Old and New Social Movements

Pearl River     Every month in the 50th anniversary year of ACORN, I’ve been talking on the radio to veteran organizers and others with unique perspectives on the organization, its history, and contributions. Recently, I spoke to Bob Fisher, Professor of Community Organization at the University of Connecticut School of Social Work on Wade’s World.  Fisher for many years has been one of the foremost scholars and students of community organization, dating certainly to his now classic work, Let the People Decide.   He was also the editor of the 2009 book, The People Shall Rule:  ACORN, Community Organizing, and the Struggle for Economic Justice. 

            Fisher made a number of interesting observations in the course of our discussion.  The first involved the emerging differences between old and new social movements.  These differences are often stark with newer social movements having structures that are more fluid and network-based, than firmly organizational with membership and internal accountability arising from the base.   Leadership and leadership styles also tend to be looser.  Some would say that leadership is flatter and less hierarchical, but in many ways that is not the chief characteristic as much as newer movements, having less structure, allow for greater decentralization and a variety of voices to speak for the movement.  This practice contains both strengths and weaknesses that Bob and I didn’t explore in our discussion.  Social media has also emerged as a demarcation line in new and old movements, where these great communications tools often substitute for organizing itself, allowing quicker response to issues, but not necessarily the sustainability to see the issues through to win change or see victory.

Fisher was kind enough to see ACORN as a bridge between the old and new in many ways, especially ACORN’s ongoing work in Britain, France, and other countries where the classic door-to-door model is being enhanced with social media tools.  Referring to ACORN, he spoke of these tendencies as post-Alinsky, referring to Saul Alinsky, whose work from the 1950s to early 1970s, is often credited with founding modern community organizing.  In making this case, he argued that ACORN’s use of mobilization tactics, political action, ideology, and anti-racism were all elements of a post-Alinsky development in organizing, as well as the organizations flexibility in responding to issues and campaigns.

Fisher also noted that ACORN’s ability to combine models, strategies, and tactics in merging community organizing methodology with direct union work and utilization of service as a membership-building tool, rather than a raison d’etre was distinguishing.  Bob was fascinated by our increasing ability to advance the concept of ACORN as a “union in the community,” citing the fact that in Britain ACORN is called the ACORN Union, our Irish affiliate calls itself CATU, the Community and Tenants’ Union, and the ACORN union in India claims more than 50,000 members.

As part of the 50th anniversary commemoration, it was exciting to talk with Professor Fisher about the next fifty years, and not just the last fifty.

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