New Orleans I witnessed something of a miracle yesterday as thirty leaders and staff from more than fifteen ACORN affiliates were successfully able to hold a board meeting for two hours on Zoom. ACORN’s historic first might seem passé since Zoom calls have become one of the iconic signatures of the coronavirus pandemic. To understand our small success, you would have to understand the distance we have traveled in order to get to this place over the last more than eighteen years.
ACORN International began regularly holding board and staff meetings in the early days of the 21st century, invariably in Latin American or Caribbean countries, largely because it was impossible to get visas for our Latin American delegates and the costs were also prohibitive. We met in Santo Domingo, Mexico City, Lima, Quito, San Pedro Sula, and Tegucigalpa in different years. Leaders and staff from Canada and the United States were joined by our delegates from the Latin America. As we expanded, first in India and then Kenya, delegates would attempt to Skype into the meetings to give reports, take questions, and sometimes even listen to the meetings remotely. Mostly there were tech disasters of one sort or another. Bad and broken connections dominated. Sound without pictures or pictures without sound were common. It was a surprise and relief when a call came in and could be completed successfully.
As we began to grow in Europe over the last six to eight years, the dynamic began to change. Meetings were held in Bristol, Paris and Lyon. It was harder for our delegates from Latin American to attend because the costs were even more exorbitant and the visa problems were still intense. The axis of attendance moved from a majority North American to favor Europe and the United Kingdom. Still we tried to use Skype call for reports into the meetings with varied success.
A more recent experience in hosting a Zoom call in the early days of the pandemic for Labor Neighbor Research & Training Center (LNRTC) was also disastrous. Even though I was hosting the call I was not able to enter successfully for 15 minutes on computer or phone. Eventually, we defaulted to free conference telephone to hold the meeting, but doing so we lost our English and French board members and some others along the way. It was a horror, and I was personally responsible!
Learning my lesson for the ACORN Board Zoom call, we drafted our Ottawa head organizer to moderate and underwent two practice calls trying to get the interpretation feature to sort of work. In the end, some of the problems were the same and some different. Nairobi was able to get on successfully, but a 7pm curfew meant our office in Korogocho was inaccessible and leaders could not get on the call. Prague misread the time. Honduras was almost on twice, but stymied by a bad connection. The president of ACORN Honduras had sent a video message, expecting the worst — they were prepared. Lima was the only office that was MIA, explanation to follow. Otherwise to quote, Nick Ballard, head organizer for the ACORN Union in the UK, there were “far fewer tech problems than previously!”
Some couldn’t figure out how to unmute their microphone on their cellphones. We learned that moderators couldn’t mute callers when we might have wanted to do so. The interpretation feature is undoubtedly on Zoom’s fix-it list as well, since it forces two interpreters on two different channels.
Overall, we’re not complaining. Many of the problems are not too hard to fix as we schedule more regular governance meetings for our global organization.
Mostly, I’m relieved. We’ve come a long way, baby!