Launching the ACORN Home Savers Campaign in Memphis

Briefing the University of Memphis teams before doorknocking (Wade with organizer Teresa Jones and UM professors Maria Elena Delavega and Laura Saija)

Memphis   After several days in Arkansas working with Vision Property Management owner-occupants from Jacksonville to West Memphis, the ACORN Home Savers Campaign was preparing to dive into Memphis. Of course, we wanted to follow up with Vision owner-occupants there, but we were also interested in some of the other large rent-to-own and contract purchase companies in the Memphis market. Rents had soared an estimated 20% in the last three years in Memphis and eviction rates were among the highest for any city in the country at 5.5% according to recent studies. Furthermore, the entry of huge, Wall Street hedge fund operations like Apollo in the wake of the foreclosure crisis, who had also adopted this model and established large footprints in the market, made Memphis a city that was very important to the campaign and its ability to create change in business models and real estate markets.

Putting the list together was a tense, last minute affair as the numbers of potential volunteer canvassers seemed to be increasing instead of experiencing the usual drop-off, requiring constant toggling between the Shelby County Recorder’s records and the Assessor and tax records while beating a path through the maze of LLCs and corporate faces of these companies. We ended up focusing on three different companies as well as following up on our Vision agreement: Harbour Porfolio, the Dallas hedge fund, Apollo, the New York fund, and a large local player, APM or Affordable Property Management. Overall, we had more than 700 address to target over the weekend.


ACORN Home Savers Campaign organizer Dine’ Butler explaining the property mapping before the canvassing.

We had help from colleagues and friends connected to various departments at the University of Memphis, particularly Professor Maria Elena Delavega in the School of Social Work and Professor Laura Saija and Jessica Buttermore in the Planning department. Nonetheless, in the middle of the annual St. Jude Marathon and a much touted football game between ranked teams with Central Florida facing the home team from the University, we had more than forty (40) students and other volunteers ready to hit the doors, almost all of them for the first time.

This was a brand of controlled chaos that seems a footnote to so much of organizing. None of this work is old school with clipboards, pen and paper. The lists are all generated from hours on internet accessible websites and organized into Excel files. These files then populate either a BatchGeo mapping program, like we used in Detroit and Indianapolis, or go straight into Google Maps, which we debuted in Memphis. We used a survey tool developed by Dine’ Butler as an aid for the students to use since they were inexperienced on home visits, but would allow us, if successful, to collect the information so that the organizers could follow up in putting together the ACORN Memphis Home Savers Campaign Committee after the first of the year.

University of Memphis students and volunteers assembling to prepare to hit the field.

The surveys went on-line too, so at the end of the day we could see exactly how many visits had been completed successfully. None of that will substitute for the next day’s briefing, the pictures of families, or the stories, both encouraging and heartbreaking, that we will hear on the doors, or the new things we will learn from listening to people from these companies about their contracts.

There is also no substitute for an exciting – and dramatic — launch of the campaign in a new city. It’s no longer, “Memphis here we come!,” it’s now, “Hello, Memphis, here we are!”


Memphis Airport and Woody Guthrie’s Revolutionary Mind

woodyguthriearchives2_9Missoula          Out here off-the-grid with my grown son, we pass for each other’s adult supervision.  We still keep an eye over our shoulders though.  All of a sudden he grabbed a broom, and he swept the Airstream yesterday with the comment that his mother “wouldn’t have been happy looking at these floors.”  It rained in the mountains off and on from about 5pm on last night, so we were tracking in a good bit of the ground cover and pine needles with us undoubtedly.  This is the second time he and I have come out here without the rest of the family.  In 2011, we thought the weekend before Memorial Day was a good idea and found ourselves in the trailer without heat or propane caught in snow and hail for a couple of days.  We should have expected rain or something this time, but at least when lightening broke over Rock Creek, we hightailed it to the Silver Bullet bringing the ground cover with us.   We’re well trained, just not well behaved.

            The quiet gets you thinking though.

            Right before I left New Orleans, some folks came over to the office and filmed me telling a couple of one-minute stories for something called the Moth.  These stories go on the air and on the web with public radio from what I gather, so mine may be headed for the cutting room floor or the vast maw of the media.  You never know.  I told three quick stories though from the 1970s.  The first was the Memphis March in 1978, and how the ACORN members got by the phalanx of cops and ended up banging on the plate glass doors.  The last was about negotiating with Arkansas Governor Winthrop Rockefeller in 1970 and one of the leaders, the late great Gloria Benson Wilson, in a dramatic moment pulled off her wig and claimed to the Governor that the stress of welfare had made all of her hair fall out.  The middle story was one of those family stories of the “how I met your mother” variety.

            I was passing through Memphis in order to catch a US Air flight in 1979, when their great Liberty Fares were a key part of ACORN’s organizing expansion program.  For a fixed amount you could fly an unlimited number of flights anywhere in the US Air system for 14 days.  We milked those tickets for ever mile, switched them at airports and almost midair between ACORN travelers, and mourned their passing.  I was staying with the head organizer that night, and one thing and another, we woke up at 6:40 AM and my flight left at 7:00 AM.  We bolted out the door, and she ran her mother’s old four-holed Buick at 70 and 80 mph down Fair Park Boulevard screeching to a halt in front of the airport.  This was long before 9/11 and airport security was very different.  Wordlessly, I grabbed by bags and we both ran down the concourse to the gate.  Reaching there, the gate attendant waved that the door was locked and the plane had just left.  I ran for the door, and began banging, “Let me in!”  Without breaking stride she ran down the steps to the tarmac and starting waving her arms and yelling up to the pilot to come back to the gate.  Damned, if he didn’t, the door opened, and I was off to Philly with only one thought in my foolish head:  that’s the girl for me!  And, that’s been the case for almost 35 years now!

            I don’t give organizer’s advice about personal relationships.  But if I did, I might tell that story, and I would suggest they listen to Woody Guthrie’s song, “My Revolutionary Mind.”  I listened to Jay Farrar sing it a couple of times yesterday on my I-pod.  It includes these classic lines:

 I need a progressive woman,

I need a ultra-liberal woman,

I need a social conscience woman

To ease my revolutionary mind.

            The song has another line that also reminds me of my companera.

             I know you’d come a running

            If you blistered both your feet.

            When you’re struck by dumb luck like I was in the Memphis Airport at least be as smart as I was to grab the lightning bolt and never look back.

            Just saying.