Obama is Wrong about Social Movements and Activists

 “The value of social movements and activism is to get you at the table,” Mr. Obama said at a meeting with young people in London. Credit Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

“The value of social movements and activism is to get you at the table,” Mr. Obama said at a meeting with young people in London. Credit Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

New Orleans   President Obama is on his farewell tour. Speaking to a young, university audience in London while trying to drum up some support for Britain to stay in the European Union, he offered what has to be seen as totally gratuitous advice to them – and of course all of the rest of us – about what he sees as the proper, underline “proper,” role for social movements and activists. And, not surprisingly, he is totally wrong, but here was what he had to offer:

“The value of social movements and activism is to get you at the table, get you in the room, and then to start trying to figure out how is this problem going to be solved. You then have a responsibility to prepare an agenda that is achievable, that can institutionalize the changes you seek, and to engage the other side, and occasionally to take half a loaf that will advance the gains that you seek, understanding that there’s going to be more work to do, but this is what is achievable at this moment.”

In the New York Times story about his remarks, they predictably added that something that they felt, equally gratuitously, would help give an extra dose of credibility or street cred to the President of the United States, arguably – and temporarily – one of the powerful people in the world. They offered that,

Mr. Obama began his career as a community organizer working on local initiatives in poor neighborhoods in Chicago. Sometimes, he said, solving a problem means accepting a series of partial solutions.

Now, certainly if you are a big whoop, or the biggest whoop of them all you, want the rowdies out there to get the message that if you lean down from your perch and deign to listen to them for a hot minute, they are supposed to understand that they are supposed to behave, thank you, and then go and shut the heck up. But, as Obama surely must really know, regardless of the claptrap he’s selling right now, the role of social movements, and many activists, is exactly the opposite. The role of social movements in fact is to speak “truth to power,” not to make the deals and settle for the incremental changes, but to chant, “more, more, more,” keep the heat on that continues to create the pressure and push to create the space for the deal-makers to do their thing to get closer and closer to the mark, and not stop until the job is done.

Obama knows from his time in Chicago that an organization has to accept “half a loaf” frequently to deliver to its members. Good organizations get more, and weaker organizations get less, but it’s a social movement’s job to continue to raise the banner for truth, justice, and the whole loaf. There’s a different between seeking power and putting on the pressure. The Alinsky tradition, that Obama shared, was always uncomfortable with social movements because they were too easily appeased by applause, rather than being thankful that social movements enlarged the space to allow organizations to win even greater victories. Sadly, but once again not surprisingly, Obama knew this seven years ago when he challenged activists to push him – and the country – if they wanted more change, but now that he’s more worried about his past legacy, than his future accomplishments, he sitting too comfortably on the throne.

It’s worth respecting his position, but for the sake of all of us working for change, when it comes to social movements, we need to adamantly decline to follow his advice.


Bernie’s Brother is EVERYWHERE in England

Larry Sanders. Source: telegraph.co.uk

Larry Sanders. Source: telegraph.co.uk

London   If anyone thinks that they can escape the US-election battles on the 24-hour news circuit, don’t come to England!

Eating lunch with a seasoned political operator often in and out of Labor governments and the institutions that surround them, he asked about the Clinton-Sanders campaign, but even before we got our orders out, he told a funny story about winning a bet with his partner. He had told her that Bernie Sanders’ brother had been leading the news on all media ever since New Hampshire, and he had just about had enough of it. She looked at him with bemused disbelief, and, voila, he turned on the radio, and there was Bernie’s brother bringing a bit of the Bronx to the BBC!

I laughed as well, asking naively if Bernie’s brother lived in England, and nodding and laughing along as he told the story. Less than an hour later, I picked up a free copy of the Evening Standard on the tube in London, and darned if there wasn’t an interview with the Bernie brother smack dab in the middle of the paper.

In the USA we are used to brothers running towards the political flame like moths. We had Roger Clinton and his show during Bill Clinton’s presidency, and of course Jimmy Carter’s brother couldn’t stay out of the news either, and too often it looked like hands were stretched out wide and trouble was a coming. The Bush sons and then brothers populated another world. Certainly stories of Jeb trying to “represent” while the old man was President have been widely reported in various wheeler-dealer moves at the time.

But, a candidate’s brother? Usually, the handlers keep them under wraps for as long as possible. Don’t they?

Larry Sanders, yes, that’s the Bernie brother’s name, just like the old HBO comedy show some years back, either didn’t get the memo or hadn’t hear of this internet thing or the globalization of the news cycle which can take a quote and twist it across mountains and oceans. Or, the Bernie brother has a bit of Trump in him and just lets it sail.

I saw what my friend meant quickly. The interview was “we,”“we, “we,” on one position after another. For example, the newish and controversial leader of the Labor Party Jeremy Corbyn is also old, white, and progressive. Bernie brother assures us that, “There are comparisons with Corbyn and if Bernard wins we will have a special relationship with him.” We? He takes credit for Bernie’s political views. “I used to babysit him and talk about the political books I was reading, so it’s my fault.” Ol’ Larry takes slaps at Hillary for supporting the Iraq war and welfare cutbacks. He claims Bernie didn’t want to run, but did so by default when Senator Elizabeth Warren wouldn’t make the jump.

War, peace, the Clintons, youth, and Bernie’s personal life are all fair game for Brother Sanders in his 15-seconds of fame in Oxford where he was a social worker and former city councilor. He says he’ll vote in the US elections for the first time since 1968. And until then, for better or for worse he’ll give his opinions about his brother and his political positions in England anytime someone sticks a microphone anywhere near his face on this side of the Atlantic.


Emerging Tenants’ Charter


This is ACORN France, which has nothing to do with this blog, but we welcome them to the ACORN Family

London     The ACORN United Kingdom organizing staff did me a favor and moved the second meeting to a university in far western London about a 40-minute bus ride from Heathrow, since I was finally heading to the ACORN Canada Year End / Year Begin Meeting, and then home.  ACORN Scotland couldn’t make it because of the giant rent control and security of tenure action and all of the last minute details, but where we had boots hard set on the ground in Bristol, Newcastle, and London it was a mini-UK YE/YB in its own right.

In such a short time,  the reports going around the room made it clear we were making huge progress. There were good solid reports on street-level issues in the new neighborhood groups around street crossings, traffic signals, and rubbish collection, but perhaps the most significant breakthroughs continued to be in the escalating campaigns around the broad range of tenants’ issues that are exploding in the cities where we are organizing in the UK.

Besides the Living Rent effort, the campaign originally begun with the founding of ACORN in Easton in Bristol to win improvements of conditions of private tenants and security of tenure form letting agencies has attracted wide support and expanded across the whole range of tenant issues and services. At one level organizers reported they have been surprised to get caught in a servicing and mediation role between some landlords and tenants with some leasing agencies, surprisingly, referring disputes to ACORN to mediate and resolve. Nick Ballard, the organizer at the point in the campaign, noted importantly that no tenant whom we have met in that capacity or to handle issues with their landlords have not joined ACORN, which was spot on! He also said that some tenants are reporting that just saying they are with ACORN and showing the button is winning them some fights.

The campaign has expanded to create a Tenants’ Charter of Rights in Bristol including longer leases, inspections, reasonable rents and other issues. Groups are not only joining us in supporting this newly emerging charter in Bristol but some city councilors are also coming on board. Winning compliance with the demands unfortunately is going to be a slog from target to target since the Council has no authority with all the powers in such matters residing in Westminster with the national government. We will be forced to win voluntary compliance, but we’re on our way.

Meeting earlier in the week with Professor Jane Wills who directs a masters’ program at Queen Mary University in community organization as part of their geography department, she speculated that perhaps the biggest contribution ACORN might be able to make in the UK was in organizing tenants and estates. She may be right. Furthermore, we may be already doing so from all of the reports at the organizers’ meeting and listening to their plans for the coming year.


Walking Birmingham Neighborhoods

IMG_2600Birmingham, England     What would you do if you had the opportunity to visit Birmingham, the second largest city in the United Kingdom? Well, of course you get a four pound day pass on the bus system, ignore the mad Christmas shopping, and hop off and on the bus and walk through low-and-moderate income communities. And, if you are as lucky as I was and it is a gorgeous, blue sky day with what would almost seem to be unseasonably mild temperatures, what better day could there be to walk some five miles up and down and around the streets and housing blocks of the city?

Birmingham is a city of a couple of million, famed as 19th and 20th century industrial powerhouse, but largely deindustrialized like so many world powerhouses of the time, but still alive as a center of education, health care, and the newly emerging service sector. The neighborhoods and the city itself are caught in the crosshairs of changing times and strained municipal resources with reduced support from the national government in Westminster.IMG_2610

I walked through various “heath” communities, Small Heath and Balsall Heath, Moseley, and more communities than I can remember, filled with council housing, Victorian terraces, and various other housing schemes. I was within sight of the City Centre some of the time and virtually within spitting of the huge University of Birmingham at other times. In one street I passed, sandwiched in between halal shops and Muslim charity shops, the Yankee Clipper Barber shop, strangely tipping a brim of the cap to Joe DiMaggio, the New York slugger and record setter of the 1940s.

I took a long look at a Free Library dating to 1895 and connected to a swimming center dating more than 100 years with a separate women’s entrance and two entrances for men, first class and second class men, whatever all of that might mean. The center was a community issue now though, because the Council had announced plans to close the facility so various groups were campaigning to see if there is a way to save the place, not for its history, but for its future.IMG_2599

In many areas,  the issues seemed almost too common. Litter and rubbish untended. Traffic too hard to maneuver easily. Gentrification come slowly compared to London perhaps but steadily nonetheless.

Like any big city, more to do than any set of organizations might be able to muster alone, but clearly a great organizing challenge and opportunity.




Visiting with Hackney Unites in London

10714586_852203918165947_903337653103074272_oLondon      Hackney is one of those classic neighborhood names that invariably calls to mind London, so it was a treat to get to walk around the neighborhood a little bit, sit in the CLR James Library, which turned out to be a story in itself, and then to meet with fifty members and activists that make up Hackney Unites, an effective and somewhat unique community organization in the city.

            It started out simply enough.  Visiting with Jane Holgate and John Page on an earlier trip and hearing about their work with Hackney Unites, I asked if I might be able to meet with some people organizing in London.  They couldn’t have been more accommodating.  We put it on the calendar, and several weeks go by and Bob Fisher, a careful and astute observer of the community organizing scene on the academic side forwards me an email he had received from a colleague announcing that the “legendary” Wade Rathke is going to be giving a “master class” to those interested at a meeting of Hackney Unites, room is limited, and they had best get their names in the pot asap.  Whoa, Nellie!  What had we gotten ourselves into here on the last event for this 10-day jornada de morte of a trip!


            Of course it turned out that it was a great event and undoubtedly I got the best part of the trade because of the unique way the meeting was organized and the questions and conversations that followed from it.  Meeting in the Trinity Centre complex abutting a social housing complex, the tables were organized sort of likes the stripes on a chevron allowing people to see both each other and the speaker at the front of the room.  Each table had a piece of paper saying Hackney or Non-Hackney, since Jane, John, and the other leaders wanted to segregate people in helping build Hackney Unites in the conversations.   The tables were jumbled up, so it wasn’t a matter of Hackney Unites on one side and other folks coming to hear, wander, and wonder on the other.  I was wondering how this would work.


            After some remarks about Hackney Unites campaigns and internal affairs, as well as my remarks and a shout out to Lee Baker and Jonny Butcher from ACORN London who were there helping as well, they then had the groups discuss and come to some consensus on a single question for me in sort of a freewheeling “stump the stars” format, which was actually fun for all of us, and fascinating for me because rather than the usual random Q&A, invariably dominated by a small handful, this was different.  There were actually written guides at every table for how to make the process work, which might be anathema to most community organizers as too academic but in this very mixed crowd seemed to work reasonably well and be appreciated.   The format allowed everyone to be part of “participating” in the question and I would bet money it substantially raised the quality of the questions.  The answers of course would be a different matter, but you would have had to have been there.

            John had told me that that they had tried this format before, so I’m not sure if it’s part of their usual meeting routine or another pilot project, but on my continued quest to see how we can improve and refresh our work, you can bet I’ll not only be taking my better understanding of this community’s concerns about tactics, coordination, and gentrification with me on one hand and on the other a different notion of how to organize these kinds of interactive meetings.



A Crash Course in the World of Economic Campaigning, UK Style

Robin Hood tax campaigners outside the TreasuryLondon      I was curious about what’s happening in organizing in the United Kingdom, so the ace organizers for ACORN in London, Jonny Butcher and Lee Baker, made a cold call to the New Economic Foundation, and, more specifically, George Woods, whose title is a senior campaigns organizer who helps coordinate their organizers network, known as NEON, the New Economics Organizing Network. All of which led to a fascinating couple of hours with a dozen energetic folks somewhere on the continuum between activists, organizers, and campaigners, which in fact seems to be a recognized and well regarded job classification within the progressive movement in the UK.

The New Economics Foundation itself was quite an impressive operation, calling itself a “think-and-do tank” with the current slogan “economics as if people and the planet really mattered.” With 50 staff in a warren of open offices in a wonderful old building that I think I heard had been a former bus barn, it was a bustle of activity. As a footnote to the red hot London real estate market, they were about to decamp from the space and cash out their building because developers were going to be able to add three more stories on their footprint for high-end residential units, while they moved a couple of hundred yards away, shrewdly arbitraging the “old” economics for the new economics.

Most of the session was spent largely in questions and answers about ACORN and how we worked, but putting two and two on some of the groups and their campaigns later, we clearly could have spent hours trying to get a grip on how many of these campaigners saw reordering the world’s financial system through public pressure around the world. Their collective motto might have been, “take on no small targets!”

There were organizers there from the Robin Hood Tax campaign which aims to get a half-percent tax on all matter of financial activity and sees such a tax as a way to fund what they call development work around poverty, domestically and internationally. A fairly young campaign, they got a huge amount of traction from as many as 1000 economists joining their call and some movement by the European Union, though unless I misread their information, Bill Gates and his gang did a report on the matter with less enthusiasm, and some of the momentum has waned and been directed against their right-on, redistribution notion. Another campaign of long standing was the Jubilee Debt Cancellation effort, centered on the biblical notion of “jubilee” or pardon and forgiveness, and a critical effort in pushing for reduction of debt, onerous and often poorly and corruptly negotiated, to developing countries. The TEAR Fund supported disaster relief and development in countries around the world with 46,000 donors in the UK, which was an impressive base of support!

Two younger student based groups were there. One was People or Planet, largely coming right out of the universities, and calling itself the “largest student network in Britain campaigning to end world poverty, defend human rights and protect the environment “ and before anyone might discount students, their track record was meaty. Rethinking Economics, seemed more post-graduate, and aimed to do what their name flatly states, rewire economics as a more useful social and political tool.

You get the idea, it was a brain expansion exercise, trying to link an understanding of our work on the streets, organizing low and moderate income families around the world, family by family, block by block, community by community, often beginning on very specific and immediate issues, with much of their work which is done through social media, websites, internet petitions, media, and mobilizations trying to build support and pressure on the larger economic horizons 30,000 feet above our ground level.

I’m not sure I understood it all, but I found it encouraging to see such an energetic, well-funded community of “allied trades” for the kind of membership, ground and workplace-based organizing ACORN practices. I walked into the evening feeling there was a lot of good stout kindling to spark a heckuva fire!