Bristol Oh, the difference a year makes in an organization’s progress! I could feel it almost immediately as we walked to the new office on the border of St. Paul’s, a neighborhood we are preparing to launch an organizing drive, and Easton, the community that has been our bastion of strength. Walking to the left of Stuart Melvin, ACORN United Kingdom’s head organizer, he exchanged brief greetings with someone passing quickly he leaned over to me and said he was a letting or rental agent that had been one of the ACORN Easton group’s targets and had ended up agreeing to sign the ACORN Ethical Letting Charter to protect tenants. Only seconds later we stopped as someone approached on the right and said hello who was a member of the Easton organization and promised to be at the next meeting. It’s the little things like these quick random exchanges that help to fill in the measure of real growth in an organization in a way that the charts and reports hint at, but only these kinds of experiences can flesh out.
We met with Nick Ballard, another of the founders of the Bristol ACORN operation in the office. Although we had been renting the upper floor in the Communication Workers’ Union of Bristol since last December, it was my first time there, and what a difference it made. Same rent, thanks to our postal worker brothers and sisters as the old shared space, but instead of a tiny room on the other side of an art and book space, it was several rooms overlooking a small patch of green down below and spoke in every way to the increased quality of the work being done. You can’t judge an organization on the bricks-and-sticks, but framed action pictures and meeting posters, the books on organizing on display, and the large table where all three of us had computers blazing as Stu complained about the internet was a world of difference from our early days less than two years ago.
Most importantly the dues-paying membership was now over the 300 mark with two-thirds coming from Easton our membership and the expanded citywide tenants’ campaign that had grown from its earliest fights and another one-third attracted widely to the rising profile of the organization in the area. ACORN’s Ethical Letting Charter arguing for better enforcement of landlord repairs, increased security of tenure for leases which now all run for only one or two months at a time, and other tenant protection efforts has attracted the support in one way or another from actions to petitions of more than 10,000 people pushing the profile of the organization bigger and bigger.
Another shot in the arm was the recent five-week Dismaland brilliantly organized by world famous graffiti and counter-cultural artist and impresario, Banksy, who incidentally is a native of Bristol and former resident of Easton as well. The satirical, political, and art production drew over 150,000 people to a small town along the seaside not far from Bristol, and ACORN had been invited to set up an information stall at the event in what they called the “citizen’s advice bureau” about its work. Somewhere between 4 and 6000 people – members are still entering the information in our database – signed up as interested in more information and the exposure to the wider community and beyond of ACORN and its work was huge. Reading Newcastle organizer Tom Scott’s brief blog on the ACORN UK website (http://www.acorncommunities.org.uk/two_days_in_dismaland) also gave a sense of how the event built the solidarity of the organization as organizers and members from London, Newcastle, Reading, and Birmingham all came in to help work the event on various weekends.
Every day is a challenge for a young organization, but in Bristol we’re seeing how quickly we can begin to reach our potential and it’s exciting to imagine the unlimited potential for our members there in the future.