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.


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.


Foreclosure Bonds

decline of some foreclosed homes in Detroit

New Orleans   This is such a short limb, I don’t mind crawling out on it: every community needs a foreclosure bond. OK, I’ve said it, now what am I talking about?

I interviewed Gary Davenport on Wade’s World who now works for the Mahoning County Land Bank, which is an interesting operation itself, based in Youngstown, Ohio, one of the many ground zeros in the deindustrialization in the Rust Belt. Gary and I had met briefly four years ago when I was visiting the Youngstown State University and its Center for Working Class Studies and met with community organizers there. When we were talking recently, he had told me about some interesting campaigns that the MVOC, the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative, had won when he was working as a community organizer there.

Here’s what it says in the city codes now:

Foreclosure Bond Requirement. Any owner of a property which files a foreclosure action against such property, or for which a foreclosure action is pending, or a judgment of foreclosure has been issued shall, in addition to all other requirements of this Section, provide a cash bond to the Deputy Director of Public Works or his or her designee, in the sum of ten thousand dollars ($10,000.00), to secure the continued maintenance of the property throughout its vacancy and remunerate the City for any expenses incurred in inspecting, securing, repairing and/ or making such building safe by any legal means including, but not limited to, demolition. A portion of said bond to be determined by the Deputy Director of Public Works shall be retained by the City as an administrative fee to fund an account for expenses incurred in inspecting, securing, repairing and/ or marking said building and other buildings which are involved in the foreclosure process or vacant.

Yes, it’s a city ordinance and that’s how city lawyers write, but you get the point. Past the problem of foreclosures themselves and the tragedy they bring to families is the attendant devastation they bring to communities, often because the bank and its servicers have limited incentives to take care of the property and the upkeep while they are trying to get it off their books. This is a problem is all communities. In neighborhoods where there is already depopulation due to deindustrialization, natural disaster, or changing demographics, houses can sit vacant for long periods, pulling down values throughout the neighborhood and posing safety hazards and attractive nuisances. Budget strapped cities are forced to step in to cut grass, trim trees, and sometimes to demolish the structure, and left footing the bills. The bond simply forces the mortgage holding institution driving the foreclosure to put their cash down, and do the job, so they can get their money back, and if not, the requirements of the full code give the city a way to deduct the money from the bond to cover their costs of doing the job for the bank and its servicers. Other than the fact that maybe the bond should be higher, this should be standard in every city of any shape and size!

Gary said they had picked up the idea from another community organization, ADT, in Springfield, Massachusetts, and it had now been enacted in several other Ohio cities as well.

Here’s a shout out to community organizers and, what the heck, to city officials: let’s get a foreclosure bond campaign in gear!


What Do Planned Parenthood and ACORN Have in Common – Republican Attacks!

Cecile Richards greets participants at the Rally for Women’s Health on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. on July 11, 2013.

New Orleans   Hey, it’s not just me that’s noticed the haters pulling out their playbook big time again on Planned Parenthood just as they did on ACORN. Here’s a thoughtful, spot on piece by Brenden Gallagher published on the website. I’m glad to bring truth wherever I find it, so here goes:

Why Do Republicans Hate Planned Parenthood So Much?

Take a closer look at the crusade against women’s rights and health care.

A simple explanation for defunding Planned Parenthood that is offered up ad nauseum by talking heads across the political spectrum is that Republicans hate abortion. That doesn’t tell the whole story. Not only does Planned Parenthood offer many services that aren’t abortions, abortion only accounts for 3 percent of Planned Parenthood’s services. Eighty percent of Planned Parenthood’s services go toward preventing unintended pregnancy. If Planned Parenthood were to go away overnight, the result would be an increase in abortions. In over 100 counties in America, Planned Parenthood is the only “safety net” health center that deals with women’s reproductive health. Poor and working-class women in America depend on Planned Parenthood for essential medical care.

Republicans are always on the lookout for a new bogeyman. This is a necessity for a party that actively advances policies that hurt working people. Since their policies of restricting health care, lower wages, and funneling money into the hands of corporations don’t naturally attract the working class, they have to invent reasons for people who make less than six figures a year to vote for them. Not everyone can be cowed by the largely imagined threat of immigrants taking their jobs, and that’s why the have to construct and destroy social pariahs to maintain their base. If you take a close look at Republican political strategy, you will see that the fight against Planned Parenthood isn’t just about abortion, it’s about bringing a scalp home to their base while trimming the budget at the expense of women all over the country.

The current Republican crusade against Planned Parenthood looks a lot like the their attacks against ACORN (Association of Community Organizing for Reform Now). In 2008, the organization had a budget of $100 million and membership of 400,000. By the beginning of 2010, ACORN was no more. The company’s 40-year mission of helping those in poverty, with actions as small as building playgrounds and as large at taking on banks, came crashing down after Republicans conducted a national smear campaign connecting ACORN erroneously with voter fraud. It’s no coincidence that James O’Keefe, a self-styled provocateur, has made videos attempting to discredit both ACORN and Planned Parenthood. It bears mentioning that the GOP and its surrogates seized upon some very real stories of corruption within ACORN to bring them down, but it was a propaganda campaign constructed on falsehoods that ultimately led to ACORN’s demise.

This is how the Republicans operate. They attack organizations with a three-step process. First, Republicans identify a positive social organization in which they can easily spot and single out something conservatives hate. In the case of ACORN, it was voter fraud committed by minorities (which, btw, doesn’t exist). With Planned Parenthood, it’s abortion. Once they pick the organization, they produce propaganda with people like James O’Keefe. The media has no choice but to cover it, even if the O’Keefes of the world are discredited in the process. Then Congressional Republicans try to close the organization. If they succeed, the organization shutters. If they fail, they’ve rallied their base around a cause that makes them forget the awful economic and social policies that should get them to defect from the party.

The tactics the GOP and Fox News used against ACORN, relentlessly repeating accusations against the group, are instructive in the case of Planned Parenthood. So much of the argument in favor of Planned Parenthood on social media has been “abortion comprises a small portion of what Planned Parenthood does.” While this is important for context, it won’t sway conservatives. They don’t care. It is in their political interest to tie abortion to Planned Parenthood. There were no connections between ACORN and voter fraud (because, again, voter fraud statistically doesn’t happen), but they still used the issue to shiv the community organizing group. The only way to save Planned Parenthood will be to celebrate all of the services it provides and convince moderate and left-leaning lawmakers of its importance.

Conservatives have attacked Planned Parenthood since its inception in 1916, long before abortion was a Constitutional right. Providing contraception challenged traditional gender roles, which has always been what irked conservatives about the organization. Many conservative voters don’t know that the Hyde Amendment, passed in the mid ’70s, already prohibits federal funding for abortions. The defunding of Planned Parenthood isn’t about cutting off an organization from abortion funding, but about punishing an organization that provides abortions and women’s health care. Again, this is because Republicans don’t actually care about the facts, they care about symbols. In nominating Donald Trump, they showed the Christian Right they have no real concern for their agenda. They invent issues like these to throw a bone to their religious base without actually providing them with anything resembling friendly policy.

ACORN fell because Democratic politicians wouldn’t stand up for the organization once it became toxic. The political calculation was that their constituents didn’t care that much about ACORN while Republicans made it difficult to support them. The way to save Planned Parenthood, then, is going to be pressuring Democrats to fight for it, not backing off of championing Planned Parenthood’s abortion services. Not only is abortion an essential part of what Planned Parenthood does, but even if it weren’t, Planned Parenthood would forever remain a symbol of abortion rights for conservatives. This isn’t just about abortion. Planned Parenthood stands for women’s rights, just as ACORN stood for the rights of the poor and minorities. Republicans would be trying to defund PP no matter what, as it is an affront to their corporate patriarchal worldview. Asserting Planned Parenthood’s right to exist will be a better tactic than compromise, since the real argument is that both Planned Parenthood and abortion should be no more.


Tips for Beating Automation: Organizing is the Future!

Puerto Aventuras   I have trouble getting my closest living relatives to take the issue of resolutions seriously as we enter a new year. My son tried to stump me by arguing that, “resolutions are reminders of how many things you fail to do repeatedly.” Well of course there’s that, so I had to concede the point even as I rejoined that, “resolutions are a small attempt at organizing the future within the structure of your life.” At best it was a draw, so I found myself reading The New Yorker at dawn on New Years’ Day on the small balcony hanging over the suddenly quiet street in this small Mexican town.

Elizabeth Kolbert of course rehashes the Oxford research piece that within ten to twenty years half of the jobs in the United States might be automated, which is pretty mind boggling. She notes other work by MIT scientists that sort all work into “four boxes: manual routine, manual nonroutine, cognitive routine, and cognitive nonroutine.” The lowest pay will be found in the manual routine jobs, particularly on assembly lines, while the highest paid will be cognitive nonrouotine, she argues with examples being “managing a hedge fund, litigating a bankruptcy, and producing a TV show….” Taken to the farthest extreme we have a dystopian society of the super-rich who own the technology and the robots, some folks scratching a living in the middle, and a vast army of the unemployed.

So, where is the middle ground where we can create work that is meaningful, compensated, and long lasting? It must be found in skills and occupations that are people-facing. Even Kolbert’s example of managing a hedge fund is questionable. A recent article in the Times had one hedger trying to duplicate all of his decision making into a computer list of requirements for his employees to mimic. On the other hand, the more that is run by machines, the more we are going to need people to be the bridge between the machines and other people. I’m not just talking about people to fix the machines, though there will hundreds of thousands of jobs created to do just that, but I’m talking about people who can work with people. There’s still no “app for that” or machine that can substitute adequately for person-to-person contact. The trick will be finding the seams where tens of thousands of jobs can be created to provide that service, and to successfully compete with corporations that automate without understanding service as something more than a sunk cost that they can avoid.

Take Amazon for example. The people-facing experience is all automated and very difficult to operate when there is a problem, but they get around that with a very liberal return-and-replacement system which mitigates customer unhappiness. Walmart on the other hand after devaluing service for years has been surprised to find that giving workers higher wages has improved same store sales because morale, cleanliness, and service has improved. AirBnb beats VRBO because it allows you to get out of mistakes the public chose on misleading information, while VRBO let’s sellers use its platform and takes no responsibility, thereby eliminating service and accountability and putting customers at risk.

Things may be changing, but the way many who own the changes think about shortcuts and profit margins will create opportunities for people who like people to be organizers, navigators, advocates, and interpreters. Forty years ago, a young ACORN organizer named Charlie Best wrote a song at ACORN’s annual year end/ year begin meeting which — to some outcry — was always held on this very weekend when one year ended and another began. The original song written by Ed and Patsy Bruce and recorded by the great Willie Nelson was “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” but Charlie creatively composed different lyrics and changed the title to “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Organizers.”

Mamas and papas. I’m here to tell you, Charlie was wrong, though of course he knew it then, just as we all did, you all need to let all your babies grow up to be organizers, so they have a chance in the brave new world, and because the people will demand them.


Healthcare Pricing is More Proof that Transparency Isn’t Enough

New Orleans   It is amazing that big companies and governments continually believe, despite the outrageous costs involved, that simply creating apps and information packed websites will change the public’s ability to make choices and decisions. Criminals and scammers fully know the tricks of the predatory trade are such that information is unable to immunize the public, and for some companies this is a business model as well. Payday lenders and tax preparers in negotiations with ACORN were always more than willing to be totally transparent about excessive interest rates and charges, because they knew full well the customer sitting across the desk from them is desperate for the money, and is more than willing to pay whatever it takes to get it. Healthcare is usually the same.

Healthcare policy makers, providers, and insurers in this critical, multi-zillion dollar industry are now expressing surprise as they find out that all of assumptions about the value of their apps, website data dumps, and comparisons of pricing on drugs and quality of healthcare services are not lowering costs or modifying consumer behavior. Once again, similar to payday lending and other predatory schemes, the providers and the industry are trying to ignore the desperation and powerlessness of the consumer by pretending she is a free agent of some sort, rather than a victim. They are also ignoring increasingly well settled economic understanding that people are not rational economic agents, especially when it comes to change and their reliance on trusted intermediaries, like their usual doctors and hospitals. Looking at this mess, we almost want to say, if you are so rich, why aren’t you smarter?

The New York Times reported on the failure of many of these tools. Of course the rule continues to be, despite the actions of many states, that hospitals and healthcare professionals are hiding information about the comparative value of their services and the pricing in the market. But, even where efforts by some companies and insurers to offer price and value comparisons, people aren’t using them. Researchers compared the decisions of 300,000 workers who didn’t have access to a website cost calculator with 150,000 that did and found that only 10% used the site the first year and 20% the second year, and that it didn’t reduce outpatient spending. Aetna offers a price transparency tool but only 3.5% of its commercial market participants use it. A similar price tool in New Hampshire is used by only 1% of residents. Robert Wood Johnson did a 10-year study and found that doctor quality comparisons had only a “modest effect on the awareness and use of the information.” Duh.

Let’s skip the digital divide and the millions of lower income families without access to any of this information, and get right to the point of how difficult it is to either find this information most places or understand it. Why isn’t there a recognition that we need ubiquitous healthcare advocates, navigators, sherpas, assistants, or whatever we might want to call them? During the Affordable Care enrollment in Texas for example families who had never had insurance were asked to choose between more than 35 plans, each with multiple permutations, without our navigators, who were forbidden to offer any advice to these novice healthcare customers. Who would be surprised if decisions defaulted to nothing or self-interested agents and professionals?

Of course some of the industry believes that education can only be administered by the blunt instrument of punitively making people pay the cost of decisions they were unable to make well without assistance by adding consumer pain to their delusion. Others advocate outreach, and, eureka, finally someone gets it. People need help with all of this to offset the predation, whether it’s door-to-door or through ubiquitous health care centers and advisory facilities so that they can get the information in a user-friendly way with full explanations from someone committed to their best interests. Furthermore, the cost for funding such outreach and facilitation would be minuscule compared to the daily explosion of health related costs that are based simply on the principle of the buyer beware and keeping suckers born and nurtured by the system every minute.

If we really want to make change and lower costs, people need to help people, not websites, applications, and fancy tools.