Action Day for ACORN in Ottawa Conventions

Arriving for the dawn briefing

Ottawa  The last day of an ACORN Convention is action day. It starts early because it’s also going home day for the members, as they pack out their gear on the buses so they are ready to roll once the work is done. There were already members sitting on the steps outside of the dorm room at 630 am when I hit the street.

Briefing from the leaders before the action

There were speakers in the morning, local and federal politicians and labor leaders came by, but the real preparation was practicing the chants for the day, so that Fair Banking and Affordable Internet substituted on some of the lines where normally a cry for Justice arose. Everyone was in good form by the time the briefing was finished, the speeches over, and it was time to roll downtown.

assembling for the march and asking drivers to honk their support!

After off loading on Queen Street, the march assembled near the War Memorial on Elgin, picking up some supporters along the way, and pressing cars driving by to honk their support as they sang and chanted. Humid days and sprinkling rain had been substituted for a bright day with a steady breeze breaking the heat, so everything seemed in order as the march set off down Elgin towards the building housing the Ministry of Finance, picking up some bicycle cops along the way as our de facto escorts.

coming down Elgin Avenue towards the Ministry of Finance

At the corner of the Ministry building, Ottawa moved along the side door to the formal entrance, while Toronto went towards the Elgin Street entrance, and Nova Scotia and British Columbia took the other side door. Quickly and efficiently everyone was in the large foyer of the building. Some held banners in front of the building with our demands so that all could see. Banking of any sort in the modern day specializes in security, so there was never any notion that the crowd would get past the foyer, so the chants demanded the Minister come down and meet. After some time when the police threatened to call the paddy wagons and begin arrests, all the members responded by sitting down and continuing signing and shouting their chants for action on fair banking and an end to predatory lending.

Come meet with us Minister

We’re Not Going Anywhere!

A demand letter was sent up as the members moved across the business district to rally in the shadow of the federal Parliament building and in front of the creepily named, Ministry of Innovation. The ministry had acceded to our demands for a meeting and held up announcements on internet access they had privately negotiated with telecoms after we protested our exclusion. This was a “warning” rally, that we were watching and waiting, but would be back in force if we didn’t get satisfaction.

marching to the Ministry of Innovation

Marva Burnett, ACORN’s president, addressed the crowd ending the action, and the convention, as everyone roared and then settled in for the trip home and the fights to come.

Marva Burnett, ACORN Canada and ACORN International President addresses the end of the convention

marching home

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ACORN Canada Was Revving Up and Reaching Out on ACORN’s 47th Anniversary

Ottawa ACORN leads the crowd at the meeting

Ottawa  Rolling out of breakfast, ACORN Canada members found themselves under a huge assembly tent, reminiscent of the Denver airport in my mind. Large delegations from Ottawa and Toronto practiced their chants, cheers, and songs they had devised for the march into the meeting hall. Toronto’s highlighted their expansion from the city into the GTA or Greater Toronto Area as its known locally, but christened Greater Toronto ACORN by the members from now on. They did so to the tune of the “Saints Go Marching In,” which was a nice touch as well. Ottawa of course gave their chant a French twist shouting “Ottawa, Gatineau, and Montreal” with the proper accents.

members coming through the doors

An array of power-speakers addressed the assembly once everyone was in place. The Housing Minister for Ontario was respectful and thorough in listing ways that he felt the existing government had stepped up to the plate on issues that ACORN had fought over. They were preparing to invest half-a-billion Canadian dollars in affordable house and what they called “purpose-built” housing for lower income families. He also professed his government’s commitment to continuing to build social housing as well. He got big applause when he mentioned that he had extended the rent control protection to an additional 250,000 families in significant areas. Landlords are allowed increases limited by the inflation index prepared by Statistics Canada.

Max FineDay of Canadian Roots Exchange drew a standing ovation

Max FineDay from the Canadian Roots was the most popular with the members. He gave a lively and impassioned speech focusing on reconciliation between Native Canadians and the rest of the population. He won people over with both well-timed personal anecdotes and moving descriptions of conditions on the reserved lands. Another favorite speaker was the head of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, known as CUPW, here. He was a familiar friend who had also spoken in Montreal at the last convention. The union’s proposal for a postal bank has been supported by ACORN as a way around predatory lending, as well as a way for the union to fight privatization. The crowd laughed when he told of a government committee claiming that such a bank wouldn’t make money, asking the members who knew of a bank that didn’t make money!

Chris Ballard MPP and Ontario Minister of Housing told us they had expanded rent control

Mike Palechek, Canadian Union of Postal Workers, spoke for a 2nd convention to cheers

In the afternoon, the members paired up in teams and hit the neighborhoods of Ottawa to gain support for the campaign for Fair Banking and an end to Predatory Lending. The winning petition teams filled 39 and 40 petitions in their two hours, including some new members from Hamilton which was exciting to everyone.

role plays before the doorknocking outreach

Marva Burnett, the chair of both ACORN Canada and ACORN International, gave some remarks over dinner that challenged the members about whether they were prepared to lead in building organization globally. She underlined the success on tenant issues and the demands by tenants for ACORN to build a tenants’ union in various countries.

Burnett also mentioned that June 18th was the 47th Anniversary of ACORN’s founding and led the members in singing Happy Birthday to ACORN.

What a great day!

more fun, food and speeches at the banquet

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ACORN Canada Leadership Plans Its Next Moves

Ottawa’s Ashley and Jill are ready to make the registration work for the convention

Ottawa   The annual general meeting and board gathering for ACORN Canada’s leadership convened on the eve of the organization’s biennial convention in Ottawa at the University of Ottawa this year. While ticking off the legal requirements, signing minutes, audit reports, and other requirements of the Canadian Societies Act, the board found much to celebrate. The membership had now crossed 100,000, and the organization’s aggregate expenditures had broken $1 million in 2016, both huge accomplishments after fourteen years of organizing. Campaigns, some of them stretching back more than a decade, like the Toronto fight for landlord licensing, had been victorious. ACORN was now part of the conversation and a vital part of the coalition in any progressive campaign in Ottawa, Toronto, and greater Vancouver, from the fight for $15 per hour to hydro rates to blocking privatization and more.

This could have been a time for a bit of chest thumping and back slapping. A bit of gloating might have been in order. The leadership never drew a breath. Instead they focused in almost every conversation – and I know because I was keeping the minutes – on what they needed to do next, what issues might be on the horizon, and what had to be done to win.

Board Meeting

The multi-year “Internet for All” campaign had seen ACORN become a stakeholder at the table, so one of the most interesting questions, still unresolved at the end of the meeting was whether or not the weirdly named, Ministry of Innovation, would be a federal target for agitation during the convention. The process of expanding internet access had been fraught and ACORN’s role had been key in pushing the regulatory body and its hearings into a serious examination of what was needed to bridge the digital divide for lower income families. Many of the monopolistic telecoms had bent to ACORN’s demands over the years, but always in piecemeal fashion, beginning with Rogers concession in lowering fees to provide access to all public housing residents in Toronto. Others had carved out similar small slices to answer the call as well, but none were moving to the need, and likely wouldn’t without the government playing a stronger role. The new Liberal government under Justin Trudeau had indicated they were preparing a major announcement in this area recently that they had worked out with the telecoms, but ACORN and others protested that they were excluded from the consultation and having none of it. The government had backed off of its plans in order to re-position because they had left us out of the mix, promising that we would be allowed to impact the plans before they were finalized. So, the leadership debated with that concession, should they be left off the action list because they were now moving towards us or should they still be front and center because of their arrogance and lack of action?

Convention Swag

The debates now had high stakes. How would ACORN position its demands with a possible new minority government in British Columbia led by the NDP (New Democratic Party) in coalition with the Greens? With the federal Liberal government’s coming review of the Banking Act this year would we finally be able to advance our predatory lending campaign? Would the municipal elections in Ottawa finally allow ACORN with our labor partners and others to advance our municipal agenda on housing and living wages where we had been so close to winning in the past? Would be be able to force affordable housing construction in Burnaby and Surrey, the huge satellite cities around Vancouver and block demolition/evictions?

A measure of the organization’s weight was a special address to the board by the Secretary-Treasurer of the huge NUPGE, the National Union of Provincial Government Employees, representing a wide variety of public employees at the provincial or state level. NUPGE was concerned that the government’s move to create an Infrastructure Bank could mean a wave of privatization of public services, and of course public workers, that displace thousands, cost more, and render worse service to citizens. Meeting with ACORN, the Canadian organization that demands better public services for low and moderate families, somehow seemed a natural first step in any campaign.

ACORN Canada has much to celebrate, but they may not have time to pause to do so, because the next moves and one campaign after another demands the leadership’s attention and meets the membership’s demands.

Answering member questions at the registration table

 

 

 

 

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The Expropriation of Community Organizing Techniques by the Gig Economy

Philadelphia  Every once in a while I run into something scary, not because it has to do with nuclear meltdowns or corrupt mortgage brokers or community-and-family killing slumlords, all of which are real things. I am also seriously concerned when there is an expropriation of the good for purposes of the evil. These are times when we are drowning in such amazing doublespeak that we are pinching ourselves in order to snap out of “1984” moments becoming our reality.

This is now common currency in politics. Terrible health care is now touted as great. Proposing to eviscerate social programs to provide the rich with a tax break is now packaged as a jobs program for working families. Turning the dial back to the 1950s on women, the environment, race, and a hundred other things is whitewashed as patriotism. It goes on and on.

It happens even in community organizing, most dramatically as Saul Alinsky and his Rules for Radicals became repurposed by the right as a model for their vicious tactics. Recently, reading a New Yorker article about the gig economy, it was disturbing to drop down the wormhole and see it happening again in a discussion of the organizing tactics of the ride-sharing service, Lyft, the Avis to the Uber, Hertz.

The author, Nathan Heller, was interviewing Emily Castor, who he described as the company’s “leader in the campaign against regulatory constraint.” She said, “We’re borrowing very heavily from traditional community-organizing models, and looking at the grass roots in each city…Who are the leaders? Who are the people who distinguish themselves as passionate, who want to get more involved? We have a team that includes field organizers who are responsible for different parts of the country.” Well, I don’t know if this is traditional or even community organizing. She is essentially talking about building a base, a customer base, and maybe in an Obama-moment she decided to slap “community organizing” on the hood as she drove around.

But, then she dove deeper into something that is hardly traditional and remains controversial, and threw logs on that fire without any sense that the temperature might be rising. Hired by Lyft as their first “community manager,” whatever doublespeak that might portend, the article goes,

“She found that she could draw on her political training. ‘Collective identity is one of those aspects that, in the theory of social movements, is so important…You’re not just ‘taking rides.’”

Then, Marshall Ganz, former UFW organizer and now Harvard Kennedy School instructor, gets drawn into this with his “story of self, a story of us, a story of now: the collective-identity movement-building method.”

For all of the utility of Ganz’ stories, it is essentially a mobilization model, rather than a community organizing or community building model, which is why it has been so embraced by political campaigns, and now it seems even by businesses that may be about the very opposite of community organizing values. Ganz objects to Lyft’s appropriation arguing that markets are all about exchange and finding a common purpose is what politics is about, but even while reading his distinction, it’s way too easy to see why Lyft and its organizers, thought they could just take the tools and run with them their way, since for them finding a “common purpose” is what triggers their market and its financial exchange.

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Shout Out to Deportation Fighters!

New Orleans   There are a lot of very hard organizing jobs in the country these days, but it’s a feat to claim that any organizers are tasked with a more difficult and heartbreaking struggle than preventing deportations of undocumented people from the United States. Organizers like to win, but the immigrant rights organizations and their organizers claim their victories in the hundreds while witnessing deportations carried out swiftly in the thousands. This is not a new struggle, but in the age of Trump, it is getting more attention. In that vein it was good to see a featured story in the New York Times Magazine by Marcela Valdes entitled “Is It Possible to Resist Deportations in the Age of Trump?” The answer in the piece was “yes,” but not often, and frequently when there is some success it is thanks to efforts by organizations like Puente in Arizona, the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON) nationally, and organizers like Carlos Garcia, who directs Puente.

I was fortunate to be working in Phoenix regularly before and after the passage of the draconian SB 1070 by Republican legislators attacking immigrants and clearly targeting all Hispanics in the process and often intersected with NDLON during that process and got to visit frequently with Garcia. Their boycott of Arizona cost the state “over $200 million in canceled business conferences,” according to the Times, but more powerfully they were the face and force of resistance in Arizona. NDLON and Puente argued that Arizona was in effect the “Mississippi” of the immigrant rights movement. In the warm glow of the aftermath of the Obama election in 2008, when I was doing a bit of work with several immigrant rights organizations, they were often one of the few and loudest voices pointing out that the emperor was wearing no clothes and that investments and strategic resources needed to focus on resistance and that ground zero was Arizona, even when they were drowned out too often by beltway advocates and money handlers. In the hopes of winning critically needed reform on immigration, many advocates wanted a more muted response to the record breaking level of deportations under Obama’s ICE and Department of Homeland Security and the Secure Communities Act which enabled Maricopa Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s reign of terror. In Arizona, the world looked different and organizers had to respond on the frontlines.

Garcia and Puente’s organizing strategy in the wake of this crisis was classic community organizing translated into effective resistance by creating neighborhood defense committees or comites del barrio like those in Cuba and Nicaragua in order to build a base for real resistance among threatened families. Building such house-to-house strength in recent years required huge courage for immigrants to know and stand up for their rights, and paved the way for the more intense direct action required these days.

The stories of immigrant families being torn asunder in this national eviction are rending and dispiriting, but the terribly difficult work of these organizers and organizations is inspiring. In my house my well-worn “Legalize Arizona” t-shirt from the great Phoenix march against SB 1070 and Arpaio is worn more gingerly now, and we need a new one these days, but it should now say, Legalize America.

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Technology in the Service of Social Change

Santa Cruz   I drove over the mountain, as they say in this area, and ended up on the top of a hill with a dramatic view of the valley and water, while visiting the stunning campus of the University of California at Santa Cruz. I was there to talk to students who are part of the Everett Program there, where ACORN is new partner, along with other nonprofits. My other motivation was an effort to get a better grip on what the program was all about, as a rookie to the enterprise.

I had gained some sense of the operation over the last year through a series of Skype calls and emails. We are fortunate to have three of the Everett Program students working with our organizers in Bengaluru, India this summer to help create a CiviCRM database for ACORN’s 35,000 member hawkers union there, so this also offered the opportunity to meet the interns face-to-face and shape the effectiveness of their upcoming two months in India with us.

The background I learned from the director, Chris Benner, and veteran staffer and organizer, Katie Roper, indicated that it had been a program for several decades at UC Santa Cruz, but has recently been expanding. Every fall, they begin with about 100 students and by the end of the spring quarter they have about 30 ready to embed in various projects. Historically a lot of the efforts have been California-based, so ACORN is a beneficiary of their growth and expanding vision. Being on the ground I was able to do an early pitch for a team in 2018 to work out of New Orleans to support the tech needs of our organizing both domestically and internationally, which was a nice piece of lagniappe.

Most interestingly was the opportunity to talk to the students for a minute and more importantly to hear their questions and get a feeling for what they were thinking. Spoiler alert: they have a foreboding sense of the world and how it views change and organizers who are part of that process.

Over the years I’ve talked to a lot of classes and groups of young people, but now in the Age of Trump and hyper-polarization,  I was still surprised when the first question asked me whether or not I had ever been threatened in the work and how frequently organizers were assaulted. Later in the session, another young woman asked a question that went to the heart of whether or not a young person in their early 20’s could even play a role in the work and whether or not it was worth the risk to jump into the struggle. At one level, this is encouraging. Young people are taking the temperature of the times, and learning that it’s not pretty out there with love, flowers, and constant applause. If these kinds of questions are any true sampling, they are less naive, and therefore will be better prepared, if they take the leap into the work, to weather the constant storms and flying brickbats. On the other level, it is worrisome whether in these beautiful, redwood towers, people might feel intimidated and fearful of taking the plunge to work in the hardscrabble countrysides and mean streets of the city.

We need an active army of organizers and people ready to work in the allied trades, and that was my message: there’s a role for all of you, but everyone has to put their shoulder to the wheel and help to win the fight in this struggle. I hope they heard me. We need their help.

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