Different Crowd, Different Questions about Organizing

Dusseldorf       On a quick turnaround, “The Organizer” documentary had been translated into Dutch for the showing in Amsterdam.  Meeting at a cultural center that was walkable from near the city center with meeting spaces, a hip bar, and an art cinema, there were more than forty organizers and activists that assembled remarkably close to on time for a showing of the film.  Having now seen the film perhaps sixty times, I sit near the back and bring something to read usually if I have the opportunity to sneak out.  I actually watched this one more closely not because of the content, but in order to follow the Dutch words that seemed aligned with English and the construction of the sentences to see how difficult the language might be for an English speaker, not that I really know anything about that.  Regardless, I found it fascinating.

This was a crowd dominated by activists within the Socialist Party of the Netherlands, the organizer of the showing and the translation, so in many ways an interesting audience for the film.  Ron Meyer, the party’s chairman, moderated the question-and-answer period, and asked the first leading questions, based on a deep familiarity with the film and even more so rooted in his deep knowledge my book, Nuts and Bolts:  The ACORN Fundamentals of Organizing, where he has become perhaps my most ardent reader anywhere in the world.  I had autographed his book days earlier in Amersfoort when visiting with the organizers at their headquarters and couldn’t help noticing that his copy was already dogeared with careful underlining on page after page.  Although this is hardly the heart of the book, the fact that he has repeatedly praised the chapter called “Dues and Don’ts” is something I can hardly wait to report when I return home since there were some, including the love of my life, who argued strenuously that I should omit that chapter as too much in the weeds, so I will use his close reading as proof that I knew “my audience.”  After all, a book called Nuts and Bolts is all about getting into the weeds!

But, I digress, because we are talking about the questions from the crowd watching “The Organizer,” not reading Nuts and Bolts.  Where often people comment on the excitement or the issues or the reach of the organization, there was some of that, but not surprisingly there was a deep interest in how politics and ideology were handled.  There is a line in the movie from a 1974 training video, where I say that in ACORN, we are not Democrats or Republicans, socialists or liberals, but something different defined by our own organizational experience and action.  Believe me, they wanted to dig deeper on that point.  They wanted to know where the Democratic Socialists of America stood in the array of parties.  They wanted to know whether leaders and members talked directly about capitalism.  In a very Dutch question, as explained to me later, one woman wanted to know whether there was anyway I could image an organizing model that sought “harmonic convergence” between our members and our targets, to which I answered, no, it was unimaginable to me.

The audience couldn’t have been kinder and more receptive, but when it came to the question of whether organizational experience and action shaped ideology or whether ideology shaped organizational experience and action, there were no easy questions or answers.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Political Break Movements

Lieke Smits of SP/N leads conversation on new political developments

Paris  One of the more intriguing discussions at the ACORN International leaders and staff meetings over these several days at the offices of the Confederation Paysanne in Paris looked at the changing political climate for our work in various countries. There was special interest in what ACORN UK head organizer, Stuart Melvin, referred to as the “political break movements” in so many countries, especially the UK, France, and the US, when one examined Trump, Sanders, Corbin, and Macron.

In a lucky, last minute invitation, I had reached out to Lieke Smits, the campaign director of the Socialist Party of the Netherlands, who I worked with closely last fall in devising a field program for the election there where they had also faced a populist disruption. Lieke began her remarks by noting that many of these break movements were reactions to forces long building after decades of difficult policies for working people in the wake of neoliberalism. The impact of globalism, trade, job loss, displacement and the movement of millions had been unsettling, and despite wide recognition, these changes had been inadequately and ineffectively addressed. Voters were moving to the fringes of the right and left to find effective voice and protest to force policies to address their concerns. Families were torn over the fact that their children were not going to have the security and well-being that they had. Parties, particularly professional politicians, had not done enough to address these changes, opening space for new movements and other voices to emerge and gain support.

Stuart Melvin and Jonny Butcher of ACORN United Kingdom talk about politics there

Lieke described their current program in the language of community organizing, making me feel like I was with them once again in their discussions in Amersfoort! One-hundred of their chapters were embarking on an outreach program to listen for local issues where they could organize and take action. The party had pushed dramatically on changes in the national healthcare program in the Netherlands which have left almost one-million people without coverage. Now they were taking the same kind of organizing and campaign insights and drilling down more deeply to reinvigorate their base and expand the lessons from the campaign where home visits and phone banking to new people had opened up new opportunities.

Beth from ACV details fundraising principles

In the UK, the surprise performance of Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party in the recent election demonstrated that there is both class and generational appeal for progressives as part of the movement. Bernie Sanders was an equally unlikely surfer dude on the wave of change being demanded, particularly by the young. It is unlikely that it was a coincidence that both had tuition-free programs for students among other appealing platform positions.

Leaders and staff from Grenoble and Aubervilliers listen carefully

Adrien Roux, head organizer of ACORN’s French affiliate, Alliance Citoyenne, argued that times of political upheaval in France that were demonstrated in the Macron and Marche upheaval that crippled established parties, usually meant great organizing opportunities at the local level and around institutions. There were clear opportunities now in France.

The same could be said in the United States. The challenge is whether or not we have the capacity to convert the opportunities to enable our constituency to build power.

ACORN International Board Meeting
leaders and staff at ACORN International meeting
Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail