Bradford Visiting with one of ACORN’s newest emerging branches in Bradford, a unique, mid-sized, growing former mill town in England’s north, not far from Leeds, was fascinating. Leaving the train with Kat Wright, ACORN UK’s field director, we walked through the center of town and then up the hill past colleges and universities until arriving at the community center where we were meeting. Passing families, coming and going, from various Sunday afternoon outings, gave us a good demographic walking tour of a city where south Asians, largely Pakistanis, are the majority, with a good mixture of families from Africa as well. Bradford was no typical English market town.
This new chapter is preparing for its first meeting at the end of July. I had my eyes open to more than the sights and sounds of this city, having the opportunity to spend an hour before the screening watching Dave Arwinkle, one of ACORN’s national organizers, work with a new trainee embarking on his first organizing drive.
Dave and Mark O’Leary had laid out three sheets of butcher paper, one of the tools some organizers, especially old schoolers, swear by. The sheets were labeled members, active members, and leaders. Mark had cut out the names of all 150 of the new members, and they were being sorted based on whether they had been home-visited and vetted or had come in quickly in stalls set up in shopping areas to introduce people to the organization. Using what they were calling an “onion” with various levels, named similarly, members were moving from one circle or skin, as it were, to another based on whether, and how, they had committed to the organization, then how they had managed various tasks or “tests” from meeting attendance to door knocking or any variety of other things, large and small, on forward to taking roles in actions, speaking, chairing, and becoming leadership in the inner circle of the diagram. The UK ACORN organizers had adopted this notion of the onion from a presentation at our international organizers’ meeting in France last November that was presented by old friends and comrades working then at the FNV, the largest union in the Netherlands. Normally, I learned later, they would have written people’s names on the drawing of the onion, but the number of early members in Bradford was already so large that butcher paper had entered the arena.
Dave good naturedly, but gingerly, led Mark through the conversation on each of the key members that he had visited to determine who they could move to the next, “active”, circle to serve as the organizing committee for the launch of this new branch. Had they been visited? Had they responded to calls and texts to participate in stalls or other events that were “tests”? The drive had already been going on for a while, so Dave always was interested on when the last contact might have been so that he could assess the momentum, or as he advised Matt at one point, to “keep ‘em on the boil.” All of this takes time. Writing by each name, many were marked for more home visits via door knocking, which they called “door stepping”, partially because during the pandemic, and to some degree still, the visits were largely at the door step, rather than in the home.
When members assemble at the end of July to launch the Bradford branch, it will all seem spontaneous and an exciting happening in the community, but watching the careful and methodical work being done in making assessments of what we were hearing of issues and interests that could be parsed and assembled through this exacting, careful process is at the heart of organization building. Or the process that my brilliant colleague, Dave, in his colorful Yorkshire accent termed, “ACORN-pilling”, transferring the culture and technique to another group of members and potential leaders so that they could build power here.