Building New Organizations in the Birthplaces of the Industrial Revolution

Ravi Subramanian, Unison regional director of the West Midlands

Birmingham    Depending on whether you are looking east or west, Birmingham is either the Chicago of the United Kingdom or Chicago is the Birmingham of the United States.  Carrying the analogy too far, Manchester is Cleveland to Birmingham’s Chicago.  I better stop.  The key point is that these are amazing, bustling cities with deep, historical roots as champions of the working class from Marx and Engels to coal miners, unions, and now regeneration as something else, though a little more uncertain of their direction and how to align it with their history.

Not surprisingly, ACORN now has vibrant chapters in both cities that are growing because of the strength of our members and leaders since we currently have not hit the membership numbers that would allow self-sufficient staffing.  We do have friends though.  Literally, the Manchester branch showed “The Organizer” in the huge Friends or Quakers Meeting Hall in the central city.  There were three other rooms having meetings at the same time we were and there were large occupied rooms downstairs, so there was no question that the Friends were meeting a need there.  We also had friends in Birmingham that are making all of the difference to our work and growth, particularly in the labor movement and especially Unison, the second largest union in the country, and its dynamic and visionary West Midlands regional director, Ravi Subramanian, in whose hall twenty-five of our members gathered to see the film and talk about ACORN and its work.

Sam Lowe gives the membership rap as Becca Kirkpatrick and Ravi Subramanian listen

After the ACORN leaders welcomed everyone, Brother Ravi made some important remarks.  More than the usual, “glad to see you here” and “nice to have some younger people in the hall,” Ravi was clear that his support and open arms to ACORN was based on the union’s own self-interest.  He wanted more activism in the community and in the housing blocks, because he argued that would create more activists in his union and, importantly, they would have experience in the crucible of conflict.  He wanted there to be more democracy and in a startling admission from a leader of institutional labor, he wanted more accountability.

After the documentary as questions were asked from one and all, Brother Ravi returned to the theme and more pointedly challenged ACORN and our tenants’ union to make recommendations to him for how he could make his union stronger and win great victories, and then called for a community-labor partnership of the kind we have often advocated.  He had laid out the challenge, and it was exciting to contemplate what our future might be in this big, brawling city.

tables is the screening in Birmingham

When one of our activist members dropped me at the train station, I called out, “I hope I see you soon!” as I looked for the door, and I meant it.  The roar of opportunity for lower income and working families drowned out the sound of trains as I entered the station.

screening in Manchester


Plotting the Future, Drowning in Opportunity

Cardiff     Whether the leadership of ACORN International, led by President Marva Burnett from Canada, meeting under the shade, appropriately of an oak tree, or the organizers from around the world, joining the leaders, in talking about our directions for the future sitting in a circle on floor-seats in a yurt, it was clear we had grown by leaps and bounds during the past year.  Membership and dues were up everywhere.  Campaigns and victories were stirring and significant from Delhi to Tegucigalpa, from Lima to Newcastle, from Toronto to Paris to Bristol to Glasgow to even Detroit and Cleveland.  It was exciting to be part of the discussion.

We were not only growing in the cities where we had staff, but everywhere we were facing a challenge:  we were drowning in opportunity.  On one hand we had new cities where we had committed to building organization like Montreal in Canada and Montpelier in France, but we also had three new groups in Tunis where we needed to tighten down our supply lines.  We had affiliated our partners in Liberia but were trying to see if we could expand by uniting noncommercial radio and direct organizing in Kampala and other cities in Uganda.  We had added new groups in Manchester and Brighton successfully and seen our chapters in Birmingham begin a revival, but had twenty or more invitations from Ireland, Northern Ireland, Wales, and throughout cities large and small in England and Scotland asking for assistance and wanting to join ACORN.  We were training and developing initial plans to expand in Belgium and Bulgaria and trying to figure out how to support our allies in Greece and Slovakia, but everywhere we faced critical need and urgent requests, but we’re stretched to breaking in our ability to respond robustly.

Over and over again the discussions would hit ceilings and walls.  Common themes continued to emerge.  Every project, large and small, needed more staff and more money.  The leadership had discussed how to start to create a procedure for evaluation affiliations and facilitating expansion.  The staff started to grab the bull by the horns to discuss not only how each national affiliate could train staff and resource its program by how we could develop training centers and pool our more limited resources to raise the money to expand and answer the demands from so many other communities and countries.

Nothing sounded simple.  We had to smooth out the structure.  We had to keep the doors open.  We needed to figure out how to standardize our training programs in Canada, France, and England for new organizers and operations.  We were unsure how we could finance even the efforts to bootstrap to hire a development person to raise more money.

Nonetheless by the end of the meeting there was an emerging consensus on what needed to be done to stop the “moaning” and embrace the future.


Please enjoy Kinky Friedman’s Autographs in the Rain.

Thanks to KABF.