“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.


ACORN Reunion and Revival Tour

New Orleans    The Little Rock premiere screening of THE ORGANIZER documentary that looked at ACORN past, present, and future was a fascinating and unique event, where everyone there might truthfully say, “I wish you couldn’t have been there!”  Everything was going against it in some ways. It was a hot day, Saturday afternoon, and Mothers’ Day weekend, and that’s just the short list at rocks in the road.

Key people on the turnout were out of town for the last push.  Talking to organizers, all of whom were seasoned crowd counters, days before the event and on the eve of the showing, the numbers were falling like a rock.  On the last call on the Monday beforehand as we counted down the days, when I tried to put a positive spin on the weakening commitment count by saying, “I think we have a shot at one-hundred,” an old, senior hand cautioned that I was being way too optimistic.  On the eve of the premiere another veteran thought we might get sixty.  The show must go on though, so whether many or few, we were all in.

We got there more than a half-hour early, and there were already two people at the locked door of the Ron Robinson Auditorium of the Central Arkansas Library System trying to get in.  People coming early is always a good sign and come they did.  At the front table we were swamped trying to get people to sign “Tell Me More” attendance and information sheets and buy copies of Nuts & Bolts:  The ACORN Fundamentals of Organizing.  When it was over, the CALS crew told me they thought the count was 130.  Admittedly, we aren’t movie people, so what happened here?

Ok, it surely helped that we had gotten some early reviews including in the Friday edition of the Arkansas Democrat Gazette that had scored the documentary at 87 out of 100, so people weren’t coming with expectations of seeing a dog.  But, the key to what drove people seemed simpler:  this was an ACORN love fest.  The standing ovation at the end of the movie was a giant “thank you” cheer for the organization’s contribution to change both in Arkansas and nationally.  It was an expression of deep pride that from this hard bitten, last on many lists, deep red state, ACORN had risen and become a voice for low and moderate-income people, had fought the good fight, often won, and sometimes lost.  The other secret to the event’s surge could be seen throughout the packed crowd when during a momentary lull in the Q&A period after the show ended, I asked everyone in the audience that had led or worked for ACORN or its family of organizations to stand and be recognized, and more than twenty people jumped up to long applause. This was a reunion of ACORN and those proud to be counted as supporters.

But, it was also more than that.  Question after question were not about the past, but about the future. What was the ACORN Home Savers Campaign doing in US cities, Wade? What are the chances that ACORN International would be big enough in the future to rebuild ACORN everywhere in the country?  Why was there such a “war on the poor” now and what could stand up to it?  These sparks of interest and anger were not nostalgic, they were demands for a revival, hard to answer, but impossible to ignore.


Please enjoy Samurai Cop (Oh, Joy Begin) by the Dave Matthews Band.

Thanks to KABF.