Interesting Questions from the Netroots Crowd

New Orleans    Netroots has become a big event for the digerati, especially the subset involved in internet campaigning and the like.  This year they held their annual confab in New Orleans.  In August, believe me on this, the Morial Convention Center makes some deals to bring people into the city, and, thank goodness, they brought in some good folks this time!   The latest, and reportedly the last, version of “The Organizer” documentary was kicking off the film screenings, and I was scheduled to do the Q&A after it ran.

I was a hot mess having landed after 1 AM from Charlotte only hours before.  I was running late for a quick meeting before the screening, parked at a two-hour meter knowing I was going to get a ticket, and bolted towards the Convention Center and the elevator going up to the meeting rooms.

Whoops!  Security was tighter than an airport!  No badge-y-no entry!  I fast walk to registration that then pushes me between three different tables as weird punishment for having missed some kind of internet code they might have sent me in Honduras, but, oh well, the internet does not end bureaucracy, it just creates another kind of impersonal set of gates to goods and services.

All good, I made it when I needed to be there.  The documentary had so many changes, I almost didn’t recognize some parts, even after having sat through it at least thirty times before, but I learn from the Q&A’s, so I was in for a penny, in for a pound, and it was worth it.  I knew some of the audience.  Hector Vaca and one of the new organizers from Action NC, formerly North Carolina ACORN, was there, as was Ron Neimark, a former Local 100 organizer now in Minnesota, and Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons, son of Local 100’s field director from Houston, Orell Fitzsimmons, and Judy Graves, an ACORN organizer in Iowa and Texas, and now a long time CWA staff and deputy organizing director of that union.  A woman in the back whispered to me after the start of the film a question about whether I was related to her former accounting professor at Southern University at New Orleans, and when I told her he was my father, it was a special moment.

And, many of the questions were excellent and insightful.  The lead question was the obvious one:  why had more groups not learned from the ACORN scam attack?  Answer: beats me!  Predictably given the crowd, I was asked about how current social media might have impacted ACORN organizing methods a decade ago and now.  I answered, but raised the issue of the “digital poorhouse,” as a warning that the progressive digerati needed to oppose this and raise it up higher on the “to do” list.  One woman astutely observed that she could tell from the movie that our organizer recruitment program had changed from the 70s from idealist young white, college educated organizers to a more diverse, constituency reflected staff, so that was fun to talk about.

Importantly, one question noted that the new climate in the last ten years made diversity important, but anti-racism a greater priority, so how would ACORN have responded and represented in the current climate.  I answered that we always had been at the vanguard of adaptation to changing times politically and culturally, and I thought we would have continued in that vein, since the nature of successful organizing is adaptation on all fronts.  Having touted Automating Inequality earlier, I asked who had read Stamped from the Beginning and its anti-racism argument around historical figures and movements.  The book was known more than read, I joked that I was sounding like Oprah, but that only proved how much time I still spent on airplanes.

I didn’t even mind the $30-dollar parking ticket.

***

Sky Full of Song by Florence & The Machine.

Thanks to KABF.

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“The Organizer” is a Way to Gather the Tribes

Oakland    Running up and down California from south to north and back and forth to do Q&A after trial screenings with the documentary, “The Organizer,” and coupling that with my new book, Nuts & Bolts:  The ACORN Fundamentals of Organizing, I have been trying to determine how we might use the film as an organizing tool.  Oakland was going to be the big test of whether this worked.  Little Rock had been great, but we were the “home team” there.  In California we would be the “away” team, a long way away, so how would it work.

Francis Calpotura of TIGRA and In-Advance jumped at the opportunity to see if there was a way to use the film, the book, and even my being in town to bring all the pieces together, jump over some of the fences between organizations and organizers and promote community organizer training sessions being put together by In-Advance at the same time.  It would be a leap, and Francis was game to make the jump without a net.

Starting a couple of months ago, he and his team found an old funky theater everyone called the Parkside, but whose current name is the New Parkway in downtown Oakland.  Then they began working their old networks from the Center for Third World Organizing (CTWO), the Applied Research Center (ARC) now called Race Forward, and Minority Action Program (MAP) graduates.  They reached out to allies and friends, including the Alliance for California Community Empowerment (ACCE), the former California ACORN.  I did my part as well.  A good piece by Jay Youngdahl previewing the film and ACORN’s history came out in the East Bay Express. 

We were on new, unsettled ground.  We were organizers.  What did we know about film promotion.  Every couple of weeks, I would reach out for Francis to see how it was going.  Surprisingly, he was always upbeat.  Half the tickets were sold two months ahead of time.  Every week it seemed like we had a chance at filling up the 150 odd seats.  Old timers, former interns and volunteers, funders, and friends were all responding.  A radio network friend stepped up with an idea to do a small reception before the event.

Comes the night of the screening, and the place is hopping.  It’s sold out!  The theater hustles food to the audience, and they are beaming.  People laugh, hoot, and applaud at the right times.  The Q&A is serious business.  People want to know more about organizing.  They want to DO organizing.  They want to know “lessons learned” and what I “would do differently this time.”  Gary Delgado sits next to me and Brittany Carter fresh from training is the MC, and we’re taking all comers.

Organizers from unions, research centers, housing agencies, tenant groups, and community organizations were all sitting together, talking with each other, and mingling on common ground around the film.  Books flew off the shelves like hotcakes.  New ACCE and old ACORN come together with stories of people, the past, and future that they share.  People were signing up for training sessions with In-Advance.

Wow!  We may not know exactly what we are doing to make this film an organizing tool, but people are responding.   They are hungry for a way to find common ground and make things happen.  The film becomes an excuse to reach out, fill the void, and gird for the coming battles.

There’s something to all of this, and we need to figure out a way to get the word out and pass it around.

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