The Organizing Challenge of Leadership Transitions

ACORN International Canada

Oshawa           Hundreds of members from across Canada will be arriving in full force, decked out in their ACORN best, today to the Canadian biennial convention.  The slogan for this one is “Twenty for the Many,” celebrating two decades of growth and accomplishment in Canada.  In a nice touch, it also harks back to the same slogan for the Chicago convention of ACORN in the United States in 1990.  Time flies!

The ACORN Canada board all arrived a day earlier for the annual general meeting, as well as going through all of the planning involved in their management and leadership in the convention program and its workshops.  Each delegate reported on the progress over the year.  Campaigns around landlords and rent, whether controls or rates, were common, but the progress on predatory lending, banking, and internet access were also common themes.  These are good spirited meetings.

Canada is a huge country geographically, and the leaders always enjoy getting together and catching up and comparing notes.   Judy Duncan, the head organizer, reported that the estimated cost of the meeting and the entire convention was going to be about $90,000 CN, and that’s with members paying their own transportation and most of their convention and housing costs.  $90,000 could pay for a lot of organizing, so everyone is deeply committed to making the most of these events.

One of the most interesting parts of the board meeting involved a transition in leadership.  Somehow the corporate attorney had inserted term limits in the Canadian bylaws at three, two-year terms, which until recently had passed almost unnoticed.  Term limits are an unusual feature for ACORN historically and most of the affiliates. The general philosophy has been that leaders stand for election every two years, and if they have support, they win, and if they don’t, they lose, but in an action-based organization, often under the gun and under attack, there are advantages in leadership stability, so limits are unnecessary.  Marva Burnett has been an outstanding president for ACORN Canada, but the bylaws are the bylaws, and she was standing down at this meeting, so that meant she and some others were termed off the board, so new people were present in some cases, and elections were necessary among the dozen or so delegates to fill the top positions.

Taking notes for the meeting, I was a fly on the wall watching little “d” democracy in action.  The top spot for the new president was easy.  Alejandra Ruiz, a longtime Toronto leader, originally from Bogota, Columbia, and well-loved and respected in the organization, was quickly and unanimously elected.  There was some confusion around the treasurer position.  In the last AGM, the delegate from Ottawa, a longtime leader there, was elected, but couldn’t serve, because he was required to give prior notice and get approval from his job.  He indicated he was now ready, so was elected, replacing the existing treasurer, a newer leader from New Westminster in British Columbia.  Then there was some confusion.  She expressed willingness to be secretary, if she understood the duties, and was nominated at one end of the table.  Another delegate from the Maritimes was nominated at the other end of the table.  Only delegates could vote in this rare contest.  At first, it seemed that BC won, when too many hands were raised, but in the recount several times it was a 4 to 4 tie.  The bylaws offered no simple way to resolve this.  One suggested that Alejandra resolve the question as the new president, but she had already voted for one of the contestants, so that would have given her two bites at the same apple, which all agreed didn’t work.  The delegate from Hamilton suggested making them co-secretaries, which is where the issue was shelved for staff to check and see if the bylaws would allow such a coupling for the next two years.

For ACORN Canada, as a national organization, it was a good result with two top officers from Ottawa and Toronto, the big membership blocks, and two other officers from the far east and the far west.  Either way, it was all fascinating as an exercise in comradely and accommodating democracy.  Now, let the convention begin in unity and harmony.