ACORN Bristol Crew from left to right: Louie Herbert, Nick Ballard, and Stu Elliot
BristolAfter 7 hours with our first organizing committee introduction with leadership and organizer training workshop at the Easton Community Centre in Bristol, it’s fair to say that we’re on our way and off to a great start.People were both serious and excited, and hunkered down to the tasks before them with another meeting in two weeks as the organizing committee membership expands.The first 10 members have now joined at 5 pounds per month and we’re on our way.
The day involved a deep discussion of the ACORN Model and how it might work in Easton as well as the chance to practice doorknocking and spend serious time doing some planning of potential issues in the neighborhood.Given the level of tenancy in Easton, not surprisingly one group worked on how they would construct a campaign to limit “letting” (leasing) agency fees from 150 pounds to get a flat and the other sketched out a campaign to deal with mold and health hazards in units where landlords were not making repairs and the dampness was causing asthma and respiratory problems.Very exciting stuff.
Easton has about 13000 people and is a polyglot area, once largely white working class, but now also Somalian, Indian, Pakistani, Afro-Caribbean, and more.Much more!
BristolTed Nugent traded in his guitar for a gun a long time ago, and now he’s stomping around Texas, rather than Michigan, but the verses he’s yelling now are totally without rhyme or reason.Of course the Republicans, including the current Attorney General, running for Governor of Texas, claim to not know anything much about Nugent, but they know enough to know that he’s the opening act to throw red meat at the foaming mouths of their hard right rallies for their campaign faithful.He’s one of the performing puppets saying what they can’t, so that no one misses the message, and it’s a heinous message of hate.
Nugent in one of the weirdest non-apologies on the recent record said he was sorry to his Republican betters but “not necessarily to the President” for saying:
I have obviously failed to galvanize and prod, if not shame, enough Americans to be ever vigilant not to let a Chicago communist-raised, communist-educated, communist-nurtured subhuman mongrel like the Acorn community organizer gangster Barack Hussein Obama to weasel his way into the top office of authority in the United States.
CNN and the New York Times have pointed out that the whole “subhuman mongrel” phrase has a direct historical relationship with the same constant refrain used by the Nazis against the Jews, and in many ways that says it all, but the continued red-baiting and ACORN-hating that has become part of the regular rhetoric of the right should also be roundly condemned as inappropriate political speech.
And, it’s becoming way too common, especially in Texas.
A weird question on my Facebook page sent me looking for its source and it wasn’t hard then to put two and two together on the hater brigade in Texas, where you can now quicklyconnect the recent announcement of Breitbart.com and their expansion of their rightwing sensation mongering to Texas to insert themselves into the Governor’s race with the repeated resurfacing of James O’Keefe and his antics along with sidekicks like, Brandon Darby, notorious for his alleged spying infiltration of various groups several years ago.One is likely financier, while the others play the provocateurs.
I watched a video late the other night with O’Keefe and Darby trying to attack something called Battleground Texas, which I gather is doing voter registration in the state, which God knows is much needed.In a slight of hand they were referencing a story by Austin-American political reporter, Jonathan Tilove, where he had quoted my advice in the recent issue of Social Policy to all organizers and organizations doing this work to be ever vigilant of their “gotcha” tactics, and then, in order to join Nugent on the “red meat” trail, calling Battleground Texas in their video, the “new” ACORN.Of course I wouldn’t know these Battleground Texas folks any more than the man from Mars, but accuracy was never the issue or interest of O’Keefe and his imitators.Their mission and method is to muddle by manipulating into their message the litany of code words that communicate hate and division.
The formula of communist plus ACORN plus Obama is hard for any front row, drooling, fire breathing rightwing dragon to miss, especially when it is pounded home so regularly.Ted Nugent didn’t invent it and neither did O’Keefe and his buddies, but as Nugent says, it’s only his “heroes” that can stop it, and that’s people like Abbot, Ted Cruz, the Texas Senator, Governor Rick Perry, and the legions of other Republican leaders who have unleashed this hate throughout the land and refuse to curb it.Saner voices need to be heard on the right, because this kind of sensationalism increasingly seems less like an encouragement to vote, than a coded call to violence.It has to stop.
LondonIn an interesting development several large labor unions, including Unison and Unite, are building what they call community organizing programs in recognition of the increasing importance of communities in building their programs.
In the case of Unite, the country’s largest labor union with more than 2 million members, organizers meeting with me in London told me that see their emerging program as critical in filling the gaps in some of the deindustrialized areas of England where they once were dominant. A significant union commitment of close to a million dollars has staffed community organizing coordinators in all of the union’s districts and has added several dozen organizers to the program along with creating partnerships with community centers and others to deepen their outreach.For Unison, a largely public sector union, the main emphasis has been in the Birmingham area where they have a partnership with Citizens, the formation expanding from London Citizens in recent years around the country.London Citizens, drawing heavily from the faith-based institution model closely identified with the Alinsky-influenced Industrial Areas Foundation in the USA, in this project has increasingly made the union its main partner there.
In a lengthy conversation with the community organizing department at Unite, it was fascinating to hear their ambitions and commitment in figuring out how to develop a community membership with a fifty-pence per week membership “subscription,” which is around $3.30 per month.There was clarity that they wanted these community members, and eventually the groups formed when a 50 member threshold was reached, to be able to support the labor union when it had struggles, and in that vein they shared several stories of picket line support that had already emerged in some fights.There was also a deep trade union commitment to providing robust services for this membership in the same way that they heavily serviced their existing bargaining units.They were still working out various organizing models though and trying to calibrate the issues involved in building power through these groups on community issues as well as their position on the necessary levels of autonomy and, eventually, sustainability, all of which are hard issues for any organization.
Nonetheless at this point their target constituencies are the unemployed, retired, and others in their areas and much of their literature reads along the lines of the AFL-CIO’s Union Privilege program and various US-union “associate membership” programs or perhaps even the AFL-CIO’s Working America program.Recruitment is directly to Unite as a community member of the union and though the literature and program is aggressive in talking about campaigning on issues that are deeply important to the public due to austerity cuts in the country, like the “bedroom tax” raising the rents on social or public housing tenants and the council or local government tax support in reducing benefits, when ticking off the “reasons to join” the list though is largely benefits and service from debt counseling to legal advice to job training skills.
The pilots are promising and serious.Doubtlessly, part of the push by labor is also political.The alienation from the existing government led by the Conservatives and the disaffection with the neo-liberal policies of “New Labour” under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, have left labor in the United Kingdom looking to unite with others to also find common political cause to protect and advance their members, and the community can’t be overlooked.All of this is worth watching.
LondonFor a fascinating 8 hours 35 community organizers working throughout England in various communities in London, Newcastle, Bristol, Leeds, and elsewhere along with a sprinkling of organizing and trade union activists and organizers put their shoulders to the wheel in a meeting room of the London University Union to learn about the ACORN organizing methodology in an amazing exercise of “organizing as a second language.”
Ok, what in the world am I talking about now?
Several years ago the Conservative government was responsible for one of those “what the heck” moments when in the midst of almost draconian austerity proposals in their own version on “compassionate conservatism” they announced their commitment to create a government funded community organizing program which would train and deploy 500 so-called community organizers over a 4-year period throughout the country.Hard core readers may recall that we discussed the program extensively in a series of blogs at the time, largely because of the role of London Citizens, loosely affiliated with the IAF, and its national offshoots which had widely been expected to train and supervise the organizers.In a surprise the training and supervision contract had gone to others and is now held by two UK nonprofits called ReGenerate and Locality.
Somewhat reminiscent of the old US-based VISTA program, largely young people were recruited for a two-year program.The first year places the person as an “organizer trainee” and then through several certifications, you are deemed a trained organizer.In preparation for my workshop, I read the training materials given to the organizers.Listening is presented as a fundamental tool for the organizers, which is inarguably essential.The model is not a model, but more a process of sorts where by listening to people in the community the organizer will hear interests and issues and will be able to assist in their realization or implementation in some way, shape, or form, though it was never crystal clear in my reading that anything approaching an organization was meant to evolve, though, when all was said and done, there might be some small community teams that would be the legacy of the program.Organizers are assigned to local sponsors, who are in the main, nonprofits and social services agencies, but the lines of supervision are somewhat muddled it seems between Locality, the national overseer, and the local sponsor of sorts.Meanwhile the expectations are modest and involve each organizer visiting through doorknocking or whatever with 500 families in the course of the year.
The reason I have to describe some of my dialogue with this great group of hopeful community organizers as “organizing as a second language” is that so many of the terms, doorknocking, house meetings, listening, models, and even the bandying about of Saul Alinky’s name were similar, though in almost all cases we were having to redefine each other’s understanding of what we really meant and intended by these phrases and concepts.Organizing is about communicating though and the spirits were willing so by the end of the day, we had all made great progress.They ended up with a nodding acquaintance with the ACORN Model and a sense of how community organizers work around the world, and I had a crash course in their local issues, campaigns, and almost palpable frustration at wanting to organize to make change or at least a difference and feeling frustrated, not that they were being instructed by the government to not be successful, but were not being given the skills or direction in order to succeed.
It turns out to almost be impossible to connect the dots for an organizer, when there is really no expectation that their work will in fact produce an organization as a vehicle for peoples’ action and potential victories.After a long day though all of us hoped we might have actually given this great team enough skills to give people in the community the real help that they might want and need to build organization and even power, leaving the intentions of the government and its contractors a mystery for some other time and place and of no real interest.
LondonIn an oft-handed conversation with the equivalent of a high school civics teacher, I got a quick course in so-called English school reform which was every bit as scary as the charter school movement in the United States though different in some interesting ways as well.
The bottom line is that over the last 14 years almost 3500 schools in England have jumped from the local control of community educational authorities to an autonomous status approved by the central government.Originally the door was opened by the Labor Party government of Tony Blair responding to the problem of poor, nonperforming schools in 2000 about the same time as President Bush was moving on No Child Left Behind in 2001.The Conservative government put the program on steroids by cutting funding for what they called “specialism” or technical and technology training leaving schools short by about $250000 pounds per year.But, similar to the way public schools were usurped in New Orleans after Katrina when they were out of money, but could access federal money from the Bush Administration on a trial if they became charters, the British government would make up the deficit if these schools, many of them our equivalent of high schools, became “academies.”
All funding for schools in England comes from the central government so the local funding stream of school-based property tax which also empowers governance from locally elected school boards is not an equivalent factor.These so-called “autonomous schools” no longer under local control with many run by nonprofit educational trusts, could get “sponsors” for the schools to help meet expenses but his was also true of all of the schools in England.One important distinction between these academies and charter schools though that is worth noting is that they were not allowed to be selective.In order to be approved to make the switch, they had to agree to educate everyone in the local service area or school district.
My new teacher friend was a member of NUT, the National Union of Teachers, one of three teachers’ unions in the country and the most aggressive of the group.All unions and many other community forces have opposed the creation of these academies, though in fact her school where she was teaching had also made the conversion.Some of the deals were almost bizarre.Given land costs in the UK, her local authority had required a 125 year lease before turning over the school in order to prevent any educational trust from trying in the future to finance themselves by selling off the property to move to cheaper digs.Sounds like the money may come from the feds so to speak, but the land was acquired by the locals giving them so say, even if saying “so long.”
Some US-based researchers have noted that a big difference between the charter movement and the academy movement has been the top-down testing and standards regime required in the US as opposed to the bottom-up autonomy push in England, which seems a principal empowerment play to many.Despite my skepticism, early results seem positive.Some of the academies are now being run by cooperatives, which others refer to as “a good pill for a bad policy.”
I have to warn that I could be missing some of the subtleties here.There’s also a “free school” movement which seems even a more blatant attempt to privatize the school systems and rather than “free” these schools seem totally high-end private operations.Nonetheless, this was new to me, and is worth us trying to all get our arms around to see if where they are going is also where we are being pushed and pulled.
LondonA record number of comments, 23,000 and counting, have now been filed with the Internal Revenue Service, over proposed new rules affecting tax exempt nonprofits, particularly organizations with a c4 status, but even potentially c5’s which are labor unions and c6’s which are trade associations.When you hear IRS and tax exemptions, the first thing that may come to your mind is the dust-up some months ago when it was revealed that applications from the Tea people and some progressive organizations both received an extra hairy eyeball review from the Service about whether they were really social welfare outfits or simply wolves in sheep’s clothing.The real problems though are much deeper than that controversy and instead go squarely to the Supreme Court’s even wider opening of the floodgates for mass volumes of money coming into politics with the Citizen United decision and the quickness of Karl Rove, the Koch Brothers, and others to drive trucks through the new loopholes while disguising the drivers or donors at the same time.
Now the IRS finally is coming to grips with the mess of fake c4’s and everyone seems to be yammering and whining about the proposals.The heart of the problem is what defines “political campaign,” and where the IRS seems to have thrown the baby out with the bathwater is in broadly mashing traditional nonprofit civic engagement with hard core partisan campaigning.The IRS rule seems to include voter registration drives, get-out-the-vote efforts, candidate debates and forums, voter guides, and a whole bunch of stuff that has been simple and straightforward for years from groups ranging from the League of Women Voters to neighborhood civic organizations.Something this broad seems to be trying to fix a lot more than was broken.Adding on restrictions to unions and even the Chamber of Commerce, just seems grasping, and I bet at least those items will die on the drawing board.
Nonetheless, it’s hard to go to the barricades to defend c4’s in my view.It’s always been a “partially pregnant” tax status.It’s not a c3, which is the most favorable status for nonprofits and clearly lines such an organization with the angels in doing educational and charitable work, but somewhere betwixt and between.In my years with ACORN for example, we never had any c4’s.ACORN was a plain vanilla nonprofit, and didn’t need a special tax exemption to do the work we were doing or to embrace restrictions on our membership for limited and questionable advantages.More recently c4’s have become the rage though and many of the former ACORN state affiliates seem to have reorganized as c4’s rather than simply as nonprofits.I would have thought it tied hands, and now it seems the IRS is caught in this latest firestorm, because it is trying to do exactly what they probably should do, which is tie hands, especially given the abuse of the c4 status by the Koch Brothers and their imitators.
The head of the IRS says they are in no hurry to solve this problem, but the genie is out of the bottle and being a c4 is going to become a lot harder, more expensive, and immensely trickier.Being either a c3 or a simple nonprofit may not be fancy or the fad for the lawyers, but for organizers, it’s still the way to go for my money.