Lessons of Disaster: Sandy, New York City, Housing Projects, and Lost Wages

New Orleans   After Katrina and the continual start-and-stop-and-slow rebuilding process in New Orleans with side trips and explorations to Kobe and more recently cities in Eastern Japan after those earthquakes and the tsunami attacks, and other cities near and far, I have come to believe that the way governments, established institutions, and community and popular organizations deal with disasters is extremely important.  These are the ultimate “stress tests” not simply of the built environment, but of the organic resilience of human and social organizations.  So in the same way I couldn’t stop reading Katrina stories and participated in the watch “force” on the nuclear meltdowns in Japan, I’m all over Sandy, as well, especially in the way it looks at the impacts across the entire community.

There were two very interesting pieces in the Times this morning that were both significant in this regard and disturbing.

One was about life in public housing without electricity or heat.  First you had to get past the headline on the front page which was meant to project all possible fears of the worst kind on the projects:  “In New York’s Public Housing:   Fear Creeps in With the Dark.”  Interestingly, the headline in the on-line version was much more balance, as you can see by including “heroism.”  Ok, well a little more balanced anyway.

The actual story was less lurid and more helpful.   Less than 10% of the more than 2000 NYCHA buildings were powerless, which deserves an attaboy of some kind right there.  There were stories of people looking after people.  Building by building impromptu barbeques to share the food that would have spoiled was reported.   Hallways became public spaces.  People talked of visiting with neighbors not usually part of their circle. The rhythms of life move with the sun, which speaks as much to what I always refer to as “inside camping” on the Gulf Coast hurricane hunkerdowns, as it does to any particular or latent fear of crime and mayhem.

Rebecca Solnit in A Paradise Built in Hell:  The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster has handled this phenomena best in this book about the way that in the worst of times sometimes the best arises in people to build real communities from the San Francisco Fire to Katrina.  My Battle for the Ninth Ward about the post-Katrina experience found many of these same elements in the fierce fights for people to come home.    If you can survive the latent racism lurking behind the headlines, there’s a lot to feel good about in these stories of adaptation.  One quote from a 73-year old tenant that identifies with what he inaccurately thinks is “half of the world” living without electricity is a classic!

Another story  looked at the problem of lost wages for workers displaced in the storm who don’t get paid if they can’t get to work or if work is shutdown from flooding, power failures, and other catastrophes.  Too often we read about “stay-cations” and “hurrica-tions,” as if these are party times for people, as long as the storm “attacks,” as they correctly call these natural events in Japan, who escape the devastation.   People are hurting everywhere including the pocketbook, and no matter what the Republican Congress thinks, we don’t do enough to help individual families bounce back.  One man talks about how to pay for $7000 in roof damage.  Looking at my roof that still lacks gutters 7 years after Katrina, I could tell him the answer, but he might not like it.  I can already see the articles the Times will be writing about homes without any flood insurance up and down the East Coast, because who expected the 100-year “super storm.”

I haven’t read any story yet where they recommend not rebuilding New York City and the East Coast, like we read daily about New Orleans, so that’s refreshing.  Maybe this “shared suffering” in the media center of America, will lead to some compassion and public policy reforms on a number of fronts for post-disaster families and communities?  Dare we hope?

Hurricane Sandy devastation in the Rockaway and Breezy Point Queens area


Advocating Alternative Models for Community & Labor Organizing in Japan

Tokyo  Ken Yamazaki is the deputy senior research officer in the international affairs branch of the Japan Institute for Labor Policy and Training, a Phd, just published author on community organizing, and a helluva guy in my book.  Having visited New Orleans recently with his delegation as they tried to better understand labor and community organizing, when I said there was a chance I could come by Japan en route to a commitment in Korea, he jumped to the task to cobble some pieces together to help pay the freight for this side trip to Tokyo and eastern Japan to the footprint of the earthquake and tsunami.  Within days he said, no problem, you’ll need to do a seminar.  I should have been suspicious when the topic seemed to be history of community organizing, proscriptions for rebuilding the labor movement, and, yes, and…what we had learned in New Orleans about rebuilding after disaster from Hurricane Katrina.

One thing led to another and the next thing I knew as it came closer to the date, the seminar was really more like a lecture, and the topic was a combination of all of these things and 130 or so people were already committed, having responded to the call.  The location was going to be in the auditorium of Liberty Tower at Meiji University it turned out, but that wasn’t really clear until Ken walked me into the tower an hour before the scheduled beginning.  As we had traveled around eastern Japan, I was starting to understand, since I had prepared one paper for him for the money and then at the last minute needed to ship off to Tokyo the appendix from Battle for the Ninth Ward, my last book, entitled “The Organizer’s Short Guide to Rebuilding after Disasters.”  I’m used to some high wire trapeze work without a net working across cultures and languages, but my comrade and colleague might have gotten me higher that I was ready for in order to dance for my supper in Tokyo.

members of the panel

When I finally got the list of panelists who were going to respond to my “lecture,” I knew I needed to hustle and step up to the mark.  Ken was moderating the panel that would give comments and ask questions on my remarks, but it included Yoji Tatsui, a key researcher for the Japanese Trade Union Congress (JTUC- RENGO) who was the Deputy Director of their Research Institute for Advancement of Living Standards, (closest to me in the picture of the panelists), Yoshitake Obata, a founder of the Edogawa Community Workers Union and activist with the Network of Community Unions of Japan, who had visited ACORN International and A Community Voice in late 2008 about living wage campaigns in New Orleans and written for Social Policy, Takanarita Takeshi with the Japanese Workers Cooperative Union whose work we had seen in the disaster zone and who had written about the work in a forthcoming article in Social Policy, and, very interestingly, Makoto Kawazoe, the Secretary-General, of Shutoken Seinen Union, the general union of Young Workers in Tokyo.

Ken Yamazaki introducing me

It all went well enough, and I hope I made in difference.  Puzzling out reactions through translations is difficult, and when I heard different translators had been called to duty on almost every page, one pauses to think how it might have come together for the readers, but at least they have their own puzzling they can do later.

They took seriously my notion of “majority unionism,” and it provoked comment.  The notions of “community unions” connected to the major labor federation I continue to find fascinating.  How much they are involved in organizing was hard to tell, but work on living wages counts for a lot in my book, so I’m looking forward to learning more.  The young workers union was also of interest.   We ran into a similar effort recently in El Alto in Bolivia.  Neither effort is very large yet, but both focused on informal or irregular workers, as they are called in Japan.  These are large gaps and established unions, judging from Brother Tatsui’s responses, see them positively.

Tatsui’s questions from the point of view of the institutional labor movement were excellent.  He was interested in whether current workers had more loyalty to the company or the community?  Japan is obviously legendary for the commitment workers have to their firms, but I shared with him what we had learned organizing Walmart workers in high turnover retail.  The commitment was to their sense of themselves as being “skilled” in retail and though they may have left Walmart, most of them were going through the cycle:  Target, Home Depot, and, often as not, back to Walmart and around again.  The “community” was the network of jobs and the workers who did them, and neither the company nor the geographical area.

This is an important dialogue, and Ken Yamazaki understood fully, even if it had taken me awhile to catch on, what he was doing and what he hoped from me.  He, like so many of us now in the United States, has come to believe that community-labor models offer hope for revitalizing labor, and he understands that there is a lot about community organizing methodology that speaks to a possible future for labor’s next stage.  The conversation has now been engaged.  Walking into the night, I could taste how much people wanted to be part of the discussion in Japan – I did, too!

Now, it needs to happen everywhere!  Then, we must move past talk to real action.

Makoto Kawazoe (the Young Workers leader) on the right and Takanarita Takeshi from the Japanese Workers Cooperative Union

Ken and some of the other panel members honoring the tradition of sharing a meal after


Cooperatives and Building Productive Democracy

Madison  I took one wrong turn and ended up on the wrong side of the track waiting for a train, which only heightened my anticipation at what the Just Coffee Cooperative of coffee roasters might be like.  From across the tracks the street seemed to be smaller multi-unit apartments nicely appointed running down a row.  Finally getting around the train found me driving to the back of a small parking lot to a small warehouse with a solid metal door and a rollout delivery bay, but when I opened the door the whole roasting facility seemed larger and bustling.  This was Just Coffee!

Just Coffee is a fascinating operation.  Less than ten co-op members with another dozen or so employees roast, pack, and deliver about 250,000 pounds of coffee locally and via UPS around the country.  They left TransFair USA some years ago, and there website is full of the reasons.  They have direct partnerships with growing cooperatives in some areas and a cooperative liaison whose job is to visit their sources and make judgments at the point of sale and support on a wide range of questions they take very seriously.  Just Coffee left the fair-trade certification system connected to TransFair and FLO when they realized the process for certifying them as a fair-trade roaster was a quick 5 minute telephone call asking them what percentage of their roasting was fair-trade.  Gulp and they were gone. 

It wasn’t the money.  To be certified they were paying a penny or two per pound roasted to TransfairUSA/FLO, but they felt it wasn’t serious.  They are trying to carry a label now from with certification from small producers in Central America directly.  They were candid with me that Equal Exchange (which I need to find out more about?) was critical to them starting because they had made building cooperatives a big project in Madison along with several other cities, so they were able to build on that critical work.  Unfortunately, Equal Exchange got a reputation of roasting the kind of beans that gave too many consumers the impression that they might be helping producers more by drinking fair-trade but the coffee wasn’t good.  Yikes!

Later in the evening I talked about Battle for the Ninth Ward at the Rainbow Book Store Cooperative.  Three hundred members paying $30 a year fuel this operation which started selling textbooks to University of Wisconsin students and now has a great collection of progressive books, including a stack of Citizen Wealth sitting on the counter.  A great experience!

These cooperatives aren’t huge, but they are effective, friendly, and value added in the community.  Visiting with them made lengthy discussions with Joel Rogers, professor at the University, guru of COWS, the high road economic development research and advocacy center, and long time friend, collaborator and fellow traveler about what he termed “productive democracy” make even better sense.  In imagining the world we are building and practical, scalable alternatives to the constant neoliberal refrain and contemporary ideology, there’s no going backwards, and elements of productive democracy might be a path forwards as a way to combine the strengths that democracy heralds for good governance as well as increasing its applications of equality of opportunity, social contribution, deep civic engagement, and other intrinsic values not only the public sphere but also in the economic environment where value can be more equitably distributed, dispersed, and shared.

Interestingly I heard this same discussion about a renewed role cooperatives might play as one small part of this puzzle when I visited with ACORN Czech last year in Prague where such formations and transitions were part of the common discussion.   In too much of the country’s cooperatives are something that is out there in the rural areas and not real presences in our urban realities and futures.  They have electric cooperatives, ginning and grain cooperatives, banking cooperatives for farmers while we have precious few examples in most of our daily experiences other than perhaps a credit union or a struggling and often higher priced food outlet.

Productive democracy in Rogers formula is a much, much different thing and at a scale that can make dreams soar and plans come together.   Worth more thought and some real work seeing where it might grow in our concrete and towering urban future.


Clean Rivers, Working Families, and Big Ideas

Some of our group in Pittsburgh, oldest leader still in the fight at 102

Pittsburgh     Hit the United Association of Labor Educators conference running in Pittsburgh and then connected with Maryellen Hayden Deckard, former ACORN office director in Pittsburgh now doing the same for ACTION United.  In no time we were visiting with CWA and other union workers rallying at Verizon to support their contract fight, and then sitting down for lunch at Mexico City with a bunch of labor cartoonists.  It was going to be that kind of wild ride in Pittsburgh!

In the afternoon I stumbled into two very interesting developments.  Both are undoubtedly worth further discussion in more detail later, but give a sense of the excitement and potential in important directions these days.

When you first hear the term Clean River Campaign, it runs right by you.  Must be another environmental thing, so good luck to them, next please!  A long conversation with Barney Oursler, the executive director of Pittsburgh United, who is the driving force behind this campaign reveals something much, much different in my reckoning.  For years I have said that any organization that comes up with comprehensive solutions to “loose dogs, bad drainage, and crummy trash pickup” might just have the formula for creating power everywhere.  Well, the real deal on the Clean Rivers Campaign is coming to grip with the issues that lie at the heart of sewer, drainage, and wastewater systems.  Pittsburgh, like literally hundreds of other cities around the USA, is confronting EPA compliance agreements which require billions of dollars worth of infrastructure investment to appropriately assure clean water and upgrade deteriorating infrastructure suffering from age, lack of maintenance, and design problems.  In Pittsburgh, not unlike many other cities, the problems are magnified because of the three rivers but also the 526 different municipalities and other governmental structures that are in the watershed and have water in this race as well.  Barney and his partners, including ACTION United, are contending over coming years with pushing aside bad plans but also getting a good program which is “green,” provides community benefits, and is affordable, all of which are high barriers.  From experience fighting water privatization triggered by EPA compliance agreements, including in New Orleans where we are still in the throes of this mess, I think this is worth real study and investigation.

Discussion at Big Idea

I also ran into a team of organizers and canvassers with the Working Families Party who are now expanding into Pennsylvania.  This is fantastic news!  The Working Families Party in New York, Connecticut and elsewhere has emerged as an important ballot-line effort giving real tools to progressive issues and low-and-moderate income families.  This would be a wonderful development in Pennsylvania.  Need to find out more about this and see if you can get this Party building in a neighborhood near you!

The fun part of my day in Pittsburgh was two back to back discussions about politics, organizing, and the state of movements for change in these days and times first in the late afternoon at the Big Idea Bookstore & Café, which is a workers cooperative operating over the last 10 years and expanding, and then a more informal discussion with leaders, activists, and organizers with ACTION United in their offices over pizza.  The excuse for both of these great events were talking about my books, Citizen Wealth, Global Grassroots, and Battle for the Ninth Ward, but the conversations were fascinating on a variety of topics.

Just to share some of the pleasure at the Big Idea several folks around the circle had been active in the Occupy movement in Pittsburgh, and we had a provocative discussion about the emerging role for anarchism emerging in progressive work.  There was still a lot of mourning for the death of ACORN as well in these times when change is increasingly high on the “demand” list.  I was optimistic that a new formation might be possible, but not that we would ever be able to get the genie back in the bottle.  Similarly at ACTION United, there was deep interest in “citizen wealth” campaigns around credit card debt and collections and student debt.  People could palpably feel the future slipping away and see lives of running from debt collectors and harassment as central parts of their future.  They were groping for organizational response.

No such meeting is complete without a discussion of Fox News of course, and the first reaction when they heard I had agreed to be interviewed for a voting special they were doing on the issue of voter suppression, was that I was “crazy.”  Once I had conceded that point as factual, I made the case that we still had no choice but to try and communicate whenever we could and advance the right and just positions on issues as important as full citizen participation and the prospects for democracy.  How could we ever refuse to take the side of democracy in the debate when so many were so arrogantly now arguing for repression?

I left with lots to think about from my discussions with my new and old friends in Pittsburgh, but I left them thinking about some “big ideas” as well.


Drinking, Development, and Land Use Fights in Little Rock for Tea Party and Occupy Inbox x

Little Rock       It was exciting to be back in Little Rock visiting with a combination of old ACORN leaders and organizers, city and neighborhood activists, Local 100 ULU organizers and leaders, and others.  The excuse for the meeting in the old Arkansas ACORN building and board conference room, surrounded by posters and pictures of campaigns and elections over decades, was to talk about my two new books, Global Grassroots and Battle for the Ninth Ward, published by Social Policy Press (www.socialpolicy.org).  It didn’t take long for us to down to real business, and that was great fun!

I threw a stink bomb out in the room by asking people to discuss the similar populist appeals of the Tea Party and the Occupy movements.  I didn’t realize how close to home I had come.  It seems in Little Rock Occupy there has been a steady presence and enthusiastic presence of the Ron Paul wing of the Tea-people complete with their own “Don’t Tread on Me” flags, tents and paraphernalia.

After much conversation, book signing and buying, and so forth, Kathy Wells of the Greater Little Rock Coalition of Neighborhoods wanted to discuss and get some advice on how to deal with a project being promoted by Deltic Timber around the Lake Maumelle watershed.  This was interesting stuff because Lake Maumelle is the water source for much of the drinking water for Little Rock so anything out there has major impacts on everyone.  After 35 years or so this is the first time since the reorganizing and downsizing of the Pulaski County Quorum Court (the county government including Little Rock and North Little Rock) in the mid-1970’s (yes, ACORN was all in the middle of that!) that the now 15-member body has been forced to use the land use powers – and responsibilities! – it has over the unincorporated areas of the County.

A lot is at stake.  Deltic Timber has pushed a proposal to develop thousands of acres in the watershed that would allow subdivision and construction of about 9000 houses jolting the population up significantly in this west of the city.  The now infamous, billionaire Koch Brothers and their cats’ paw operation Americans for Prosperity has been agitating the Tea-people on the argument that the “only good land use controls are no land use controls.”  Some of the Quorum Court Justices of the Peace are scared to death of Tea Party organizing in their districts with elections on the horizon next year.  The long time County Judge Buddy Villines has been dealt a bad hand where he can take it or leave it, and leaving it seems to mean anarchy prevails out there, which would be bad for everyone.

Wells has a multi-pronged program including grandfathering in the use of existing residents and other well reasoned points that are supported by a wide range of environmentalists and the Occupy folks, who are willing to agitate around these issues to provide a stronger strike force.  Unfortunately, listening to the arguments back and forth, the votes just didn’t seemed to be there for any better than Deltic Timber has indicated they would agree to in the first place, which was better than nothing, though not a huge deal better.  Neil Sealy, veteran community organizer and director of Arkansas Community Organizations, the successor organization to ACORN in Arkansas, indicated that his conversations with some of the JP’s who were old ACORN members, told him that they might put forward some amendments, but didn’t see good prospects for them and felt they had to put all of their bets on passing anything they good.

This may be one time when the Great Recession and its devastating impact on housing finance and construction is a friend, especially to people in central Arkansas, who don’t want to drink pig spit and horse wallow and whatever runs off with it.  Taking the best bargain available could give them a chance to get the elections right and the issues aligned, and put some teeth along the gummy mouth of whatever passes for land use “controls” in Pulaski now, and still get it done before the Deltic boys can sell mess and get going on their dreams for more where best would be less.

These Deltic folks are hardly “good corporate citizens” and land stewards and has a long record of shameful behavior behind them on these issues, so they have to be brought in line.   Nonetheless it is fascinating in a place like Arkansas to see a future battleground building between the Occupiers and the Tea-people where not only “hearts and minds” are at stake, but so results in coming election.  Let the games begin!


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.