New Orleans If you’re living anywhere in the southern United States it pays to be careful before you start tut-tuting about those crazy racists over in South Carolina about flying the Confederate battle flag over their state capitol. Just look around you, and memorials to the lost war in the South for slavery are everywhere. South Carolina can debate about taking care of their problem in the wake of the tragic hate killings in a historic and activist AME church in Charleston, but there’s work to be done throughout the South.
Writing from New Orleans, we have General Lee towering over Lee Circle in the business district as the gateway to driving down stately St. Charles Avenue. Of course there’s also a statue of Jefferson Davis along the wide stretch of Jefferson Davis Parkway in the city. A local columnist commented on two African-American friends who make a regular personal protest every full moon of going over and pissing on the statue. A public elementary school attended by my daughter was named after a hater former president of state superintendent of Louisiana schools, born in Charleston, South Carolina, who led the fight to keep the New Orleans schools lily-white in the late 1800’s as a way of maintaining white supremacy. It’s still named after him. Just saying.
And, for flags flying we have a bunch of southern states memorializing the Lost War of the Confederacy at their state capitols, on their license plates, and in everyone’s faces.
Arkansas has a big, blue star in the middle of its flag commemorating its four fun years as part of the Confederacy. The history is clear. The state legislature added the star in 1923 according to the state’s historian’s remarks to commemorate the confederacy and made sure to make it more prominent than the other three stars for the countries that had previously ruled the state. The Alabama flag is modeled on the Alabama infantry flag from the Civil War. The red cross in the Florida flag was added by a governor in memory of his enlistment in the Confederate Army in his youth. The Georgia flag is the first national flag of the Confederacy with the Georgia seal on it. Mississippi, not surprisingly, incorporates the battle flag of the Confederacy into its state flag. North Carolina and Tennessee also incorporate the old Confederate flag in state flag designs. As a blogger noted in the Washington Post,
As of the 2010 Census, these states were home to about 60 million Americans — including 12 million African-Americans, meaning roughly one third of the nation’s black population lives under a state flag that evokes, at least in the eyes of many, the Confederacy.
The message is clear and there’s no getting around it. Some might say, who cares and who even notices a state flag anymore? If that’s true, then no one will lose much sleep getting a new one. There are always museums that can hold civil war statuary and symbols, and that’s where it all belongs, not in a public place that lends legitimacy to a sordid history, rather than teaching the lessons learned over time. With time there must be change and we have to honor the new and the future, not just the past.
Paul Thurmond, a Republican state senator in South Carolina and son of Strom Thurmond, the former US Senator and arch-segregationist presidential candidate, explained that he would vote to remove the confederate battle flag from the State House. He was quoted in the New York Times saying:
Our ancestors were literally fighting to keep human beings as slaves and to continue the unimaginable acts that occur when someone is held against their will. I am not proud of this heritage.
For a change we all need to agree with a Senator Thurmond and fix this stuff now!
Guns N’ Roses – Civil War (Live Farm Aid 1990)
New Orleans The World Bank, a joint financing project invariably led by an American, but amalgamating many countries resources for major, and sometimes controversial, public works and other investments in developing countries particularly, is big bucks. If you want to build a power plant, a dam, a railroad, or anything in the billions, your country’s delegation is going to apply for a visa and start packing for a trip to Washington, DC to appeal for funds. Let’s agree from the onset that the World Bank has the purse strings so it has a big stick in stirring the drink and making stuff happen.
Human Rights Watch has issued a report called “At Your Own Risk” running almost 150 pages and documenting cases in countries from India to Cambodia, Uganda to Uzbekistan, and around the globe where despite their own rules, demanding community engagement and a direct process for complaints and grievances, they have allowed critics of World Bank funded projects to be harassed, imprisoned, and abused with impunity. A story cited in India is standard. Dam projects in India have been battlegrounds for more than a decade on any number of grounds, so the World Bank is fully aware that any project of this nature they fund is going to be controversial.
Human Rights cited a recent example that is as good as any:
Beginning in February 2015, 40-50 residents of Durgapur village in northern India, mostly women, sat in protest for more than a month. A state-owned company called the Tehri Hydro Development Corporation India Ltd. (THDC) was developing a hydroelectric power project near their community and some villagers believed that tunneling for the project endangered their homes and the overall well-being of their community. The women and their children sat all day in protest, singing folk songs that gave voice to their worries regarding the future, as well as songs of courage and hope.
Seems like standard fare and no big deal in the world’s largest democracy, as India styles itself, and certainly a country that has a long history of dealing with much harder edged protests and demonstrations. But in this case the women were harassed, threatened with reprisals, personally attacked, and abused. Human Rights and just plain common sense raises the question, “Why does the World Bank allow this kind of activity?”
Human Rights Watch had a multi-paged list of recommendations for the World Bank, its management, shareholders, and the countries involved about doing better. More training, more consultations, more serious attention to complaints, and so forth.
Strangely missing was the one recommendation that would have real meaning: cut the money off!
If you have a big stick, use it! Not just to dig dirt, block water, or whatever but also to protect speech, assembly and the basic rights of communities on the wrong end of these high-faluting developments.
What’s with the World Bank? Can’t they really stand for something besides interest rates and repayments schedules? Can’t they stand for the voiceless as well as the big whoops among the politicians and rich developers where their projects are being built? And, why are we – and Human Rights Watch – biting our tongue and not demanding that they cut the money off, if basic rights of people and communities are not respected?
Shaming isn’t enough. They need to step up or shut down.
New Orleans We are making progress on our Remittance Justice Campaign. A federal bill has now been introduced in Canada to cap fees and other costs at 5%. Provincial bills have now been introduced in British Columbia and Ontario. Reports from Honduras indicated that there is movement in Tegucigalpa at capping the fees finally. A report from France indicates that the giant telecom, Orange, has announced lowered costs for transfers to French speaking African countries. These may be baby steps though compared to what is possible with newer technology, startups, and other tools, if we could get our members over the digital divide.
A Wall Street Journal column recently began with a story about a US viewer of a news report on a demonstration in the Ukraine last year where a protestor held up a sign with their bitcoin transfer information and the savvy techie sent him $10 in bitcoin. That is NOT what I’m talking about, because even while repeating that story, I feel like I’m talking a foreign language.
On the other hand in Canada, we tried to figure out if Venmo worked there. Oh, you don’t know Venmo? Then don’t call yourself hip, though my tongue is solidly in my cheek, because I only know Venmo since one of my closest living relatives is on the proper side of what the company calls the “Venmo line,” which is people 30 years old and under. The cost of transfers through Venom is nada, zero, zilch! Venmo can do this for free because they are moving bits of data around with permissions from one bank account to another. Sadly, Venmo, when we checked, is no-go in Canada and only works in the USA now because of complicated banking regulations, similar to what is hampering us on remittances. Electronic payment methods using credit cards aren’t better. In fact we have a strange bedfellow ally in Walmart that is suing Visa for more than $5 billion “alleging the fees it charges when customers use plastic are unreasonably high.”
The Wall Street Journal agreed with ACORN as well, saying that Western Union, MoneyGram and the like charge fees that “run as high as 8%, not including the less-than-favorable exchange rates….” They cite some potential competitors like TransferWise that “matches pools of people in two different countries who want to send money to the opposite country, thus eliminating the need to actually transfer money at all.” What they seem to have done is apply technology and a matching service to the age old hawala system still popular in the Middle East and frequently used in South Asia, though technically illegal there. In fact a company with a similar name, Dwolla, has “built a federally approved payment network, called FiSync, that allows any connected institution to instantaneously send any amount of money.” And, yes, they also do this for free!
It’s hard to tell what the tipping point might be that stops the predatory money exchangers from muscling up on transfers from migrant workers and immigrant families back to their home countries, especially given the persistence of the unbanked, but the gap is closing on these rip-off artists whether politically or technically as they get driven to either change or die.
Pittsburgh The Pittsburgh ACORN Family Reunion Picnic organized by ANEW Institute in Homestead was battling bad weather forecasts and real raindrops that moved the affair from the park to the porch of the Baker House on 11th. The score of folks who came by couldn’t have cared less, because they got to see the progress on the renovation of the building which will be their future office, and even more so they wanted to talk. About issues. About education. About health. About the community. About ACORN. About building organization again in all the smaller communities on the Southside and what they called the Mon Valley after the great Monongahela River, one of the three rivers defining Pittsburgh and western Pennsylvania.
One of the picnickers had worked for the giant University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, now universally in this area as UPMC with a skyscraper highlighting their letters looming over the cityscape. UPMC is reckoned as the largest hospital system in the country. One thing led to another though and the more we talked about hospitals, healthcare, and citizen wealth, the more impossible it was to not talk about medical debt. A quick poll of the celebrants of ACORN’s 45th birthday found that one-third were carrying medical debt now and still facing persistent health problems. It was also clear that all of folks raising their hands qualified for charity care and all of them were caught in the gears of the giant UPMC system.
Later when we took a quick look at the UPMC numbers it was unsettling to say the least. 38 hospitals with almost 60,000 workers and over $10 billion dollars in program service revenue, yet the amount of charity care they provided was hardly better than 1% when the national average for nonprofits is over 6%. There were horror stories of “point of service” collection tactics where patients, even those on Medicare, were being asked to pay down payments and deductibles before being admitted or treated in the emergency room at least until an advocate joined them and forcibly raised the issue of charity care.
Maybe UPMC doesn’t get it or thinks they can get away with it, because this is just the standard operating procedure in the Pittsburgh area. One woman told a moving and tragic story about being “naïve,” which must be a euphemism for having been robbed. She had bought a house using the always sketchy rent-to-own system and the landlord-owner tried to sell the property after she had sunk $30000 in improvements into the house. There was nothing but home cooking in this tale where politicians and others ganged up on her family in the thievery. The court ended up agreeing with her that she was robbed but she still didn’t recover either the money or the house because of various technicalities. The trigger for the story had been her testimony for how much ACORN had meant to her and the fact that they stood with her in the fight and were clear this was predatory and a crime.
The chicken was good and the beans were great, but people left talking about how, just as ACORN had done in the past, they needed to organize their communities again and build ACORN in the future. What a great way reunion and a great way to celebrate a birthday!
Pittsburgh When people who care about something get together in an organization that they also care about, stand back and admire the creativity that starts to blossom.
Of course there’s always ACORN swag which is almost a cottage industry in itself. There can’t be an ACORN convention without a convention t-shirt. I’m pretty sure that’s a rule. I have a whole shelf of them at home along with a couple in my bag with me now. I can remember a buzz at the back of the room, when I finally managed to get an ACORN “uniform” of sorts introduced to the organizers. I drink my own Kool-Aid though and I’m sitting here now with an ACORN short sleeve shirt on and wore my ACORN button-down long sleeve shirt in Montreal and a hundred other places. I will put an ACORN baseball cap on my head when I go to the ACORN “family” picnic at Homestead Park, and there’s an ACORN Canada handkerchief in my back pocket. There are always ACORN buttons and ACORN flags flying everywhere around the world where we work. I ride for the brand.
But, it’s not just me, because the members get even more creative. A member from Toronto brought me a bag of cookies she thought would be a great fundraiser for ACORN everywhere and at Fair Grinds Coffeehouses in New Orleans. In the bag were beautifully made gingerbread cookies with colorful icing. When you lined the cookies out on the table one by one, each one had a letter on it ,and they spelled www.acorncanada.org. What a treat!
Another member from British Columbia, Vern, regularly produces and designs his own notion of ACORN slogans on t-shirts and the occasional sweatshirt. The most famous, and almost a collector’s item, is one we call the “tiger” t-shirt. The slogan on the shirt is that “ACORN is the People’s Tiger” and the design has an ACORN symbol in gold on the front and a bit of the tiger. I love that shirt!
A member from Toronto named Heidi was called up to the podium in Montreal because she had developed an ACORN rap. From where I stood in the back it was hard for me to catch all of the words, so I’ll have to track down the lyrics verse by verse as soon as I can, but I know it started with ACORN and ended with ACORN, and other phrases included, “No back down,” and “Take a stand” and “Stop the greedy,” so however they were strung together it sounds like she was on track and the members were on their feet, clapping, finger popping, and hollering right until the end of her rap.
Another member from Ottawa had developed his own chant, which was also readily adopted on the march, and could become a standard with a little work:
Stop the war on the poor
Make the rich pay
We’re hungry! We’re angry!
And, we won’t go away!
Other members sometimes changed the last line on subsequent verses to “And, ACORN won’t go away,” and I even heard one chanting “We’re ACORN every day!” as the last line. There’s always the classic, “A-C-O-R-N,” and “People want to know, who we are, so we tell them, we’re ACORN, mighty, mighty ACORN.” In Montreal, we heard some of these chants in French as well, and of course we all learned “Sol, Sol, Solidarite!”
When we all get together in groups large and small, we know the story: “The People United Will Never be Defeated.”
Pittsburgh The words “easy” and “right” are challenging concepts in community organizing, since all of it is hard and in each situation organizations have to make adaptations to find the right ways and means that work in a certain time and space. Nonetheless, inarguably there are some ways forward at a greater degree of difficulty than others, and choosing to build sustainability from the start has to be one of the bigger challenges, and that’s what I was seeing in the Homestead, West Homestead, and Mt. Oliver boroughs on the Southside of Pittsburgh.
Compared to Youngstown, Detroit, and some other Midwestern US cities, Pittsburgh has a “good press” arguing that they are making the transition from heavy industry and its poisonous smokestacks to something like the clean jobs of big healthcare and high tech. The city has shrunk though the metropolitan area is large. Abandonment is everywhere, just hidden better behind dense trees and hillsides.
Maryellen Hayden Deckard, a former ACORN organizer for many years in Pittsburgh is trying to build a new organization starting in the small towns or boroughs south of the rivers in Homestead, Mt. Oliver, West Homestead and the like and even calling it ANEW. She’s also doing it the hard way by trying to develop “low to the ground,” as she calls it, by patching together what she hopes will be resource generating sustainability projects that can support the organization’s development.
ANEW is an ACORN affiliate so I took the opportunity of being in Montreal to stop by and see what progress they had really made since my last visit a couple of years ago. In a couple of cases, I was literally “on the ground floor,” because part of what ANEW Institute is doing is rehabbing two buildings, one on 8th in West Homestead and the other that they call the Baker House on Baker Street across from the park in Homestead, the storied steel town and home of the famous strike against Andrew Carnegie and his operations almost 120 years ago. The Baker property was gifted over to them from the borough in hopes they could successfully rehab the property. They envision a coffeehouse and event space with their own offices there and some apartments on the upper stories. The bones of the building are good, but they have a lot of work to do to get there. The West Homestead property is being done on spec for the owner who wants to rent out the top two floors as apartments and has also given them rent free space for the first year as part of their payment to install the print shop they hope to operate there, having already made the down payment on an $11,000 machine, which they think will be their goldmine coupled with a business services and citizen wealth type operation. Since ACORN International has a biodiesel machine still sitting in our warehouse in New Orleans, a farm, and two coffeehouses that are all struggling to carry their weight and contribute to supporting organizing around the world, I know the risks she is taking and the long odds of success.
view of Pittsburgh from St. Michael’s cemetery on the southside
Walking through Mt. Oliver in the morning the signs of various community development organizations were found less in the footprint of change than in peeling murals and for rent signs downtown. Tax preparers, dollar stores, and junk shops with the occasional corner store, café, and bar were the main attractions, competing with for sale and for rent spaces.
It needs to be done, and our opponents, and even our friends, have taught us that without controlling our resources and sustainability we cannot survive much less organize, build power, and make change, but even if we all agree that organizing is a struggle, social enterprises and so-called community development through small business projects are hard ways to go as well. There has to be a balance, and we have to remember to always keep trying to do what we are good at and tempering our new ideas with our proven skills.