Montreal They came up in twos and threes, a team of leaders and fighters from every region of Canada and every ACORN city, big or small. Some were 18-year veterans of ACORN from Toronto and British Columbia, and some were at their first convention from Montreal, London, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick. All of them were excited, and often emotional, as they told the story of their struggles and victories, often seemingly against all odds to hear them tell it. They were so proud. They were so happy. Sitting there in one of the front tables, I wished I could bottle it up and take it with me forever, and I know I wasn’t alone.
A membership “speak out” has been a staple at ACORN conventions in Canada and earlier in the United States for many, many years. It has always been one of the first events in a convening, often as far-flung delegations were still making their way by car, bus, train, and plane across these vast North American countries that run from ocean to ocean. Originally, in the US it was a chance for members to get to know each other and have an opportunity outside of the formal order of business to take the microphone and tell their story, whether a big victory, a private outrage, or simply a shoutout. In the US, the session was always moderated by the ACORN president and went as long as the members had an appetite for sharing and hearing each other, sometimes for hours and hours, as some would drift off and others would come forward.
In Canada, with everyone in session, the speak out was enthusiastically convened after rousing speeches by our old friend and comrade, John Cartright, an ally even before ACORN’s founding in Canada, as head of the Toronto-York Labour Council, and now as chair of the prestigious coalition, the Council of Canadians, a national institution on many issues since the mid-80s. Marva Burnett, president of ACORN Canada and ACORN International, had moved the crowd with her remarks, welcoming the family of organizations, and being greeted with love around the room by our ever-generous members. With those warmups, each city had a high bar to reach in holding the room and moving the spirit onward and upward, and they hit the marks time after time with their nervousness, enthusiasm, emotion, and the real joy they brought to their time in the spotlight.
There were highlights not only in the many victories around internet access, inclusionary zoning, rent control, and winning affordable housing in different cities, but in some of the other moments as well. Ottawa gave its report in back-and-forth English and French, while Montreal presented only in French. Peggy Cooke, the national admin, running back and forth to change the office background and an action shot on the screen for its city was a dear old school statement in this high-tech world that ACORN was still the spunky grassroots powerhouse it had always been even at Concordia University with its elaborate mechanics. An unusual, but welcome, one-minute of silence and memorial for three longtime ACORN leaders who had passed away was touching. One leader couldn’t resist telling a joke about someone being asked to paint a porch green who instead painted the rich man’s Porsche green. At the mic a Nova Scotia leader all of sudden popped open some handknitted red-and-black acorns they had been made as a crafting fundraiser and people – including me – jumped to buy them.
If there was a 10-minute videotape pieced together of these hours, it would be the kind of thing any of us would be glad to pull up on our laptops or phones in the tough times in our campaigns and organizing, so we could remember that “it never rains forever.” A couple of minutes would be an elixir and send us back out on the doors, in the streets, and to the barricades again. It was all about the members. They kept it real and did it their way, speaking out and speaking up.