Responding to Peoples’ Demand to Organize

ACORN ACORN International Community Organizing

Manchester     This is a classic organizing problem, but also in some ways an equally ubiquitous problem in all of life’s endeavors.  In short, with fixed resources, including people, money, time, and distance, how does an organization respond to the increasing demand by people for organizing assistance and support?  Outside of work, we face the same challenges that despite a running as fast as our legs will carry us, there always seems to be too little time, too little money, and an endless list of things we want to do and even must do, that we have trouble balancing.  As Adrien Roux, head organizer of ACORN France, and Nick Ballard, head organizer of ACORN United Kingdom, sat with me over a marathon breakfast in Amsterdam, before running for ferries, trains, and planes, to the next stop, we debated how to address this issue in our work, even while laughing off our inability to deal with these issues in our personal lives.

The question has been especially urgent in England for ACORN.  As news of our work had spread in recent years, a model system had been devised to respond to tenants wanting to join our union and organize chapters in their cities.  When contacted, the Bristol office would have a chat and send out a “starter packet” that Ballard described as the “classic ACORN organizing model with modern social media added.”  When the incipient committee recruited a threshold of ten or twenty dues-paying members interested in moving forward, the office, usually meaning our senior organizer, Anny Crumble, would arrange a visit at an organizing meeting with nearby staff and leaders or for them to visit the nearest office for a couple of days.  From there the committee, if still good to go, would begin taking small actions and doing outreach to build membership towards a formal launch meeting, where a leader and/or organizer from another chapter would attend.  At the point the embryonic organization reached one-hundred dues-paying members, there would be discussion about engaging and training a part-time organizer for the branch and including the formal chapter in the governance structure.  At 150 to 200 members, the organizer would be fulltime, and away we go.

All good, but now in the wake of the recent election fast tracking Brexit in a sweeping Conservative victory, ACORN’s membership was surging and new requests for assistance in organizing new chapters was overwhelming existing capacity.  We can add another organizer to meet the need, but that doesn’t really do it, we all agreed.

The discussion got creative.  How could we supplement the starter packs with videos?  Short “how to” lists?  Perhaps something interactive on the websites?  Ideas were bouncing back and forth.

Luckily, this discussion dovetailed with some recent offers and suggestions from some of our partners.  The Everett Program of the University of California at Santa Cruz had talked to us recently about producing and editing training videos for us, and we had discussed tailoring them to members, leaders, and activists interested in building new groups.  Another partnership our French affiliate had developed with the University of Geneva in Switzerland, could also add video capacity in a similar way.  We felt we were getting somewhere and plans were made to follow-up.

The trick to solving this is a question of scale.  How to create and distribute the tools for success, and then realistically understand that tools alone are useless without full training and constant support to achieve success.  Just because you own a hammer, it doesn’t mean that you know how to build a house.  There’s not one fix, but if we can figure out a way to integrate all of this, we’re on to something big and exciting.