Leveraging Elections for Change

IMG_2661London      The ACORN London organizers working in East Brixton thought they would try to see what might happen with a combination training workshop and fundraiser. The topic they settled on, given that elections are on people’s minds for both 2015 and 2016, were how community-based groups could use the opportunities they present for accountability to advance the agendas of their constituency or make progress on their issue campaigns. All of which found fifteen of us in an upstairs room of the Apple Tree pub in central London ready to tackle the topic.

The diversity of the groups represented was wide. A union activist from Unison involved in trying to organize Polish members of the union, two organizers from the National Students Union representing seven million UK students, two organizers from the national autism association with branches throughout the country, the director of Generation Rent, a UK tenants campaigning organization, an organizer for the 37000 member Action for Happiness, and several other independent community activists and organizers. With such a mish-mash of diverse interests you might think the meeting should have been moved downstairs in the pub closer to the hard spirits so that we might be able to all make it through, but in fact it was fascinating how deeply engaged people were in figuring out the opportunities in the two hours we spent together.

After introductions and a half-hour of presentation of some of the key history, principles, and ACORN’s own experience in using elections to “prove” the base and win on everything from living wage elections in the US and Canada to huge slum improvements in Lima and potable water in Mexico City, we broke the group into three to discuss the questions more intimately. Central to those discussions was determining the strengths of each organization’s base, actions that could be taken on specific campaigns and the follow-up necessary to convert the issues and opportunities into power.

It felt like the floodgates had been opened. A buzz of discussion and animated back and forth poured from every one of the small groups. Everyone wanted to share their experiences, good, bad, and ugly. One group in looking at their base ended up with an interesting discussion on leadership and staff relationships that clearly had been much on their minds and looking for a forum. Another ventured more deeply into tactics and actions. Another vented frustration with the new “gagging” limits on their activity ridiculous situation that they now found themselves confronting in so much of their organizing.

In reporting back the discussion was as high-pitched. Whatever this cultural rumor is about the much vaunted “British reserve,” it turns out when the topic is related to community organizing, it’s “no holds barred,” and ready to go fifteen rounds. There’s a hunger here, and we might just be stumbling into something big.

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