Category Archives: Community Organizing

Old and New Social Movements

Pearl River     Every month in the 50th anniversary year of ACORN, I’ve been talking on the radio to veteran organizers and others with unique perspectives on the organization, its history, and contributions. Recently, I spoke to Bob Fisher, Professor of Community Organization at the University of Connecticut School of Social Work on Wade’s World.  Fisher for many years has been one of the foremost scholars and students of community organization, dating certainly to his now classic work, Let the People Decide.   He was also the editor of the 2009 book, The People Shall Rule:  ACORN, Community Organizing, and the Struggle for Economic Justice. 

            Fisher made a number of interesting observations in the course of our discussion.  The first involved the emerging differences between old and new social movements.  These differences are often stark with newer social movements having structures that are more fluid and network-based, than firmly organizational with membership and internal accountability arising from the base.   Leadership and leadership styles also tend to be looser.  Some would say that leadership is flatter and less hierarchical, but in many ways that is not the chief characteristic as much as newer movements, having less structure, allow for greater decentralization and a variety of voices to speak for the movement.  This practice contains both strengths and weaknesses that Bob and I didn’t explore in our discussion.  Social media has also emerged as a demarcation line in new and old movements, where these great communications tools often substitute for organizing itself, allowing quicker response to issues, but not necessarily the sustainability to see the issues through to win change or see victory.

Fisher was kind enough to see ACORN as a bridge between the old and new in many ways, especially ACORN’s ongoing work in Britain, France, and other countries where the classic door-to-door model is being enhanced with social media tools.  Referring to ACORN, he spoke of these tendencies as post-Alinsky, referring to Saul Alinsky, whose work from the 1950s to early 1970s, is often credited with founding modern community organizing.  In making this case, he argued that ACORN’s use of mobilization tactics, political action, ideology, and anti-racism were all elements of a post-Alinsky development in organizing, as well as the organizations flexibility in responding to issues and campaigns.

Fisher also noted that ACORN’s ability to combine models, strategies, and tactics in merging community organizing methodology with direct union work and utilization of service as a membership-building tool, rather than a raison d’etre was distinguishing.  Bob was fascinated by our increasing ability to advance the concept of ACORN as a “union in the community,” citing the fact that in Britain ACORN is called the ACORN Union, our Irish affiliate calls itself CATU, the Community and Tenants’ Union, and the ACORN union in India claims more than 50,000 members.

As part of the 50th anniversary commemoration, it was exciting to talk with Professor Fisher about the next fifty years, and not just the last fifty.

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Photograph: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Laura Shows Lake Charles No Love

Pearl River     I’m fifteen feet above dirt looking out the window at the water that has risen up from the bayou a few miles from the Pearl River dividing Louisiana and Mississippi.  It has filled the bioswale, anchored by cypress trees off of the road, and covered the pathway where gravel was just laid days ago.  All of the trees bordering the property seem to be standing in water now.  A breeze is swaying the pines back and forth.  As bayou rises, I know it will fall, but when and how is a mystery to me.

We’re out of the danger zone on any map of Hurricane Laura’s progress, hundreds of miles east of landfall below Lake Charles, Louisiana, but not exactly out of harm’s way.  Tornado warnings extend through New Orleans, so we discussed the pros and cons between a bathroom with windows and a hall closet.

We have no complaints, because we know people well in Lake Charles, and our hearts are going out to them.  We’re sheltering a blended family of five in New Orleans now, a second cousin of mi companera.  Her first cousin evacuated to Arkansas, but late in the afternoon this gang made it to the city in a pickup and small sedan.

ACORN has had a group in the north end of Lake Charles for almost 45 years.  The neighborhood is largely African-America, and has long been our poster child for a member-leader run group over all of these years.   We know if their homes are devastated, they will be hard-pressed to rebuild, and many will be forced to move.  Organizers shed tears sometimes, too.

The Times used frighteningly effective metaphors for the danger to Lake Charles, a city of 80,000 near the Texas border at the Sabine River.  In one instance they spoke of the lake as simply a “part of the Gulf of Mexico,” 30 miles away.  A scientist referring to the oil and gas canals dug in the coast area spoke of them as a “hose” into the city, if hit directly.  The storm seems to be one of the most powerful to hit the US coast in history.

We hang on to every tidbit of news, as if a life raft.  A report that the storm surge may have only been eleven feet at the Calcasieu pass, rather than the predicted 15-20 feet, passes for good news. The slight veer to the east and the fact that Laura arrived after high tide had receded became other pieces we could grab and hold onto.  No measuring gauges at the wildlife area to the west of the city likely caught the surge, and somehow that seems like good fortune.

Two days before the 15th anniversary of Katrina, and we still struggle to learn the lessons of climate change and storm intensity.  We know in our hearts and minds how hard it has been to protect New Orleans, but we worry about whether anyone will care to protect the smaller cities like Lake Charles, Beaumont, Port Arthur, Orange, and more that line the coast from Florida to Texas.

Meanwhile I’ll keep watching the bayou ebb and flow, and despite knowing better, hope that this time will make a difference, even if too little, and too late for many.

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