Nice Surprises in the City of Milwaukee

Milwaukee       Before taking my traveling road show from Madison to Milwaukee, I spent some time in the ACORN archives that are part of the Social Change Collection of the Wisconsin Historical Society.  Perhaps four years ago, WHS archivists had picked up another 35 cartons of material from our hall in Baton Rouge where we were storing a ton of stuff that had been in our various New Orleans local and national offices.  I met with one of the archivists who had recently finished accessing, filing, and sorting through the most recent bunch.  He claimed it “filled in some missing pieces,” and that was good news for all of us.

I had been naïve in my first visit to the archives some thirty months ago, thinking I could buzz through the collection.  Over the week I visited, I may have jumped around in thirty or forty boxes.  It was a start, but I was most impressed at how much I had underestimated the task, especially since I was looking for old strategy and program memoranda.  There are now 224 cubic feet of paper archives and that means 224 boxes of materials.  Plus, there are more boxes of photographs and hours and hours of video.  That’s a mountain to climb.  I joked leaving that it would take me two or three months to go through all of what they had.  The archivist at the desk, suggested summer was better than the winter.  Indeed!

Once in Milwaukee, I stopped at a coffeehouse nearby the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee where I was due not long afterwards.  Within minutes, a fellow approached me and identified himself as Dan Grandone, a former Gamaliel community organizer, who was going to the event later that day and now ran a leadership development program with a great name:  WILD.  Anytime you can run into random community organizers on the street by chance, take my word, you’re somewhere close to heaven if you want to note this on your GPS.

At the event there was a former ACORN canvasser in Minnesota and a former ACORN organizer for a brief spell in another office.  UM-W Professor Aaron Schutz, my host, cracked that the urban studies department was chock full of ex-ACORN folks.

It gets even better though.  During the call and response after the meeting, one young man spoke up and gave a testimonial to ACORN.  Turns out he had a slew of relatives in the Lower 9thWard of New Orleans, including a sister who said ACORN had helped get her house together after Hurricane Katrina.   Another young man spoke up not long afterwards saying he was a community organizer in the Milwaukee and wanted to know how they could connect with ACORN.  After the meeting, I visited with all three of the delegation and they turned out to be connected to the Amani neighborhood and the Dominican Center.

The Amani neighborhood has seen steady decline in crime since 2005, including another 12 percent decrease in 2017 alone. It’s located between 20th and 27th Streets and between Center St. and Keefe Ave., right in the middle of the 53206-zipcode.  In fact, one experienced organizer told me that this zip code had the highest incarceration rate in Wisconsin, and perhaps the nation, but crime over this period has dropped at almost double the level of the city as a whole.  They want to see how to bring the ACORN Home Savers Campaign to Milwaukee and how to link up.  Yeeha!

It’s these kinds of surprises that keep me hitting the road, rain or shine, sleet or snow, and here there was plenty of the latter, but these kinds of conversations made the sun shine for me.

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Our Wisconsin Revolution is a Different Twist with a Great Future

Madison       Frankly, the Bernie Sanders campaign’s successor organization, Our Revolution, has been confusing to me.  In the immediate aftermath of the 2016 election, its maiden voyage seemed covered with the controversy of staff hiring and firing with counterclaims roiling the organization over who and what was best able to carry forward the Sanders’ vision and program.  My conversations with Larry Cohen, former president of the Communication Workers of America (CWA), convinced me that his steady hand as chair of the outfit could make it interesting to watch.

The major asset of Our Revolution was the huge small donor list that had fueled the Sanders campaign sufficiently to challenge Hillary Clinton’s presumptive nomination in 2016, almost to the final weeks before her ascendancy.  Our Revolution was going to endorse a group of candidates at different levels who had either been Sanders supporters and sometimes renegades with the Democratic Party’s Clinton consensus as well as others who seemed to share the vision.  Some won.  Some lost.

Many of the other headlines around the Our Revolution program seemed to be focusing on internal fights within the Democratic Party over control and leadership positions in various states.  That strategy was confusing to me.  It seemed a fight over an empty suit that no one really wanted to wear or would look good in, particularly in the short term and without a campaign finance report.

Talking to people in Wisconsin, there seems to be something very different happening here with Our Wisconsin Revolution (OWR).   They are a separate membership organization with a c3 and c4 that is one of the very few state offshoots of the national formation.  Another fledgling effort is in Texas where Local 100 United Labor Unions has bumped into them several times.  From what I gathered, they did get the names of Wisconsin donors at their founding, but rather than assuming this could be a cash cow, they used it as an organizing tool to hold public meetings to organize OWR throughout the state.  Talking to my longtime comrade and friend, Joel Rogers, University of Wisconsin professor, who is also the OWR treasurer, he participated in a 28-city barnstorming tour in 2017 to help build the organization.  Now that’s real grassroots organizing!

The OWR program is clear from their website.  They are decidedly NOT interested in taking over the internal workings of the Democratic Party, though in terms of political and ballot activity they are promoting and endorsing candidates who are Democrats.  They are transparent and detailed in their political program and their openness with their members and the public.  They have a leadership structure that includes representatives from every one of the state’s Congressional districts.

It’s an all-volunteer army, as so many of the most important base-building developments around the country are now, but it has big time ambitions.  Obviously, the organization is just in its early days, so no one can guarantee its future, but this is an organization that clearly is being tailored for a different kind of outfit.  This is a potential statewide party in the making.

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