Encounter Knowledge

passportWashington   Hopping on a plane to Dulles and then over the water to London for various meetings with ACORN United Kingdom organizers and others, you find yourself dragging over to the airport and running through the pros and cons in your mind.

Believe me they may be almost giving away gas at the pump in the United States, but flying is still very pricey. The exotic and romantic nature of travel on planes has changed over my years of travel in remarkable ways. Planes are now buses with wings that assemble and take off from shopping malls. You still had best bring your snacks with you, but you don’t have to wave a plane down by the side of the road and usually the bathrooms work better than the grey-dogs and mega-buses do, but otherwise it’s what and what.

Going from country to country there are unfathomable barriers. Subcontracted, on-line application procedures for visas are different country to country, for example easy to Kenya, impossible to India. This trip was supposed to be a cheap stop in London for business in route to my annual trip to India where we had exciting opportunities in Bengaluru with partners to fashion video recruitment tools and were working to identify organizing opportunities with prospective French trade union federations, but instead after two mysterious and inexplicable visa application rejections from India, that part of the trip was scuttled forcing the by station stop to swallow the cost of the fare.

I read a piece recently that argued that tech might increasingly replace travel. In the age of the internet, the meetings via conference call, video presentations, and other devices which put you “in the room” almost, many businesses are asking why take the time, trouble, and expense to carry the same weight.

God knows it’s tempting, but is it really the same? Is the same information and exchange really available in such meetings or through endless research on websites and YouTube? The author introduced a counterpoint. He argued that there might be such a thing as “encounter” knowledge. Intelligence only gained by being on the ground, seeing with your own eyes, experiencing the random events, and visiting with the people in unscripted and natural settings.

Helping make an organizing plan for a union of domestic workers in Morocco, I felt crippled by not being able to be on the ground where I could test theory to reality. Sitting in a worker center in Los Angeles, I could see from there to the future in a way that wouldn’t have been available from armchair or screen.

It’s a relief to be allowed to believe that dragging my wagon on and off a plane, moving from couch to subway to meeting to train to meeting to plane is not just old school, but continues to be a way to gain deeper and superior knowledge, not just a force of habit.

Organization versus Passion: Iowa to Clinton, Hampshire to Sanders

Street protests surrounding Madison Square Garden, site of the 1980 Democratic National Convention.

Street protests surrounding Madison Square Garden, site of the 1980 Democratic National Convention.

Little Rock   I favored both teams heading for the Super Bowl, but I don’t bet on sports. I’ve been all over Nevada, visited Reno and Vegas scores of times, but I’ve spent my money on cheap breakfasts while there, figuring my odds of winning were the same as they would be if I just threw money in the street. The biggest difference is that the cash I would be losing might go to someone who needs it, rather than lining the pockets of some mega-rich, and probably Republican, casino mogul. But, handicapping political races is almost a citizen’s obligation in the United States, so eventually we have to calculate the odds and pick some winners.

I’m calling Iowa for Hillary Clinton and, perhaps sentimentally, New Hampshire for Bernie Sanders.

Unquestionably, Hillary Clinton is in trouble. Despite the churning in the Republican list, I can’t even describe fully how worried I am about the general election. The negatives, the distrust, the sound of calculating, grinding machinery more than the sizzle of soaring hope and promise, are worrisome even against an unknown. I’m not hearing voters demanding experience and seasoning, and that’s what Hillary offers in spades. At least at this point.

Bernie Sanders has invigorated his underdog status with as much bite as bark. He has undoubtedly pushed Clinton more to the left and fully into President Obama’s arms. He has not shied from socialism and has legitimized progressives. He has held his own in the “money” race while eschewing super-PACs and embracing small donors. As opposed to Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, Donald Trump, and a host of wannabes on the other side, he would actually be a great President.

But, then there’s Iowa. Election after election on each four-year cycle, we’ve been there and done that with ACORN beginning in 1980. Passion might enliven the base but stone cold organization is what puts bottoms in the chairs and welds the discipline to the numbers to deliver delegates at the end of the night. The level of pure chaos in an Iowa caucus events is amazing. We’ve seen times where ACORN organizers were asked to do the count in frenzied rooms where there was no way to determine the real numbers and where no one asked where they were from or who they were! We’ve walked into caucuses where we delivered huge numbers and been horns-woggled at the end of the night with nothing, hours later. We’ve also walked in with almost nothing and come out with a handful of delegates. There are other issues proposed. Resolutions on all manner of things. Organization matters. A lot!

Even if Sanders and Clinton are neck and neck with great managers and huge campaigns, the campaign that is the best organized is going to win there. Clinton gets Iowa.

Sanders will do well though, and I think he will do well enough to go back to New Hampshire in his own Vermont backyard and win.

Likely a last hurrah before heading South, but it’s something, and we might be able to make something out of it in the future, if we can survive the year.

We Need to Take Advantage of Opportunities for Formal Protest

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A Group pic of some of our meeting attendees

New Orleans    Recently as our family of organizations met for our annual planning meeting and the groups from each sector reported back, the reporter from the union mentioned that one of their goals for the year was taking better advantage of postings at their contractual job sites where they had access to bulletin boards to communicate with the workers. Such a simple thing really, and so hard fought when first won, but something that requires regular attention to make it work, and therefore easily falls through the crack, especially in 21st century where the ease of social media and a quick “like,” short sentence, or a little more than a 100 character message can allow you to pretend that you have communicated with thousands.

A union bulletin board is a hassle for many. It can’t be simply “the boss sucks,” but has to communicate information to the workers, and in many contracts the boss gets a look at the message and have some say so. Nonetheless, you can guarantee that eyeballs will spend time on the bulletin board in the captive audience boredom of the workplace. The problem is the routine. Anything requiring weekly or monthly, or regular attention requires discipline and a “git er done” philosophy, and that’s amazingly hard to muster.

Thinking about how to better use our bulletin boards reminded me of more formal avenues for protest that also require discipline and perhaps routine, but also have the opportunity to achieve the power of protest. I’m thinking specifically of the public files legally required by some very important institutions where public comments have to be kept and maintained and could carry serious weight.

The Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) has required banks for almost the last 40 years to maintain a public file on their efforts to reduce discrimination and meet the housing needs of the community through their lending programs. Examiners from the Federal Reserve and the FDIC have been playing patty cake with the banks for so long that the test scores are a little like kindergarten with 98% of the banks easily getting passing scores. We could make this harder and force attention more easily to our issues by utilizing this opportunity by advocating more aggressively for better housing lending to our people from the banks. Why not force the conversations and implicitly question an area’s banking charters by filing comments on disparate housing cost burdens compared to income and geography, the availability of affordable housing and banking support including lending for rental and worker friendly developments, action by banks on foreclosures matched with racial and ethnic statistics, discussion of the problems of the unbanked or underbanked, hard talk on whether banks are offering lending alternatives to predatory products like payday lending and check cashing, and the hard question on how often and how substantively banks are meeting with community organizations. Like the old Lyndon Johnson story about the politician and his intimacy with his pig, “make them explain that to the public” and in this case to the community and the banking examiners.

The licensing renewal procedure for television and radio stations also maintain a public file and requirements on equal access and stewardship of their privileged access to the public airwaves administered by the Federal Communications Commission. Regularly filing objections to the hate speech over the airwaves from commentators and the bias frequently expressed could force review of the station license.

Yeah, it’s not as easy as hitting a button on Facebook, but like the union bulletin boards, you know that these messages will be read and require a response, so it’s not a conversation with yourself in the social network echo chamber. Once a week, once a month, or every once in a while, these are not messages in a bottle put out to sea but a form of “paper protest” that cannot be ignored and might even force real discussions and concrete response and change.

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Please enjoy Sunny Sweeney & Brennen Leigh’s But You Like Country Music.

Thanks to KABF.

Where is The Line Between Good Advice and Crass Marketing?

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Advise and photo from The Guardian

New Orleans    Recently, I read that the well-known progressive newspaper based in the United Kingdom, The Guardian, has established a special section on its website called “protest.” Wow, I thought, now we’re talking! And, truth to tell, I’ve started making it a point to regularly check it out every couple of days. I’m not saying this new feature is going to end up on everyone’s weekly “to do” list, but what can I say…it’s on mine.

If I remember correctly I had gotten the heads-up from some columnist who saw this Guardian feature as a “sign of the times” kind of thing indicating that protests were becoming constant and ubiquitous. Oh, how I wish! A regular reading indicates the opposite. Sometimes it’s pretty thin gruel as The Guardian tries to keep hope alive in this section to tell the truth.

And, sometimes it’s just plain troubling.

I read a piece by Tess Riley identified as a Guardian journalist and a former student campaigner entitled Three Steps to Building a Successful Student Campaign. Not surprisingly the section on communication given her career choice was stronger than some of the other “steps.” For the most part it was all pretty standard, cookbook style recommendations: wear comfortable shoes to a march, use “strong visuals” in protests, and the like. Community organizing made her list, but was obviously a bit outside her experience and just sort of taken off the shelf as she wrote:

This grassroots approach seeks to find out what people want or need by listening to their stories. By finding common themes, organisers can mobilise neighbours through shared concerns to bring about change.

Obviously this is not my cup of tea since it continues to propagandize a spin on the work that is somehow separate from building an organization, seeing people simply as a base to be mobilized, and trying to dilute the power of issues and anger in some milquetoast whitewash called “their stories.” But, that’s just me.

More disturbing was finding by the end of Riley’s piece the real point seemed less about The Guardian giving students a shot at making change, but more about The Guardian doing self-promotion of something they were calling Guardian Students, which seems like a scam to sell students on the need to read The Guardian. Fair enough, they have to pay their bills too, but equating social change and sales felt sketchy to me. It made me question whether or not the “protest” section was really about the news and getting the word out about important actions people are taking than just pandering to eyeballs like mine to drive traffic to their website and the ads running along the side of articles. Was I a supporter or a sucker?

I should have known. I had read a book several months ago that warned me, and any others that might care, about the role of the Gates Foundation is playing in slanting the spin on development through their sponsorship of the Global Development section of The Guardian.

We need the news and regular and reliable news on things like protest, poverty, and development is hard to find, but where is the line drawn between good advice and crass marketing, their drive to survive at any cost, and our interest in fair and objective information. Where is the section that will explain to us whether we are players or being played?

Is the Chattering Class Calling for the Poor to Organize?

ACORN PLATFORMNew Orleans   The darned poor! They are so exasperating! They won’t get jobs, when there are no jobs to be gotten. They won’t simply abandon their children, when there is no daycare they can afford or place to put them. They still want to eat even when they don’t have enough money for food. They won’t get off the streets, just because they don’t have homes. Perhaps worse, some believe that they’ll always be with us.

And, now some in the chattering class are calling for the poor to rise up and organize and do something about this inequality problem that the rich insisted successfully for so many years was the only way to go.

Alec MacGillis, a political reporter for ProPublica, recent author, and former reporter for The Washington Post and The New Republic writing about the paradox of poor areas voting for politicians who want to sock it to ‘em and the Democratic Party’s loss of the white working class, especially in rural areas, asks the question in an opinion piece in The New York Times, “So where does this leave Democrats and anyone seeking to expand and build lasting support for safety-net programs such as Obamacare?”

His answer, so to speak, is a stab in the dark, more a prayer than a wish. He says, “For starters, it means redoubling efforts to mobilize the people who benefit from the programs. This is no easy task with the rural poor….Not helping matters in this regard is the decline of local institutions like labor unions….” Then rather than actually spelling out how poor people in general, or in rural areas where it is even harder, are going to get this organizing and mobilizing done, he shifts to his second answer of sorts and that has to do with reducing “…the resentment that those slightly higher on the income ladder feel toward dependency in their midst.” He concludes his lengthy piece with the conclusion that, “If fewer people need the safety net to get by, the stigma will fade, and low-income citizens will be more likely to re-engage in their communities – not least by turning out to vote.”

Like I said, he’s clueless and reduced to wishes and prayers, hopes and dreams, but worse, he seems to be blaming the poor for the resentment others might feel about them, and in some convoluted and crazy way saying miraculously if there are less of them needing benefits, then others will hate them less, and then somehow low income folks will come out of the shadows and vote. Unbelievable. The nation has decimated the welfare population since Bill Clinton’s presidency, but now almost twenty years later there’s no fading of resentment, heck, politicians are still targeting the ones that are left and moving on after the working poor and seeing if they can take away their food stamps to boot. Vote, heck, if people mobilize and organize, you better hope they stumble on voting as a program!

Even esteemed sociologist and well-known author, William Junius Wilson seems confused about all of this. Earlier in the Times he was quoted saying, “Unfortunately no one has organized for these poor people. There is not a mobilization of political resources among the poor.” When I first read it, I said, “Right on! Look Professor Wilson is advocating that the poor organize! About fricking time!!” Then I read it more carefully. What does he mean, “…organized FOR these poor people?” Is he thinking about calling Ghostbusters or somebody to go advocate for the poor? Like MacGillis he seems to want to see “redoubling efforts to mobilize the people who benefit from the programs.” Meaning poor people. Wilson wants there to be “a mobilization of political resources among the poor,” but is he blaming the poor for not mobilizing their own “political resources,” like MacGillis was blaming them for calling resentment down upon themselves, or is he asking for someone somehow to get the poor moving, like MacGillis is hoping maybe the Democrats will shake off their doldrums and do?

Hey, don’t get me wrong, these are guys that know better and the times are hard and at least they are trying to say the right thing and calling for organization of the poor, which makes them special and super in my book, even though they both seem hopelessly confused about what that might mean and how it might be done.

Look, I know quite a bit about the ways and means of organizing and mobilizing the poor, and the one thing I can guarantee is that it will NOT reduce resentment and when they start voting and winning, the wrath of the powers that be will be called down upon them and then Wilson, MacGillis, and others like them had better not be in the long chorus line claiming they are asking for the right things just not going about it in the right ways, but they better be in the amen section. In the meantime, they and others who understand there has to be organization of and by the poor, need to put some money and muscle where their mouths are. There are plenty of people ready and able to see the job done, but it takes more than wishes and prayers, hopes and dreams to make it happen. Believe me!

Models, Replicability, and Getting to Scale

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Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer from Ruleville, MS speaks to Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party sympathizers outside the Capitol in Washington, September 17, 1965, after the House of Representatives rejected a challenge to the 1964 election of five Mississippi representatives. (AP Photo/William J. Smith)

New Orleans    Talking on KABF’s Wade’s World to Kentaro Toyama, tech wizard, author of Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology, and for now a Professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Information, was fascinating. As we went back and forth about his stimulating, bubble-bursting book, we talked a bit about the problems of scale, much needed, but hugely difficult to achieve in social change, as well as technology, and maybe joined together, twice as hard for all I know. This is something that Toyama is still spending a good chunk of time thinking about and researching now as well, and he was he was spot on in calling me out as well for having spent decades on the practical problems of achieving scale in community and labor organizing.

Toyama might call it something different, but the problem and potential starts very simply, though many might both disagree and ignore this, by looking backwards. To get to scale something has to be replicable. To be replicable it has to work. To work in many places there has to be a model. If it isn’t replicable, it may be an innovation, it may be a revelation, it may be the best thing since slice bread in whatever field of endeavor, but whatever “it” may be, no matter how wonderful, it’s not a model.

Not to get off on a tangent, but it is amazing how many people stumble right at the gate and blur the distinctions by referring to one-off experiences as a model even though they have not been duplicated and perhaps are unable to be duplicated. A sure sign is in the “secret sauce.” If it’s a secret, it’s not a sauce easily cooked by others, so it may be amazing, award winning, and game changing, but it is not a model, and it will live – and die – right where it was born in all likelihood no matter the ingredients.

Organizing is an amazingly creative and courageous affair for many. I’m now reading a book about the civil rights organizing in Sunflower County in the heart of the Mississippi Delta being done by SNCC and Mississippi Summer workers in the early and mid-1960’s, which is always inspiring. Having spent time there over the years, where my grandparents lived and my mother and her brothers were born and raised, all of the little, similarly sized towns would seem about the same to someone just driving through, and most would just step on the gas and be done with it. Ruleville though was a hot bed of organizing, while Drew, only a few miles down the road, was a wasteland. The organizers were the same, their approach, their canvassing, their issues, and their campaign was all about the same, but there was never what might be called a model, because with replicability in an organizing model, there also has to be a high level of predictable success within acceptable ranges. Ruleville turned out to have a different economic base allowing more membership protection. Ruleville also had Fannie Lou Hamer, an exceptional, unique leader to keep the fight welded together and sustain the momentum. Leadership is central in all effective organizing models, but for a model to work it has to depend on standard off-the-shelf, garden variety leadership – and organizers – within the range of normal human capabilities, rather than unique one of a kind leaders like Hamer or organizers like Bob Moses.

There have to be resources, there has to be sustainability, and there even has to be a reasonable expectation of success in widely different situations and environments before there is a model. Too many simply think if something worked well one place, it’s just add-water-and-stir, put in more, and wham-bam, there will be more, but even before we cross the bridge in creating social change to scale and the myriad challenges and obstacles that lie on that road, if there’s not a real model as the foundation, none of us will be able to get there from here.