Category Archives: ACORN

A Funeral Processional

New Orleans       I didn’t know Rev. William Barnwell or his family well, but I knew them for a long time and in many different capacities.

I first met Barnwell and some of his family when we were organizing the Household Workers Organizing Committee, a union of domestic workers in New Orleans in 1978-79.  The organization, which was in many ways the precursor of our efforts in the 1980s to organize and unionize home care workers, began as an effort to organize domestic workers to take advantage of finally being covered under the federal minimum wage at that time.  Among our ideas was to try and operate a hiring hall of sorts and to sign labor contracts with employers for domestic workers.  Searching for allies during that period we somehow found Barnwell who was connected to Tulane at the time as an Episcopal minister.  Over a period of several meetings and back and forth, we negotiated a labor contract for his maid, which became the first and only such agreement we had.

Barnwell was in and out of New Orleans, but I started running into him again over the last dozen years in the city.  His daughter lived in the neighborhood and was a sometime customer at Fair Grinds Coffeehouse, and she reconnected us.  Barnwell wrote a book, and we had him talk about the book at one of our Fair Grinds Dialogues.  He would delight in telling me the story of how his maid had come to them a year or so later to talk about some work or wage-related issue and said, they could handle it “without bringing in the union man.”

He had become a prisoner rights advocate and showed up regularly as an activist on issues of racial, social, and economic justice.  He was a regular at meetings of the Justice and Beyond coalition where mi companero and other old ACORNers were in constant contact with him.

Word had been filtering into the house while we were working during this stay-at-home period that Rev. Barnwell was in the hospital.  One day doing well, and another doing poorly.  He had been having health issues, the kind of underlying issues for a man of eighty-one, that are the hallmark of coronavirus victims.  Some reports list him as having the virus, others say he tested positive.  It hardly matters in the end.  It’s a footnote at best to a life lived on principle and for purpose.

The family had a small funeral, but how in corona-time do others celebrate his life and speak of the loss to his family?  Justice and Beyond organized a mobile processional that convened on a usually busy street bisecting the deserted Tulane University campus.  We were car number six of perhaps thirty, not counting several bicyclists that pulled out at 6 PM with flashing lights to slowly drive through the neighborhood to his home.  Rev. Gregory Manning, one of the J&B conveners, stood on the curb with a cross.  Neighbors, dressed casually or in athletic gear with children and dogs, lined the street offering waves and thumbs up.  We slowed down as we passed so mi companera could hand a small vase with flowers from our yard to a neighbor so she could bear it to the widow, then we turned at the next street and made our way back home.

Somehow this makeshift processional in honor of Rev. Barnwell’s life was both fitting and oddly appropriate.  It wasn’t a second line, because it couldn’t be.  It was unique.  It was somber.  It was silent.  It felt right and gave comfort to his community and family perhaps in an even more powerful and collective way than the traditional course might have offered.


Some Changes the Coronavirus Should Bring

Pearl River     In the Age of Trump and the Time of the Coronavirus, there seems to be constant speculation about what changes in our society, habits, and government might be permanent given our collective experience.  Much of this is hyperbole.  One pundit argued that he went “to sleep in America and woke up in democratic socialist Europe.”  Oh, if dreams could come true!  Let’s instead talk about lessons we should learn in this crisis, and things that should absolutely change in the wake of this crisis.

The Affordable Care Act is now ten years old, celebrating its anniversary during the lockdown.  No matter Trump’s rhetoric and Mitch McConnell’s Senate Republican caucus, can anyone make the case that the private health insurance and the patchwork quilt of state health coverage is adequate for our people?  The elimination of mandatory coverage left our hospital network damaged, albeit their greedy pricing of their services, drugs, and the like are major players as well, forced mergers and left us with too many sick and not enough beds, equipment, and personnel.  Millions in states across the country are facing this crisis without any insurance.  That has to change.

How could we not learn that the internet has to become a public utility?  How could we not realize that we finally have to take this matter out of the hands of the telecoms and the pattycake FCC voluntary programs and eliminate the digital divide, here and around the world?  How can all the ideologues who want to argue that education is the answer, despite the facts, maintain their position as the country from elementary to college is pushed into on-line learning, leaving lower income families even farther behind?   Put this near the top of the list.

Living wages, paid sick leave, real unemployment benefits, the play pretend that gig workers are not employees, are all things that we have once again been taught have to be part of the safety net for everyone, especially lower waged workers and their families.   The failure of government in this crisis has to end the argument that somehow the private sector and the magic of market forces are somehow going provide for families.  They never have, and they never will.  That’s why we need a government, it’s time to make them do the job.

I didn’t put this on the top of the list, but our union represents home care workers, nursing home workers, developmentally disabled workers, and the government and society has depended on them for care as much as they do hospital workers, yet they are severely underpaid and under resourced.  Good health care is a top to bottom priority, and we have to guarantee our people that they will be provided for when in care, and when giving care.

Yes, people will finally learn to wash their hands better, but the virus ought to bring forward a host of changes that we desperately need and can no longer ignore.  The temptation by policy makers will be to fight the last war, rather than the next, by putting more respirators and masks into production.  Many of us will include different items in our “run for it” bags and storage closets for sure.  But we need to learn from this that there are fundamental changes that we have to make in protection and provision for our people, and we need to do it now.