Category Archives: Community Organizing

Ohio – GOTV — Battleground Zero

Columbus, Ohio: The ACORN National Association Board wisely decided to have its fall meeting in Columbus because it sensed that Ohio could be ground zero in the critical last weeks before the United States presidential election.  The polls had been bouncing around like ping pong balls with Kerry ahead one day and Bush the next.  Both were in Ohio crisscrossing the state and overlapping our visit in Columbus.  Almost everyone agreed that for Senator Kerry to have any chance at unseating the incumbent, he had to win Ohio.

 A good friend and colleague, Dave Regan, President of the giant health care and public workers union, SEIU Local 1199 OH/WV/KY met the ACORN board along with local Columbus ACORN leader Robin Montgomery to brief the delegates on what was happening and why it was important.  Dave quickly rattled off the poll results, the efforts by the independent 527s like ACT, and the importance of voter registration efforts like those conducted by ACORN in trying to assure maximum participation in this election.  Regan believed that he could feel the momentum moving towards Kerry in Ohio in no small measure because of the disastrous job losses the workers of the state had experienced in the last four years under the Bush regime. 

 Columbus ACORN leader Robin Montgomery and ACORN National Political Director Zach Polett detailed the effort the organization had made in trying to get everyone ready for decision in Ohio.  The centerpiece of the effort had been the registration by ACORN and its Project Vote of over 160000 new voters, swamping other efforts both partisan and non-partisan.  This effort had been in Columbus, but also in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Toledo, and Dayton.  Importantly, ACORN also was going to have 1200 people working to Get Out the Vote (GOTV) on Election Day.  Brother Regan estimated that there would more than 10000 people working in GOTV efforts and perhaps as many as 20000 if one included all partisan and non-partisan efforts together.  It would be hard imagine that ANYONE would not know the importance of this election in Ohio and why every vote counted in this Midwestern, heartland, rustbelt center.

 To make sure the Board jumped on a bus pulled out their clipboards with their walk lists and absentee voter applications, and in the rain and raw cold fall morning of a Saturday in October jumped out on the streets in a neighborhood off central Columbus and Cassady Avenue.  Not a door was wasted.  People were excited.  No matter what people might wonder about whether or not people in Ohio feel put upon or hassled – people were excited about talking about the election and voting.  These folks in this neighborhood seemed in fact to enjoy their place in the spotlight on this gray day where in fact they knew – maybe for the first and only time – their votes were really counting and could be huge in deciding the future of the country.

 There will be millions of these visits by ACORN members and leaders in neighborhoods all over the country where ACORN organizes.  Some will be in the battlegrounds as they shift, but all of them will be important. 

 For all of the money and the entire struggle, there are few of our people who do not understand, especially in Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, and so many other states that their vote really DOES count this time around.

ACORN leaders prepare GOTV effort in Columbus OH. Below: Columbus ACORN leader Robin Montgomery, ACORN President Maude Hurd, and Dave Regan, president, SEIU 1199 OH/WV/KY brief ACORN’s national board on Ohio as a battleground state.

Asian Community Organizers’ Network

New York City:  Organizing is often a matter of drawing the lines as quickly as possible — and as straight and true — as you are able between several points – or people – to bring them all together.  Recently, I was cementing just that kind of connection where disjointed and skimpy pieces of information somehow seem to magically come together to make sense in a way that was surprising and illuminating.

 First, Mila Thomas, organizing director for a group of SEIU locals in northern California and an Organizers Forum participant told Barbara Bowen, my comrade in the Organizers’ Forum, of a visit to the Bay Area by an organizer from the Philippines she had worked with years ago and wanted us to meet and get to know.  Barbara followed up and relayed my invitation for the organizer to write for Social Policy about their experience doing community organizing in the slums of Manila.    

 Then I was meeting with the Community Organizing Practitioners Association of Kenya (COPA-K) and they mentioned that had worked for several years with organizers from the Philippines.   The world is not that big, I thought.  Seeing Mila in South Africa I asked if it was possible they were the same people, and indeed they were in this shrinking world of ours – and I learned much more about them and their work.

 I also learned from Mila that Denis Murphy and his wife might in fact be in New York when I would be there in mid-October to negotiate with Jackson Hewitt, one of ACORN’s tax preparing predators.  She warned me that he was only in New York because he was accompanying his sister to Rome on her 50th anniversary as a nun and had to also go to Japan around the same time to get an award for his work.  Nonetheless, threading the eye of the needle, I reached out for Murphy in hopes of being able to meet him and get a better idea of his work in New York, and this put us in a neighborhood diner a block or so away from Washington Square Park for lunch recently.

 Denis, his wife, and I spent an enjoyable and educational hour together, but I can only admit to just beginning to understand the range of their work with a network of community organizations in what they called “the slums” of Asian.  Currently and at various times in the past from their base in the Philippines, they had helped train and seed autonomous community organizations in India around Mumbai and Kolkata, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Korea among other locations.  They were involved in supporting an organizing effort trying to get traction again in Bangladesh.  And, yes, they had been active for a period of five years in training organizers in Kenya. 

 Denis was originally in fact from almost the same neighborhood, Greenwich Village, where we were meeting, and like many of his generation of organizers had begun his work as a Jesuit first assigned to the Philippines in the late 60’s and beginning organizing in various slums in the early 70’s.  At 72 Denis had a long and colorful history, which was only partially glimpsed in our first meeting as I tried to ask a hundred questions about the work in Asia, and he tried to ask me the same number about ACORN and its work.  I was interested what support the churches furnished in Asia, and he was interested in how a dues system really worked and rued that they had not put one in place in their efforts.

 He agreed to write for Social Policy, and I agreed to take one of his organizers from Korea and place him with ACORN for six months during his sabbatical, and we both agreed that this would be the first of many conversations.

 What had thirty years of community organizing taught him and others in a variety of countries in Asia?  This was worth knowing and understanding – and it’s important, just like connecting the dots…..

NOTE TO READERS: While I am back to writing about work and travels in the United States, more picture and reflections from my recent trip to Africa will be forthcoming.