Friday Sep 21

Back Story: Learning by Listening to the Questions on the Road

At the midpoint, this has shaped up to be a funny year for me thus far. In addition to the usual organizing and international road work along with scaling up the ACORN Home Savers Campaign in the United States, I’ve been doing “sales and promotion” on a double bill with the documentary, “The Organizer” and my new Social Policy Press title, Nuts & Bolts: The ACORN Fundamentals of Organizing. Having now seen various versions of the documentary several dozen times, I’m most interested in the Q&A at the end and listening to what people around the country and the world are thinking about when organizing is the topic at hand.

Here and abroad, people are curious – and captivated – when they see the footage of ACORN’s squatting campaigns. The global crisis facing tenants is acute. Eviction rates are soaring in city after city in the United States. The notion that people can successfully organize, take action, and win with such militant tactics gets hearts beating and hands clapping. Hearing the questions, I can always tell what people are really asking is “How can I get some of that going?”

Those questions come fast and furious from younger people. Whether in San Luis Obispo, Lansing, St. Petersburg, Santa Fe, Lafayette or Little Rock, if there are women in the audience and especially if they have some gray in their hair, they want to talk about “the resistance.” They are organizing in various and sundry local political groups. They want to talk about the midterms. My survey of “hands-in-the-air” says that President Trump is in trouble if he is underestimating the anger and disgust of American women. They have questions. They are reaching out for help. They are putting in the work. They are laser focused on the midterms and 2020.

Older men most often are incredulous. Some are worried that America and what a generation – our generation – had accomplished is being unraveled. They can’t believe politicians got away with attacking ACORN. They still can’t believe that Donald Trump is President. They are mystified that all Americans are not up in arms in the streets trying to stop the draconian policies of the administration. Some ask about impeachment. Some are so angry they can hardly ask the questions. Their faces are shrouded in frustration and disgust at their own inability to put a stop to all of this. Often there isn’t even a question, just a face speaking with barely contained rage.

In European countries whether England, Scotland and France or Greece, Slovakia, and Bulgaria, I was always asked about Senator Bernie Sanders. He had hit a nerve. Some hoped it was a sign of a “socialist” awakening in the United States that might make it, how can we say this, “more European” perhaps. Few were happy with my answers.

The one common theme everywhere and in every demographic and age group that has been very encouraging is how inspired people get by the movie, whether they knew ACORN or not. People want to fight. They want to believe they can win. They want to join some organization or cause somewhere that makes change and empowers. That’s exciting to hear!

Everywhere I am asked whether ACORN can be revived. I answer that there’s never a way to put Humpty-Dumpty back together again, but there is a vacuum that a “new” ACORN could fill, though the odds are long and the task would be huge to create the organizational formation that would respond to these times and rally low-and-moderate income families to join. Then I change the subject to the need for a national tenants’ union for lower income and working families. It’s important to keep it positive. Keep everyone looking forward in this troubling time.

But even as I have been listening to them, they have been listening to me, and they understand I am really talking about a “new” ACORN being more like a tenants’ union than the kind of organization it was almost a decade ago. I’m really answering that each and every one of us has to do whatever we can think might work to the best of our ability, because so much is at stake and the time for action is now, ready or not.

Wade Rathke is the Chief Organizer of ACORN International, Founder and Chief Organizer of ACORN (1970-2008), and Founder and Chief Organizer of Local 100, United Labor Unions (ULU).

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