Tag Archives: The Organizer

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.

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

Thanks to KABF.

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Cold Weather and Warm Hearts in Michigan

Detroit       I saw the picture of the woman who won the Boston Marathon in what was described as epically horrible conditions.  Normally in the embrace of a New Orleans spring I would simply shake my head and say, “why?”  Not this year, because I felt like I had lived my own version as I broke ice off of the windshield and drove to Lansing, Michigan after a meeting in downtown Detroit on midday Sunday to support the showing of “The Organizer” at the Capital City Film Festival there.  Ice was slushing along the shoulders of the highway as I drove through fog and pouring rain in both directions going and coming to be met with snow and freezing temperatures in Lansing, and, like the marathon winner, I kept asking myself, “was I crazy to continue.”  I got there in time to try and find a cup of coffee even paying almost four dollars at the Blue Owl coffeehouse there and walked in wondering whether we had all lost our minds being out in this weather at all.

Quite the contrary.  I stopped whining when minutes after I arrived John Freeman, an ACORN veteran came through the door, having driven over from Detroit as well without whining at all.  John caught me up on a statewide initiative that he was directing that would have huge impact on the environment and climate change.

 

The film was introduced by one of the coordinators of the film festival who surprised me – and probably everyone there – saying he had worked for ACORN briefly in Lansing as a canvasser on some campaign in the early 1990s.  After the film one viewer mentioned that the ACORN office in Lansing had been on the same street farther down.  He remembered visiting there when they were partnering with an organization that he served for a decade including a stint in the same location where ACORN had its office.

Several people asked about their work and how they could connect with ACORN now, and that was encouraging.  The most interesting question provoked by the film though was from a photographer who wanted to know how ACORN communicated internally as we had grown so large in the 21st century.

From a current viewer’s perspective, ten years distance is a high-speed car compared to a horse-and-buggy in the communication world that is hard to explain.  Certainly, ACORN had an effective and powerful website, but no more than half of our board had email addresses when I left in 2008.  Facebook was not ubiquitous, Twitter was virtually unknown, Slack didn’t exist.  We were right up to date for then, but it’s very old school compared to now.

There’s also no way to compare scale.  One commentator in the film talks about “building the team” and compares the time of 2008 to the seventies, eighties, and nineties.  In the 21st century we were filling out 10 to 20000 w2s for each tax season for people employed by the organization in various capacities for various lengths of time.  The community organizing staff was close to 400 organizers.  The labor staff was over 100.  The housing team was larger than that.  The ful-ltime staff was over 1000.  Could we have done better?  Absolutely!  But, comparing ACORN 21st century with previous decades was less about building a team than field a small army under different banners.  It was apples and oranges, and it was happening in a culture that that still valued the role of staff as behind-the-scenes, invisible hands, rather than leaders of the band.

In the relative vacuum of mass-based organizations at this scale today, it’s hard for people to even imagine the ACORN that frightened the right and moved the nation a decade ago.  It’s a gift to be able to share the experience and see eyes light up at the possibility of such organizations in the future.  That’s enough to bring the warmth of spring to the coldest winter day.

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