Hey, Google, Weren’t Happy with Congress? Well, Meet ACORN!

New Orleans    Recent years have been abundantly kind for those in big tech, Facebook, Google, Twitter, Microsoft, and the like. Money flowing like water. Arrogance and pomposity unchallenged by empty slogans disguised behind corporate speak claiming interest in the common good. Recently they have had some harder days testifying before Congressional committees and bipartisan approbation over their clueless handling of Russian manipulation during the 2016 election and their tepid and dilatory response to the problems. Heaven forbid, rather than simply collecting contributions and dining with tech lobbyists, they may actually suggest some regulations, nothing too big mind you, but maybe identifying who paid for political ads, similar to the requirements for newspaper and television ads. No holding your breath now, we may need you later, but we’ll see.

If Google representatives thought their shoes were too tight in Washington, DC, they got an even ruder awakening in Toronto recently as they began their charm offensive with their subsidiary, Sidewalk Labs, recently winning a big contract to develop a huge piece of prime real estate with promises of creating a so-called “city of the future” with endless geehaws and high-tech bells and whistles. Or as a summary description from the Canadian Broadcast Corporation reported,

Sidewalk’s vision for the site focuses on improving energy use, housing affordability and transportation. A 189-page document detailing some options includes the use of self-driving shuttles, buildings that are cheap to build (potentially even made of timber) and easy to modify, and a “people-centred” streetscape that’s dominated by bike paths and walkways.”

As discussed previously, the Google tone deaf notion of housing “affordability” is using tech tools to reduce the cost of construction. As they used to say on the oil fields when I worked there, “that’s engineers for you,” and the same seems true for the tech types.

But, ACORN gave Google a special Toronto welcome as reported by the CBC:

ACORN calls for plans to address housing ‘crisis’

Before the doors opened, anti-poverty activists with ACORN rallied outside, demanding the project focus on “deep affordability.”

“We are in a crisis in the city, a housing crisis,” said Alejandra Ruiz Vargas.

She says the group hasn’t been consulted on the project so far, and only received an invite to Waterfront Toronto’s sold-out event the day before. She also questions how a Silicon Valley spinoff defines affordable housing.

“What is affordable for rich people?” she said.

Inside the venue, Doctoroff highlighted affordable housing developments built in New York City when he was the deputy mayor (an appointed position under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg.) He also praised Ruiz Vargas for taking a stand, telling her: “I just want you to know how much we respect that.”

However, others also questioned Sidewalk’s commitment to affordability, with one noting some of New York’s failings and also another pointing out that Toronto already has housing and poverty reduction plans.

“Welcome to Toronto, the city of many strategies and very little money,” she told Doctoroff.

Google is trying to put sugar in our coffee already, but it will take a lot more than some sugar and respect to satisfy ACORN and its members – and people throughout Toronto. These “consultations” won’t be a quick cup of coffee, but concerted negotiations with real demands. Or as ACORN leader, Alejandra Ruiz Vargas, said, “Welcome to Toronto.”

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“Aspirational Agreements”

Lake Buckhorn, Ontario  Sometimes language is not your friend, but a head fake to turn you from hard reality to some soft slush in the swamp of misunderstanding and mirage.

Over and over again during the ACORN Canada staff retreat the term, “aspirational agreement,” came up in different contexts from the organization’s engagement with various government authorities and corporate executives they had been pushing in one campaign after another, despite the fact that the very term is a contradiction in concept. An aspiration is a hope and sometimes a prayer, a wish and a wannabe, a goal rather than a plan, and something in the clouds that may never find the ground. An agreement is a commitment, a contract, and a binding glue between parties, hopefully operating in good faith, that represents a purpose, a plan, and real consequences for success or failure. An “aspirational agreement” is really nothing at all. It’s a promise on the schoolyard with fingers crossed behind the back. How does anyone in authority ever say something like this without a blush, much less find anyone listening with anything other than rage?

Listening to the reports found this falsehood cropping up over and over when the discussion involved governmental or corporate commitments to developing affordable housing or living wages for example, but nowhere did it seem to populate the conversations more densely than when “community benefits” agreements were on the agenda. Community agreements are not easy to win, but they are critical in trying to hold the feet to the fire of both governments and private, corporate developers, who, frankly, are in the business of over promising and under delivering. Developers are always self-interested and specialize in building castles-in-the-sky to get permission in the clouds and then excuse their failure to deliver based on the facts on the ground. Governments over promise on the short term to maintain support through the next election and hope to outrun the future on the long term. All of which makes the ability of community and labor organizations to win clear community benefit agreements on new projects and proposals in as clear and committed terms as possible, especially when it comes to jobs, housing, wages, social services, parks, and other amenities that are critical to people every day regardless of the profit-and-loss statements to investors later or the election returns in the by and by.

Lake Buckhorn

In Canada, and the United States and other countries are little different, everyone in power seems to be adopting the language of community benefits while running away from true commitments and signed, binding documents as fast as possible. “Aspirational agreements” are the perfect term for deception and disingenuous double-speak signifying nothing.

We’re certainly not fooled, but the effort to deceive certainly makes our work harder and the campaigns more conflicted, since now we have to spend time, energy and resources pulling the crust off before we can get anywhere close to the heart of the matter.

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