I’m Not Complaining, but What a Week

New Orleans  Returning exhausted from stops in Shreveport, Louisiana, Little Rock, Arkansas, and Greenville, Mississippi, somehow I can’t get these weird signposts of the times and odd ends out of my mind. Normally, I would let them go, but somehow this Chief Organizer Report is going to be a report on the chief organizer, so bear with me.

Bargaining four nursing home contracts in Shreveport, the company already wants to include language making the Affordable Care obligations moot, even while the whole operation continues forward in the stalemate of Congress and presidential politics.

A studio chair and some folding chairs for WAMF, the new low power FM radio station that we just got on the air in New Orleans, was donated to us in Bossier City across the river (thanks Butlers and Clarks!). In a pleasant middle income suburb between a mall and an expressway, I parked my big truck, doors wide open in the driveway of the unoccupied house waiting for Local 100 organizer, Toney Orr from Arkansas, to help me load it all in. Neighbors drove by and up and down the driveway next door. No questions asked, even as we hauled the furniture out. Is that weird?

In Little Rock, despite six months of work on the Home Savers Campaign and running PSAs on KABF referring calls to Arkansas Community Organizations, the former Arkansas ACORN, that yielded little, we finally broke through and within 48 hours found a trove of both Vision Property Management and Harbour Portfolio rent-to-own and contract to purchase houses throughout central Arkansas. We had boomed out to visit victims in Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania and here they were right under our noses! The lesson, even when the spirit is willing, we have to shore up the capacity to account for how often the flesh of our operations need more underwire. Capacity matters, even a little can make a huge difference, and that’s worth remembering. Oh, and, a Home Savers organizer, Dine’ Butler, was the big finish of the well-regarded Reveal podcast, home visiting a victim in Detroit.

Capacity, capacity, capacity, it comes up again and again, and amazingly we stumble around trying to find it even when it is kicking us in the knees and pushing us to the ground. One kingdom after another lost for lack of a horse. Our biggest underwriting partner at KABF was being stymied on promoting its great work, because we had never pressed hard enough for the spots for them to realize if they gave us copy we could produce them quickly or allow hosts to do “reads.” Ouch!

Visiting radio station WDSV in Greenville for the 7th month, it was the same story with a different verse. Frustrated and stalled in achieving their mission after 5 years on-the-air as the voice of the people in the Delta, they were being held hostage by technology too large and complicated for them to easily access to master the ladder to the heaven they sought. The magic and miracle is not that we can fix that, but that it takes so long for us to marry problems to solutions, so that we can move forward in our work.

Sometimes I’m racing so fast that I miss how easily it is to stumble on the simplest steps. I wish it were just me!

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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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Vivian Lewis’ Proposal: Rebuild ACORN Using Social Media

New Orleans   With the rise of social media, Facebook estimates that everyone in the world is linked and now connected through less than three people, half of the six degrees of separation to Kevin Bacon. In the same curious way, I met Kenya Lewis when she and several radio aficionados popped into the KABF studios in Little Rock for a quick visit on the their way to an alternative radio conference last year in Hot Springs. Fast forward to recent weeks and a post appears on my Facebook page, highlighted by Kenya, mentioning that her aunt, Vivian, had written a book and one of the main takeaways was her advocacy of the need to rebuild ACORN and to do so using social media. This I had to see, and now, thanks again to Kenya, I’ve had the chance to read the book and get a better sense of what Vivian Lewis is recommending as a path forward.

Let me step back a minute though. Vivian Lewis’ book has a mouthful of a title, My Perspective: How the Urban and Rural Black American Can Beat the Odds with the Help of the Black Middle Class and Social Media. As the title says, this is Lewis perspective on dealing with an array of issues from education to health to jobs and criminal justice that face our communities, especially black communities. She explains that she wrote the book as a Californian with Texas roots who ended up in Virginia, and didn’t like the cold there, so in a head fake to the reader, she decided to shut the doors tightly and write this book. Reading her monogram, it is inescapable that her perspective on a host of critical issues had been developing for quite a time making winter an excuse to step forward. The issues may be standard fare, but Lewis parses them uniquely from her point of view and determinedly focuses, as her title makes abundantly clear, on how to move black Americans forward.

Those chapters are worth the read, but it was the last chapter on “Where Do We Go From Here?”, that caught my attention, because that was where her plan to revive ACORN came front-and-center. Lewis is neither a romantic not nostalgic for ACORN’s golden years. She argues flatly:

Because ACORN is no longer with us, let’s talk about a replacement. Today, with no money for such an organization, the only hope that I see is creating something that resembles ACORN by using social media to get the word out. Social media is cheap and easy and young Black people use social media more than any group, so let’s put it to work for us.”

She then advocates what she says are “goals that were once ACORN’s: registering voters…legal advice; financial advice; mentoring parents, and more.” She’s realistic about the cost of the effort once again underlining that, “Our organizers/volunteers must be willing to work for little or no salary but for the good of the community.” This is where she hopes to get the middle class to step up. She tackles membership in the new enterprise as well, arguing that “We will register all those who would like to become members…[who] will come from the community that we will serve, that is, those that are classified as on or near poverty level and live in a particular community.” In Lewis organizing plan, the primary communication is social media. Training and leadership development will be on YouTube, podcasts, or visual/audit easily available to one and all through the internet. If I were talking to Vivian Lewis, rather than writing about her book, I would mention that ACORN in the United Kingdom is conducting many experiments with social media and different membership thresholds, much like she is advocating.

Her perspective and her book also speak to the huge hole in American public life at the community grassroots level where ACORN was so present and powerful, that still has not been filled. Lewis has an idea about where to start in the process to rebuild and replicate ACORN, and it’s a good one.

I’ll continue to do my part for sure, but I am encouraged by Vivian Lewis to hope that a thousand more flowers will bloom so that we can walk this path with purpose and power again.

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Project Vote Pulling the Plug When Its Work is So Badly Needed

New Orleans  Mike Slater, the executive director of Project Vote since about 2008, announced that the voter registration and voter accountability organization was going to close its doors on May 31st, largely because of a lack of financial support. He thanked longtime donors and supporters, but indicated there just was enough in the bank to keep fueling the machinery for voting participation and accountability. There is likely more to it than that, but I haven’t been close to Project Vote since 2008, so all I know is what the announcement says, but I do know enough to write in their obituary that it’s a tragedy.

In these days of voter suppression by one legislature after another, increasingly overseen by the chief suppressor now in the Attorney General’s office as well as one court case after another ending in clear judgments citing racism in restraining the vote, the history and experience of Project Vote is sorely needed. In the future, we will be on the field with one star player absent. Amazing to me, while reading of voter registration efforts right now in Georgia on a key Congressional race and hearing the news that millions have been raised to support the Center for Popular Democracy voter registration and other voting efforts that the space shrank so sharply that Project Vote couldn’t survive.

Project Vote was founded in 1982 by DC-based, activist lawyer, Sandy Newman. Virtually from its beginning Project Vote and ACORN worked closely together, welded in common purpose by our commitments to register voters in lower income and minority communities. Project Vote was nonpartisan and tax exempt, and the registration efforts were the same. Sandy was creative and managed to fund the operation largely through a network of private donors he cultivated assiduously who developed deep commitments to registration efforts during his service. By the early 1990s, Sandy wanted to spend his time on other interests and turn over the reins to a more diverse leadership who would continue to deepen its stewardship of this issue in communities. Zach Polett, ACORN’s political director, had developed a close working relationship with Sandy through our partnerships, so when it came time for a transition, there were two organizations who seemed ready and able to take Project Vote under their wings, the Industrial Areas Foundation, particularly Baltimore-based, Arnie Graf, and ACORN. There may be more to this story than I know as well, but Arnie was having issues with his back that led him to withdraw the IAF’s interest, while ACORN’s commitment remained enthusiastic, so it was there that Project Vote found a home.

There were several directors of Project Vote’s DC operation with different titles over the years, including Jehmu Greene, now a television commentator and advocate, but the real driver of the program within the ACORN family, regardless of title, continued to be Polett, who virtually commuted between Little Rock and Washington for fourteen years as the joint efforts between Project Vote and ACORN grew exponentially to the point where we were registering over one-million voters in 2008. And, then in the firefight that was the Obama-McCain contest, Project Vote and ACORN were both caught in the crossfire. Mike Slater, a longtime ACORN organizer, largely in Minnesota, was elevated to director in the aftermath and building more firewalls, managed to sustain the organization past ACORN’s reorganization in 2010.

To Project Vote’s credit, its website in the mid-aughts was clear about the ACORN connection. Slater acknowledged his time, the general counsel was a longtime ACORN veteran, and most importantly the organization had stood firm by Amy Busefink, an ACORN veteran who ran a big part of our 2004 statewide minimum wage fight in Florida and picked up her mail at our St. Pete office when we were working on the Walmart drives. Amy had been targeted by the right for her work in Vegas during the campaign in a drama of ridiculousness, and the organization never abandoned her, which showed good character.

Project Vote’s website has now been scoured of its ACORN ties, which leads me to believe that between the lines, they are the latest victim of the right wing attack on the organization and the left wing’s lack of backbone and tradition of struggle. It’s surprising that Mike couldn’t find a home for Project Vote in the way that Sandy had done so many years before. Is this more ACORN shaming, almost a decade later? Look at the internet. The right never forgets, even while the left too often shuns, waiting for donor handouts and fleeing any whisper of controversy, no matter how unjust.

Nonetheless, 35 years of work in registering voters and protecting their rights to the ballot, is a legacy drenched in accomplishment and pride. RIP to Project Vote, but let’s celebrate its work and life, because it made a huge difference, and it will be greatly missed.

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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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Bringing the Fight for Climate Change Home, Minnesota Style

Shreveport   There’s no real debate about whether climate change is huge threat. You don’t have to believe the science, but you can’t deny what Richard Pryor famously called the evidence available to your “lying eyes.” We see it everywhere around us from the diminishing coastline to earlier Springs and more violent storms. The problem for many people is figuring out what they can do to be effective besides turning down the thermometer, putting out their recycling, sending the occasional donation, and answering the call to march when it’s made. So much of the problem seems global past our reach, so how do we have impact on such a huge crisis locally?

One answer to this question was provided by Kevin Whelan when I was talking to him recently on Wade’s World. Kevin after years as a community organizer and communications specialist with ACORN and others, is now executive director of Minnesota 350, and in our conversation it became clear that he and his associates there are trying to develop an organization and action model that translates the horror of global climate change into local action.

350.org is a well-known campaign and advocacy formation focusing on climate change, started as Whelan described it, by a professor, in this case Bill McKibben, and “seven students.” 350 refers to the level at which carbon dioxide in earth’s atmosphere passes the critical point at 350 parts per million. It is now over 400.

As Kevin described it, Minnesota 350 is a rarity though. It is not an affiliate of 350.org nor was it organized by 350.org. Rather, there were some activists in Minnesota who saw climate change as a critical issue and wanted to figure out a way to respond to the crisis, and decided to organize and reached out to 350.org and essentially asked if they would mind if they used 350 as part of the name of the organization they wanted to build. So, yes, the website says Minnesota350.org, but that’s more of a website thing than anything else. They are certainly federated and allied with 350.org, but an independent and autonomous operation in Minnesota.

This has translated in recent years to a lot of involvement and organizational action in pipeline fights. They played a key role in opposing a pipeline from the controversial and dangerous Tar Sands area of Alberta, Canada that would have run to Lake Superior, that is stopped for now. They were also heavily involved in supporting the Standing Rock fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline, which galvanized a movement, though thus far has a less happy ending. Kevin movingly described four visits to Standing Rock and how much it meant.

Minnesota 350 has learned many lessons in how to bring this global catastrophe to the level of local action but in talking to Kevin, they believe they need to bring-the-fight-home by figuring out a way to inject the issue into local and state politics, which would also mean holding representatives elected to represent Minnesota in Congress accountable on this issue. It’s hard to argue with that conclusion, and it is worth keeping an eye on Minnesota 350, because we might all need to follow their lead.

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