Tag Archives: NWRO

Running a National Desk

Leeds      As a 20-year old organizer directing the staff of the Massachusetts Welfare Rights Organization from Boston my few forays into Washington, D.C. to the national office on 14th Street NW were wide-eyed adventures to a city I had only visited once as a foot solider on the March on the Pentagon.  There worked George Wiley, Hulbert James, Tim Sampson and others who I largely only knew from the phone.  They did important work, and I mostly listened closely to their advice and instructions.  One operation particularly fascinated me and that was the aptly named  “state desk,” run by two former recipients, Joyce Berson and Jackie Pope.

Massachusetts was the largest of the NWRO affiliates with 4000 members, paying a small one dollar per year in 1969 and early 1970 when I worked there.  The staff for the most part was a score of VISTA volunteers spread about the state.  There were other staffed offices in Virginia, Brooklyn, Philly, Detroit, and California, but in the main affiliates from Atlanta to New Orleans, Kansas City to Denver to Seattle were loosely strung out groups organized by random VISTA or Community Action Program (CAP) outreach staff or volunteers.  The glue that linked them into NWRO, supported them, and, most importantly, put them into motion was the state desk.  Joyce and Jackie lived on the phone and in the mail room, sending out packets of information to these embryonic groups of welfare recipients.  Every three months it seemed there would be a coordinated campaign for school clothing or to force Sears-Roebuck, the Walmart of the time, to give credit to recipients.  Sometimes it all worked, and sometimes it didn’t, but there had to be a system to respond to the “movement” of welfare mothers and their supporters anxious to get involved and fight for their rights.

ACORN Bristol watching “The Organizer”

I thought of this when in the Bristol office of ACORN interviewing Anny Cullum on Wade’s World, whose “rubbish” title, as she called it, was director of Training and Development, but whose real job for ACORN England was running their equivalent of the old “state desk” that Jackie and Joyce ran for NWRO and Carolyn Carr ran once for ACORN in the US.  Under Anny it has become a fine-tuned system as she detailed for me.  A system bursting at the seams though since nineteen communities throughout the country have contacted ACORN asking for assistance in starting local groups in the several weeks since the recent UK election.

Modern technology makes it easier and more effective for Anny, but some of the elements don’t change.  She sends them out the UK Starter Pack which includes the ACORN organizing model and social media tips.  She uses an app called Calendly, she has now introduced me to as well, to schedule a first call, and once she’s on the phone she gives the introduction about what we are and what we are not.  If interested still, she sets a goal between 10 and 20 members for the new group to achieve to determine their seriousness.  Once achieved, the next step is a visit by Anny and often a local leader or organizer from somewhere nearby, if there is one, for a day of training and meeting of the committee and others to launch and select officers to guide them until they reach one-hundred members.  While they are working towards that goal, she schedules an hour a week with them on the phone to keep up with their progress, give them advice, and encourage them on their way.

Groups in Leeds, Liverpool, and Birmingham have come together this way, and now we’ll see what happens to this new crop springing up in the resistance to the recent election and Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party program.  I asked Anny what happens when they get to one-hundred.  She answered tartly, “I turn them over to Nick,” meaning Nick Ballard the national head organizer who then integrates them into the governance structure as a full-fledged branch with representation on the national board and no longer an organizing committee.  It’s then that he and field director, Jonny Butcher, have to make sure they take the organization the rest of the way to power after Anny, as the membership magician coordinator, has gotten them off the ground and running.

This is how a mass organization gets to scale from the bottom up.  There are never enough organizers, so there has to be a system that empowers the members to build the groups if we ever want to get the job done.

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Power and Paradox of Cloward & Piven “Breaking the Bank” Strategy

Toronto Fran Piven is a brilliant scholar and political theorist, still vitally engaged

Glenn Beck crazy about Fran Piven

Glenn Beck crazy about Fran Piven

at the cutting edges of her work while still affiliated with CUNY’s Graduate Center, and someone I count as colleague and friend over our 40 years.  We spoke months ago.  She called for advice about how to handle the sudden interest in her work by Glenn Beck and sneak artist video bloggers who had tricked their way into her home pretending to be students engaged in the same pursuit of truth and justice.

My advice:  water off a duck’s back – ignore it.  The old Huey Long axiom, as quoted by the great LSU historian, T. Harry Williams:  “there is no adequate defense for a public attack.”  In essence let it go.

Fine advice that was!  It now develops some of the whacks have been threatening enough to require Professor Piven to report them to the FBI, which knowing Fran, she would not have done lightly. My rule of thumb for the Beck crowd had been “delete” and “ignore.”  God knows where to draw the line these days.

The irony of all of this is that we are dealing with the power of an article that Fran wrote with her partner Dick Cloward in The Nation in the 1960’s which argued famously for a so-called “break the bank” strategy to achieve what I now call “maximum eligible participation” and in this case that mean the very basic achievement of the full benefits in the welfare system of the time that eligible families were entitled to receive.  “Breaking the bank” was a rhetorical flourish essentially arguing within both a kinder liberalism of that time, hard as it may be to believe now, and a more palpable fear, particularly of race and riots in the urban core, that government policy makers would inevitably be forced to attempt to calm and co-opt the poor and therefore raise the grossly inadequate benefits to something more humane.  Is that radical?  Hardly!  It was a fine piece of strategic thinking coupled with the kind of phrasing that attempted to force policy change and organizers into action.   Fran should be proud of the power of that piece, no matter how mangled and misunderstood by Glenn Beck and his followers.

The irony obviously is that at the time Fran and Dick were both fierce and patient advocates of such a strategy in the face of their disappointment that in fact the leadership and organizers of the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO) under Dr. George Wiley though sympathetic to the aims and paying lip service to the advice would neither adopt nor implement the strategy.  This led to long, fascinating, and bitter debates.  As a young organizer with NWRO being a part of these late night discussions at places like Bucky’s Town, Maryland and elsewhere was exciting and dramatic as organizers picked sides and struggled with the issues and devastating arguments that Fran would make or the passionate positions that Dick would take.  In the end of the day they were critical of both NWRO and organizers in general in many of their subsequent works for having been “distracted” into building organization, rather than following the arc of movement and protest to the maximum levels of pressure for change.

So now paradoxically, Beck is essentially blaming Fran Piven for a strategy that was brilliantly articulated, yet left her sometimes seemingly bitter because it was a strategy that was  effectively discarded.  Fran has written that in fact NWRO and its organizers were less useful in increasing welfare rolls than the waves of VISTA volunteers assigned to Community Action Programs around the country who signed up many eligible families for welfare not for any political or policy reasons, but simply because it was what they thought they were supposed to do in the War on Poverty.   There is a clear record of this in Fran’s lectures, remarks, and writings for decades, such that many of us as organizers have often chafed at the arguments and been equally passionate in the rebuttal that we were not simply chasing members and dues rather than creating change and power, as she and Dick sometimes seems to argue.  Being interviewed by a conservative writer for a piece published last year, he was astounded to find that Cloward and Piven were not the St. James version of the Bible that guided us in the work at that time.

All of this would require Beck and the right wing zealots to actually read more of Cloward and Piven than an article in The Nation. It is probably easier to ask for civility as many are doing now in the wake of these threats to Fran Piven than to actually ask people to read her work and face reality both then and now.

Of course conservatives should be very careful what they are asking by once again raising Fran’s ideas and advocacy to the forefront of discussion in these times.  This time around it might be different.  Organizers might take a hard look and debate anew some of these old arguments and find there are some blueprints worth adopting and finally putting into practice.

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