Capacity in Organizing Counts – Props to Those Who Get It!

Lake Buckhorn, Ontario     In the annual HO/LO meeting of ACORN Canada several hours north of Toronto in the urban-centric area called “cottage country” near the defining geological formation known as the Canadian Shield, the head organizers and lead organizers throughout the Canadian organization were taking the measure of their work thus far during the year.  They were also working out ways that they could move forward on an array of campaigns on predatory lending, affordable housing, childcare payments, internet access, and welfare systems.

In one exercise designed by head organizer Judy Duncan, they broke into smaller groups to hash out ideas for direct actions that might jump the campaigns up a notch.  Listening to the reports from the groups was fascinating.  The suggestions were dramatic and imaginative.  It’s tough to devise creative tactics that walk the knife edge between what exerts pressure, captures attention, and, most importantly, feels comfortable for the membership to do.  A couple of videos later in the day of actions against the pending eviction of more than one-hundred families in a giant Ottawa complex called Herongate, long a campaign and action, target for ACORN there, allowed the HO/LOs to see how that office had faced the task and how local television commentators had reported and responded, very sympathetically in one case.  Those clips and another from the bi-annual ACORN Canada convention held in Hamilton, Ontario also displayed the members’ humor, anger, and handiwork in making the protest signs.  I had some trouble watching the last because my eye always goes to the signs that fail to say ACORN somewhere since the slogans are aimed at the target, but the word “ACORN” is a hardwire signal to supporters and potential recruits that it’s time to join in and act now.

All of this is about building capacity.  In ACORN we know its lifeblood, but its amazing how often people outside the work miss the details that make the work effective because they are lost in the last tweet or the most recent white paper or the hope that some bright new star will point the way to the future.  This makes it more remarkable when it turns out somewhere, somehow, people so often blinded by the glitter, finally recognize the grit, and that leads me to give some props in a surprising direction to some of the rich that “get it” about putting some oil on the gears and flywheels that make it happen and increase the capacity.

I don’t know how it all really works, but the Climate Emergency Fund seems to have stumbled onto something that I would love to see commonplace, and that’s an understanding of funding the things that make stuff happen, even if smaller and harder to suss out behind the headlines.  Props to Trevor Nelson, Rory Kennedy, and Aileen Getty who have been among the primary funders of the Climate Emergency Fund supporting Extinction Rebellion and similar actions.  Its not Gates, Buffet or Bloomberg money, but it’s pennies from heaven that are paying for buses, plane tickets, signs and the grist at the mill of social action and organization building.

Their thing is climate.  Our thing is climate too, with a different constituency and a day-to-day grind on that issue and scores of others.  There’s more than enough money to go around, but we need more “emergency funds” that grease all the wheels that make action and organizing happen, so let’s hope more of the one-percent start to get it and follow their lead.

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Bootstrapping Campaigns

graffiti on center wall

Frankfurt     The organizing workshop for more than a half-dozen activists from Frankfurt, Munster, and Bremen was all about the basics in the morning and early afternoon. What is ACORN, and what do we do?  How does the ACORN Model work and what are its elements?  What is the structure of a doorknocking rap or home visit, then some role-playing in teams to become more comfortable, underling the point that practice makes perfect?  All of that was invaluable to the team and engaged them fully.

At one of the breaks one of the folks asked me how many times I had done this workshop?  I didn’t have a quick answer.  They asked if it was thousands?  Certainly not.  Maybe a couple of hundred?  Every time seems different and unique to the people trying to learn, so they don’t fit the memory in the same way.   And, of course there are all of the times other ACORN organizers, leaders, and trainers did the same basic workshop with their own spins and inflections, just as I do mine, which must be thousands.  It was great to hear Robert Maruschke, the community organizing specialist in Germany now working for the left party, Die Linke, tell me that he uses a quote from the ACORN Model about the need for a plan in all of his workshops and training sessions, also helping keep that 46-year old document relevant today with a hard-thumping heartbeat!

After the role-playing and a brief break, then it got more interesting for me as we moved into a long stretch dedicated to various questions they had and some that they had been debating for a while.  Given that English is a mandatory subject in German schools and many of those in the room had also gone to university, they spoke beautifully, so I was surprised when one of the early questions asked me to define the word, “rap,” because many for a long time had thought I was saying “wrap.”  That was the easiest one that came my way, thanks to a generation of rap singers and the worldwide phenomena of that distinctive American-bred musical expression.  Others mentioned weird translations in the documentary, “The Organizer,” where power was often translated as electricity, tipping off because giving a tip, among other moments of hilarity they had discovered.

practicing raps

I got on a tangent as we talked about campaigns.  In several of the cities where they had begun to engage tenants, they had ended up tangling horns with the German housing giant, Vonovia, Germany’s largest residential property company.  These efforts are small and isolated, but at one-point Vonovia had whined publicly about pressure from tenants and others about its work, and threatened to stop investing in housing in Germany and move its developments to Sweden, where they claimed they would be more appreciated.  I gave them examples of bootstrapping very local campaigns nationally, from the early 1970s ACORN campaign to downsize Entergy’s White Bluff coal-fired energy plant by engaging their top investors at Harvard, Princeton, and Yale.  Why not reach out to housing and tenant allies in Sweden and have them loudly proclaim that Vonovia was unwelcome there unless it did a better job in Germany?  The same tactic could be used in having organizations in cities declare Amazon as unwelcome based on its bullying in New York City as it tries to extort more tax exemptions.

taking a break

What’s exciting about tactics in big and small campaigns, is the opportunity to bootstrap them wherever needed to turn up the pressure on the target.  It’s always fun to find myself in a conversation that veers in that direction.

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