Bootstrapping Campaigns

graffiti on center wall

Frankfurt     The organizing workshop for more than a half-dozen activists from Frankfurt, Munster, and Bremen was all about the basics in the morning and early afternoon. What is ACORN, and what do we do?  How does the ACORN Model work and what are its elements?  What is the structure of a doorknocking rap or home visit, then some role-playing in teams to become more comfortable, underling the point that practice makes perfect?  All of that was invaluable to the team and engaged them fully.

At one of the breaks one of the folks asked me how many times I had done this workshop?  I didn’t have a quick answer.  They asked if it was thousands?  Certainly not.  Maybe a couple of hundred?  Every time seems different and unique to the people trying to learn, so they don’t fit the memory in the same way.   And, of course there are all of the times other ACORN organizers, leaders, and trainers did the same basic workshop with their own spins and inflections, just as I do mine, which must be thousands.  It was great to hear Robert Maruschke, the community organizing specialist in Germany now working for the left party, Die Linke, tell me that he uses a quote from the ACORN Model about the need for a plan in all of his workshops and training sessions, also helping keep that 46-year old document relevant today with a hard-thumping heartbeat!

After the role-playing and a brief break, then it got more interesting for me as we moved into a long stretch dedicated to various questions they had and some that they had been debating for a while.  Given that English is a mandatory subject in German schools and many of those in the room had also gone to university, they spoke beautifully, so I was surprised when one of the early questions asked me to define the word, “rap,” because many for a long time had thought I was saying “wrap.”  That was the easiest one that came my way, thanks to a generation of rap singers and the worldwide phenomena of that distinctive American-bred musical expression.  Others mentioned weird translations in the documentary, “The Organizer,” where power was often translated as electricity, tipping off because giving a tip, among other moments of hilarity they had discovered.

practicing raps

I got on a tangent as we talked about campaigns.  In several of the cities where they had begun to engage tenants, they had ended up tangling horns with the German housing giant, Vonovia, Germany’s largest residential property company.  These efforts are small and isolated, but at one-point Vonovia had whined publicly about pressure from tenants and others about its work, and threatened to stop investing in housing in Germany and move its developments to Sweden, where they claimed they would be more appreciated.  I gave them examples of bootstrapping very local campaigns nationally, from the early 1970s ACORN campaign to downsize Entergy’s White Bluff coal-fired energy plant by engaging their top investors at Harvard, Princeton, and Yale.  Why not reach out to housing and tenant allies in Sweden and have them loudly proclaim that Vonovia was unwelcome there unless it did a better job in Germany?  The same tactic could be used in having organizations in cities declare Amazon as unwelcome based on its bullying in New York City as it tries to extort more tax exemptions.

taking a break

What’s exciting about tactics in big and small campaigns, is the opportunity to bootstrap them wherever needed to turn up the pressure on the target.  It’s always fun to find myself in a conversation that veers in that direction.

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Community Organizing is a Revolutionary Tool

Nebeckw Orleans I retweeted something last week where someone had said, “Glenn Beck takes the left more seriously than anyone else,” or words to that affect, simply because it was true. For all of his buffoonery and conspiracy theories, Beck is on to something: he knows community organizing is serious business, and he knows that it threatens the status quo. Liberals make the mistake of simply seeing community organizing as nice, harmless civic participation, which is also true, but only part of the story, which is why in the assault on ACORN they often drew the line inaccurately at form, rather than recognizing that the substance of the attack was deeply targeted at substance, and as it turned out the very right of a mass-based, socially responsive, politically active membership organization of low-and-moderate income families to even exist. It wasn’t then and isn’t now a question of the name, but the very game itself.

All of this is becoming crystal clear as change continues to come in the Middle East. When reporters began interviewing the small cadre of younger activists who seemed to serve as the catalytic organizers of the early protests and marches that ended up toppling the Mubarak regime in Egypt they were unequivocal in explaining that the sea change in their development of a significant mass base of support was when they finally abandoned middle and upper income neighborhoods with their call for democracy and participation and instead went directly to the poor and working areas and called to people flatly about their need for jobs, higher wages, and better housing. In other words when they turned from being sloganeering activists to fundamental organizers, and in fact community organizers, talking to people about their real issues and helping them link the connections to the lack of responsiveness of the government, then they saw success.

The superficial intellectual left critique of community organizing for decades has been the inability of community organizations to move past stop signs, drainage, and loose dogs to “more fundamental” societal and political issues in their analysis. To say that such a criticism is elitist is equally one-dimensional. To answer simply that one builds a base with such issues is also less than satisfying and does nothing to silence such criticism if there is no further explication of what the base might do or essentially “power for what.” Frankly, too often community organizing has stuttered and stalled past the “stop signs” so to speak. The Alinsky formulation of “organizing the organized” and aversion to direct politics has continued to confuse many organizations and their organizers in the United States for decades. ACORN’s very difference and distinctiveness in strategy and battlegrounds made it target, and the lack of consensus on these very issues isolated the organization, fatally as it turned out.

No such qualms about the effectiveness of such issues in developing strategy and tactics can be seen in the Middle East or elsewhere. A fascinating piece, “Revolution U” on the work of some of the old Optor organizers from Serbia written by Tina Rosenberg in Foreign Affairs, was forwarded to me by a friend, and gave a fascinating report on her witnessing conversations between Srdja Popovic, one of the founders of Belgrade-based CANVAS (Center for Applied Non-Violent Action and Strategies) along with Slobodan Djinovic, with activists among the Burmese trying to organize against this repressive regime. The conversation was one I have witnessed and been a participant in perhaps a 1000 times, as the group discussed possible issues useful for organizing and began focusing on discontent around garbage collection and the strategies and tactics useful in moving people around the issue. From our organizing with ACORN International in slums around the world, we know that garbage is the developing world’s “stop sign” issue as a failsafe common concern that is virtually universal.

CANVAS has had these kinds of basic trainings in what can only be called community organizing techniques applied to political action in fifty different countries around the world. Not all of them have ended in revolution. This is not a cookbook session after all. Nonetheless the seeds have been planted and the inevitability of change is present as long as the end is clear and the work is done.

Community organizing is dangerous stuff in the hands of people who want to participate fully as citizens and create democratic change. Anyone who opposes the will of such people expressed with determination and dedication, should be worried, whether Glenn Beck, Republican Congressmen, or dictators wherever they may live and rule.

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