Category Archives: ACORN

Organizing Culture is Strong in UK ACORN

Manchester     Leeds had been my last stop with the team as we barnstormed our offices in England.  Leeds was a new chapter that had self-organized with support from the other offices to over one-hundred members, and visiting with them in and around the showing of “The Organizer” documentary it was easy to see why they had showed such success with a crowd of over forty pouring into the Saturday matinee.

The banner made by a team of folks was one of the best constructed ACORN banners I had ever seen.  Trying to ask before the showing who had made the banner, I encountered nothing but dissembling.  No one wanted to take credit, even though many admitted having their hands on the job.  I would talk to one, and they would point to another.  That was interesting to me.

It turned out that in a rarity for ACORN local groups in their formation that they also had doubled up in other areas.  There were two communication officers, not one.  Two events coordinators, and so on. When there were jobs to be done, they had figured out a good way to get more people on the program.  I overheard them discussing the fact that some other progressive group had offered to cook dinner for all of them at their next meeting.  Good solidarity might be a hallmark in northern England.

at the Pub

They aren’t alone in the UK.  Going to a nearby pub is common practice in both Scotland and England.  There were ten of the forty in Leeds in the after session.  Even more in Manchester and Sheffield.  It’s not your standard debriefing, but a social event among kindred spirits and comrades, and seemingly part of the standard time commitment for the activists involved in building the group.  Business is done.  Ideas and suggestions come up.  In Bristol, I listened to the events coordinator and other members discuss ideas for a future picnic, how to handle a politically astute local band that wanted to play for ACORN at some kind of affair, and so on.  A giant bus for an action demanding more public control of the bus system had been made at a something the organizer referred to as a “craftanoon,” short for a crafting afternoon, I assumed, which seemed like a thing.

Leeds screening for The Organizer

There are different organizing cultures elsewhere, but like most cultures, this works here.  In Manchester, a woman showing up at the pub for a pint after the session allowed her to reengage and explain why she had been missing in action for the last year but was ready to be involved again.  Another woman turned out to be from London and the pub gave her an opportunity to assess the local scene and offer suggestions on contacts and funding bids to the organizers.

Gluing people together takes form in a lot of ways in organizing, and it was good to watch – and be a part of – the deepening strength of the organizing culture in the United Kingdom all across the country.

Bristol Office

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Running a National Desk

Leeds      As a 20-year old organizer directing the staff of the Massachusetts Welfare Rights Organization from Boston my few forays into Washington, D.C. to the national office on 14th Street NW were wide-eyed adventures to a city I had only visited once as a foot solider on the March on the Pentagon.  There worked George Wiley, Hulbert James, Tim Sampson and others who I largely only knew from the phone.  They did important work, and I mostly listened closely to their advice and instructions.  One operation particularly fascinated me and that was the aptly named  “state desk,” run by two former recipients, Joyce Berson and Jackie Pope.

Massachusetts was the largest of the NWRO affiliates with 4000 members, paying a small one dollar per year in 1969 and early 1970 when I worked there.  The staff for the most part was a score of VISTA volunteers spread about the state.  There were other staffed offices in Virginia, Brooklyn, Philly, Detroit, and California, but in the main affiliates from Atlanta to New Orleans, Kansas City to Denver to Seattle were loosely strung out groups organized by random VISTA or Community Action Program (CAP) outreach staff or volunteers.  The glue that linked them into NWRO, supported them, and, most importantly, put them into motion was the state desk.  Joyce and Jackie lived on the phone and in the mail room, sending out packets of information to these embryonic groups of welfare recipients.  Every three months it seemed there would be a coordinated campaign for school clothing or to force Sears-Roebuck, the Walmart of the time, to give credit to recipients.  Sometimes it all worked, and sometimes it didn’t, but there had to be a system to respond to the “movement” of welfare mothers and their supporters anxious to get involved and fight for their rights.

ACORN Bristol watching “The Organizer”

I thought of this when in the Bristol office of ACORN interviewing Anny Cullum on Wade’s World, whose “rubbish” title, as she called it, was director of Training and Development, but whose real job for ACORN England was running their equivalent of the old “state desk” that Jackie and Joyce ran for NWRO and Carolyn Carr ran once for ACORN in the US.  Under Anny it has become a fine-tuned system as she detailed for me.  A system bursting at the seams though since nineteen communities throughout the country have contacted ACORN asking for assistance in starting local groups in the several weeks since the recent UK election.

Modern technology makes it easier and more effective for Anny, but some of the elements don’t change.  She sends them out the UK Starter Pack which includes the ACORN organizing model and social media tips.  She uses an app called Calendly, she has now introduced me to as well, to schedule a first call, and once she’s on the phone she gives the introduction about what we are and what we are not.  If interested still, she sets a goal between 10 and 20 members for the new group to achieve to determine their seriousness.  Once achieved, the next step is a visit by Anny and often a local leader or organizer from somewhere nearby, if there is one, for a day of training and meeting of the committee and others to launch and select officers to guide them until they reach one-hundred members.  While they are working towards that goal, she schedules an hour a week with them on the phone to keep up with their progress, give them advice, and encourage them on their way.

Groups in Leeds, Liverpool, and Birmingham have come together this way, and now we’ll see what happens to this new crop springing up in the resistance to the recent election and Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party program.  I asked Anny what happens when they get to one-hundred.  She answered tartly, “I turn them over to Nick,” meaning Nick Ballard the national head organizer who then integrates them into the governance structure as a full-fledged branch with representation on the national board and no longer an organizing committee.  It’s then that he and field director, Jonny Butcher, have to make sure they take the organization the rest of the way to power after Anny, as the membership magician coordinator, has gotten them off the ground and running.

This is how a mass organization gets to scale from the bottom up.  There are never enough organizers, so there has to be a system that empowers the members to build the groups if we ever want to get the job done.

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