Listening in the Peoples’ Republic of Massachusetts


            Boston      I’ve been here before.  A friend reminded me that my last visit was perhaps five years ago; pre-pandemic, as we now say.  Massachusetts is no stranger to me, even before my last stop.  My professional organizing began in Springfield in western Massachusetts and then in Boston and around the state before I left for Arkansas to found ACORN in early summer 1970.  ACORN added Massachusetts as our 20th state in 1980, so the organization had deep branches here, bringing me back regularly.

Outsiders like to think of Massachusetts as one of the country’s political outliers, stereotypical blue and determinedly liberal.  Much of that presumption has merit, but it’s not monolithic.  When I came here in 2009, I met with groups of Tea Party members who had picketed my appearances and listened to their issues.  A young man in Cambridge, who attended an organizing workshop on the ACORN methodology we were giving, mentioned that he worked in an Apple Store in Boston and sometimes, as he was fixing peoples phones and forced to scroll through their social media, the store seemed filled with the Trump team.  He had no problems with them, because they needed his help.  It was a simple story in some ways, but typical in others, because listening to forty to fifty activists and organizers we have met in the Springfield and Boston regions, it was hard not to hear the hunger for help in the questions and comments as people gathered and chatted.

The crowds have been diverse.  Old comrades from over the years, friends of friends, but mainly young organizers trying to organize tenant unions, organizers and activists from labor-based or community coalitions, socialists and communists now comfortable in stating their case, and people who were looking for the ways and means to make a difference.  We were talking about how we worked and what we were, both around the world and historically in the United States.  My colleague, David Thompson, showed a clip from the last ACORN Canada convention and another piece from the “Organizer” movie as part of our workshop.  The movie was the French version, with the captions running along the bottom of the screen in French.  No one remarked on that anomaly, but I found it poignant, because in some ways we were speaking a different language to these activists and organizers, with voices and experiences that were foreign to many, making me wonder what many might have been able to take away.

Their questions were poignant, but often welling from experiences that are basic in organizing.  How to deal with internal leadership disagreements?  How to approach door knocking and home visits in these fraught times?  How to sustain fledgling organizations with volunteers?  What they might take away sometimes seemed almost tangential to the model, like the necessity of having tight timelines on an organizing drive or limits to the time spent in someone’s house on the doors.

Listening carefully, it’s exciting to hear the interest and see the deep commitments that people are making to their work in social change.  At the same time, it often seems clearer what people are trying to change, than whether they have a clear vision of how to build the power to make the change.  Our minds are open; we’re listening carefully.  It’s easy for us to miss the point, and we have many stops left on this road and the opportunity to learn much more.