Worrying with the Leaders of a New Organization

dscn2006
the Grenoble chair brings people together to review

Grenoble   We had gotten a lot done in Grenoble during my visit. I had arrived on a weekend before a “bank holiday” for All Saints Day, meaning that many also took off what they call the “bridge” day here, the day before the holiday, leaving the office pretty much to our teams, the phones a little less busy, and fewer items on the list that had to be taken care of that minute. The highlight was going to be a workshop the leadership had requested on ACORN so they were clearer about both ACORN and their own work in building community organizations in Grenoble, Paris, and potentially all around France.

The workshop was the workshop I’ve often given. It consists of the highlight reel: the founding, the expansion, some victories, and now the work internationally. What is always interesting, especially with emerging leadership is the questions they ask and the answers they want. Every country is different of course, but many of the questions are the same with a tinge of local color, culture, and history.

leaders break to get organized after leadership's ACORN workshop
leaders break to get organized after leadership’s ACORN workshop

One of the first questions among this highly politically aware leadership was whether or not ACORN groups found the need to ally closely and identify with a political party. The fact that membership-based community organizations are political, but at the same time are nonpartisan is often a wide river to cross in the beginning. ACORN’s work in the United States on basic democratic practice like voter registration, get-out-the-vote, initiatives and referenda are not duplicated in many countries that have automatic registration of all citizens and multi-party politics forcing the organizations to walk tightropes through many political waters.

There rarely is a leadership meeting with an outsider where some leaders don’t take advantage of the opportunity to try and probe whether their situations are usual or abnormal. Are their local groups getting enough servicing by staff organizers? What is the true role of the organizers as opposed to the leadership? The questions sometimes run the gamut, between why do we need them, to how can we live without them? With a membership dues organization like ACORN and its affiliates it also includes where staff fits into the exchange of dues being paid to the organization versus work being done by the members. All of these questions came up in one way or another in Grenoble as well.

in small groups the exercise will be how to "present" the Alliance
in small groups the exercise will be how to “present” the Alliance

Even in another language it was easy to follow both the curiosity and the passion of many of the questions. It was even easier to take the temperature of the leadership’s struggle to come to consensus when various leaders would catch me to the side and lobby me.

One man wanted to gauge how much he should be concerned about the expansion of the organization to Paris as they tried to build and stabilize their base in Grenoble. I wasn’t sure whether I assuaged his fears or exacerbated them when I raised whether an expansion to Lyon, the huge, neighboring would be more comfortable. A woman wanted to lobby me about tactics. She was a veteran of struggles from the last century and she was frustrated by the tenor of neighborhood campaign tactics and wanted to know essentially when the actions would involve more pepper and less sugar. I assured her it was all bound to come, but it depended on the targets and the campaigns, but once the campaigns became citywide, “people get ready.” One woman showed me an article in English in a plastic encased, yellowed newspaper from Binghamton, New York with a picture of her father that wrote about how he and her brother had been killed in the Resistance. My English was inadequate to adequately express the right emotions to her for sharing something I will never forget.

one small group with Solene
one small group with Solene

It went like that. They broke into smaller groups after our two hours to discuss how best they wanted to present their organization to potential recruits. When they finished there was little doubt that we were in France. We then sat down to talk and, of course, ate cake.

in ACORN we work first, and then we have cake!
in ACORN we work first, and then we have cake!
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Mamas, Don’t Let Your Organizers Grow Up to be Developers

Cowboy BuilderWaveland    The activist and academically oriented quarterly journal, Social Policy, trades out subscriptions with a publication called Shelterforce, which, as the name indicates, specializes in housing related issues. A random email called “rooflines” that I get from time to time featured their best articles of the year.   Scrolling through, one piece caught my eye because the title was “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Organizers Grow Up to be Developers,” a play on the great Willie Nelson song cautioning mothers to not let their children grow up to be cowboys.  To have a housing development publication running an article cautioning community organizers to not become developers was bound to be something special, and the fact that it was written by John Emmeus Davis, a career developer and housing policy expert based in Vermont with a long history of projects and teaching behind him was intriguing as well.  What’s up with all of this?

Luckily for me Davis gets to the heart of his argument right from the get-go:

When a community-based developer of affordable housing incorporates community organizing into its programmatic repertoire, there is almost always added value—for the persons housed, for residents of the area served, for the organization itself.

The reverse is less often true.

Community organizers rarely become better at cultivating collective power and agitating for social change when they leave the streets, exchanging ball caps for hard hats. Not only do they stop doing what they do best; they start doing something that takes everyone a terribly long time to do well.

Wow!  Talk about hitting the nail on the head.  Davis is clear throughout the piece that in his field of housing development, the addition of experienced and skilled community organizers is a huge benefit, but he
is equally clear that community organizing rarely gets much of anything in return and in fact is more likely the loser in the tradeoff.  His argument reminds me of the answers we often used to give when outsiders
would ask us if we ever hired ACORN leaders to be ACORN organizers.  We would answer factually that, “yes, we did,” but we would be equally frank that it was easier for us to hire and develop a good organizer
than to find and develop a great leader, so in some cases we resisted the transition unless the leader or member insisted.

Davis understands he’s arguing the righteous truth but is doing so against the grain, but charges forward in the midst of the contradiction.

I can’t help feeling a sense of loss. It leaves a hole in the political landscape every time another group of hard-riding cowboys (or kick-ass cowgirls) settles down after years of punching out politicians, bureaucrats, bankers, and speculators without having to worry about permits, grants, credits, loans, or donations being withheld from projects they are planning to build. With a whisper of apology to Willie Nelson, a silly ditty plays silently in my head:

Mamas don’t let your cowboys grow up to be builders
Don’t let em pluck spreadsheets and beg for old bucks
Make em play guitars, stage protests, and such

Okay, my feelings are definitely confused. If nonprofit developers become more accountable to the people and places they serve when they begin acting more like organizers—listening, engaging, recruiting,
educating, advocating—perhaps community organizers become more strategic and effective when they begin casting their campaigns and framing their demands with an eye toward supporting development they
plan to do.

What he leaves unspoken is the question of resources and the role it plays in driving these cowboys off the right ranch.  Community organizations and their organizing staffs desperate for resources frequently decide to till another field hoping to grow money trees there when support for community organizing is so fallow.In a conversation in France not along ago about a different topic, I answered that the book that really needed to be written was the history of community organizing told through the lens of how it had been driven and adapted to resource problems and opportunities.

Regardless, today, we’ll just thank Davis for singing our song.

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