Lost in the Stacks

Madison    It was the right thing to do.  Make a plan to try and retain records from the ACORN family of organizations in some professionally maintained archives before in the shuffling from office to office, here to there, we lost everything.  We had tried to interest the University of Arkansas at both Fayetteville and Little Rock.  No luck.  We had tried to see if the University of New Orleans might be a location.  No capacity.  We talked to the Little Rock Public Library, but in the days before they became the giant, well-funded Central Arkansas Library System (CALS), they didn’t see a way forward.  We ended up in the Social Change Collection, as it was called then, at the Wisconsin Historical Society in Madison, Wisconsin.  We felt like that was good company with the records of SNCC, NWRO, the Highlander Center, and many others.

Having tried to dive in some years ago for a week and finding the task daunting, I had been humbled by the size of the collection now.  Another brief visit in December 2018, reminded me that unless I had months to spare, the task was impossible.  With the 50th anniversary of ACORN coming up in 2020, I knew we had to scale this mountain, so I stumbled on trying to recruit an “Archives Assault Team,” and managed to get Mary Rowles, recently retired from the British Columbia Government Employees Union, Fred Brooks, still a professor at Georgia State, and Dan Russell, a retired professor from Springfield College in Massachusetts to join the group.  Beth Butler from A Community Voice was gang pressed into service, and I rounded off the list, toggling between my work in Milwaukee with Amani United.

We’re deep in the boxes now, but thirty boxes in after two days, we’ve had to narrow our mission daily to try to skim through as much as possible, skipping over most of the labor files, breezing through the media work, and concentrating on ACORN to see if we can pull out valuable memoranda for a “readings” book that would give a open window into ACORN’s process and production.  Sometimes we get lost in the weeds.  Flyers catch the eye.  A piece of internal conflict that had been forgotten is once again revealed.  A plaintive, lengthy letter on a diminishing commitment resurfaces.  A back-and-forth on a decision emerges that had reverberations over decades.  Is any of that what we hoped to find?  I’m not sure, but it educates anyway.

There’s some humor.  An ill-tempered exchange that makes one wince.  One of the team asking if we should care if a document was marked “confidential,” and then realizing that if it’s in the archives, it’s now part of the historical record.  Talking to the presiding archivist, he counsels that I should not tell the team that there are more than one-million pages in the ACORN archives.  He says that when I use 250 cartons as the collection estimate, I’m low-balling.

What can we do but continue to burrow in and hope to bring the gold back to the surface and separate it from so much rock.

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Please enjoy Kelsey Waldon’s Anyhow

Thanks to KABF.

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Keeping the Issues Real in Milwaukee

Milwaukee       In what will be a monthly set of sessions for the over a six-month period focusing on leadership development, organizer training, and organizational planning and development, we started discussing issues to get the ball rolling.  It was a good experience, and the response was excellent by the dozen or so participants from the lower income, Amani neighborhood in Milwaukee.

We began at the basics.  What separates an organizational issue from a personal problem or grievance?  The point of course is to allow people to build an internal checklist allowing them to filter through the myriad issues that are visible in the community, but do not trigger action or build organization either because they are amorphous, seem unwinnable, or people don’t see a way to act and make a difference.

The examples focused on propositions that the community leaders understood well like lead and poverty itself.  Lead has been outlawed in paint for decades.  The dangers have been well known and widely documented for children and others.  Yet, only recently has lead become a front page issue in Milwaukee and in Amani where tests have determined it is the worst, when the connections to drinking water and the city’s lead pipes have emerged as the biggest culprit.

“End Poverty Now” is a great slogan but a poor organizing campaign.  I raised the issue of welfare to see if that would get the discussion going by citing the researchers view from the book about living on less than $2 per day that many lower income families no longer believe there is a welfare program.  I couldn’t get a bite the first time I threw that question out.  Everyone in the session said they knew there was a welfare program.  We went on, as I searched for another example, but then about fifteen minutes later a woman raised her hand and told about her experience in recent years in trying to get on welfare when she lost her job with a young baby.  She was rejected because she could not verify the income of the baby’s father who of course was long gone.

A dam was broken then.  Another woman had been an intake worker at W2, the Wisconsin welfare department.  She told of the problem for the homeless and people facing evictions in getting welfare or food stamps without a “stable” address.  Another person suggested the work around there of using a family member’s address.  We were flooded with examples of issues concerning welfare and the systemic efforts that were ongoing to prevent people from receiving benefits.  When I then asked who knew the discount rate for trying to convert food stamps to cash, everyone raised their hand, and the market of 50% was universally agreed, and everyone knew where it could be done.

All of which confirmed what so happens in doorknocking for these leaders.  People often don’t respond when asked about issues until they realize that what they may have seen as a personal problem is revealed to be a common occurrence and therefore an issue throughout the community that demands action and solution.

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Please enjoy Wild Horses by The Rolling Stones with Florence Welch

Thanks to KABF.

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