Tag Archives: East Brixton

Leveraging Elections for Change

IMG_2661London      The ACORN London organizers working in East Brixton thought they would try to see what might happen with a combination training workshop and fundraiser. The topic they settled on, given that elections are on people’s minds for both 2015 and 2016, were how community-based groups could use the opportunities they present for accountability to advance the agendas of their constituency or make progress on their issue campaigns. All of which found fifteen of us in an upstairs room of the Apple Tree pub in central London ready to tackle the topic.

The diversity of the groups represented was wide. A union activist from Unison involved in trying to organize Polish members of the union, two organizers from the National Students Union representing seven million UK students, two organizers from the national autism association with branches throughout the country, the director of Generation Rent, a UK tenants campaigning organization, an organizer for the 37000 member Action for Happiness, and several other independent community activists and organizers. With such a mish-mash of diverse interests you might think the meeting should have been moved downstairs in the pub closer to the hard spirits so that we might be able to all make it through, but in fact it was fascinating how deeply engaged people were in figuring out the opportunities in the two hours we spent together.

After introductions and a half-hour of presentation of some of the key history, principles, and ACORN’s own experience in using elections to “prove” the base and win on everything from living wage elections in the US and Canada to huge slum improvements in Lima and potable water in Mexico City, we broke the group into three to discuss the questions more intimately. Central to those discussions was determining the strengths of each organization’s base, actions that could be taken on specific campaigns and the follow-up necessary to convert the issues and opportunities into power.

It felt like the floodgates had been opened. A buzz of discussion and animated back and forth poured from every one of the small groups. Everyone wanted to share their experiences, good, bad, and ugly. One group in looking at their base ended up with an interesting discussion on leadership and staff relationships that clearly had been much on their minds and looking for a forum. Another ventured more deeply into tactics and actions. Another vented frustration with the new “gagging” limits on their activity ridiculous situation that they now found themselves confronting in so much of their organizing.

In reporting back the discussion was as high-pitched. Whatever this cultural rumor is about the much vaunted “British reserve,” it turns out when the topic is related to community organizing, it’s “no holds barred,” and ready to go fifteen rounds. There’s a hunger here, and we might just be stumbling into something big.






ACORN London Calling in Brixton!

10257660_848171165235889_7918088634144773978_oLondon     I’ve now been to hundreds and hundreds of first meetings of ACORN groups in cities, both new and old, around the world, and they never fail to be thrilling in the exciting, dangerous, head thumping, nerve wracking way that all intense new experiences with people always are. The first meeting of ACORN London in East Brixton promised to be all of those things, and then delivered in full measure.

In a highly cosmopolitan and diverse city, Brixton is all of that and more, having served for many years as a magnet for new immigrants coming into England, especially from the Caribbean islands, and a good number of other places as well. Rents were once lower. There’s still a fair amount of council or public housing, even while gentrification begins its march into the area, and new and old residents try to negotiate common ground. In short, it seemed like the perfect place to begin the work of building ACORN in London.

But of course nothing is quite that easy. Jonny Butcher and Lee Baker organizing ACORN London had been working for some months before the decision to go forward was formally made, so rather than the usual several months for the drive, they were trying to compress everything into a quick four weeks, all of which had us tightening down our seat belts, putting the pedal to the metal, and hoping we didn’t hit the wall.

When it came time for the meeting, and it was clearly time to start, we were looking at perhaps 15 of the chairs filled, and two key members of the organizing committee taking lead roles in the meeting, still not with us. You could have heard our heartbeats across the Atlantic. Organizers were hustling around, trying to adapt the agenda on the fly, but by the time the meeting ended we had forty on the attendance list, a committee that had volunteered to help plan the first action, a group of temporary officers ready to lead the next meetings and pull the organization together, and a huge amount of excitement from everyone there at the diversity and energy in the meeting, as one said, “where else would I have met all the people in this room,” or in other words another great ACORN first meeting!

The most interesting part of the meeting was of course the group conversation about what the first issue should be and how to handle it. Democracy in action! Back and forth it went as some mentioned park lighting and inadequate security there, some mentioned housing, but quickly consensus began forming around a basket full of traffic issues on Coldharbour Lane. There were not enough crossings, the crossings didn’t work for motorized chairs, older people or much of anyone else, the designs were faulty, and no one really knew the future plans for the central road. When the meeting voted on the issue, unsurprisingly traffic “won” as the first campaign, and fairly quickly a great back-and-forth of discussion on all sides of the room carried the meeting to an action plan starting with a neighborhood mobilization and potentially ending up at the council chambers. East Brixton ACORN was on its way.

As people were leaving the new co-chair excitedly called for a picture of those remaining still in the room, an art and community space that somehow seemed perfect for this meeting, and the smiles on the faces of the founders of ACORN London pretty much said it all, and the work begins anew in another great city where people want to organize to create change and build power.