New Orleans How does a neighborhood-based community organization continue to fight and win, when they can’t meet? That was the question before thousands of community-based groups around the world during the global pandemic. ACORN’s affiliate in New Orleans, A Community Voice, had to meet that challenge head-on and adapted the best they could. Many of their members were middle-aged or older, so the risks were real and ever present. What could they do to stay active?
ACV/ACORN’s first to tried Zoom calls. Internet access, unfortunately, in New Orleans’ low-to-moderate income neighborhoods is atrocious, ranking towards the bottom compared to other major US cities. Zoom turned out to be a bridge too far for many of the members. Without good internet, they stumbled trying to get in. Even calling into Zoom didn’t work well for many. The long-time head organizer, Beth Butler, was desperate to find a solution. After extensive research, she found a teleconferencing service, paradoxically, called Uber, that fit the bill. It was inexpensive and allowed people to not only call-in with a simple dial from their phones, but would remind people with a text before future calls. This would work! Throughout 2020 and into 2021, sometimes as many as a 150 people would dial into the calls. Listening to many of the calls it became clear; people loved them. They discussed issues, large and small, shared information, and basically connected with each other. Amazingly to me, they voted to have the calls EVERY WEEK. Their targets, politicians, and others also came on the calls, because they also wanted to connect with these folks, who were sometimes their constituents.
Now, finally, there’s a new development. For the first time since the pandemic, ACV/ACORN used their annual Christmas party to meet in person, so there they were, seventy-five people at St. David’s recreation room in the Lower 9th Ward, together again, at least some of them. Were they happy? Mercy, yes! Many were dressed in red. Some had on Santa hats. One woman wore a tiara of Christmas lights that even turned on! There were tables piled high with potluck food: chicken, bread pudding, spaghetti, macaroni and more. There were speeches by members and guests. Awards and certificates were given out. Politicians came by and were delighted to be there. This is New Orleans, so a member’s relative came to play the clarinet. One of the granddaughters, who is a local backup singer, serenaded with some Christmas songs. There was singing, swaying, and foot stomping.
It was amazing, and the best thing to see was how happy they all were to see each other with hugs and kisses. Don’t get me wrong though. Their ACORN DNA was also on display. One guest, a local environmentalist, suggested they contact the city about flooding, and one member after another broke in to explain why that was a losing tactic, explaining that it took having an organization to get something done. Members would jump in quickly when any politician was talking to set them straight as well. Remember, these were their friends and allies in their fights, but even though they hadn’t been meeting, they still knew what they wanted and how to get it.
Are they going to still do those weekly calls? Oh, heck, yes! There’s no way the organization can stop them, given how popular and valuable they are to many of their members. Nonetheless, they finally are meeting again and returning to their familiar repertoire, and they are oh, so happy, to reopen that chapter of their organizational life once again.