Creating Global Capacity for Organizing and Campaigns

Wade, Eloise and Adrien from ReAct

Wade, Eloise and Adrien from ReAct

Grenoble       Walking through the center of Grenoble my friends pointed out the statute in the plaza that heralded the French revolution. They reminded me that Grenoble took the pride of place in France that Boston, Concord, and Lexington claim in the American Revolution. Citizens began holding protest meetings and detailing their grievances with the regime and therefore the King. Troops were dispatched to quell the unruly masses of Grenoble, but were met with courage in the so-called “Battle of the Tiles,” when roof tiles were ripped off and hurled below at the troops. Other cities began meetings and protests as well, the King agreed finally to hear the complaints, and one thing led to another, and heads and governments feel.

A helpful reminder for the handful of us spending another day in meetings under the broken skies that would reveal the peekaboo mountains all around us, that changing the world isn’t easy, but it happens, and it has to start somewhere, whether New Orleans, Little Rock, Grenoble or beyond. For our part we were engaged in exciting speculation and planning about what might be possible if we examined the twenty to twenty-five countries where ACORN International has deep roots, relationships, and capacity and joined them with the five to ten countries where the Alliance Citoyenne and its sister organization operating outside of France, ReAct, had experience, some staffing, and capacity. Certainly, it’s not the whole wide world, but it’s not a bad swath of people and ground, and a great deal more than simply a good beginning.

Part of the conversation was a catchup from my earlier visit. ReAct had been able to put sufficient pressure on a French-based, global palm oil company with plantations in Cameroon, Cambodia, Liberia, Gabon, and Morocco, to get them to agree to negotiations around the issues, workers’ conditions, land utilization and distribution, and other concerns in Paris in recent months. The negotiations were not conclusive but they produced a path forward with further meetings scheduled and prospects for accomplishments. Additionally, the experience allowed ReAct to link its people together and bind their skills so that there was an appreciation of what might be possible.

Some of the debates were around orientation. Is it best to build a base, staffing, and capacity with organization so that people an act on issues or could one target companies, as ReAct did in palm oil and work backwards to organize the communities and workers around the company issues. Should the work be campaign based or organizationally driven? How could the efforts be sustained? How supervised? How would organizers be trained and recruited? Was there a model around volunteers? How could scare resources be deployed? What were geographical priorities? Were there corporate targets? All of this was heady stuff!

And, if we could build it, as the Field of Dreams line goes, “would people come?” How could such capacity be linked to other organizations, campaigns, unions, allies to add our two plus two so that exponentially more impact and power could be built and shared?

What a great way to spend a Sunday!



The Tough Process of Organizational Change

view of the alps from the office in Grenoble

view of the alps from the office in Grenoble

Grenoble     Over the last week from Birmingham to Edinburgh to London and now in Grenoble,  it’s amazing how often conversations and questions focus as much on organizational change as organizing programs and prospects. Talking to Martin Smith, the organizing director for the GMB in London, he made the point as clearly as anyone saying that in 10 years in the job, he had spent an equal amount of time on internal organizational change as he had on external organizing.

He’s not alone! And, it’s hard work!

In Smith’s case, it is probably not an overstatement that he either succeeded along with many of his other colleagues in making changes or the union itself might not have survived. The “B” in GMB had stood Boilermakers, speaking to the industrial roots of the union, while the “M” came from representing Municipal workers. The union’s strategy to survive after years of declines has been to embrace its standing as a general union, and throw open the doors to one and all. Membership growth has rewarded the strategy. Smith told me that the GMB membership at  Walmart’s ASDA supermarket chain was going to be 10,000 this year, where it had only been a couple of hundred annually even a couple of years ago. Place to place though, he was also clear that the work of internal change was far from done.

I’ve always repeated the mantra and warning to organizers that the “beginnings prejudice the ends” in organizational development, which in clearer English means that the roots of an organization and its structure can predetermine and limit what it is able to do. Because of membership expectations, change is hard to achieve and sometimes impossible. It’s also scary for the organizing staff accustomed to a certain way of working and set of proven skills and often threatening to leadership as the base and underpinnings of their relationships to the organization shift as well.

For several days I’ve been working with an extremely dedicated and talented team of organizers and leaders with the Alliance Citoyenne in Grenoble at the foot of the Alps, where the organization has grown and enjoyed early success over the last several years. On the one hand their work has excited other communities throughout France leading to requests for help in building similar organizations in several other cities, including Paris. On the other hand, the organizers and the board were realistic in seeing limits within the organization’s development and are working hard to see if it is possible in this still early stage to develop a hybrid system of sorts that would allow them to do more.  It has been fascinating to be “at the table” in the discussion to help identify problems and outline decisions and options they will have to face.

staff and leaders of Alliance hard at it

staff and leaders of Alliance hard at it



the bell that kept the discussion moving!

the bell that kept the discussion moving!

Is a hybrid possible, well, maybe, though it’s a little like being partially pregnant. Will they be able to supervise and evaluate the new practice they are trying to introduce, if they also want to run back to what they knew and valued from their work in the past? How will they keep their own organizers and leaders from not being confused?

In a meeting with the sharp as nails regional director for Unison in the West Midlands centered around Birmingham, it was clear as he faced similar challenges within this program of both maintaining the base and trying to expand, that he would have to segregate a team to allow them to experiment, fail, and succeed without falling back into old habits, tasks, and expectations. The Alliance may have to do the thing by isolating the pieces so they can nurture the process to see if it works or trying their new system in a new city and then retraining and exporting it back.

Change is necessary and unavoidable for organizations, but part of the reason that many organizations don’t survive is because of its extraordinary difficulty.

view of the alps from the office in grenoble

view of the alps from the office in Grenoble

Republicans Can’t Shut Down Congress? Well, Let’s Take Some Licks at ACORN!

ACORN-ProtestersLondon       Two cold, crisp, but clear days in London, so I should have known that it would be raining as I head for the 445 trains that will put me in France later this morning to meet with more groups.  One almost predicts the other.   Same for the Republicans, it seems.  The radicals don’t seem to be able to convince the rest of the gang to shut down the government again, so what is a wild haired, meat eating red-stater to do.  Well, how about we take a couple of more kicks at ACORN?  What the hey?!?

Sure enough!  After thinking that finally four years after the leaders and managers of ACORN US through in the towel, once again the Huffington Post is reporting that the omnibus budget bills are including language to bar ACORN from any federal funding.  I haven’t read it all, but it looks like what they use as their boilerplate not only banning ACORN, but its children, grandchildren, legacy and successor organizations for seven generations.

I guess we should be thankful.  They really can’t touch ACORN, and if the sad sacks actually spent  five minutes thinking about any of this legislation other than hateration, they might try to take off after some other innocent, hapless nonprofits, and who needs that?  They may have knocked us down a couple of years ago, but usually the one thing we had proven over and over, is that we could take a punch and keep on popping up for more.

So another day, another dollar, another plane to catch, other organizers to meet, more meetings in more neighborhoods, more cities, more provinces, states, and countries, and more foolish appropriations riders in the US Congress.  The world is obviously spinning smoothly on its axis, so this is obviously the way everything is meant to be.

Voter and Community Suppression Coming to United Kingdom

biteLondon    Talking to someone in the United Kingdom the other day, they made a comment that any new “bad” idea in the USA germinates for a couple of years and then pops up in a modified form in Britain.  Yikes!

One good, bad example can be found in the new voter suppression policies that are debuting next year in time for the national elections.  Previously, the head of a household could automatically register everyone under the roof.  In the name of “reform,” the Conservative government turned the tables with a lot of fancy rationalizations all of which mean that now everyone has to individually register to vote.  Who gets hurt?  Who do you think?  Young voters, old voters, tenants, lower income families and others that don’t have the time, money, information, and so forth to crawl over the obstacles deliberately put in their path to be able to vote.  And, what does it matter, as conservatives in all countries say, they probably didn’t want to vote that much anyway?!?

The unions have collectively funded some social media and networking efforts to try to get younger voters to register.  One is called “Bite the Ballot “for example.  The Trade Union Congress (TUC) also has a collective effort for the labor in this area.  Individual unions say they are working to register their own members.  Having lived through the USA experience, I worry that the impact of not launching a massive effort to simply assure that everyone maintains their right to vote will mean an increasing gap that will be harder to bridge later once the impact is realized.  One official told me that if Labour returns to power, then they will get rid of this, but that’s a big bunch of “if’s,” and the point of voter suppression is likely to also be a factor in any future success of progressive governing coalitions.

The other new “twist” coming to the United Kingdom are called the “gagging” rules by progressives.  Individual committees for nonprofits are limited in expenditures in a race to about 5000 pounds and nationally to about 20000 pounds.  The rules are complicated.  I know, since I’ve read them!  There are also various provisions to “chill” the rights of nonprofits to participate even in campaigning for change.  If the commission determines that an organization is campaigning for a position that is aligned to or espoused by a political party, then the organization would be forced to limit its voice on the issue to the ceilings prescribed which is why they are speaking of such groups being gagged.  Charities and other so-called “third sector” groups are wringing their hands, especially because unlike a union or an ACORN, they don’t have members per se.  From what I could tell – and gather in conversations thus far – there still are no particular limits on communications to your direct membership about issues, so unions are not as affected directly though they are in terms of general issues and community issues where they and others would want to communicate with the public.

This is all new stuff in the UK.  Unions don’t have political action committees for example.  Community-based organizations are not as familiar with “independent expenditure committees” and the other hurdles US organizations have had to learn to jump.  Lawyers are no doubt working overtime on all sides of the political spectrum.

The learning process is going to be painful!


Finding the Line on Benefits and Drawing the Line on Rubbish

leith_acorn_action Edinburgh    When it came time for the Leith ACORN branch chair to report on the accomplishments of the first 5 months of campaigns, the conversation among the leadership went from speculative and quizzical to animated and excited.   As much as the big issues of lease security and rent management engaged everyone in the room, campaigning was one thing, and winning was another all together, and in Leith of the three objectives set in the first big meeting when rubbish collection issues were voted as the primary issue, there were already solid victories on two of the three, and they were heavily engaged in putting pressure on the football stadium to surrender on that one as well.  The “language” might be a little different in Scotland and the United Kingdom, but the issues and process are familiar to every community organizer who has ever worked the street.

First on the list was how to get the council to solve the issue of “uplift.”  Uplift was the euphemism for heavy household trash, which in the cutback of city services was now fee-based, rather than part of any kind of regular collection.  No one in Leith or much of anywhere else was going to burn up their cellphone minutes calling for a pickup of an old mattress for twenty pounds or whatever might be left when they moved from one flat to another. The landlord was also going to keep his hands in his pocket for sure.  The result of course was a deteriorating neighborhood with trash in the alleys, out back, thrown into construction skips, and whatever else including streets and parks.Putting the pressure on with a series of actions, the council agreed in January to start an experimental program of regular uplift on an every month basis, sort of a rubbish amnesty if you will.  Perhaps more easily Leith ACORN also won an increased number of receptacles for glass recycling to be dotted about the community, since glass was not part of regular trash pickup anymore.  Bam and bam!

Third on the list and the hardest nut to crack were the meetings the leaders and members were now having with the management of the football team whose stadium lies fat in the community, which also means that the detritus of every game also lies there enraging neighbors.  Leith ACORN wants the team and the stadium to buy an additional street sweeper to solve the problem.  If they know what’s good for them, they might as well shake hands and throw in the towel now, because they are going to lose this one either sooner or later.  It’s not a problem that goes away.

It was interesting to hear the exchange between the Edinburgh ACORN team and Tom Scott, who is putting the pieces together on the first group to form ACORN Newcastle, as they talked about, yes, what else, rubbish, which is also what he has been working on in recent months.  What were the handles in England?  Which of these situations would be “devolved” in Scotland?

Tom was also all over what we call “citizen wealth” issues when looking for benefit allowances that were discretionary, not well known or advertised, and sitting there waiting for th kind of /maximum eligible
participation /campaigns we have done in North America and with our membership service centers.One program Scott raised was along the lines of the US- LAHEAP provision for utility support for low income families facing harsh winters or summer.  The program in the US is not an entitlement, but discretionary on a first come, first served basis.  In England, it is also driven by an application process for 140 pounds a
year with another emergency allowance in another program.Surprisingly, the program is administered by individual utility service providers and only mandatory for the big ones, while being picks-and-chooses for the smaller outfits with no clear standards from what the Newcastle research had found.  There’s many a campaign waiting to be done from the brief discussions we had and on-the-spot confirmation on government websites.

There’s gold in them there hills for lower income family, and many victories to be won by ACORN groups in the UK!