Framing

Seattle: The Organizers’ Forum was holding its spring dialogue in Seattle this year and focusing on how organizers of various stripes and varieties could either understand or utilize “framing.”  This has been a hot button notion recently with the popularity of George Lakoff and his books about Moral Politics and other popular titles.  Sweated down, framing is not something so much radically new as a disciplined way of forcing a rethinking about our work and various issues and campaigns and determining whether or not we are communicating as powerfully with the public as we should in order to move people our direction in the political space.  Or something like that.

  George Lakoff began our dialogue telephonically with a review of his basic paradigm polarity that divides messages into a “strict father” frame or a “nurturing mother” frame.  From there we were off to the races.  Part of this kind of discussion is mischievously seductive motivated by an unarticulated hope that perhaps if we just say it differently, we will win next time.  A search for the Holy Grail that believes there just has to be a short cut out there somewhere.

  This framing stuff can get a little dangerous though when you construct it on top of a foundation of values research, as we discovered listening to Ted Nordhaus.  Ted and Michael Shellenberger have written a piece that has stirred a beehive of controversy called The Death of Environmentalism,  (currently available for the first time in print form in the new issue of Social Policy) which began its life when published online on Grist, which is a fascinating outfit in itself.  The basic thesis was that the emperor has no clothes and that the environmental movement was losing the critical fight around global warming and one might read it the piece to say that nothing of real significance had been won since 1973.  A lay reader or an organizer might have read the piece — as I did — and thought that there might be some pieces that were a little rough and needed scraping, but on the whole there was hard metal underneath there.  The large environmental organizations particularly seem to have blown a gasket, but they have a lot at stake in a certain world view, so that was probably predictable. 

  Nordhaus spent several hours with the sixty organizers attending at the Organizers’ Forum, but the word environmental never came up.  He spent the entire time sharing with us an understanding of the “values map” which had been produced in conjunction with Environics, a Toronto based market survey and demographics house.  Now that was very interesting stuff and when it all comes out on the Organizers Forum website report of the dialogue it will be of interest.  They mapped 114 or so values and placed them on a grid.  The bottom line is the population is moving towards security, while “our side” would like to move to autonomy and responsibility.  We have an uphill climb to move people.

  The value in all of this is that it forces us to more carefully examine our work and, frankly, our members to see how they might really be responding to their own organizations and our organizing message.  It’s not easy to rethink some of this, but perhaps it’s essential.  We need to do whatever it takes to win, and these may just be new tricks that our old dogs need to learn.

Ted Nordhaus giving a lecture at the Organizer’s Forum in Seattle.
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Si Kahn and the ACORN National Board

Charlotte:  With all of the expansion of new offices in ACORN the national board has had a policy in recent years to meet in new offices in order to see the progress and give the local leaders a shot in the arm and some general solidarity and encouragement.  In recent years spring and fall has seen the board in Kansas City, Columbus, Fort Worth, and now Charlotte this spring and Indianapolis in the fall.   Charlotte is a US Air hub so I have been forced through the a airport a dozen times in recent years, but it has been more than 20 years — as near as I can remember — since I stayed over night in Charlotte.

  One constant over that period has been that Si Kahn.  Charlotte has served as home base for Si and his various operations for a long time, so I reached out on the chance that I might find him in town while the Board was here, and as luck would have it, he was planning to be there.

  We had a surprisingly good visit.  I met him for lunch downtown at a home cooking place called Merts which was ok.  I had red beans and rice to see how it matched up to New Orleans, and for some reason in Carolina they not only slice the sausage, but put cheese on top of the whole thing — people who die for less in New Orleans for that, but that’s another story.

  Si was wearing a brand new denim shirt that proclaimed the 25th Anniversary of Grassroots Leadership, an outfit that did leadership training, research and, increasingly, some campaigning around the south mainly, but beyond as well.  The main campaign that Si and his team were handling now focused on the privatization of prisons and their interest had grown to focus on privatization generally.  Si and his partner had written a book about to come out on the privatizations fights, called Fox in the Henhouse.  He brought me a hard copy to read and asked me to do a blurb for it, which I look forward to doing. 
  
  We swapped stories about this and that in the little time I had before the Board came back from an action on Liberty Tax Service and would be raring to go.  Si had graciously volunteered to sing for the Board, so he was going to be a nice change of pace and a good way to start the proceedings with some labor and civil rights songs.  I asked Si about his folk singing and enjoyed hearing about a trip to Portugal and elsewhere when he had been able to bring this or that family member along to share the experience somewhere exotic from time to time.  We kidded about it, and he shared a great story about the Olsen girls singing a couple of his songs some years ago when they were selling big and the royalties, which helped send a couple of his kids to school. 

  Si was a big hit as he opened for the ACORN Board.  He sang one song that he said he had written 20 years ago about ACORN for an ACORN fundraiser in Washington, DC, that had the refrain, “were you there, when we organized….”  It was great and a highlight of my day!  I need to get the words and learn them. 

  There’s hope that we are all aging gracefully!  Maybe not me, but at least Si seems to be.

Si Kahn.
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