New York Times Columnist Beats ACORN Dead Horse

c99e3db826c0f4cc2688a36ce3b60e1a_XLNew Orleans   A New York Times columnist, Timothy Egan, opined in his op-ed piece on what he called the dumbing down of democracy. It was largely a semi-rant covering a wide range of topics that you would expect from what the alt-right, or whatever it’s called, would say is still the elite, effete, northeastern corridor so prized by Nixon’s Vice-President for a time, Spiro Agnew.

His unhappiness was general. People don’t read. Trump has stepped up as a non-reader leader. What they do read, they don’t understand. An alternate reality of one’s own choosing from conspiracies, the internet, friends on Facebook has substituted for real information, real books, real maps, real news, and even real temperatures. Egan points out for example that even during the hottest year ever last year found 45% of the Republican masses telling the Gallup pollsters that they “don’t believe the temperature.”

Egan’s leading point on the polarity of politics and the disease of denial for the Republican base though came from Texas, where he wrote:

“A recent survey of Donald Trump supporters there found that 40 percent of them believe that Acorn will steal the upcoming election.”

Egan could have pointed out that that figure shows progress, which it does, since following the 2008 Obama victory polling of Republicans in various areas has found the number annually who believe that ACORN stole the first and then the second election has gone from a huge majority to the lower 40 percent range. To only have 40% in Texas believing that ACORN is ramping up for ballot box theft in 2016 seems somehow encouraging to me.

But, no, Egan’s then has to beat the ACORN horse with a vengeance, saying,

“Acorn? News flash: That community organizing group has been out of existence for six years. Acorn is gone, disbanded, dead. It can no more steal an election than Donald Trump can pole vault over his Mexican wall.”

Ok, Ok, I get the point, and true enough ACORN didn’t steal any elections in the past any more than we will in the future. I’ve said the same ad infinitum, ad nauseum, but still “gone, disbanded, dead,” geez, and in the same paragraph with Donald Trump? Let’s show some respect!

And, speaking of illiterate, how can Egan and the Times-sters write “Acorn” that way with lowercase letters, when the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now was as much an abbreviation as an acronym? The New Yorker and just about everyone else knows better, but I don’t want to get off the point.

ACORN is alive and well all around the world and through ACORN International even continuing to be active in the United States with affiliates in anti-lead fights in Louisiana, internet access campaigns in Pennsylvania, Texas, and Arkansas with Comcast, housing rights in Pittsburgh and Arizona, the rights of mental health consumers in Alaska, and the beat goes on. Furthermore, many of the ACORN affiliates that reorganized several years ago have been continued the strong tradition in California, Texas, New York, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Arkansas, and elsewhere. The conservative blogosphere and the Breitbart folks and their friends continue to keep ACORN’s name in front of their viewers rightly aware that the movement of low and moderate income families for their own organization and the power they need to win justice and equity is not easily stopped and could rise and erupt at any moment.

So, yes, election theft is a ridiculous fantasy for the Republicans in Texas and elsewhere to hold on to, but sometimes your enemies know you better than your friends, and they just might be onto something by keeping an eye on ACORN itself and its progeny, because the work goes on, the spirit is indomitable, and as ACORN members have always chanted, The People United Can Never Be Defeated.

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Professor Lead-Head: A Zealot? No Way!

Dr. Marc Edwards and doctoral student William Rhoads (left) examine pipes in a home in Flint, Michigan.

Dr. Marc Edwards and doctoral student William Rhoads (left) examine pipes in a home in Flint, Michigan.

Little Rock   I should just start with some disclosures. For years my ears have been inches away from a thousand conference calls, shouts of outrage at newspaper articles, and screams at television sets for the level of ignorance and ignoring of the dangers of lead pretty much on land, sea, and air all around us. Enough so that a favored Christmas gift to our family several years ago was a water filtration system for our house. We would constantly joke about “lead heads.” I hope I’m making myself clear.

Mostly, I learned to nod at the right times, slow down if we ever happened to drive by a home rehab site that was using open air sanding, and highlight any articles in the paper or elsewhere when I stumbled over them, but gradually like lead itself, all of this began to sink in more and more clearly. Recently, as I have reported on radio and in these reports, we have been pushing schools with ACORN’s affiliates and with Local 100 United Labor Unions to test for lead in water, using the crisis in Flint, Newark, and other cities to put wind in our sails so that victory has seemed both imminent and inevitable.

When I saw there was a feature in the Sunday New York Times Magazine involving one of the heroes of the lead-safe movement, Professor Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech, I put it on the stack to read in full, knowing it was important, and that I would probably be quizzed about it later. I asked my companera, “What does the title mean, ‘The Zealot? Are they knocking your guy?” She answered, she wasn’t sure, might be the other guy in the article?

Well, I got around to reading the piece finally, and, I’m sure, they were body slamming Professor Edwards with that headline, though I understand the confusion. The reporter, Donovan Hohn, casts these aspersions widely using more inference than evidence. We are sidetracked around the fact that he is a Republican and a libertarian. The reporter tries to introduce a false paradox about whether a scientist can also be an advocate, even a Cassandra. Those seemed like low-blows. Republicans can like drinking clean water, just as there were Republicans who were consumer advocates and who vote for environmental issues. Libertarians don’t trust government. On that there is almost universal consensus across the political spectrum, and, frankly, we need more scientists who are loud and clear advocates given the threats we face, especially ones that are willing to speak truth to power.

The reporter does score some points arguing that it would be nice if Edwards built more capacity for local fights and used himself more as a nail in these controversies and was less like a hammer. That’s a point a community and labor organizer like me would make. If reporters for the Times are going to start leveling the playing field and join those of us in the “let’s build power for the people” program, they are going to have to lobby to add a few more pages to every day’s paper, because they would have to rewrite half of their articles about politicians, artists, movie stars, and every story where they focus is on the individual, rather than the collective, the “hero,” rather than the community, the big “I’s” rather the huge “We’s.” I’m ready, but until they change their standard, it seems like they are rough handling Professor Edwards.

Our experience with Edwards has been the opposite of this story. In the fight in Houston, we have reached out to him several times. He knows we are union, it’s clear from the email address to the questions, and he has been immediately accessible, totally responsive, and completely helpful. In New Orleans when A Community Voice pushed the issue, he gave them instant credibility in moving school board members to contact him, and he has been totally responsive in that situation as well. He has asked for no credit, hogged no press, and been totally supportive in each and every instance.

I could call out people and name names of scores of similar professors and big whoops where you can’t even get a response to an email, much less real help of any kind.

Zealot? If fighting for clean water and justice makes you a zealot, well, we’re charter members of that group, and we’re recruiting every day for more folks to join our ranks. Welcome aboard, Professor Edwards! Hopefully in your lab you’ve learned the old truth that when you stir the water, you’re going to get wet, too!

Dr. Edwards addressing the water crisis in Flint.

Dr. Edwards with community members addressing the water crisis in Flint.

***

 

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Mental Health Clients are Organizing in Alaska

Michael Penn | Juneau Empire Greg Fitch is starting a nonprofit to help advocate for those with mental health issues.

Michael Penn | Juneau Empire
Greg Fitch is starting a nonprofit to help advocate for those with mental health issues.

Rock Creek, Montana   Since Tocqueville’s journeys in America in the 18th century, people have talked about the America affinity for associations and organizations of all shapes and sizes to the degree that their diminishment in recent decades is news itself for scholars and others. Membership has fallen like a rock in churches, unions, scouting, and other voluntary organizations. All of which makes it worth noting when groups that have never organized begin to do so, which brings me to an exceptional effort stirring now in Alaska where mental health clients are coming together to build a statewide organization to advocate and represent their interests.

MCAN, the Mental Health Consumers Action Network, is a fledgling organization getting on its feet over recent months in Alaska of all places. The spark-plug for this exciting development is a former ACORN organizer who worked in New Orleans more than twenty-five years ago named Greg Fitch. His most exciting memories of his years with ACORN involved the organizing around the savings-and-loan crisis and the Resolution Trust Corporation, remember that outfit, which managed their “bailout” of sorts. Greg had bounced around the country working with several organizations after leaving ACORN, and over the last 15 years or so ended up with his own personal experiences with the mental health system before being able to get the treatment and help he required, and in the process he found himself in Alaska.

As Fitch described it to me, he wanted to apply the lessons he had learned as an ACORN organizer and using the ACORN model and methodology and apply them to community of mental health clients. His early work has been encouraging with immediate and enthusiastic support from mental health consumers, and as the organization gets on its feet a pretty supportive response from policy makers and politicians as well. Early press in the Juneau Empire has been fair and positive which hasn’t hurt his efforts either.  I’ve signed on to help him build the organization and the board as they already begin to think about building a statewide organization and reach out for resources to support their work.

At first glance all of this might seem unusual, but it reminds me of many similar organizing projects, and none more than my time with the National Welfare Rights Organization. There, we were organizing and working for a constituency that was maligned to assist them in building an organization where they could assert their rights within a densely bureaucratic system, develop their own voice and demands, and the power to advocate and change the system where many had felt victimized as often as they felt they benefited. Furthermore, though controversial, the process of welfare recipients organizing could also impact the general public’s view of their circumstances. In the health care area the dramatic contribution made by ACT-UP in changing the way that AIDS patients received treatment and altering the priorities and policies that saved many lives is the golden standard for such client advocacy. There are also incidents of mental health consumers organizing in places like Massachusetts. The new mental health legislation passed by Congress recently also reportedly protects and advances the role of patient advocacy organizations.

It would seem past time for such organizations to build, so why not now and why not Alaska, and in fact why not everywhere across America?

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A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to….America?

Signal-encryption of WhatsApp

Signal-encryption of WhatsApp

Denver    The modern world is a conundrum in an exploding time capsule. Every time we make the mistake of thinking that what we’re reading in the news is strange, exotic or frightening, we are still surprised when we trip over it, and it slaps us up the side of our faces.

I thought this as I read my email yesterday and got a delayed message from one of ACORN’s ace organizers in France. The first message was usual business, following up on this and that, but I scratched my head as he referred to an earlier message he had sent, as if I had received it already. And, later I did, and that was weird, and the message was disturbing. Despite his having a pre-approved visa to visit the United States, including spending a week in New Orleans later in August for extensive planning with me at our offices, he had been denied access to the airplane and told that his visa had been inexplicably revoked yesterday. He was hit by a bolt of lightning out of nowhere.

This has happened to me twice earlier this year as I was denied a visa renewal – with no explanation – to India. I’m the least paranoid person in the world. I assume “they” know everything and just keep on rolling, putting it in the category of something like a hurricane – past my ability to control or predict. Today though, I found myself reading closely a story in Wired about a crack encoder and rebel with many causes with the nom de guerre of Moxie Marlinspike who had developed a super encryption program called Signal which is embraced by all the right people and feared by all the wrong people. I’ve never been an encryption guy, partly because as a techno-peasant, who is still not sure Windows 10 is even a good thing and pretty certain I don’t have 4 to 6 hours to do the changeover, I always worry that if I encrypt my emails, I won’t be able to get in them, but all of this is getting worrisome to me. I also don’t like coincidences.

In this case maybe there’s an explanation, but in every case “maybe there’s an explanation,” but that doesn’t mean that the ways we want to rationalize events matches reality. On my India visa, I continue to hope that I just filled out the application incompetently, even though I applied twice with the same result, and my local Congressman’s office who promised assistance isn’t responding to my calls and emails anymore.

In France, in the wake of the recent massacre in Nice, the president had renewed a state of emergency through July 26th, which was the day my colleague was flying. Did he get caught somehow in that mess? He speculated that the fact that he had been in Lebanon and Syria a decade ago might have red flagged him in these crazy “end” times. Maybe work in Tunisia and Morocco were also a problem. Who knows?

And, that’s my point? Who knows how national security forces are working these days? The Obama Administration might not have gone all Trump on keeping people out of the USA, but when the French and Americans put their heads together and add an “excess of caution,” as they call it, with no explanation ever offered or available, maybe the Moxie’s and the rest of the gang are on the right track, and I’m the last citizen of Lulu-land.

Meanwhile, I read that Trump is asking Russia to get its hackers on the job to cough up more emails lost on Hillary’s server. If he were living on Pennsylvania Avenue, would any of us – I mean people like me – be able to travel at all?

What was the name of that encryption program, Moxie? Was it Signal? Is there a user friendly techno-peasant version for the rest of us?

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Sorting Out French Labor Law – What a Country!

Plaza in Grenoble

Plaza in Grenoble

Paris   Finishing up my hella-Euro-road trip as the heat hit the 90’s in Grenoble and Paris, I felt like I was catching the last train out of town before the whole country – and in fairness, most of Europe – shut down for the rest of the summer. You notice the small signs when almost every follow-up email is greeted with an auto-return saying, I’ll be back in mid-August or more likely August 29th. Meeting with the Alliance and ReAct staff before leaving Grenoble, my bags were packed, but so, seemingly were many of theirs. Hitting Paris in the attic loft where I stay I had four pages of instructions on how to make sure the house was closed tighter than a drum because they would be out for weeks. Every meeting, ended as we’ll follow up in September. Fascinating! After years of experience with the summer months as primetime for organizing, the notion that I had woken up somewhere between Christmas and New Year’s except it was hotter here! But, hey, viva la difference!

church in Brussels plaza

church in Brussels plaza

I used to write some “notes for my father” on things that he would have found fascinating from my trips abroad, but this time I felt I needed to write a note to myself after the head organizer of ACORN’s French affiliate gave me a short course of French labor law and how it caged organizing and field programs. All staff has a contract. The contracts can be short term for 6 or 12 months, but after several of these short stints, the law requires employees be made permanent or released. Or of course the Holy Grail for workers occurs when you might finally receive an open ended permanent contract. Annually, the head organizer has to do a formal evaluation with the staff members as part of the renegotiation of these contracts. Describing the process, it is definitely a negotiation. Where previously she might have negotiated full time hours from 35 which is the standard work week in France to 39 by paying the premium for those extra hours, staff can propose to go back to 35 and can even make proposals on the content of the work, which for organizers might even mean having to discuss nonnegotiable issues like time on the doors or the number of groups maintained by an organizer. It just takes your breath away! But, as I overheard an organizer in Paris say about the government’s attempts to modify some of these labor laws, “we can’t give away what our grandfathers fought for and won.” Well, you put it like that…

On the other hand, managers may have contracts but in exchange for the discretion and professionalism of their jobs, there is no restriction on their hours, and different than in the United States, this is regardless of the amount they are paid. At the ACORN affiliate everyone is on a minimum contract whether short term or open ended at this point, meaning they are paid a minimum wage as set by French law. The minimum wage in France is set at the after tax rate which is a good thing and is indexed to inflation and/or legislative action so goes up annually, which is also a good thing. Once you sort it all out it was about equivalent to what ACORN’s starting wage was for all staff about a decade ago, so not bad at all really in terms of a living wage.

church in Budapest

Danube in Dusseldorf

This minimum contract is not unusual and sometimes even includes a period where a new employee is paid by social benefits the first year and then in direct wages the second. I happened to meet the head of the ATD-Fourth World in France, which is their largest operation for the social services and organizing operation for the poor. All one-hundred of their fulltime staff, who they call volunteers, are paid on a minimum contract, which is interesting when we think about what it takes to build community organizations and unions of lower income and lower waged workers.

The package, as we call it in collective bargaining, is great in France as the country shuts down for the season over the coming weeks, but once you add it all up, backwards and forwards, it may be a maze to navigate, but there’s still a way to get there from here.

Country roads, take me home!

Danube in Dusseldorf

Church in Budapest

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Grassroots Democracy is Scary, but Essential as Grenoble Paves the Way

Grenoble ACORN Alliance Citoyenne city board convenes outside

Grenoble ACORN Alliance Citoyenne city board convenes outside

Grenoble   The highlight of my last full day in Grenoble before beginning the multi-city trek back home was getting to sit in and observe the city board meeting of ACORN’s affiliate the Alliance Citoyenne Grenoble. The board is still new and in transition from the “old” Alliance governance structure composed of various people in the larger community and the emerging governance structure composed of elected representatives of the membership coming from each of the five existing local groups. In some ways, the leaders have been invested with the responsibility of writing on a blank slate how they will work in the future, and given the fact that Grenoble is the largest of the emerging organizations in France, there will likely be precedents set by almost every single decision these new leaders make. This is grassroots democracy at its best and to build a strong and powerful organization, it is essential, but that doesn’t mean it’s not also scary at times watching leaders navigate the future.

Grenoble is a lovely town in the valley dominated by the Chartreuse Mountains. The evenings are pleasant, but the days heat up considerably and fans and air conditioners are not common. Not embracing the heat, the board was meeting on tables and chairs outside of the cooperative office complex where they share space, mixing the seriousness of the meeting with some of the atmosphere of a picnic, as people sat around drinking juice and eating chips as they held their agendas.

 a leader makes a report on a recent victory

a leader makes a report on a recent victory

The reports from the local groups were a litany of victories in the wave of success the members are having in winning improvements from local housing authorities. This group had gotten a commitment for more than 30 doors and locks to be replaced. Another was winning a timetable for replacing windows, long in disrepair. Everyone had a good story to tell of actions and negotiations. One group was fresh from an exhilarating meeting where the Mayor had attended to formally sign the agreement was, according to her report, credited the Alliance with their work over and over again. Big smiles all around!

There were some thorns on the roses that inspired more debate. Transitions are hard, and one board member had resigned in a bit of passion at the last meeting and then several days later retracted her resignation, so the board had to puzzle out how to deal with that situation at several junctures in the meeting. Should it go back to the local group to sort out? Should there be a “grace” period for reconsideration? Conflict isn’t easy and the leaders searched for common ground to work out relationships that could make hard decisions in the future without much concern for the precedents it might create or experience with principles and practice they could rely on for guidance.

board breaks into 2 groups to brainstorm

board breaks into 2 groups to brainstorm

The most critical decision they faced was on whether or not to continue to expand and organize new groups. There is no issue like the continual tension in a membership organization between maintenance of the existing membership and expanding to add more groups and membership among the unorganized. If an organization doesn’t decide to grow, it dies. Without growth, the organization would be unable to empower the membership sufficiently to achieve their aspirations. At the same time nothing is ever perfect, there are never enough staff and resources, more can always be done, so there’s always a temptation to slow down, wait, and take a more cautious route. I watched nervously, realizing the proposition they were debating was way more serious than they likely reckoned. Without knowing French, I was relying on body language and words here and there and the passion that pushed them along with an occasional aside in English from the organizers, listening just as I was. They decided unanimously to expand, which was exciting – and a relief — and also moved affirmatively on investing responsibility and accountability in the staff for evaluating which areas should be next and how to add the next organizer.

 decisions on expansion and staffing require debate before voting

decisions on expansion and staffing require debate before voting

At the end I couldn’t help feeling, as we all shook hands and expressed good wishes for the work done, that the board had come out of a thick forest and it was in the clearing now. There would be many hard decisions to come, but having made these tough calls tonight, they had a new confidence and solidarity with each other, an emerging trust and confidence in the staff, and were ready to face the future.

Democracy works, but it’s a constant struggle.

 decisions on expansion and staffing require debate before voting

decisions on expansion and staffing require debate before voting

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