Pine Bluff’s Maxine Nelson and Susie Thomas, Great ACORN Leaders

Susie Thomas, Pine Bluff ACORN leader, 102 years old

Susie Thomas, Pine Bluff ACORN leader, 102 years old

Pine Bluff   Often I get gas on my way from Little Rock to New Orleans at an exit off ramping on the same highway that the Watson Chapel School District administrative office calls home. I realized this coincidence when I had the excuse to visit there. A documentary film crew wanted to talk about how the first organizing committee meeting of an ACORN group in Pine Bluff was disrupted by representatives of the Klu Klux Klan. I wanted to talk about the great ACORN leader, Maxine Nelson, so here’s how they were connected.

The group meeting that was disrupted in 1971 was being organized by an early ACORN organizer from the area, Herman Davenport, in a mixed area, of low and moderate income homes in the Watson Chapel area. The first drive was troubled by these episodes, but eventually ACORN took hold and developed deep roots in the area. Maxine Nelson merged as one of the leaders of the Pine Bluff chapters. She was an African-American RN at the Pine Bluff hospital and ready to make change. She was also fearless when it came to politics. She ran and won a seat in 1989 on the Watson Chapel School Board, and held the seat until her untimely death in November 2013, serving several terms as President of the School Board as well. Maxine was also the chair of the ACORN Political Action Committee (APAC) and the elected secretary of the ACORN Association Board nationally for many consecutive terms. For that matter, she was also on the KABF board as well and even while leaving that board was prodding me in 2011 and 2012 to do something to help stabilize the station.

I thought it was a great ACORN story from the KKK to Maxine Nelson and her leadership of ACORN, but there was more. Rechecking the date of her service before driving down to Pine Bluff, I stumbled on an article in the Pine Bluff Commercial Appeal reporting on a meeting of the Watson Chapel board in late 2014, and they were talking about naming the administrative building after Maxine. Walking in there to alert the clerical staff that I was outside with a film crew, they quickly – and enthusiastically – walked me into the board room to see a picture of Maxine with a plaque over the board dais.

I also visited Susie Thomas, who joined ACORN in Pine Bluff at the very beginning, 45 years ago, and stayed as a member and leader throughout those years. Sister Thomas attended every ACORN convention, and when visiting her, I asked about her favorites. She liked lobbying in Washington, DC she said, and remembered telling off one of Arkansas’ US Senators about cutting back food stamps. She remembered a squatting action in Chicago at the 20th anniversary convention in 1990, when they all ran for it. I gave her a Los Angeles convention t-shirt, and that got her talking about the LA convention. She pushed me on getting ACORN rolling again in the US. We remembered Maxine and their years together. She remembered that I had last seen her when she came to a book signing with Maxine in 2009 at Little Rock’s Community Bakery, and that I had called her on her birthday two years ago. Did I mention that she is now 102 years old!

I called Neil Sealy, the executive director of Arkansas Community Organizations, the former Arkansas ACORN, as I pulled away from Susie’s house. He mentioned that they were getting some letters and a petition together to help show community support for naming the administration building after Maxine. It will be fun to get the word out and easy to find support for that in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and for that matter around the country.

It seems the right thing to do.

***

Please enjoy Paul Simon’s The Riverbank.  Thanks to KABF.

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A Book Provides a Good Excuse to Celebrate Organizing and Organizers

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La Familia Peña-Govea

San Francisco   As luck would have it, I had gotten a notice that there was going to be an event to publicize Gabriel Thompson’s excellent book, America’s Social Arsonist: Fred Ross and Grassroots Organizing in the Twentieth Century, at the Crossroads Café in San Francisco on one of the nights that I was in town, so I stopped by. Thompson ably presented the book and a bunch were sold, but this was this was more of a reunion, than a reading.

Dr. Mimi Silbert of Delancey Street Foundation

Dr. Mimi Silbert of Delancey Street Foundation

The Crossroads Café turned out to be a of the signature efforts of the justly famous Delancey Street Foundation, one of the bright lights of the rehabilitation movement for prisoners and others. Dr. Mimi Silbert, the general and CEO of this all volunteer, self-help operation, was one of the livewire story tellers, introducing the program and cementing the bonds between the farmworkers and the foundation and its people. Fred Ross, Jr., also a career organizer, didn’t give an inch of ground though in telling stories about his father as well, including one legendary family tale that Thompson had not been able to authenticate, but had famous Hollywood moviemaker Cecil DeMille seeing Fred Ross and his brother in their youth and muscle building stage working as extras in one of his productions where they were Roman slaves, and reportedly saying, “who are those two assholes with the Hollywood haircuts!”

Gabriel Thompson

Gabriel Thompson

Thompson did a fine job of understanding the crowd and focusing on a few of the Ross’ axioms and reading several sections of the book and taking the opportunity with this group of thanking many for paving the road to getting the book done. Social Policy in its most recent number did a special feature on the book, but somehow hearing from Thompson that June 9, 1952 was the exact date that Fred Ross recruited Cesar Chavez, speaks volumes in and of itself about the value of the book and the wealth of its information.

But the night belonged to the people who came to share their memories of Ross and the work, and that was a special celebration to be able to witness. There was testimony from old comrades remembering the struggle and what they had shared, shoulder to shoulder with Ross, and what it had meant to them, while also making it clear when speaking of Ross that there was no sacrifice involved, no regrets expressed, because he “loved organizing.” What a wonderful truth, rarely realized!

Fred Ross Jr.

Fred Ross Jr.

Henry Weinstein, the veteran, former labor reporter from The Los Angeles Times told the story of the Gallo fight with great vigor, and his anger, even as a supposedly objective observer, subtly demonstrated another, often missed, truth that universally motivates organizers and animates the work. Christine Pelosi, one of the daughters of the former House Speaker, told a story about taking off a semester from Georgetown to help in her mother’s first Congressional election. Ross and Ross, Jr. were both working in the guts of the campaign. Ross, Jr. had told an earlier story about Pelosi’s father having sent someone over from Baltimore where Pelosi’s father had been mayor to make sure the “house meeting” strategy was for real. Christine described showing up to work on a phone bank and telling Fred Ross that she didn’t know what she could do, because she didn’t have a phone list. Ross told her, “Use the book.” He meant the phone book, which he sat in front of her. She described him sitting there, silently, arms and legs crossed to observe her as she began doing what she had felt impossible and ridiculous moments before, and started cold calling through the numbers. She also told about a boot camp preparing for the 2008 election and bringing the Clinton and Obama teams together, and the fact that using house meetings came up in the discussion. The Clinton team, said, why bother, “we didn’t use them in South Carolina.” The Obama veterans shouted, “We did!” Obama had of course won the South Carolina primary, a turning point in his campaign.

In some ways that said it all about Ross, a legacy written in the work and in the leaders he developed and trained. Fred, Jr., still organizing as well, understood that the book is simply a platform, almost an excuse, to call the troops back from memory lane and into battle.

In the rare opportunities to celebrate, there is a rekindling of conviction.

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Green Papers and the Value of the Volunteer Research Army

Screen Shot 2016-05-08 at 12.52.32 PMNew Orleans   One of the constant dark holes of US politics is the arcane art of understanding delegate selection for the existing political parties, since all of these rules lie in the mysterious workings of the various fifty odd states and outlier territories. In fact the same is true of voter registration procedures, party formation and balloting rules, and any number of other things in our loosey-goosey federated system of sorts, but I don’t want to get off the subject. The reason I raise the issue of delegate selection is not to praise or condemn Caesar, but to give props to the eccentric and invaluable volunteer army that sometimes obsessively dives into the quicksand and keeps flaying at it until they hit solid ground.

Well-deserved props were given to a couple of fellows who, essentially for the love of it, have watched, and better, studied, the process for years for their own interest and posted the results on the internet at Green Papers. In so doing they have become the go-to site for journalist, political junkies, academics, data crunchers and even political campaigns in getting their arms around the process and putting the information on hard rock and real time. They have been at it for decades, make no money from the site, take no ads, and, according to the New York Times, haven’t even sat down and visited with each other since 1999. They got the bug as college roommates and became their own two-person geek squad. They won’t pose for pictures, and only respond by email, or at least one of them does, and just keep their feet on the ground and keep on keeping on.

I love stories like this. I can remember decades ago reading some book or another about politics that made the off-hand comment that one of the peculiarities of American politics and life is that we had more information than we could analyze and use. And, that was then, pre-internet. What we have now between search engines and endless data is so many factors more that it is way past my mathematical ability. Around the world people and organizations are too often blocked from information, and though that happens in the US as well, we’re still drowning in it.

I thought about this the other day as ACORN released a lengthy report on the lack of democracy and diversity in Southern rural electric cooperatives. These fellows have gotten away with stopping time, because, hey, who really, really cares about what happens out there in the rurals? But, it matters for so many reasons. Would anyone fund such research, much less organizing about this mess? Heck, no! But it has to be done, and that’s one of the beauties of the “volunteer” army, if it can be deployed effectively. We’ll keep at it with more reports to come. Add to that, another crew we have crunching the numbers on all kinds of loans in the United Kingdom. ACORN thinks there are discriminatory patterns, but we won’t know until we look at what’s available and try to connect the dots from one to another. Same thing for the requirement that tax exempt, nonprofit hospitals are required to provide charity care. Who wants to pull those IRS 990s apart? Well, we do, if we have enough volunteers willing to spend some time pulling it together in at least some states.

ACORN has volunteers from Ottawa, Edinburgh, New Orleans, Paris, London, Vancouver, and places far and near. None of our work would be possible without them!

Will any of this make change? Of course not, just like the Green Papers duo can’t elect a single delegate no matter how much they know about the system. To make change you need organizations, campaigns, even political parties, but all of these efforts can still help straighten out the path so the work runs true.

Anyone who wants to help out, give a holler, we’ll hear you!

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Sanders Wants Leverage on the Democratic Party for What?

Revolution-FistNew Orleans   There are five more primaries this week, and Senator Bernie Sanders is favored to lose almost all of them, extending Hillary Clinton’s lead and her inevitable nomination by the Democratic Party. Sanders is will-bringing it hard every day and trying for every vote, as he should. The simple political calculus is usually that more votes, equals more delegates, equals more leverage. In Sanders case, at this point we have to ask more pointedly what he hopes to accomplish with increased leverage.

Reports from within his campaign indicate he is focusing increasingly on having impact on the Democratic Party platform. Despite the compelling evidence that the Chair of the Party is already stacking all of the major committees with Clintonistas, including one report that of over forty appointments less than a handful went to Sanderites, the Senator is still saying that he expects to get a fair shake at the convention, blah, blah, blah.

Really? Is this what it’s all worth?

Reports from the Clinton camp over the weekend were unusually frank about how she and the campaign were viewing potential choices to fill out her ticket with a vice-presidential nominee. They characterized her as unconcerned about needing to make any concession to the left or the rabid Sanders supporters, because, as we have continually predicted, in the general election, they have nowhere else to go and will have to vote for her given the Republican field or no one at all. It’s hard not to get the sense that Sanders is already negotiating with himself and that Clinton has left the room and moved on, while continuing to make the motions and show up when scheduled.

A founder and former grand poobah of Politico took to the op-ed page of The Wall Street Journal of all places to argue that what we needed was a third-party. He laid out what he felt were the preconditions for a successful candidate in what I would argue is a want-ad for the political class. Meanwhile Sanders is angling for a better platform for the Democratic Party. He seems to be reminding us that he is a “coincidental” Democrat, likely never having lived through a Democratic convention from start to finish and certainly not familiar with the fact that a Democratic nominee is held to absolutely no accountability to any stack of paper produced by the delegates.

I’m not saying Sanders should go rogue and go third party. It’s too late for that, and the wrong strategy for him now, but why not use his leverage so that it means something. Ignore the platform and focus on candidates and races where elections of progressive candidates could make a difference. Take the “revolution” he’s calling for and bring it home. Help the Working Family Party get more votes on its party line in November. Turn time and fundraising to Congressional races where candidates are willing to embrace the arguments for change that Sanders has articulated. Go local on some legislative and gubernatorial races with the same fire. Jump out of the box and join with Rev. Barber in North Carolina and anyone who can be found in Mississippi to stand against hate laws. Pull out the stops to join with Planned Parenthood where they are attacked. Carry a sign with Black Lives Matter. Walk the line with unions.

Platform, splatform. Don’t play the game. Be true to your voters and supporters and change the game right now, while you have the chance, and your voice can still be heard clearly and have weight. There’s no next year. Seize the time and make it matter.

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UK’s Unite is Another Case Study of the Difficulty of Union Transformation

005-15-reasonsNew Orleans    Unite is the largest union in the United Kingdom with almost 1.4 million members launched a brave and exciting experiment four years ago to organize the unorganized. In this case it was not the unorganized who were workers, but the unorganized in communities. They established Unite Community with minimal dues (50 pence or about 75 cents per month), hired or assigned ten organizers, one to each region of the union, and set about building local chapters around a host of self-directed issues. Now, four years later, they have about 10,000 members, more or less, in over 100 branches around the country, so perhaps it’s time for a good look, and luckily they allowed University of Leeds professor, labor expert, and community activist, Jane Holgate, a front row seat and access to their process and people to evaluate, academically, their progress.

Professor Holgate’s analysis is tentative and still a work-in-progress that she is sharing with colleagues and graciously allowed me to also take a peek, having been an advocate and organizer of many of these union-community amalgamations. Even tip-toeing around her early conclusions, being a cheerleader for Unite’s efforts for better or worse, and not wanting to step on Professor Holgate’s toes, her work, when it is finished, is going to be something organizers, and, perhaps even more importantly, union leaders will want to read and study closely if they are serious not just about community organizing, but the duty of transforming unions to meet the difficult challenges for our organizations in the 21st century.

At a fundamental level a look at Unite’s experiment with Unite Community and community organizing is an example of the organizing principle I’ve often argued that “the beginnings prejudice the ends” in organizing. Professor Holgate makes the case, as she has in her past work that a union has to be clear about its purpose. She invokes earlier work that positions a union’s identity between market, class, and society that synthesizes its ideology accordingly and informs its internal and external practice. It seems simple and obvious to say, before a union – or any organization – can transform itself, it has to understand who and what it is and what it is trying to do, but that doesn’t understate the importance. Furthermore without an operating consensus on these issues that aligns leadership and staff, especially in the complex bureaucracy of large organizations, the success of any new project, particularly one that would be historically unique and potentially transformative, would be difficult to achieve.

Having met with Unite’s leadership and staff on this project, I would say that they have found real utility in Unite Community, but it has been grafted to the union as an appendage, rather than integrated fully, thereby lessening its value immensely and leaving its future somewhat confused and uncertain. Professor Holgate finds this separation of the community project from the basic worker organizing operation equally stunting, and makes a more important point from her closer perspective that the inability to fully integrate the membership of Unite Community with the larger Unite membership has been critical. Though she is not ready to say this yet, a reader would conclude that this problem could be terminal to the project, and at the least means that even if the community efforts were successful and continued robustly, they would not be transformative in terms of the union’s identify, practice, or future.

Normally, I would say, none of this is fatal, and that Unite – and other unions – might learn tons from this work and allow it to be another building block in the critical transformation that has to happen. Unfortunately, Holgate anticipates my Pollyannaish hope here by noting, too starkly for me to avoid, that the separation of Unite Community from the rest of the organization, means that there has also been little “learning,” as she calls it, throughout the union. Sadly, I’ve reflected similarly on how much we have learned as organizers from work we have done with Walmart, hotel workers, and labor-community alliances in the past, and how we have often failed to effectively communicate the lessons or have them stick sufficiently to influence leaders and organizers later, so, what can I say, but here’s hoping. We have no choice, but to try and try again, lest these organizations all die on our watch.

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Hard to Win Back Hijacked Schools

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source:theneworleansadvocate.com

New Orleans    One of the ongoing crises of the 21st century thus far has been the struggle to control schools with all sides of this massive political and cultural war pretending and presuming that they are best capable of speaking for children. Schools have been batted about like ping pongs. Some school districts have been taken over by city mayors, Chicago being the best example, and others by the state in Michigan, Arkansas, New Jersey, Louisiana, and elsewhere empowered by the Bush passage of No Child Left Behind. The so-called “charter school” movement has controversially allowed public schools to be run by private companies, some for-profit and some nonprofit, in many districts around the country with various degrees of accountability and a contentious argument over the results. Foundations from Gates to Walmart to Eli Broad and others have put their beaks deeply into the mess funding pilots, lawsuits, and various initiatives to unwind the role of teacher unions. The short conclusion of years of these struggles is undoubtedly that no one has really won, few are happy, and it’s still “god save the child.”

One thing that should be clear though is that two things speak to the foundation blocks of almost everyone’s view of America: free public education and direct election of local officials. The “privatization” of many public schools through the charter “movement” challenges the guarantee of education and the accountability of elections of public officials empowered to hold charters accountable, since they create in often mysterious and opaque ways, a separate governance structure at arms’ length from the voters and taxpayers, more often than not populated by the appointment of friends and family of principals and charter operators. Even more unsettling is the loss of local democratic control of schools when the state takes over a system. Lawsuits are still raging in Little Rock after the state was prodded to take over their system despite the fact that only a couple of schools were failing. Detroit school parents and the district are suing the State of Michigan for mismanaging the system and starving it of resources under its management. The Supreme Court in Kansas has been at loggerheads with the state legislature and governor there for starving the school system of resources.

Then there’s New Orleans, the largest charter pilot in the country in the wake of the state seizure of schools after Katrina from the local school board. Now ten years later with a new Democratic governor in office supported by the teachers’ union, married to a teacher, and not a fan of charter schools and appalled by the poor success rate of the voucher program, there have finally be a flurry of different bills that would return all the schools to the taxpayers and voters of New Orleans. That should be good news, but in these days and times, it’s not so easy to claw back schools once they have been hijacked and pirated away. Close inspection of many of the bills, supposedly returning the schools, finds numerous escape clauses and buried mechanisms seeking to allow many of the charters to ostensibly be part of the school district and under the fiscal and political control of the elected school board, while continuing to be totally unaccountable. The bill being reported as closest to passage trickles the schools back almost on a trial basis with ten the first year and then more over several years until they are all returned to local control.

At the hearing a spokesperson for one of the larger charters, Firstline, wanted to make sure they could go back to state control if somehow “things didn’t work out.” The unbridled arrogance of entitlement and contempt for the democratic process of local school control and the property tax dollars of local citizens that pay the bills won’t be so quickly ended given the fact that the tug of war on even our most basic principles is still raging. Where people simply ought to be ashamed of themselves, they have ridden the high horse so far and long over the last ten years that they have lost sight of any solid ground where they might have stood. Meanwhile politicians, currying contributions and favor, join in the conspiracy to coopt the process without a shed of embarrassment either.

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