Working on Skills and Listening to Promises at the Convention

Members from Toronto arriving to Convention

Ottawa  We could find members of the ACORN Canada convention delegation wandering lost around the University campus pretty easily, thanks to their bright red t-shirts. There were nicely designed ACORN “arrows” on the sidewalks and signs aplenty, but the campus construction and the different buildings could easily confuse so a small army of volunteers and staff shepherded people from place to place from the time people got off the buses on arrival.

Meet & greet before the work begins

An ACORN convention is about serious business, so the members had hardly said, “hello,” before they were on their way to workshops. Some attracting crowds were Disability-Social Assistance: Rights & Benefits, Big Turnout/Planning Chapter Meetings, and Affordable & Livable Housing run by leaders from British Columbia, Ottawa, and Toronto. There were smaller sessions that dove deep, like one I listened to for a while and run efficiently by an Ottawa member on Social Media and Action. Participation was key in all of the workshops. In that one they broke into two groups to figure out what they would “post” on Facebook and tweet on Twitter three weeks, two weeks, one week, and the day of a coming action to help communicate and move members to attend. Thanking the workshop leader later for the excellent job she did, she seemed to breathe a sigh of relief, saying it was her first time doing such a thing, and she had been so nervous.

heading to the workshops

These workshops help move consensus for the members for actions after the convention is over as well. A workshop on “energy essentials,” were dealing with fights against privatization of public services, especially electricity. Pay Equity/Childcare was a workshop preparing for a future campaign direction to try and win better income support for lower income families for childcare and achieve pay equity for women. Fair Banking/Internet for All was a large workshop on the two largest national campaigns for ACORN in Canada and was seeking to hone positions for future actions and negotiations.

Head Organizer, Judy Duncan, keeping it rolling

Nothing like a university cafeteria to make people happy though, no matter how hard they work. Buffet style with choices of desert? Wow! Is this what life could be like! Members had to be pried out of their seats, but they were ready for the first evening plenary to get ready to rock.

an Ottawa member speaks up at the disability and social assistance workshop

Andrea Horwath, the leader of the Ontario New Democratic Party, was the guest speaker, after the ACORN national board was introduced to chants, whoops, and hollers. Ontario is the California of Canada in terms of its size and reach in the country so would be a huge prize for progressives. Leader Horwath loved finding a friendly crowd that roared “Shame!” again and again as she listed the issues and roared with delight every time she committed that the NDP would join ACORN in the fight.

a Toronto leader runs the workshop on big actions

The real applause was saved for the reports from leaders from city to city throughout the country on their victories over the last year. Chants greeted the reports crying, The People United, Shall Never Be Defeated, and Who are We, Mighty, Mighty ACORN.

members listening intently to another Ottawa member tell them how to use twitter

the evening plenary is reading and rocking in their seats

Andrea Horwath, leader of the Ontario NDP, commits to ACORN’s issues in her speech

no one was getting lost on the way to the dorms to prepare for the next day

 

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ACORN Canada Leadership Plans Its Next Moves

Ottawa’s Ashley and Jill are ready to make the registration work for the convention

Ottawa   The annual general meeting and board gathering for ACORN Canada’s leadership convened on the eve of the organization’s biennial convention in Ottawa at the University of Ottawa this year. While ticking off the legal requirements, signing minutes, audit reports, and other requirements of the Canadian Societies Act, the board found much to celebrate. The membership had now crossed 100,000, and the organization’s aggregate expenditures had broken $1 million in 2016, both huge accomplishments after fourteen years of organizing. Campaigns, some of them stretching back more than a decade, like the Toronto fight for landlord licensing, had been victorious. ACORN was now part of the conversation and a vital part of the coalition in any progressive campaign in Ottawa, Toronto, and greater Vancouver, from the fight for $15 per hour to hydro rates to blocking privatization and more.

This could have been a time for a bit of chest thumping and back slapping. A bit of gloating might have been in order. The leadership never drew a breath. Instead they focused in almost every conversation – and I know because I was keeping the minutes – on what they needed to do next, what issues might be on the horizon, and what had to be done to win.

Board Meeting

The multi-year “Internet for All” campaign had seen ACORN become a stakeholder at the table, so one of the most interesting questions, still unresolved at the end of the meeting was whether or not the weirdly named, Ministry of Innovation, would be a federal target for agitation during the convention. The process of expanding internet access had been fraught and ACORN’s role had been key in pushing the regulatory body and its hearings into a serious examination of what was needed to bridge the digital divide for lower income families. Many of the monopolistic telecoms had bent to ACORN’s demands over the years, but always in piecemeal fashion, beginning with Rogers concession in lowering fees to provide access to all public housing residents in Toronto. Others had carved out similar small slices to answer the call as well, but none were moving to the need, and likely wouldn’t without the government playing a stronger role. The new Liberal government under Justin Trudeau had indicated they were preparing a major announcement in this area recently that they had worked out with the telecoms, but ACORN and others protested that they were excluded from the consultation and having none of it. The government had backed off of its plans in order to re-position because they had left us out of the mix, promising that we would be allowed to impact the plans before they were finalized. So, the leadership debated with that concession, should they be left off the action list because they were now moving towards us or should they still be front and center because of their arrogance and lack of action?

Convention Swag

The debates now had high stakes. How would ACORN position its demands with a possible new minority government in British Columbia led by the NDP (New Democratic Party) in coalition with the Greens? With the federal Liberal government’s coming review of the Banking Act this year would we finally be able to advance our predatory lending campaign? Would the municipal elections in Ottawa finally allow ACORN with our labor partners and others to advance our municipal agenda on housing and living wages where we had been so close to winning in the past? Would be be able to force affordable housing construction in Burnaby and Surrey, the huge satellite cities around Vancouver and block demolition/evictions?

A measure of the organization’s weight was a special address to the board by the Secretary-Treasurer of the huge NUPGE, the National Union of Provincial Government Employees, representing a wide variety of public employees at the provincial or state level. NUPGE was concerned that the government’s move to create an Infrastructure Bank could mean a wave of privatization of public services, and of course public workers, that displace thousands, cost more, and render worse service to citizens. Meeting with ACORN, the Canadian organization that demands better public services for low and moderate families, somehow seemed a natural first step in any campaign.

ACORN Canada has much to celebrate, but they may not have time to pause to do so, because the next moves and one campaign after another demands the leadership’s attention and meets the membership’s demands.

Answering member questions at the registration table

 

 

 

 

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Exploiting Immigrants Old School in Arkansas-Mississippi Delta

Ottawa   Almost every month for the last 3 ½ years I’ve driven through the Lake Village area of southern Arkansas and more recently back and forth across the bridge to Greenville, one way or another, as well. Along the lakeside past the fishing docks, the boat launches, the catfish and barbecue places I’ve often done a double take when I see Regina’s Pasta Shop, heralding the “Italian Tradition” on the banks of Lake Chicot, and thought to myself, “what in the world is that doing here” in the middle of cotton and soybean country?

The mystery was both solved and deepened as the layers of the answer to that question were revealed in an uncharacteristically long piece in The Economist of all places. The eyebrow, headline and sub-head of the story tell a lot of the tale in a spoiler alert. The eyebrow said: “Immigration’s forgotten history.” The headline was “Moses in the Ozarks.” The subhead was: “The ordeal of Italian labourers is a parable of race and migration in the Deep South.” The dateline was both Lake Village in the south and Tontitown in Ozarks of Arkansas near Springdale, the city now famous as the worldwide headquarters of Walmart.

The story starts in 1861 at the Sunnyside plantation owned by Elisha Worthington who shocked the local community not by fathering two children by a slave, but by recognizing them. After the Civil War the plantation passed hands several times ending up with Austin Corbin, described by the business-conservative Economist as “a robber-baron financier and railroad speculator, who, as a founding member of the American Society for the Suppression of the Jews, barred them from the hotel he built on Coney Island.” He couldn’t find labor so he imported families from Genoa, Italy through New Orleans and up the Mississippi River to Sunnyside on a land contract scam, where they bought acreage with sharecropping credit on future cotton crops. Many died. All of the Italians lived through terrible discrimination against them that was common at the time and well into the 1930s, highlighted by the infamous lynching of 11 Italians in New Orleans in 1891.

The “Moses” of this story was a Jesuit priest from Italy sent as a missionary to Native Americans in Montana and later assigned to New York to “minister to put-upon Italians,” as they write. He bought land west of Springdale, Arkansas in the Indian Territory in what is now Oklahoma. Forty families ditched their land contracts and somehow traversed Arkansas in an arduous and lengthy journey. The pioneers founded Tontitown, named after Henri de Tonti, a 17th century Italian explorer. Despite the neighbors hostility, which included burning down the first Catholic church, Father Bandini was the “town’s teacher, band leader and first mayor, as well as its priest.” Grapes were imported and despite the poorer soil, the cooler temperatures led to a wine industry still present in the area.

As for the Sunnyside shame and scandal, the Justice Department sent an investigator down in 1917 who stopped the importation of Italian immigrants. Their footprints are deep though. There is a part of Greenville called Little Italy. Lake Village became home to many where churches and traditions survived. Discrimination also grew there from the Ku Klux Klan. On the receiving end of prejudice, as The Economist writes, “is a sort of shadow version of African-Americans’, the hardship milder and the ending sweeter.”

There are still modern lessons to be learned from the hidden history of places like these all around us.

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The Expropriation of Community Organizing Techniques by the Gig Economy

Philadelphia  Every once in a while I run into something scary, not because it has to do with nuclear meltdowns or corrupt mortgage brokers or community-and-family killing slumlords, all of which are real things. I am also seriously concerned when there is an expropriation of the good for purposes of the evil. These are times when we are drowning in such amazing doublespeak that we are pinching ourselves in order to snap out of “1984” moments becoming our reality.

This is now common currency in politics. Terrible health care is now touted as great. Proposing to eviscerate social programs to provide the rich with a tax break is now packaged as a jobs program for working families. Turning the dial back to the 1950s on women, the environment, race, and a hundred other things is whitewashed as patriotism. It goes on and on.

It happens even in community organizing, most dramatically as Saul Alinsky and his Rules for Radicals became repurposed by the right as a model for their vicious tactics. Recently, reading a New Yorker article about the gig economy, it was disturbing to drop down the wormhole and see it happening again in a discussion of the organizing tactics of the ride-sharing service, Lyft, the Avis to the Uber, Hertz.

The author, Nathan Heller, was interviewing Emily Castor, who he described as the company’s “leader in the campaign against regulatory constraint.” She said, “We’re borrowing very heavily from traditional community-organizing models, and looking at the grass roots in each city…Who are the leaders? Who are the people who distinguish themselves as passionate, who want to get more involved? We have a team that includes field organizers who are responsible for different parts of the country.” Well, I don’t know if this is traditional or even community organizing. She is essentially talking about building a base, a customer base, and maybe in an Obama-moment she decided to slap “community organizing” on the hood as she drove around.

But, then she dove deeper into something that is hardly traditional and remains controversial, and threw logs on that fire without any sense that the temperature might be rising. Hired by Lyft as their first “community manager,” whatever doublespeak that might portend, the article goes,

“She found that she could draw on her political training. ‘Collective identity is one of those aspects that, in the theory of social movements, is so important…You’re not just ‘taking rides.’”

Then, Marshall Ganz, former UFW organizer and now Harvard Kennedy School instructor, gets drawn into this with his “story of self, a story of us, a story of now: the collective-identity movement-building method.”

For all of the utility of Ganz’ stories, it is essentially a mobilization model, rather than a community organizing or community building model, which is why it has been so embraced by political campaigns, and now it seems even by businesses that may be about the very opposite of community organizing values. Ganz objects to Lyft’s appropriation arguing that markets are all about exchange and finding a common purpose is what politics is about, but even while reading his distinction, it’s way too easy to see why Lyft and its organizers, thought they could just take the tools and run with them their way, since for them finding a “common purpose” is what triggers their market and its financial exchange.

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The Consequences and Prevention of Nuclear Power Accident Disasters for $29.41 per Person

New Orleans  If you live within 50-miles of a nuclear power plant, then count yourself part of the majority of the US population, since that’s the case for 65% of us. On the other hand, you may not want to hear all about this, but folks with the Union of Concerned Scientists and Princeton University wrote a piece in the recent issue of Scientific American that scared the stuffings out of me.

These scientists were looking at the risks posed by the handling of spent fuel and in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan in the wake of the earthquake in March 2011, are now making the case that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) did not go nearly as far as needed to assure citizen protection for a potential US disaster. The NRC did a safety review and ordered some safety upgrades, but the scientists argue that they “rejected … a measure to end dense packing of 90 spent fuel pools, which we consider critical for avoiding a potential catastrophe much greater than Fukushima.” I visited the Fukushima area several years after the disaster to try and learn the lessons from that disaster and compare them to what New Orleanians had learned from Hurricane Katrina in 2005, so I found all of this unsettling especially since it is six years after Fukushima and some families are only able to return now, and some will never be able to do so.

Here’s the deal. These spent rods are put in cooling ponds for a few years until they can be moved to dry storage casks safely. In the US, the NRC allows them to be kept in this way semi-indefinitely until a “geologic repository…becomes available.” The operators therefore pack the rods in the pools like sardines in order to keep their costs down, but of course that also increases the risks “about 50 times as much as the corresponding values for a fire in a low density pool,” in the NRC’s technical analysis. Yet, the NRC didn’t order a change, which ought to scare the fiery hell out of all of us.

From there it’s all a dogpile of problems. The NRC didn’t look at terrorism. Hey, what could happen? They didn’t look past 50 miles to the other 35% of the US-population that might be worried. They claimed that disaster areas would be repopulated within one-year, which doesn’t fit either the New Orleans or Fukushima experience. The NRC also “assumed radiation dose standards for population relocation that were much less restrictive than those recommended by the EPA.” The scientists estimate that if EPA standards were used “the average evacuated would increase about threefold.” Using the right figures, the NRC cost-benefit ratio would favor moving, which means making the industry pony up about $50 million per plant or $5 billion overall.

They go on and on from here, and, trust me, it only gets worse, and I think you get the message. It also helps to do the math here, since it’s not like nuclear power companies don’t pass the costs on to consumers. I stand second to no one in wanting to keep utility rates down, but when you divide $5 billion by 170 million people minimum that might be affected if the NRC’s pattycake with industry doesn’t play out in our favor, then the cost would be about $29 and change.

Come on, let’s get serious about this before it’s too late. Where can I send my check today?

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Please enjoy Art Carter’s Mighty Mississippi. Thanks to KABF.

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Oh, No, Subprime Mortgage Brokers are Coming Back

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

New Orleans   Please, just move the soapbox over here a little closer, because I’m going to jump and shout yet again, and sadly, not for the last time about the little named co-conspirator and enabler of the Great Recession real estate meltdown: mortgage brokers. They are under regulated, lightly trained, totally unsupervised, largely sales people too often paid little more than commissions on mortgage closings achieved often by hook or crook. They beat the bushes to create the paper stream of deals that are then packaged and picked up by banks and, increasingly, nonbanks, who have even more of the mortgage action than they did a decade ago.

A thinly disguised job announcement in the “B” section of The Wall Street Journal headlined “Subprime Brokers Back in Demand” is a warning to the rest of us that big trouble is on the way, especially in lower income communities. The reporter wrote that Southern California was once again on the “cusp of efforts to bring back an army of salespeople who once powered the mortgage industry and, some say, contributed to the housing crisis.” Call me, “some,” because that’s exactly what I’m saying. Further she notes, that “some brokers faked loan applications and steered people into debt they couldn’t afford.” Oh, yes, many, many of them did, and subprime companies ate these loans like candy.

Here’s what’s really scary. The demand for brokers is coming largely from nonbank lenders and smaller lenders, both of which are lightly or hardly regulated, by states not the feds, and in the case of nonbank lenders, they are not even required to follow the Community Reinvestment Act or provide their data through the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act. The market includes families with lower credit scores, and, god knows, there is a huge market, especially now in the wake of the recession, and these families want and need loans, and many of them deserve mortgages, especially as the Home Savers Campaign has found, since too many are finding no alternative outside of land installment contracts and various rent-to-own schemes. Additionally, workers and families with difficult to verify income sources from cash payments in the gig economy or tipped employment, need so-called stated income loans, where their money is verified without company provided W-2s. We absolutely believe there needs to be a set of subprime products and stated income loans. Where we separate is over the issue of who and what is going to protect families from abuse. One of the reforms of the last decade has been an increasing reliance on affordability, meaning a family’s ability to pay the loan. Who and what is going to assure that that benchmark remains prominent?

Brokers are just in sales-and-promotion. They push the responsibility to financial institutions, and since they are the middle-men, they can venue shop until they find some place willing to take paper and issue the loan. They then get paid. Period. The consequences downstream mean nothing to them.

Meanwhile nonbank lenders have almost half of the total mortgage market now. In the increased scrutiny since the recession, only $6 billion nonprime loans have been issued in the first quarter of this year and only $22 billion in all of 2016, compared to $1 trillion in such loans in 2005 according to Inside Mortgage Finance, cited by the Journal.

If regulators don’t make the effort to separate the baby from the bathwater this time around, millions of families and thousands of neighborhoods will drown in it again.

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