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


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.

A Demand for Old School Union Reps: Arbitrations!

arbitrationNew Orleans  The New York Times has run a three-part series on the galloping trend of corporations, both large and small, overtly or slyly forcing consumers and even non-union workers to agree to arbitration procedures that block their access to courts and to joining with others in class action litigation on larger concerns. The stories are horrendous and unsurprisingly expensive, and thousands of words later there is no mystery to the bottom line that the deck is totally stacked for the corporations. Law school professors referred to the movement to arbitrations as the “privatization of the justice system.” And, like so much in our neoliberal world, too often it is the consumer bringing the complaint that ends up paying for the process rather than the company which is already saving money in legal fees and settlements that they would have incurred in courtroom proceedings.

Obviously this trend to excessive arbitration needs to be stopped, but in the classic way that an individual problem seems personal, rather than political, and given the corporate influence in converting so much of government into crony capitalism, it is hard to believe the Calvary is coming or that relief will make it to us soon. This level of rampant injustice speaks to a huge gap in accessible and affordable representation in these kinds of civil procedures where formal legal training and licensing is not required. There is a subset of the labor movement that might be able to meet some of this huge demand though. For all of the decades long battle to move the labor movement to an organizing culture, the “servicing” model still has huge and deep support and a generation of union staff that lived through the process has extensive experience in handling arbitrations, and that’s old school union reps. Where are they now that we really need them?

There are few local union staffers that have spent more than a year or two in service to the membership that have not been schooled in the hard knocks experience of written grievance procedures up to the point of formal arbitration hearings. Picking arbitrators, writing up the paperwork, preparing to argue the case with the member, and negotiating the settlement when one is available are all core skills that virtually all union reps have been forced to acquire. Most learn to do anything that they can to avoid arbitration because of the time and expense, but for many there is no choice and invariably arbitration can’t be avoided. To dissuade filings of job discrimination complaints, including by gender and race, the United Kingdom now requires the grievant to pay 1200 pounds or about $1500 to even file. The cost for unions like Unite, the largest in the UK, has been about 9 million pounds per year, since they pay the cost for their members, effectively reducing the income they have for anything else. A big union like SEIU’s 32BJ in New York does 2500 arbitrations annually with three arbitrators conducting hearing virtually five days a week. My point is simple: unions may not like arbitrations, but they know them like they know the back of their hand.

Is there a way to use all of that residual skill to fill the gap for tens of thousands that are caught in a bewildering process with the odds stacked against them and lawyers out of their price range? I would think training legal advocates and putting out the call for old school union reps with time on their hands and these skills in their heads, might be something worth all of us coming together to try and organize. God knows it’s needed!

Is There a Crisis in Community Organizing Over Action and Struggle?

2014-08-21-02-46-45-photoLondon   It’s getting so there are too many warning signs to ignore and pretend there’s not a problem with the work. Not long ago a weekend’s conversation about the transactional nature of community organizing and the startling power that donors of all stripes and sizes are able to exert over the work was deeply disturbing. I had feared this trend, but was in denial that its advance was so pervasive. Now one weed after another is popping up in the internet garden questioning and critiquing major campaigns as less organizing and more mobilization. This morning, running for an airplane, I looked at a piece by Randy Stoecker, a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison I met and visited with on my last trip up there a couple of years ago and the longtime moderator of a well-known community organizing listserv until recently. He had written a piece that was a kick in the gut entitled, “Have We Forgotten How to Fight?” in Shelterforce’s “Rooflines.” No pretending, it’s out in the open now and there’s no way to cover it up any longer. Even my dog is named Lucha, Spanish for “struggle,” so those are fighting words to me. Stoecker is calling out the work as being yet another emperor wearing no clothes.

Professor Stoecker seems determine to kick sand in the face of a whole range of community organizing networks. He helpfully reminds organizers that congregation-based organizing is nothing new. He scoffs at the fetish of relationship building rather than direct organizing including popping some bubbles about the rationales of one-on-one’s. It reminded me of hearing ACORN’s head organizer in Chicago many years ago describing a meeting with someone which she had to interrupt in midstream to upbraid her guest that if he was trying to one-on-one her, he needed to keep stepping. That was a ricochet shot from Stoecker. His main thrust was that too many were mobilizing rather than organizing, running campaigns rather than building organizations, and generally running in place rather than building power.

I’ll let him state his own case:

“…maybe it’s time to re-read Alinsky. And I can hear the response already: Alinsky’s old and irrelevant to society today. But they forget that the congregation-based model has also now been around for decades, and the mobilization model has been around for as long as there have been angry people. There are timeless but apparently forgotten truths in Alinsky’s principles. First, community organizing is about community. Congregations are not communities, especially today. Neither are mobilized masses. Second, community organizing is about leveling the political playing field, and power is always zero sum. Whenever someone gets more power on the political playing field, someone else has to get less….”

I’m glad he didn’t mention ACORN or any of the ACORN successor organizations, but that may have been more about luck than skill, and too many of the old ACORN’s have rued the level of transactional work in community organizing these days as well. Nonetheless, if there is a crisis in the work, it won’t be answered by Arthur Brazier, long a devotee of community development even if it meant Walmart coming into Chicago, and it is funny to see Mike Miller as a source for the critique since he is writing about boycotts in the current issue of Social Policy, rather than slamming them, and lord knows my friend has long been a fan of faith-based work as well, though not uncritically. If there’s a crisis that is ripping the soul and fighting spirit out of mass-based community organizing then it won’t be a rereading of Alinsky that turns the tide but a gut check and some serious conversation and heart-to-hearts. If we’re off the rails, we have to get back on track regardless of the cost and without concern for the consequences.


Advice for Hustling Donors

Reynold Levy

Reynold Levy

New Orleans    Advice on raising money to support the work is welcome from any quarter and of course the New York Times would never run tips for how to raise money to support the fight for social justice and social change, but they did offer some tips from Reynold Levy, a former president of the fancy pants New York City cultural icon, the Lincoln Center, on how to raise money from the rich, so let’s see what we can learn from the big whoops who are raising billions.

First, Levy recommends that we “enlist an ally,” meaning someone who is a friend or peer of the potential donor who would be willing to ask his buddy to match his gift. OK, that’s not much help to most of us who don’t already have someone on first base to start with, but you might amend this say that even having someone that the potential donor knows help you make the appointment or vouch for you would be at least a leg up once you have your foot in the door. We worked this “ally” approach, but it was rare that we got the opportunity.

Second, “do your homework,” which makes sense. Levy says “philanthropy is biography,” which is an interesting perspective, rich with an understanding of class and wealth that most of us could only pretend to grasp.

Third, “keep at it,” which is good advice for everything in life, but in this case Levy is channeling every organizer in the world who knows that organizing is about asking and if you’re going to ask, then ask lots and lots of people.

Fourth, “do the schlepping,” which most of our mothers would have defined as simply remembering our manners. Levy is talking about going to a potential donor’s office to make the pitch. That’s obvious. Who wants to see a trashed out organizing boiler room? More helpful is his advice that you go wherever and whenever they invite you to see them. Seems weird, but what the heck?

Fifth, “invite them in,” which translated to our work means trying to get them out in the field where they can see the work and the members in action. Amen!

Sixth, “thicken your skin,” and don’t be afraid of “no.” Levy goes on helpfully, “Those prospects who say ‘no” might not mean it.” This is what we call “testing” in organizing. “They might mean ‘later,” they might mean ‘not now,” they might mean ‘have someone else ask me,’ they might mean you ‘asked for too little.’ Try your best to learn from those rejections.”

Seventh, “ask for big money in person.” Duh! But, Levy adds “more often than not, you find out someone is not giving you money because you can’t get an appointment. If you get an appointment, you’re 90 percent of the way there, because the prospect anticipates why you’re coming.”

Finally, “make your move – it’s more important to make a compelling case early than a perfect case too late.” Or, as we like to say, “don’t swallow the ask.” You’re not trying to make a friend or get adopted, so don’t pretend you’re not trying to raise money.

Hey, fwiw, for what it’s worth. If the advice doesn’t help in trying to fund your work and campaign, you can always go built a museum or an opera house with these skills, I guess.

The Trials and Tribulations of a Local Group Organizer

Mayor of Grenoble, head of social housing, and other bureaucrats and pols "doing the time"

Mayor of Grenoble, head of social housing, and other bureaucrats
and pols “doing the time”

Grenoble I had spent most of the day in meetings about organizing a domestic workers union in Morocco and expanding the Alliance to Paris, Lyon, and beyond, but there was a chance to watch a mini-action in one of the newer groups involving a meeting organized by the Mayor of Grenoble. The head organizer of Alliance Citoyenne, Solene Compingt, and I literally ran for the bus from the office across town to the school auditorium where the public meeting was being held.

Ostensibly the meeting was designed to get the neighborhoods input or reaction to a redevelopment plan on a specific social housing or public housing project that was on the block for demolition and rebuilding. The Mayor arrived as did the head of the Grenoble office of social housing. City workers were scurrying around in preparation and readiness. A PowerPoint was projected onto the wall at the bottom of the banked auditorium. People kept trickling in until there were perhaps one hundred in attendance at least a quarter of whom were from the Alliance local chapter. The organizer, Emerick Champagnon, was moving from clump to clump to talk to members after they held a short preparation meeting on the sidewalk outside before coming into the auditorium.

head of social housing pretending to listen

head of social housing pretending to listen

The PowerPoint was brief with only two or three slides, spelling out the goals, objectives, timeline and promises of the redevelopment. Quickly, the questions started flying for over an hour as various residents tried to cross the moat and throw themselves against the wall of the city’s strangely constructed fort around the project. The state was funding the project in a partnership of sorts, it was clear, but nothing was clear about what the Mayor really hoped would come from the meeting. On the city’s part there seemed no clear agenda other than to check the box off that said “public meeting,” live through it, and get to dinner by 8pm. After they gave a brief explanation of the project whenever asked a question they pushed the decision over to the state and to every exhortation from numerous speakers in the crowd they resisted any involvement in the meeting with the state by the residents, insisting that they were best able to negotiate in their various interests: a classic “no win” strategy. And, no-win for anyone. The Mayor or his aides had constructed a dead end canyon and for the organizers and members there were few options other than to keep riding around in circles in the ravine.

some of the members trying to get a grip on the debate

some of the members trying to get a grip on the debate

What to do? There was no choice but to organize the members to attend since it was a public meeting on an important issue to the group organized by what should have been a decision maker. Members would have attended individually, if there had not been a collective action to do so. The Alliance questions were organized, but as the information was presented it was impossible to fabricate democratic demands that would resonate with all of the members on the spot, so the organizer in the after meeting wrap up briefing is left trying to offer options for the frustration to be channeled to the next steps the group could take. Not sure that’s what the Mayor had in mind by organizing the meeting in the first place or stonewalling when it happened. They were a classic picture of public officials absorbing the punches in boredom as they resolutely resisted either moving to respond or making a plan to move forward. They were just marking time it seemed. I would bet the group will now leapfrog the Mayor and go straight to the state, complicating the matters even further. While the Mayor has attempted to strengthen his bargaining position, he has likely eroded it.

Solene commented to me as we walked into the night that she “hates these kinds of actions.” How could it be otherwise? A public meeting that makes a mockery of public participation while pretending to be designed for public input is a rat maze, not a merry-go-round, pleasing no one, and adding to the trials and tribulations of life and work of local group organizers everywhere.

briefing after meeting

briefing after meeting