Crossing Paths with Clean Water Action

Clean Water Action founder and Twin Cities resident David Zwick signs a letter to President Bush for the 30th anniversary of the Clean Water Act in 2002. Zwick died Monday, Feb. 5., 2018, in Minneapolis. (Courtesy of Clean Water Action)

New Orleans   It isn’t exactly the answer to a popular trivia question, but there might be some head scratching by outsiders, someone from Mars, or an earnest future researcher trying to puzzle out an answer to the question of how a multi-year and multi-layered partnership developed between ACORN and Clean Water Action.  As always, there’s a story behind it all seeped as much by design as simple good luck and happy coincidence.

Clean Water Action was – and still is – the organization that grew out of the fight for the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 that established most of the protection for water and water sources that we still enjoy and defend against corporate assault and public authorities’ inattention.  The stick stirring a lot of that drink had been David Zwick, an early Nadar Raider, and the founder and executive director of Clean Water Action.

Our paths crossed in 1992 as Local 100 expanded to Texas to organize school support workers in the wake of Governor Anne Richards signing a bill that allowed school workers personal decisions to mandatorily force local school districts to honor their request to join a union and have their dues deducted from their pay checks.  This is the same law that is regularly under constant legislative attack now in Texas.  We moved quickly and had to hire a lot of people to do a lot of jobs.  Mostly Orell Fitzsimmons and I hired organizers, but the drives involved mailing and phone banking lists of thousands that triggered home visits and membership recruitment.  We hired a woman named Wendy Weingarten to manage the chaos of paper and data.  I don’t remember Wendy having much background in that area, but she impressed us as committed and confident, and she became the tourniquet that we applied to that gaping wound.

Working closely day by day and juggling the work with Wendy and her schedule and her growing family, the layers of her life also became clear, and that meant meeting her husband, David Zwick and coming to know Clean Water Action.  David and Wendy had somehow made the decision to move and relocate to Houston for multiple reasons, but one was Zwick’s insightful conviction that a major battleground over clean water was Texas.  He opened an office of sorts to keep up with his national responsibilities not far from our building in the Heights.

Year End/Year Begin meetings were always mandatory in the ACORN family of organizations and that meant Wendy’s attendance was also required, and that David would be around with kids in tow as well.  David, quiet and without comment, because of our respect for his work at Clean Water became the first ever outsider ever allowed to attend a YE/YB.  In the days when everyone there was also asked to evaluate the meeting, David finally spoke, gracefully, about how much he appreciated being allowed to attend and how much he had learned.

A few miles away from our Heights office, Clean Water had another location that housed their local canvass program and its various staffing a couple of miles away where we introduced ACORN and Local 100’s work to their crew briefings.  Having shut down ACORN’s canvass in the mid-1980s, we were intrigued that their canvass was still sufficient to support their work.  The Clean Water canvass was run under contract by something called CCI, much like our own CCI.  We had them run canvasses for us in Austin and Dallas among other cities for some years trying to see if we could make it work.  Last summer as Chaco and I pulled the trailer out of Missoula, Montana to its new home in Manderson, Wyoming, we had a farewell dinner and talked about the small world with my old comrade and friend from Northern Plains Resource Council days, Tom France, and his partner, Meg Haan, who had run our joint operation in Austin back in those days.

I was reminded of all these times and Dave Zwick and his quiet dignity, great contributions, and our thoughtful conversations, as I stumbled on the obituary about his untimely death while reading old newspapers piled and waiting from endless days of travel.

Warriors fall, but the battles are constant and continue.  We honor them still!

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Women’s Voice and Women’s March

#MeToo discussion at year end organizing meeting in New Orleans

New Orleans   Many women hit the streets once again all around the country at the anniversary of the first Women’s March. The theme was more political activism as the new face of resistance with the looming midterm elections providing the focal point. Numbers in local cities seemed to be running at half of last year’s totals, but that was to be expected at this point when resilience is twin to resistance.

One of the more interesting workshops for the Year End/ Year Beginning meeting of our organizers top organizers from ACORN Canada, Local 100, and other operations in New Orleans was how to transfer the recognition and cultural shifts of the #MeToo moment into the meetings of our workplace and community organizations as well as through our media outlets. Some organizers told stories of members complaints of harassment from landlords demanding sex in exchange for repairs and late fees, and questioned whether their organizational response would have been the same now in this climate as it was a couple of years ago when the issue presented. Judy Duncan, the head organizer of ACORN Canada as well as other office directors in Canada, the United States and Local 100 believed that they needed to talk to local leadership, many, if not most, of whom are women about making a place in the agenda of meetings in the coming months so that women had a space to talk about incidents of harassment and abuse and groups could debate and take effective action.

John Cain from KABF and others involved in AM/FM radio programming thought that the stations should ask hosts to raise the issue on their shows and encourage call-in’s, referral, and complaint. Others thought regular public service announcements encouraging women to come forward and giving them voice could be helpful.

Appropriately, there was also discussion about how women’s voice and perspective were integrated into the internal staff and leadership dynamics of organizing as well, especially since organizing has so long been characterized as male dominated field, and despite progress over recent decades, invariably contains vestiges of such a history, tradition, and stereotypes. There was an interesting discussion on whether organizers should counter the devaluation of women’s voice internally by formalizing relationships to break the pattern. Likely addressing everyone as Mr, Mrs, or Ms would not work, but there is a reason that old labor culture embraced addressing co-combatants as Sister and Brother, or comrade as was common in the South African struggle and others, or citizen during and after the French Revolution. Breaking habits in order to signify respect and as markers that we need to deal with each other differently would not be a trivial step forward in breaking old patterns and habits.

Beth Butler, head organizer of ACORN affiliate, A Community Voice, ended the workshop by letting everyone go around the room and indicate what they would do to implement the consensus and to create a different climate for women. The pledges were deep and sincere. We will have to make sure the followup is of a like kind, both here and everywhere else.

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