Making Sense of “Stalls”

ACORN Ideas and Issues
Katy Perry, seen here at Madison Square Garden in New York City in July 2014, has worked with the Swedish producer Klas Ahlund (featured in Stalls). Credit Brian Harkin for The New York Times
Katy Perry, seen here at Madison Square Garden in New York City in July 2014, has worked with the Swedish producer Klas Ahlund (featured in Seabrook’s Book). Credit Brian Harkin for The New York Times

Birmingham     Nothing like learning something every day to keep you in the work, and I found myself almost starting from scratch trying to be helpful and value-added to ACORN’s Birmingham organizers who have been heavily involved in list building for a coming organizing drive using a technique they refer to as “stalls.”  The simple steps are clear enough and are what old school ACORN organizers would know as “petitioning” or even “street canvassing.”  There’s a table with the ACORN flag.  Petitions set up with general language about rent increases, security of tenure, and tenant protections which gets a quick response her in the Midlands just as it does in London and Bristol. 

            In some ways it was a short course for the team on what I have always called “organizing math.” They told me that they tended to get names and contact information from somewhere between one in eight and one in ten people that they engaged passing their table, so we’re talking about roughly a 10 to 12% response rate. So, hand in hand we walked through the math thickets to get a grip on the work. If they wanted to get even as low as 50 contacts per day which would be 25 per organizer, then they were going to need to be in locations where the flow was up to 500 people in the time period allotted. Ok, that was clear. Were they in locations where that would happen? They weren’t sure. They hadn’t been counting. Ok, that’s easy to solve. Let’s start counting. Agreed! And, if you have to get 50 per day to be where you need to be it’s not just the question of 500 people but how many hours the organizer can calculate that it takes to see that many people. It would be wonderful if 100 people pass in an hour, then even on 10% production, the daily numbers would be met in only five hours. What if the number is only 50 people per hour, then in five hours there would only be 25 contacts, so to make the fifty needed, either the organizers would have to be out ten hours, or they would need to be in two locations with about the same foot traffic to get those numbers. Ok, a plan can be made from that as well.

            The organizers noted that when they got someone to their table their success rate was 100% in getting the information.  So what was the rap they were using to move people from their daily tasks over to the “stall?”  It seemed mundane and listless at first blush and on the order of, “hey, will you sign the ACORN petition on tenants’ rights.”  If that rap was working to yield 10 to 12.5%, then how about trying some other raps to see if they produced a better yield.  How would you tell?  Try the raps and count the success in batches of 10 or 20 and see if the results moved up to 20 or 25% doubling your production on the same street flow.

            As organizers, we use every tool we think might work, and I found myself telling the team about a new book I had read during these travels called The Song Machine:  Inside the Hit Factory by John Seabrook, and how some of the same concepts he was discussion in modern hit making for pop music might be transferred to organizing.  Like pop singers they only had a limited number of seconds to engage someone on the street and hold their attention and convert it into action, so what were the “hooks” they were using in their rap to pull people into the stall?  Seabrook details the change in modern pop music for a hit that doesn’t use one hook, but several to pull people in at the “pre,” the first 15-20 seconds, then again, and again, and again.  What hooks were the organizers embedding in their rap that would pull people in?  What was their “fight song?”  How would they get people to “shake it out” and “roar?” 

            Hooking people and reeling them into the action and organization, song writing and emotional engagement that moves people to respond and then buy a song, and organizing that provokes attention and response and then engagement, commitment, action, and more, all somehow came together over the coffee, omelets, and occasional glances at the rain on the high street outside, until we all felt as if maybe we were making progress and getting somewhere with this “stall” technique, and not just stalling to keep from the harder work on the doors.