“The Organizer” is a Way to Gather the Tribes

Oakland    Running up and down California from south to north and back and forth to do Q&A after trial screenings with the documentary, “The Organizer,” and coupling that with my new book, Nuts & Bolts:  The ACORN Fundamentals of Organizing, I have been trying to determine how we might use the film as an organizing tool.  Oakland was going to be the big test of whether this worked.  Little Rock had been great, but we were the “home team” there.  In California we would be the “away” team, a long way away, so how would it work.

Francis Calpotura of TIGRA and In-Advance jumped at the opportunity to see if there was a way to use the film, the book, and even my being in town to bring all the pieces together, jump over some of the fences between organizations and organizers and promote community organizer training sessions being put together by In-Advance at the same time.  It would be a leap, and Francis was game to make the jump without a net.

Starting a couple of months ago, he and his team found an old funky theater everyone called the Parkside, but whose current name is the New Parkway in downtown Oakland.  Then they began working their old networks from the Center for Third World Organizing (CTWO), the Applied Research Center (ARC) now called Race Forward, and Minority Action Program (MAP) graduates.  They reached out to allies and friends, including the Alliance for California Community Empowerment (ACCE), the former California ACORN.  I did my part as well.  A good piece by Jay Youngdahl previewing the film and ACORN’s history came out in the East Bay Express. 

We were on new, unsettled ground.  We were organizers.  What did we know about film promotion.  Every couple of weeks, I would reach out for Francis to see how it was going.  Surprisingly, he was always upbeat.  Half the tickets were sold two months ahead of time.  Every week it seemed like we had a chance at filling up the 150 odd seats.  Old timers, former interns and volunteers, funders, and friends were all responding.  A radio network friend stepped up with an idea to do a small reception before the event.

Comes the night of the screening, and the place is hopping.  It’s sold out!  The theater hustles food to the audience, and they are beaming.  People laugh, hoot, and applaud at the right times.  The Q&A is serious business.  People want to know more about organizing.  They want to DO organizing.  They want to know “lessons learned” and what I “would do differently this time.”  Gary Delgado sits next to me and Brittany Carter fresh from training is the MC, and we’re taking all comers.

Organizers from unions, research centers, housing agencies, tenant groups, and community organizations were all sitting together, talking with each other, and mingling on common ground around the film.  Books flew off the shelves like hotcakes.  New ACCE and old ACORN come together with stories of people, the past, and future that they share.  People were signing up for training sessions with In-Advance.

Wow!  We may not know exactly what we are doing to make this film an organizing tool, but people are responding.   They are hungry for a way to find common ground and make things happen.  The film becomes an excuse to reach out, fill the void, and gird for the coming battles.

There’s something to all of this, and we need to figure out a way to get the word out and pass it around.


Buzz for Bernie on the Left Coast

lowwagerally520San Francisco   I’m not totally shocked, but I didn’t see all of this coming.  Meeting with random associates, comrades, and friends from diverse fields and directions, everyone on the Left Coast is buzzing about Bernie Sanders and his race for President.

Running a union, there’s no way to miss the fact that several thousand union activists have signed a letter of support for Sanders’ campaign. That kind of news is flooding my email “in-box.”  The Vermont and South Carolina AFL-CIO councils have issued resolutions of support, worrying AFL-CIO chief Richard Trumka enough that he has already had to issue an alert to state and local bodies to stand down and leave it to the Executive Council and the national unions to make these decisions.  Larry Cohen after ten years at the helm of the Communications Workers resigned one day and the next day announced that he was going to work as a volunteer for Sanders campaign in part because of Sanders’ longtime voting record with labor in Congress and in his home state, but also in protest of Hillary Clinton’s support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade negotiations.

In California though his beachhead among progressives is extensive and much wider than labor activists.  For example, in meeting with community, political, and labor activists in Contra Costa County in the East Bay, it was startling to hear how often the conversation migrated to Sanders and his prospects.  Importantly, this interest was deeper than simply speculation about how far Sanders might make it in the Democratic Presidential sweepstakes.  The substantive discussion – and hope – was whether or not a strong run could ignite more movement and support for independent politics at every level, including the prospects for an effective and national alternative party. There was a feeling that support building for Sanders was not an “anybody but Hillary” drive, but a reward and real excitement over a candidate deeply committed and bravely progressive on positions one  after another.

Unspoken, but undoubtedly felt, was the feeling that a card carrying Socialist and avowed independent, building a significant vote total and campaign effort, could create a real Left willing to embrace the opportunity to lead and contend for power, rather than still facing the PTSD of the Cold War.

Many desperately wanted a California campaign.  They want the chance to pile up the votes and use the campaign to build their own infrastructure for now and the future.  Others speculated that the Working Families Party or other nascent national efforts might be able to grow in the slipstream of a Sanders campaign.

Having lunch in Oakland with a longtime supporter of ACORN, I did a double take when she also turned the conversation to Sanders.  Her argument was both personal and political.  Family members including a young nephew were planning at this point to sit the election out in 2016, feeling no enthusiasm and a pox on both their houses kind of attitude.  She felt she had moved the twenty-something towards Sanders as someone different.  Perhaps the buzz for Bernie can go deeper than white, elderly, and rural where he is finding more than enough of his Vermont-type base in his early forays in New Hampshire and Iowa.  Another comrade argued that Sanders might be able to double-down with younger voters from an equally solid place based on his longstanding work with veterans and his advocacy and effectiveness on the Veterans Committee of the Senate.

Grasping straws?  Building dream castles in the sky?  Hard to tell, but if this kind of excitement about Sanders starts to catch fire more broadly around the country, maybe what Sarah Palin famously called this “hope-y thing” might find a cozy home in the Sanders’ campaign with long term results.