championing the rights of the poor—from slum dwellers in Tondo to fishermen in typhoon-ravaged Tacloban—and teaching them to have a voice of their own.

Vice President Leni Robredo, former President Benigno S. Aquino III, Senators Bam Aquino and Rissa Hontiveros, and former Cabinet members Dinky Soliman, Florencio Abad, Teresita Deles and Carina David, among others, came to pay their respects.

But it was the community organizers from around Metro Manila and elsewhere who packed Arlington Memorial Chapels in Quezon City where his ashes were to pay him tribute.

‘Daunted by the odds’

“He had always accompanied us to dialogues. If an American was helping the poor, who were we not to help the poor?” community leader Bernadette Sabalza said in her eulogy.

“There were days when I felt daunted by the odds. But I’m holding on to my promise to Sir Denis to fight for my members. I’ll fight for our cause till my last breath,” she said in Filipino.

“Denis was passionate and committed, a true Irishman, but no less Filipino than most of us,” said Inquirer Opinion editor Rosario Garcellano.

“In fighting for better conditions for the urban poor, he was in there pitching, even during the dangerous days of martial law. He was in Tacloban before he fell ill, helping the homeless get their bearings in more ways than one,” she said.

And he was such an evocative writer, Garcellano added.

“Whether describing the misery of a coal-packing community in Tondo with its sooty sad-eyed children or the windswept cemetery where his brother is buried, the leaves turning into the colors of fall, he brought the reader to the precise, chilling moment,” she said.

Murphy first came to the Philippines with the Jesuits in the 1950s. After completing theology studies in Woodstock, Maryland, he returned in 1967 as a priest.

From that time until 1976, he served as deputy director of the Institute of Social Order in Manila and was put in charge of urban social work across the country. It was here that he became involved in community organizing.

From the ’70s onward, he helped kick-start community organizing by founding the Philippine Ecumenical Committee for Community Organization and Community Organization of the Philippines Enterprise.

He even invited American Saul Alinsky, considered the father of modern community organizing, to Manila.

Love and shared advocacy

Murphy left the priesthood in 1976 when he married Alice Gentolia. Community organizing became their shared advocacy. They have a daughter, Marifel.

He also founded the Asian Committee for Peoples Organization, an ecumenical body that introduced community organizing to India, Hong Kong, Thailand and Indonesia, and offered training in Pakistan, Japan, Malaysia and Singapore.

Murphy also helped set up a community organizing program in Nairobi, Kenya, with COPE sending a team to train young Kenyans in organizing on such issues as garbage collection, water, jobs creation and evictions.

Journey with Mother Teresa

In his visits to Calcutta, India, he often called on Mother Teresa, according to Alice.

“He would go around. Calcutta was one of his favorite cities and Mother Teresa was there. What he did was talk to her, trying to convince her to get involved in community organizing,” she recalled.

In New York, Murphy joined the 1965 Freedom March in Selma, Alabama, led by civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., Alice said.

Murphy was born in New York on Sept. 18, 1930, to parents who had migrated from Cork, South Ireland, and who were members of the Irish Republican Army. He studied at the Jesuit-run Regis School in New York.

His brother Ned was also a former Jesuit priest and sister Margareth was a nun. Their brother Tim was a soldier who served in the Korean War.

Murphy wrote a novel, “A Watch in the Night,” short stories and commentaries for the Inquirer.

Respect well-earned and gratefully given!

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Hawking Chichen Itza to the Tourists is a Bummer

the horde coming through the ticket book

Cancun  I’ve read about the great Mayan ruins in the Yucatan and Quintana Roo for decades, and Chichen Itza has always been fabled as one of the most extraordinary. When travelers once spoke of the Seven Wonders of the World, Chichen Itza was often on the list. I still cherish my copies of John Lloyd Stephens great two-volume classic, Incidents of Travel in Yucatan illustrated by Frederick Catherwood published in 1841 after his journeys. “Raiders of the Lost Arc” always paled in comparison to their story, and the vivid illustrations that made me feel like I was there, plunging through the jungle undergrowth to see what few non-Mayans had ever seen.

We had spent Christmas Day at the Uxlan ruins in one of the more amazing days in a legendary list for our family. We weren’t alone, but it didn’t matter, the power of the place was incredible. We were prepared for Chichen Itza being a different experience in some ways. The books indicated that the site gets more than a million visitors annually. We knew to be early. Chichen Itza in Mayan means something along the lines of “mouth of the well of the Itza people.” When we finished wending out way up the narrow road into the site, and parked with amazing ease for barely a buck and change, we saw a horde of people near the ticket booths and walked up to them in order to find the end of the line to get ours. It turned out that Chichen Itza now means “mouth at the well of the hawker people.” We walked through one hawker’s stand after another, until reaching the end. The falling expressions on hundreds of faces was shocking, but in a little more than a half-hour we had our tickets in hand and were ready to see the ruins and leave the hawkers behind.

the line snaking through the hawkers’ stalls

Leaders of ACORN’s hawkers’ union in India always asks me if there are hawkers in the United States, and I say, no not many, but they would be impressed at the way all of these tourists were being channeled through the stalls to the booths. I was too, until we passed the ticket booth and found that we were still walking a gauntlet of hawkers and booths. They weren’t selling hats and yelling, “Five dollars, cheaper than Walmart,” once we got into the archeological park, but they were literally everywhere we walked, often heralded by the sound of jaguar cries they were trying to sell. Often we could tell we were on the right path to see the Observatory or the cenote if it was lined by hawkers’ booths on both sides. Wherever there was shade away from the monuments, there were hawkers. It was impressive and amazing in its own right.

Google Chichen Itza and hawkers, and one Trip Advisor report after another from Australia, the United Kingdom, New Zealand says almost the same thing: Chichen Itza is Awesome, but What’s with the Hawkers!

the Grand Pyramid

If this is supposed to be a community benefit to the local population, it fails there mainly because so few are making any sales. We walked three miles according to my son’s counter. Who would want to lug souvenirs through 90 degree heat? My daughter looked at fans she had priced in Centro Merida and they were 200 pesos or $10 dollars more expensive at Chichen Itza. How does this help the local community?

What is the government thinking? As at Uxmal, the federal and state government both separately collect money for tickets and stamp the tickets as you enter. Is there no coordination or is this an issue of there being no trust between the state and federal government? The government is probably right to believe that people like me and my family would weather any storm to see Chichen Itza in all its majesty, but why not leave millions in wonder and awe, rather with a funny, nagging taste in their mouths after the experience.

the Observatory

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