How Much Can a Direct Action, Multi-Issue Community Organization Take On?

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UNICAH wants to partner with ACORN as they build their internet radio studio

Tegucigalpa      After visiting professors and students in the communications department of UNICAH, the Catholic University of Honduras, where ACORN was seeking a partnership to help develop its social media, radio, and television capacity, we traveled with Tegucigalpa ACORN leaders to inspect a huge project that they were undertaking.  We were expecting another meeting with members, but instead we found ourselves making the turn and coming to a halt in front of a huge metal gate that had to be opened for us by a security guard.  After parking, we walked single file down the hill through the property with the leaders until we were overlooking a concrete soccer “field” with an ACORN symbol painted on one boundary.  Where were we and what was this all about?

ACORN soccer “field” is ready on former orphanage being reclaimed by ACORN communities

The leaders described the situation for us.  We were on the grounds of a former orphanage that had been maintained by a department of the national government.  Once the orphanage had been dissolved there had been various attempts to redevelop the property to some other uses, but each time NGO’s had tried for a year and then departed.  ACORN groups had demanded restoration of the grounds as a community and recreation center, and the government had agreed.  We walked through room after room of old classrooms in dilapidated condition from recent years of abandonment in this sprawling compound. Our members had cutback the overgrowth.  The rooms had been opened so that we could clean up many of them in recent months.

government officials answer questions from ACORN leaders

The officials from the government arrived and walked the grounds with us.  They were complimentary.  Voices on all sides criticized external NGOs and their here-and-gone performance compared to ACORN’s deep roots and organization in the community.  The officials repeated the government’s commitment that they would spend 2 million lempiras or about $450,000 USD on the rehabilitation with the plan to turn over management of the facilities to ACORN once finished.

ACORN delegation evaluates work that needs to be done

Right now, the opportunity looked both exciting and overwhelming.  ACORN Tegucigalpa organizer Erlyn Perez frankly summed up the members current debate about how ambitious they should be in making plans for this project.  He said that some members believed that they should focus on the recreation area and rehabbing the first four rooms to usable fashion and stop there.  Others believed we should do even more and push for development of the whole project.  The debate was realistic and important.  How much can a direct action, multi-issued community organization really take on, before the project consumes and overwhelms the organization itself and its mission?

a lot of work to do

We next visited a community center elsewhere in the district that our members had prioritized to push for rehab.  It was one large room under an open-sided roof.  The members had done much of the work.  The tile floor was better constructed than any of our homes would have been.  Here there was satisfaction and agreement on the measure of the organization’s ambition and its achievement.

success in restoring another community center in the district

The questions being asked by these leaders and members is at the heart of community organizing especially when our work crosses into community development.  How will the Tegucigalpa members not let such victories hold within themselves the seeds of future defeat or loss of focus?  The fact that the organization recognizes the risks puts them way ahead of many others faced with the same questions.