Running a National Desk

ACORN ACORN International Community Organizing

Leeds      As a 20-year old organizer directing the staff of the Massachusetts Welfare Rights Organization from Boston my few forays into Washington, D.C. to the national office on 14th Street NW were wide-eyed adventures to a city I had only visited once as a foot solider on the March on the Pentagon.  There worked George Wiley, Hulbert James, Tim Sampson and others who I largely only knew from the phone.  They did important work, and I mostly listened closely to their advice and instructions.  One operation particularly fascinated me and that was the aptly named  “state desk,” run by two former recipients, Joyce Berson and Jackie Pope.

Massachusetts was the largest of the NWRO affiliates with 4000 members, paying a small one dollar per year in 1969 and early 1970 when I worked there.  The staff for the most part was a score of VISTA volunteers spread about the state.  There were other staffed offices in Virginia, Brooklyn, Philly, Detroit, and California, but in the main affiliates from Atlanta to New Orleans, Kansas City to Denver to Seattle were loosely strung out groups organized by random VISTA or Community Action Program (CAP) outreach staff or volunteers.  The glue that linked them into NWRO, supported them, and, most importantly, put them into motion was the state desk.  Joyce and Jackie lived on the phone and in the mail room, sending out packets of information to these embryonic groups of welfare recipients.  Every three months it seemed there would be a coordinated campaign for school clothing or to force Sears-Roebuck, the Walmart of the time, to give credit to recipients.  Sometimes it all worked, and sometimes it didn’t, but there had to be a system to respond to the “movement” of welfare mothers and their supporters anxious to get involved and fight for their rights.

ACORN Bristol watching “The Organizer”

I thought of this when in the Bristol office of ACORN interviewing Anny Cullum on Wade’s World, whose “rubbish” title, as she called it, was director of Training and Development, but whose real job for ACORN England was running their equivalent of the old “state desk” that Jackie and Joyce ran for NWRO and Carolyn Carr ran once for ACORN in the US.  Under Anny it has become a fine-tuned system as she detailed for me.  A system bursting at the seams though since nineteen communities throughout the country have contacted ACORN asking for assistance in starting local groups in the several weeks since the recent UK election.

Modern technology makes it easier and more effective for Anny, but some of the elements don’t change.  She sends them out the UK Starter Pack which includes the ACORN organizing model and social media tips.  She uses an app called Calendly, she has now introduced me to as well, to schedule a first call, and once she’s on the phone she gives the introduction about what we are and what we are not.  If interested still, she sets a goal between 10 and 20 members for the new group to achieve to determine their seriousness.  Once achieved, the next step is a visit by Anny and often a local leader or organizer from somewhere nearby, if there is one, for a day of training and meeting of the committee and others to launch and select officers to guide them until they reach one-hundred members.  While they are working towards that goal, she schedules an hour a week with them on the phone to keep up with their progress, give them advice, and encourage them on their way.

Groups in Leeds, Liverpool, and Birmingham have come together this way, and now we’ll see what happens to this new crop springing up in the resistance to the recent election and Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party program.  I asked Anny what happens when they get to one-hundred.  She answered tartly, “I turn them over to Nick,” meaning Nick Ballard the national head organizer who then integrates them into the governance structure as a full-fledged branch with representation on the national board and no longer an organizing committee.  It’s then that he and field director, Jonny Butcher, have to make sure they take the organization the rest of the way to power after Anny, as the membership magician coordinator, has gotten them off the ground and running.

This is how a mass organization gets to scale from the bottom up.  There are never enough organizers, so there has to be a system that empowers the members to build the groups if we ever want to get the job done.