London I’ve now been to hundreds and hundreds of first meetings of ACORN groups in cities, both new and old, around the world, and they never fail to be thrilling in the exciting, dangerous, head thumping, nerve wracking way that all intense new experiences with people always are. The first meeting of ACORN London in East Brixton promised to be all of those things, and then delivered in full measure.
In a highly cosmopolitan and diverse city, Brixton is all of that and more, having served for many years as a magnet for new immigrants coming into England, especially from the Caribbean islands, and a good number of other places as well. Rents were once lower. There’s still a fair amount of council or public housing, even while gentrification begins its march into the area, and new and old residents try to negotiate common ground. In short, it seemed like the perfect place to begin the work of building ACORN in London.
But of course nothing is quite that easy. Jonny Butcher and Lee Baker organizing ACORN London had been working for some months before the decision to go forward was formally made, so rather than the usual several months for the drive, they were trying to compress everything into a quick four weeks, all of which had us tightening down our seat belts, putting the pedal to the metal, and hoping we didn’t hit the wall.
When it came time for the meeting, and it was clearly time to start, we were looking at perhaps 15 of the chairs filled, and two key members of the organizing committee taking lead roles in the meeting, still not with us. You could have heard our heartbeats across the Atlantic. Organizers were hustling around, trying to adapt the agenda on the fly, but by the time the meeting ended we had forty on the attendance list, a committee that had volunteered to help plan the first action, a group of temporary officers ready to lead the next meetings and pull the organization together, and a huge amount of excitement from everyone there at the diversity and energy in the meeting, as one said, “where else would I have met all the people in this room,” or in other words another great ACORN first meeting!
The most interesting part of the meeting was of course the group conversation about what the first issue should be and how to handle it. Democracy in action! Back and forth it went as some mentioned park lighting and inadequate security there, some mentioned housing, but quickly consensus began forming around a basket full of traffic issues on Coldharbour Lane. There were not enough crossings, the crossings didn’t work for motorized chairs, older people or much of anyone else, the designs were faulty, and no one really knew the future plans for the central road. When the meeting voted on the issue, unsurprisingly traffic “won” as the first campaign, and fairly quickly a great back-and-forth of discussion on all sides of the room carried the meeting to an action plan starting with a neighborhood mobilization and potentially ending up at the council chambers. East Brixton ACORN was on its way.
As people were leaving the new co-chair excitedly called for a picture of those remaining still in the room, an art and community space that somehow seemed perfect for this meeting, and the smiles on the faces of the founders of ACORN London pretty much said it all, and the work begins anew in another great city where people want to organize to create change and build power.