Volunteers, Activists, and Paid Staff


            New Orleans          We finished our last day of workshops on ACORN organizing in Baltimore in the massive old theater complex that is now CASA’s multi-service worker center in the city.  We worked with a mixed group of professional organizers and a number of what I had begun calling “seekers.”  These are activists looking to do important work or in fact working as volunteers in various formations.  Of the one hundred odd folks we had seen in our five-day five-city East Coast organizing blitz, this was often the mix in the room.  In Baltimore, the preponderance of attendees was paid staff, but in many of the other cities, the numbers skewed towards the volunteers, who had come because they were either deeply involved in organizational or political work of some kind or were looking for a place to make a difference.  Participants were patient with each other despite the chasm of organizational differentiation, because they were all in various ways looking to learn something from the ACORN experience, but I found it a fascinating and intriguing situation.

I hate to generalize or jump to the conclusion that this is an important or unique phenomenon, based on such a relatively small sample in a narrow, unrepresentative piece of the country.  Certainly, volunteers are the lifeblood of many organizations.  Even at ACORN, I joke about our “volunteer army,” but often I’m referring to our members or to our student interns.  Political parties and campaigns have always depended on a mixture of professional politicians and huge, regular influxes of volunteers, often carrying over as part of the candidate’s organization from election to election.  Still, some of this felt very different and, at the same time, familiar, because it reminded me so much of the late 60s and 70s.  Then, as perhaps now, it was common around the country to find “seekers,” especially among the young 20 to 30 cohort.  There were people getting jobs in factories to do political or union work, just as there are now, it seems.  People were trying to put different kinds of community groups together in places like Newark, Chicago, and even Springfield, Massachusetts, when I was there.  Where we now see community gardens sprouting up everywhere, then we saw underground newspapers.

All of this work is heroic its own way, but exceedingly difficult to maintain.  I watched four members of the Progressive Maryland staff caucusing at the end of the Baltimore session as they tried to do a quick debrief from the session to distil what might or might not work for them.  For the seekers, it’s a different experience.  They have to confront the immensity of the tasks, were they to try an organizing drive.  One group, in Philadelphia, shared with me the difficulty of trying to follow the model from their ACORN study group, because as volunteers they couldn’t duplicate the momentum and meet the timelines.  I understood completely.  An ACORN organizer supports a drive almost full-time for up to eight weeks in building a group.  These folks were balancing their paid jobs and devoting their “free” time to the organizing, sometimes another ten or twenty hours per week, catch can as catch can.  It’s Herculean, but it’s not sustainable.  Many of these fledgling organizations were facing a crossroads on whether to have staff or continue as volunteer teams, as well as the ways and means to develop resources and capacity to meet next stage challenges.

It’s tough for the organizations.  They have to have staff in order to win and continue to persevere in campaigns, but change is hard.  It’s also hard on the cadre of activists.  It’s one thing to rationalize your day job, so to speak, as just what you have to do in order to finance your unpaid work, but it is also difficult to make the commitment to go all in and risk everything to weld yourself permanently to the future of the organization.  It also separates you from your colleagues who don’t make that shift after what may have been years of collective work.

As an old sixties group, the Loving Spoonful, used to sing in a totally different context, “eventually you have to pick up on one, and let the other one go.”  These are tough decisions for individuals to make, but they are a necessity for building permanent, viable organizations of almost any kind, and certainly those that we build in conditions of constant struggle and opposition.