Category Archives: ACORN International

Rethinking Social Investments: Unreasonable Institute

TorontUnreasonableo I’ve confessed before that after watching the dissolution of ACORN in the US, I’m now obsessed with self-sufficiency.  Philanthropy is too risk adverse and governments are too political vulnerable to be stable funding sources for progressive work.  All of which made me eagerly read the piece in the Business section of the New York Times by Hannah Seligson on the Unreasonable Institute and its young 25-year old founder, Daniel Epstein.  The name seems to have been taken from a George Bernard Shaw quote that “All progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

Ironically, the Unreasonable Institute itself though turns out to be supported by foundations and donations.  They bring wannabe entrepreneurs into Boulder, Colorado for an intensive 6-week program for 26 folks in figuring out how to raise private capital to support social response businesses providing solutions in the developing world.  I will overlook the fact that capacity building in for-profit sector and hopefully successful and profit making business ideas are being nurtured by private philanthropy, which means that while the Unreasonable Institute is promoting entrepreneurship, they are depending on donations for the Institute’s existence and for attendees who are raising money themselves to be able to get to Boulder.  Investors and business have no shame.

Nonetheless, Epstein is both unreasonable and right in developing a program to expand the base to support creative solutions in international work!  ACORN International’s experience dovetails precisely with his analysis.  Funders don’t take many domestic risks, and they are going to take proportionately less risks in international work (see a longer argument in Global Grassroots:  International Perspectives on International Organizing www.socialpolicy.org).

The story Seligson reported on Ben Lyon in Kenya who has started something called Kopo Kopo Inc which has devised “a mobile payment app that helps people make purchases in areas where banks don’t exist or where fees are too high for the poor to open accounts.”  Those areas are everywhere!  Count on the fact that ACORN Kenya will track him down to help in Korogocho…how about something for remittances Kopo Kopo?

On some of the others, who can tell?  More troubling was whether or not investors are really ready to buy, which also unfortunately agrees with our experience as well as we have tried to pitch recycling business models in Dharavi (Mumbai) and other cities as well as proven fundraising programs that are easily adaptable to developing megacities.  An investment director at something called the Investor’s Circle, which finances “businesses with a social or environmental impact” still seemed skeptical based on the distances and the payout possibilities.

Whatever?  If we are going to get traction, we are going to have to move a different direction.   While I’m trying to get my arms around a coffee house and bio-diesel operation, I can guarantee its high risk and hard to make happen, but what choices do we really have?

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Myles Horton and Occupy Decision Making Structure

Occupy CanadaToronto It is interesting to be reading Myles Horton’s autobiography, Long Haul, with its firmly held views on popular education, starting with where people are, supporting social movements, student-run and student-led educational experience, and “circles” of learning that are leaderless in pursuit of knowledge and at the same time hear and think about the Occupy “assembly” structure of consensus decision making.  Horton describes vividly the comeuppance of learned experts and overly theoretical union education directors and what could happen to them, sometimes embarrassingly, as they tried to lecture Highlander Center students rather than listening and trying to connect successfully with them.  Many were brought low in his telling from a popular education model that allowed the “students” to vote with their feet and simply interrupt or walk away when the presentation was didactic or didn’t connect to their experience and interest.

ACORN Canada organizers who had spent time in the general assembly process at Occupy Ottawa, Occupy Toronto, and Occupy Vancouver shared similarly maddening and difficult experiences with the painstaking and time consuming consensus decision making process.  Clearly each place is a little different and here in Canada we are several steps removed from Wall Street, which has set the model for this process, but the basic elements seem standard and replicable.  The solidarity system of repeating what is being said to neighbors without a sound system has been picked up and repeated.  The elaborate systems of hand signals indicating agreement, disagreement, withholding consensus, and so forth has also spread throughout North America and likely the globe.  In fact the Canadian newspaper, the National Post ran a story indicating that there are now Occupy locations in 154 countries and based on monitoring Twitter traffic they believed that Canada was now the second most active Occupy movement after the United States itself.

I had a long chat with one of our young Ottawa ACORN organizers, Alex MacDonnell, who had spent quite a bit of time with Occupy Ottawa including participation in general assembly meetings and several committee meetings.  His argument to me was both fascinating and important, and we’ll see over time if it is also true.  As time consuming and difficult as the process was, he believed that the one thing that might survive in our work from the Occupy movement might be the assembly process.

Andy Kroll writing in Mother Jones makes the same case in a piece about the origins and organizers of the Occupy movement (http://motherjones.com/politics/2011/10/occupy-wall-street-international-origins).  Like all movements, no one can take credit for a movement, but whether on Wall Street or in Tahrir Square there are always “organizers” and others who kept pushing forward until something happen.

The assembly decision making structure seems to come directly from spring protests in Spain and one can read a widely translated and fascinating “manual” of sorts on “How to Cook a Pacific Revolution” on the www.takethesquare.net site, which Kroll referenced as well.  A thumbnail of the process was included in the highlights of their manifesto of sorts:

“We’re organizing around assemblies, reaching decisions openly, democratically and horizontally. We have no leaders or hierarchy.
Since there’s plenty of work, all sorts of work, to be done, we’ve organized the task at hand around three types of bodies: commissions, working groups and general assemblies.

The commissions and working groups operate independently. The commissions are structural and organizational and serve as tools for the movement (the Legal and IT Commissions are two examples). The working groups are platforms for collective thought, debate and research on specific subjects (we have working groups on subjects such as politics, the economy and the environment, for instance).

These commissions and working groups are open to anyone who wants to participate. They hold their meetings in public spaces, announced in advance, and all their decisions are recorded in minutes that are published on line. They all organize around horizontal assemblies, but each group collectively establishes it own modus operandi, which is permanently open to change and optimization.

All-important decisions made by these commissions and working groups are subsequently raised to the General Assembly for assessment and ratification by the movement as a whole. Hence, while our work gets done efficiently and independently, it is coordinated horizontally by our assemblies.”

The assemblies are run not by “leaders” or “organizers” but by facilitators.  I’m betting that a lot of their “training” is based on the translation from the Spanish of the “Quick Guide on Group Dynamics in Peoples’ Assemblies” (Quick guide on group dynamics in people’s assemblies). For all of the handwringing and make believe of the Tea-people, my friend Glenn Beck, and others, there is an important and fascinating infrastructure underneath this movement which is absolutely worth organizers studying thoroughly and coming to understand.

Here are some starting points, so let’s see how far we all get as we wrap our minds around this process and this emerging movement and its methodology.

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