Why Not Coffeehouses in Latin America to Support Cooperatives and Organizing

Why not ACORN International / Fair Grinds Coffeehouses" in large Latin American cities?

Miami              The more we talked to coffee producer cooperatives in the Marcala and San Juancito mountains of Honduras and tried to piece together a plan to directly trade coffee to the USA and Canada and especially our own Fair Grinds Coffeehouse in New Orleans and its monthly support of our offices in Central America, the more it seemed a natural to think about opening our own small mini-coffeehouses in places like Tegucigalpa and perhaps Lima, Buenos Aires, and Mexico City.  The notion would be to open café cooperativas for ACORN & Fair Grinds that would only serve coffee and other products directly obtained from cooperatives operating in the home country.  The proposition would to reverse fair trade into the home countries and keep the “buy local,” “buy organic,” and “buy fair trade” right there rather than something that happens in rich, developed countries.

Would it work?  Could “coffee cooperatives” work and compete, especially with the local market?  Not sure about that.  Ironically in places like Honduras where great coffee is grown the local market, like so many places is driven by price.  A lot of what is sold in places like Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula is coffee beans cut with a variety of other substances to lower the costs.

But, we don’t have to compete with Starbucks, just duplicate the “mission-driven” ACORN International / Fair Grinds model sufficiently to pay the coffeehouse bills, support the cooperatives by opening up a better market, and do well enough to support the local organizing with a local self-sufficiency plan.  Why not?  Could work!


Caveat Emptor / Buyers Beware the Fair Trade Mess

New Orleans               Part of the global dispute that ACORN International highlighted in our recently released report, “Unfair Fairtrade” www.acorninternational.org, burst into the business section of the Times in a weird piece of Thanksgiving celebration.  The issue engaged most directly continued to be the rouge retreat of Fair Trade USA and its chief, Paul Rice, from any pretense of real support for producers to what can only be correctly described as a corporate convenience and branding operation for large companies and their sources.  There can be little doubt that Rice and the US operation are on the wrong side of this dispute and are leading a wholesale assault on any notion of fair trade principles, despite the fact that from our research and report there can be little doubt that some of his criticisms of the Fairtrade International (FLO) and its certification program are also correct.

The terrible truth is that both competing business models are perhaps fatally flawed endangering the survival of the fair trade movement and real values at all.  The slim hope raised at the end of the William Neuman might be found by grasping the straw held out by Seth Goldman of Honest Tea (owned by Coca Cola) who is debating whether to sell certified products from Fair Trade USA or Fairtrade International when he “called the dispute a mess, but added, ‘Opening up a can of worms gives a chance to understand what’s in the can.’”  Perhaps hard looks would force needed change in FLO as well, because right now these continued contradictions are mainly hurting the intended beneficiaries, the producers, while treating the consumers almost as shabbily by abusing their good graces and picking their pockets often without any benefit to producers in the fields.  Continue reading


Finding Transcendent Issues in Sicily and Occupy NOLA

Finding Transcendent Issues in Sicily and Occupy NOLa

Finding Transcendent Issues in Sicily and Occupy NOLa

Palermo    The Movimenti Civici di Sicilia or Civic Movement of Sicily had called together 40 of its key leaders and activists from throughout Sicily to participate in a workshop with me about strategy and tactics in building a more substantial movement for change city by city in Sicily.  I drove with one of the leaders the 170 or so kilometers from Palermo to central Sicily in the picturesque town of San Cataldo.  After a gracious lunch and the chance to see old friends from my visit to years ago in Catania, we were soon right to business.  They wanted to know how ACORN and ACORN International had been built, how the campaigns worked, and the pieces were put together.  Four hours passed without their interest flagging only jolted by one short shot of expresso from a mini-machine they assembled in the lobby (what a great idea!).

IMG_1276It quickly became clear that they had a base in many communities that was quite active, largely among middle income citizens determined that there needed to be more citizen participation.  They were all volunteers with excellent leadership, facing an array of issues, often very effectively.  One leader from Enna (which turned out to be a gorgeous, small town perched around a castle as perhaps the highest town in Sicily) described his organization as “very like ACORN,” and detailed a campaign and their follow-up, which had be applauding.  Another leader from Caltanissetta, who had been slinging thoughtful, penetrating questions at me throughout the session, argued passionately for the need for action in a way that had me ready to march, regardless of the language.

IMG_1279Two things became clear in their analysis.  One was that they needed real capacity.  They wanted to engage the issue of dues collection, hiring and training organizers, and how to create the resources to take their movement to the next step.  The other conclusion that one speaker after another raised was the need to find a way to more tightly join all of their disparate and autonomous city federations into a coherent whole that could act in a transcendent fashion throughout Sicily, rather than simply talking about it.  We ended up having a very interesting dialogue about how to identify issues that “raised the roof” for the organization and triggered a larger commitment and plan to step up to bigger and bigger goals.  We talked about how political campaigns and initiative procedures can do that and how issues like living wages and the response to huge developments can fill that need for organizational growth.

All of which also made me read the emails and articles on the Occupy “movement” in the USA more closely.  At one level I was proud to read that people were taking up the banner to create an Occupy New Orleans, so that we are part of the action and attack.  On the other level the Steven Greenhouse piece in the New York Times looking at the injection of labor support not only in the Wall Street march, where I heard good reviews from participants, but also the unanimous vote of the AFL-CIO’s executive council to support the movement and the fact that individual unions like the Steelworkers, SEIU, and others are stepping in, showed some institutional recognition that despite many efforts to “manufacture a movement” that even the old bulls were ready to run when they smelled something in the air that seemed like spring.  Denise Mitchell of the AFL-CIO nailed it by recognizing that if there was a “spark” then labor needed to help bring forward the kindling to build the fire.

None of this makes a movement of course.  Nonetheless after 3 years of hoping for a change this is a signal to the right, left, and the middle, that finally we are looking for transcendent issues that can unite all of he forces, trump the conservativeness of foundations, funders, and Beltway seers, and how the power and passion of Americans desperate for change and willing to fight to get it.  This could be a transfusion!

In Sicily my new friends continued to talk about having the passion without the plan.  In the USA it seems recently we have been drowning in plans, but not finding the passion.  If Occupy can remind us that the two belong together, whether under this flag or another, then we can get America moving again from the streets to the structure.


ACORN Canada, ACORN International, Many Others Banned from FEMA Funding

acorn-international-logoNew Orleans Props to Dave Weigel of Slate.com for bringing to the public a better understanding of how the Republican U. S. Congress is so consumed by hater-ation that they can’t see the desperate needs of victims of disaster because they are still blinded in the fog of their ghostbusting of the tragically defunct ACORN.  Yesterday Weigel redacted a long, long list of groups banned by the U.S. House of Representatives included in the funding appropriations bill for FEMA.  Perhaps nostalgia, but I can’t tell you how proud I was to read that list.  It was an Honor Roll!  It was also totally bizarre!

Here’s the honor roll of banned groups:

“None of the funds made available by this Act shall be made available to the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, Acorn Beneficial Assoc., Inc., Arkansas Broadcast Foundation, Inc., Acorn Children’s Beneficial Assoc., Arkansas Community Housing Corp., Acorn Community Land Assoc., Inc., Acorn Community Land Assoc. of Illinois, Acorn Community Land Association of Louisiana, Acorn Community Land Assoc. of Pennsylvania, ACORN COMMUNITY LABOR ORGANIZING CENTER, ACORN Beverly LLC, ACORN Canada, ACORN Center for Housing, ACORN Housing Affordable Loans LLC, Acorn Housing 1 Associates, LP, Acorn Housing 2 Associates, LP, ACORN Housing 3 Associates LP, ACORN Housing 4 Associates, L.P., ACORN International, ACORN VOTES, Acorn 2004 Housing Development Fund Corporation, ACRMW, ACSI, Acorn Cultural Trust, Inc., American Environmental Justice Project, Inc., ACORN Fund, Inc., Acorn Fair Housing Organization, Inc., Acorn Foster Parents, Inc., Agape Broadcast Foundation Inc., Acorn Housing Corporation, Arkansas Acorn Housing Corporation, Acorn Housing Corp. of Arizona, Acorn Housing Corp. of Illinois, Acorn Housing Corp. of Missouri, New Jersey ACORN Housing Corporation, Inc., AHCNY, Acorn Housing Corp. of Pennsylvania, Texas ACORN Housing Corporation, Inc., American Institute for Social Justice, Acorn law for Education, Rep. & Training, Acorn Law Reform Pac, Affiliated Media Foundation Movement, Albuquerque Minimum Wage Committee, Acorn National Broadcasting Network, Arkansas New Party, Arkansas Acorn Political Action Committee, Association for Rights of Citizens, Acorn Services, Inc., Acorn Television in Action for Communities, Acorn Tenants’ Union, Inc., Acorn Tenant Union Training & Org. Project, AWA, Baltimore Organizing Support Center, Inc., Bronx Parent Leadership, Baton Rouge ACORN Education Project, Inc., Baton Rouge Assoc. of School Employees, Broad Street Corporation, California Acorn Political Action Committee, Citizens Action Research Project, Council Beneficial Association, Citizens Campaign for Fair Work, Living Wage Etc., Citizens Consulting, Inc., California Community Network, Citizens for April Troope, Clean Government Pac, Chicago Organizing and Support Center, Inc., Council Health Plan, Citizens Services Society, Campaign For Justice at Avondale, CLOC, Community and Labor for Baltimore, Chief Organizer Fund, Colorado Organizing and Support Center, Community Real Estate Processing, Inc., Campaign to Reward Work, Citizens Services Incorporated, Elysian Fields Corporation, Environmental Justice Training Project, Inc., Franklin Acorn Housing Corporation, Flagstaff Broadcast Foundation, Floridians for All PAC, Fifteenth Street Corporation, Friends of Wendy Foy, Greenwell Springs Corporations, Genevieve Stewart Campaign Fund, Hammurabi Fund, Houston Organizing Support Center, Hospitality Hotel and Restaurant Org. Council, Iowa ACORN Broadcasting Corp., Illinois Home Day Care Workers Association, Inc., Illinois Acorn Political Action Committee, Illinois New Party, Illinois New Party Political Committee, Institute for Worker Education, Inc., Jefferson Association of Parish Employees, Jefferson Association of School Employees, Johnnie Pugh Campaign Fund, Louisiana ACORN, New York Communities for Change, Affordable Housing Centers of America, Action Now, Pennsylvania Communities Organizing for Change, Arkansas Community Organizations (ACO), The Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, New England United for Justice, Texas Organizing Project, Minnesota, Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, Organization United for Reform, Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment, A Community Voice, Community Organizations International, Applied Research Center, or the Working Families Party.”

Weigel was looking at the bill to try and understand how Congress was going to shift resources that would have been spent in Joplin, Missouri, still suffering from their tornado damage, to help folks on the East Coast who were battered by Hurricane Irene.  There is a huge story that is covered my appendix about Lessons from Disaster in my book, Battle for the Ninth Ward:  ACORN, Rebuilding New Orleans, and the Lessons of Disaster (available www.socialpolicy.org), but that, as they say is another story, though it is the same story with simply another verse of governmental inaction and incompetence at the highest levels.

Some of the list is simply overkill.  ACORN International is banned by both that name and our other name, Community Organizations International.  ACORN Canada is banned though it doesn’t even work anywhere but Canada, duh.

Much of this is simply meanness.  The poor Applied Research Center is banned I assume just because they are my friends, and I have spoken supportively of them.  Oh, that and their founder was the great Gary Delgado, the first organizer I ever hired after founding ACORN, so sins of the fathers, I guess for the hater clan in Congress appearing near year on HBO’s Game of Thrones.

But among the elected Congressional haters accuracy is not the point after all.  One of the things I loved about reading this Honor Roll is that though they banned six or seven different entities that are component parts of Local 100, United Labor Unions, in fact Local 100, if it were of a mind, could go crazy applying to FEMA to help disaster victims, as could a number of other entities I direct that are not on the list.

Given that Congress sure isn’t helping disaster victims since the FEMA bill is stuck now between the House and Senate, maybe that is exactly what we should do.  Years ago I listened frequently to a story from my ex-mother-in-law (may she rest-in-peace) as she would say, “Wade, let me tell you what’ I’ve learned raising five children.  Never tell one of them not to put a bean up their nose.  As soon as you do, you’ll catch one of the little scudders in the kitchen doing just that!”

Seems to me like the Republicans in Congress are trying to put a bean up our noses now.


Mega Troubles for Microfinance

microfinanceBuenos Aires
Today ACORN International released a shocking report, Mega
Troubles for Microfinance (www.acorninternational.org), as the result of months and years of
first skepticism and now study of the claims and contradictions of the industry. In a letter to
policy makers, politicians, and development agencies throughout the world, signed by ACORN
International President Kay Bisnah from Toronto and myself, we called for action on the three
main recommendations of the report:

  • We demanded that there be no further public monies expended to support microfinance
    or microcredit agencies around the world, and any donor commitments that have been
    made and not yet fully fulfilled, should immediately be abandoned. Microfinance and
    microcredit are conclusively not a poverty reduction strategy, but a best a “job buying”
    program masking as a poverty alleviator.
  • We demanded that interest rates on microcredit loans be capped, since our report found
    that poor borrowers are currently being assessed predatory interest rates, sometimes
    exceeding 100% of the loan. Credit and debt are not poverty reduction strategies,
    especially at usurious rates for unsustainable financial institutions.
  • We demanded that national banks and international bodies move to establish a regulatory
    regime immediately to stop these abuses in the huge microfinance industry.

Our interest was piqued in microfinance for two reasons. First, the ACORN International
federated countries in India, Africa, and Latin America contain over one-third of the microcredit
borrowers worldwide. Secondly, the similarities in the abuses of microfinance were disturbingly
reminiscent of the same issues that are at the core of our Remittance Justice Campaign –
predatory pricing and no regulation!

Microcredit and microfinance have been sacred cows, but as more and more evidence is
marshaled proving that these are investments in pilot programs for private financial institutions
rather than tools for poverty reduction, it is abundantly clear that precious development dollars
for the poor need to be spent on proven remedies not private enterprise stalking horses. Forty
years of running this train ought to be enough for us all to admit that the whistle has blown and it
is time to try another track.

ACORN International is clear that the solution likes more in the direction of building
community power for change rather than trying to pretend that debt is somehow something
other than debt. Governments don’t have the money to waste in international development,
and the poor cannot survive more wolves masked in sheep’s clothing, which has become the microfinance story as Mega Troubles for Microfinance documents.

We are demanding action now!


Global Grassroots: Perspectives on Organizing

ggrootsMissoula It’s been fun to look at the first, advance copies of the new Social Policy Press book, Global Grassroots:  Perspectives on Organizing. Sharing a copy with friends and family, the reactions have been positive.   People are finding surprises as they open the covers.

The book combines a pile of essays from organizers around the world including John Bauman, PICO founder on organizing in Africa and Latin America, Lawrence Apiyo, head of COPA-K in Kenya on training and organizing around Africa, Denis Murphy from Manila on decades of work organizing in Asia, Kirk Noden now in Ohio on his experiences organizing with London Citizens in England, Paul Cromwell and Chuck Hirt on organizing in Europe, Na Hyowoo on his work in Korea and elsewhere, and a great piece by Judy Duncan of ACORN Canada on their work and experiences with tenant organizing in the North, along with other reports from India, Peru, and Mexico by ACORN International organizers.

There is an entire section on campaigns.  This part includes an interesting analysis of how community organization and its principles were important in Eritrea and the resilience of its recovery.  There are also pieces on education organizing in France (Shane Adler), successful anti-privatization campaigns in Peru (Luis isarra and Lisa Donner), winning the first municipal living wage measure in Canada in New Westminster (John Anderson), green organizing in Toronto by environmental and community organizers as part of the Live Green project, and reports from Australia by Amanda Tattersall on education and ACORN Canada’s Jill O’Reilly on the tough fight for living wages in Ottawa.

The last section on “global footprints” includes a piece on organizing in Indonesia from Craig Robbins and Jenny Arwade and another on South Africa by Louis Jamerson which came from their experiences on Organizers’ Forum delegations in recent years.   Some of my blogs on organizing filed from the field during my travels are included in “Footprints Around the Globe,” as well as an introduction on the spread of community organizing for power around the world and a final essay on the challenge of sustainability and scaling in this work.

Right now the book is only available through the Social Policy website at www.socialpolicy.com, where there is now a “shopping cart” feature.  The pricing is organizer-activist friendly at $15 plus shipping.  Eventually the book will list on Amazon and be at some book stores and events, but right now we want it to be a tool that advances the work.

The book was a struggle to assemble over thousands of miles and different languages, but holding it in our hands and hearing feedback from the organizers with copies now, it was a journey worth traveling, like so much of our work.

Time to get a copy and see a world of organizing open up for you!