Thursday Oct 01

Editor’s Note: Social Policy, February 1974: ACORN Its Philosophy of Organizing

Organizers and many other folks, too often get trapped looking for the easy out in an improbable process. Popular mythology seems to say two things simultaneously. One is that it makes no real difference what you organize, as long as you act, for the sake of the situation and social change, things should happen, and the more the merrier. The second is that national organizations and issues can bloom like the flowered colors splashed on the stationery, proclaiming their existence. Sometimes both seem to be true. Both the fatalism of the effort in any final or long term senses, and the contradictorily easy way it seems that some issues and organizations appear to have newsprint spread all over them like butter on bread, and money rolling out of New York like the smog off the ocean, makes one wonder. Each stifling, stead, and pervasive. Each concealing vision and effort in the same manner.

Which is not to say that national organizations should not be built. Quite the opposite. Which is not to say that money is not critical in building community organizations. Quite the opposite. But which is to say that the process works best, if it works much differently. Better on the long haul when local organization is the seed sprouting national organization; when local issues become and focus national concerns; when local organizing becomes the breeding ground for national organizing. ACORN is just that kind of an organizing effort – inspiring and formulating models and methods of organization and some of the impetus for national direction in issues and organizing effectively from, of all places, Arkansas.

ACORN is the Arkansas Community Organizations for Reform Now. Speaking briefly about vital statistics, ACORN is approaching four years of age, and in that time has now grown to become a statewide organization of forty-three local community affiliates with 4700 low to moderate income family members. The organization makes its statewide home in Little Rock, with a membership service center in North Little Rock, and regional offices in Pine Bluff, Fort Smith, Fayetteville, and Jonesboro. The organization is run by a council of all groups elected at the local level. The organizing staff is seventeen men and women. The range of issues and victories run the gamut from keeping garbage cans unbattered and children unmolested on the way home from school to fighting highways, tax assessments, and the world’s largest power plant.

That is not especially exciting. Perhaps it explains why pictures of skeletons rarely appeal to prurient interests. How it all happened, and, more importantly, why, and maybe even more importantly, where it is going, these are perhaps more interesting questions – or at least they should be.

The first stone in the foundation was that ACORN set out to organize a “majority constituency” in Arkansas. ACORN did not intend to limit its organizational base to only welfare recipients or to see the suburbanites, but instead to organize throughout the majority constituencies of the state: low to moderate income families. In Arkansas, that means fundamentally 70% of the population who make $7000 or less a year. Working in Arkansas admittedly means some thousands of dollars less than in some other states, but the point becomes organizing the majority wherever and whoever the issues and the areas lead.

If one organizes to build power painted across the broad canvass, then one obviously should move to organize the most people possible among the powerless, not only the poorest or the most oppressed, but at the same time, organizing neither money-less or the millionaires. Very simple principle of organizing, but one that is too often, usually would be accurate, ignored and discarded. It is hot and hasty, not cool and clean. But the question is simple, if, as organizers, we intend to see real power built and executed by people and organizations, rather than scribbling and stuttering over the words or moving the mouths and minds like recorded tape. Clearly, with equal simplicity the goal in this case becomes to own 70% of the power in modest accord with the “classic” American dream of democracy.

A second critical principle is that in order to develop organization with such a broad-based population, it is important to organize around a diverse sweep of issues with a wide variety of tactics. The multi-issued organization finds its greatest strength in issues with a strong economic base and appeal. The issues and tactics have to be carefully chosen and developed in a non-divisive and non-alienating way, as a rule, within the contexts of the broad organizational constituency. The issues must also be distinct within the groups according to self-interest and constructive tensions within the internal process of the organization.

There is a profusion of examples within the history of ACORN which illustrate this point. Blockbusting was an excellent issue for local groups in Little Rock with black and white constituencies because the clear target was real estate manipulation. Environmental issues are possible not when phrased for air-sniffers, but when based on the economic destruction they provoke. A furniture campaign for welfare recipients works which not only benefits welfare families, but also moves other low-income families in on the campaign and its benefits. This not coalition building for protection. Organizations only join coalitions to borrow power, never to lend it. The rest of the multi-issued, multi-tactic organization would best be that the “coalitions” all exist in organized fashion within the organization and its own membership.

In a third important consideration, structure becomes of utmost importance in order to cement all of these initial elements. The organizational structure should be flexible enough to allow groups to weld themselves into an effective, tight union of local organizations. There should be centralized control of money and staff. The leadership structure should be such that every local group feels and exercises power over the total organization and their interests inn it, and at the same time must take responsibility for and participate in total organizational decisions and policies.

This principle in ACORN is known as “coordinated autonomy.” Local groups deal with their own issues, and at the same time combine with other groups in building-block fashion on regional or citywide issues, and at the next step combine with all organizations within ACORN on statewide issues in a cooperative and consolidated fashion. In this way, ACORN has become structurally something on the order of an “AFL-CIO” of low to moderate income
organizations in Arkansas. Within the membership issues, the organization can efficiently deliver from neighborhood grievances to statewide potboilers, parlaying organizational strength at every rung of the ladder with the ability to move on the target with a changing weight of structure, issues, and tactics with enough diversification that the life of the organization or its components never rests on the over investment in any single issue or effort, while every issue and organizing driver continues to build the whole and its parts.

If one attempts to build a mass organization of major scale such as ACORN, there are obviously many critical pieces to put in the recipe in order to bake the cake. In fact, there are many, many more mentioned in this introduction. There are though, two other extremely important themes in building an ACORN: money-staff and politics.

There are great lessons to be learned from the developments of any mass organization of size and impact, for example, labor unions. A common theme in organizations of scale is that they met and dealt with the critical masses of money and staff needed to organize tremendous populations. Nothing overly breathtaking in seeing that, is there? When the UAW organizing drives began, the first year of the major drives saw 400 people hired on the organizing staff and over a million dollars spent – prior to the sit-downs – when the name of the game was still fundamental community organizing methods and techniques. There are countless other examples when one looks analytically at successful organizations of mass membership, regardless of one’s ideological bias.

In Arkansas, as in any area where mass organization is being constructed for power to achieve and direct social change, we are talking about a large body of people who fit into the majority constituency: an organizing target of hundreds of thousands. You do not have the dream one night, and see the fact of the fantasy the next morning. Neither does one organize with one or two professionals a few road runners and streetwalkers.

In fact, it is past time in my view, to talk of statewide and even citywide organizations in major metropolitan areas, operating with million-dollar budgets to realistically get the job done. Despite talk, wild ranting and raving, the truth of the matter is that the Lord himself, much less his helpers in churches, foundations, and among freelance money changers, are ready today to be receptive to funding this kind of budget. So, we come to what for ACORN is a critical principle: internal financing. Simple deductive reasoning. If you cannot get it outside, you have to go inside, or of course, not get the money – or the job done.

In the ACORN perspective, internal financing has to primarily produce money, but secondly, and as importantly, it has to build organization as an organizing tool. There are few systems that do this successfully. I am not convinced that random solicitation, small businesses, raffles, and other tricks in the bag, build organization on the second level, although they have their place, and no doubt are important for the surviving and thriving of many organizations.

ACORN instead has staked its long-term plan for its existence on membership dues. You pay your money, and you get some change. There a couple of why’s. The first is that one can tie dues to membership strength, organizational victories, and campaigns with some balance to the overall system of organization, where the financial life of the organization flows from these primary benefits which are also increased by the benevolent circle of involvement and investment which in a very real sense dues paying brings.

The dues at ACORN are relatively small, but they are pegged into a plan for the organization’s needs, as well as balancing the burden from the top to the bottom of the membership’s income scale on a principal of equal investment for equal pay. ACORN does not divide the membership strength and unity by creating subdivisions of ownership where some would pay more and others pay less. The dues are one dollar per month. Not putting in any cushions, we soften the chair with benefits. The dues system is linked directly into a multi-store discount system in every area where ACORN has local affiliates. The ACORN discount system is available strictly to dues-paying organizational members in a variety of stores from liquor to grocery to body shops to clothing stores. Show an up-to-date ACORN membership card, get a straight 10% minimum discount. The formula ACORN strives for in matching the discounts to the dues is that any member-family with only moderate purchases can make four dollars for every one that it puts into the organization. I would take that bet to the horse races, wouldn’t you?

Effective internal financing is extremely difficult to create in community organizations for a number of reasons. In too many areas of the country, organizations jump from one oasis to another, be it from the government or wherever they can find the well, until it runs dry, and the painful discovery is remade that when talking about money, we clearly organize in a desert. Members, where they exist, become accustomed to community organization being free, unstable, and usually unprofessional as well. ACORN raises these expectations of organization in the same way it raises dues. Another problem is that the difficulty of creating effective internal financing mechanisms like dues usually forces one to create systems for an organization’s survival, rather than for its growth. One way we have been able to get around this problem is o use other forms of internal short-term financing projects, front monies, and loose cash, while at the same time keeping costs tight and firm, so that they can, quite literally, pay their way. Internal financing is a tedious task and if economics is dismal, the economics of organizing must seem downright depressing, if not demeaning. Unfortunately, wishing and hoping do no run mimeograph machines that I have ever seen.

Brings up another dilemma in trying to organize internal financing: organizers. Remembering that the second part of the program is the need for large numbers of highly skilled and stable professional organizers when organizing a mass constituency, it means that organizers who work on the ACORN model are not going to be socking much away for rainy days. The formula with its usual deceptive simplicity is that organizers produce double their salaries with half paying their bills and the other half paying for maintaining and expanding the organization. Simple math, no Einstein needed to work the equations. Organizers do not work for small amounts of money because they feel it is some holy ideal (if they do, how do they understand the membership?), yet they do work to build organizations that can hold power and make change with it. At ACORN this is know as the “100 Plus Plan.” With twenty organizers at this point, ACORN stall has a way to travel, but the roadmap at least is on the dashboard.

A second very important principle in building power is politics obviously. The nature of community organization is at its heart, political. If it is not, then it does not deal with issues or people, and should not be seen as a vehicle for their movement. As C. Wright Mills correctly defined, dialectical politics is that process by which “personal problems become political issues.” Nothing embodies that concept as fully as community organization. But, even realizing that, too often, and mistakenly, organizers and community organizations have attempted to shun the more traditional manifestations of politics we find in our neighborhoods, cities, counties, and states. Yet, that experience is as real to our membership and their view of community life and definitions of power, as the issues they confront daily.

Organizing in the context of our constituencies means that in order to be powerful, organization must also be political and have a political agenda. Read political agenda, rather than ideological agenda. The very nature of organizational growth and experience in the process of producing power, models its own ideology. The process would be strangled and constricted otherwise. It is ridiculous to build organizational machines which deliver membership victories at every level, and then take a walk on election day while the targets of dozens of organizational campaigns strut back into office again leaving the membership to wonder, willy-nilly where the organization went. Especially since community organizing methods and systems can convert into successful political victories.

In point of fact, mass community organizations in the broad definitions of mass organizations moving people to achieve desired social changes, have been able to build tremendous amounts of political power. One can see this in many types and styles. The IWW in its expansive definition of organizing jurisdiction was able to take control of several towns in Colorado in its heyday there. Community organizing methods, although not necessarily defined in that way, but certainly used in that way, have been at the core of the building process of all successful unions and political machines. Organizations that could deliver effectively on all levels of activity and self-interest within their constituency. In that sentence we have the organizational philosophy that drives ACORN’s development. In some ways one of the best examples was the Non-Partisan League in North Dakota. The League was able in an amazingly short period of time to basically take power in the state through effective mobilization of their membership in electoral processes by organizing on broad based goals. Certainly, they serve as a case in point for the effectiveness of mass organization of low to moderate income people.

And, that is also a cornerstone in building ACORN: the potential for realizing power. One makes a basic and fundamental error in community organizing when one assumes limits preconditioned on what other organizations have not produced without understanding either the narrow nature of their objective and scope of the pitfalls into which they fell. It is as if too often the effect or result was more important for analysis than the causes which produced them. The history and tradition of organizing does not run in single cities over three-year spans of stoplights and street signs. The tradition is one in which the major successes have been few and difficult to maintain, but where they occurred, they have been overwhelming. In organizing effectively one should compete against history and tradition, not against the invalid comparisons of computer lists, neighborhood boundaries, and clipping files.

What does that say? That ACORN’s goal is to take over the state of Arkansas? No, not exactly, but it depends. ACORN’s long-term goals were set in the “76 Plan” of organizing the constituency in Arkansas, which embodied more the boundlessness of organizing potential than a target date or specific goal. The key point is simply that the experience of the organization has shown that political victories in a classic electoral sense are possible, and not extremely improbable for well-organized mass memberships in organizations like ACORN. ACORN members have been credited by the candidates as primary factors in the elections of 3 of the 7 members of the Little Rock School Board, 2 of 7 members of the city board, and 4 state legislators. Such activity and success do not automatically produce power. Power is produced in different parts by estimation of its existence and execution of its reality. Those statistics although they may seem impressive, really say little more than that ACORN members through an arm of the organization called the ACORN Political Action Committee have been able to tally themselves together to win balance-of-power elections.

In building towards power, successful organizing produces significant erosion in the scheme of systemic events. Organizations move up the scale, first winning the ability of the membership to represent themselves, then the ability to represent the constituency as a whole, then the influence, which is power exercised as pressure on decisions, policy, and people, and ultimately control, which is power over the direction and existence of our lives and the causes and effects that act on them.

The point of pushing the rocks up a mountain is getting to the top, but these are all way stations on the route. Ln the American experience, power is gained by individuals if they control institutions, and by mass organizations only when they control institutions or any of the processes which move society or institutions, and their fundamental constituencies. Martial strength in organizing is identifiable in the body counts of demonstrations, rallies, and meetings more reminiscent of Vietnam news reports than power building. If that is power without control, it cannot be exercised consistently, and if all that is controlled is the organized community, then nothing is controlled but consolidated powerlessness.

In a similar vein, it is important to view influence not as a final goal, but neither as unimportant or impure. Influence is a training ground for the execution of power which opens up networks of information and resources which are critical to understand and experience in realistically building power. And, that process is an important one for organizations to learn to handle with skill, rather than organizing within the confines of our self-fulfilling fatalism.

Community organization is not a natural game played without the professionalism of technique, standards, and principles. Organizers and organizations also bear as much responsibility for how power is used and protected, as they did for putting the instruments together in the first place.

There is a viewpoint among some organizations concerning direct political organizing that the victories once won are never held. The rule of political action in ACORN has been to simply treat political events as campaigns and issues adopted by the membership and local groups. The value should not be overrated to the extent that the existence of the organization is on the line, no more than any organization can allow any issue to determine its survival. Part of this involves a practice and theory of organizing as a never-ending process. An elected candidate like a convention center campaign in Pine Bluff or a victory in school transportation in Fort Smith does not stay tight because of its own dynamic, but because of constant involvement, pressure and organizing by the people. If a promised stoplight were not erected, any community organization invested in the victory would see the commitment honored. The same process holds true for political campaigns and victorious candidates. There is no more reason not to deal with a Politian than three is not to deal with a public works man or a meter reader.

The point of the “’76 Plan” for ACORN then is nothing more than the goal of building substantial organization throughout the state of Arkansas. One of the results of successful organization on fundamental issues, if the membership experience holds true, will be the parlaying of membership strength into all arenas of activity including local politics from schools to the state legislature. Without stress and strain, pomp and circumstance, that has become a comfortable goal for ACORN members to achieve as a multi-dimensional organization in a building process. The state motto of Arkansas says plainly that, “The People Shall Rule.” ACORN members have set the state slogan into a part of everyday organizational process from their own house to the state house, rather than ennobling it in unachievable marble and splendor. If the plan falls short, it will not be because of the impossibility of it, but rather because of its execution and difficult improbabilities. At the worst ACORN members will have hundreds of victories and campaigns to live with solely from the past three and a half years. Traditional definitions and experience lose the simple meanings of winning and losing for such an organizational effort. There is a cushion to settling higher than most anyone saw or imagined. Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it?

Putting it all together though is clearly the proof of the pudding. Too much of organizing experience, both tradition and contemporary, is lost in the immediacy of the situation and the boredom of yesterday’s news. ACORN has always felt that the time was overdue to start synthesizing its experience in order to prevent recurrence of errors and misjudgments and to learn how to duplicate successes. Organizers and organizations have to move into the present time and away from the mishaps and meanderings of too often what has been only an oral or unknown tradition feeding into a guild type apprenticeship program which may work, but not as often, or as well, as organizations need it to. If nothing else, we should all know now that any oral history is fraught with gaps and erasures of important experience.

In some ways ACORN is talking about another way or an added step to building mass community organizations of low-and-moderate-income people. There are some rudimentary facts that one readily learns in organizing anywhere. It is not enough in building power to organize any neighborhood, no matter the size, in a city or a county, and expect that that area, even if completely organized, can build enough power to control its direction and future. Even organizing a city, be it Little Rock, Boston, or Chicago, does not mean that then at last one can build enough power to control all the pieces and realistically work to solve critical issues in the city or any of its neighborhoods. In Little Rock, for example, the city is constantly at the economic and political whim of the state legislature and state governmental agencies. The city cannot raise revenues it needs to initiate many programs and is regulated closely along different self interests and special interests in many other policy matters. This basically true with perhaps some variation in every city, town, and county in the country. Increasingly, power is centralized, bureaucratized, and institutionalized. Organization in order to compete, much less win, must also be able to develop countervailing structures of power – must be able to develop efficient internal mechanisms that are bureaucratic, yet human – must be able to centralize the vital functions of finance, decision-making, training, and staff supervision. There must be autonomy within the parts, but they must linked tightly by networks of interdependent organization, like ACORN that can unite interests and people. Organizations may in truth be built by fools and fanatics, but not necessarily by parrots who see peril on every rumored perch. As organizers, we don’t have the choice of saying we opted for purity in thought, concept, and deed, if that means getting beat, or being small, and not competing. In organizer whatever your own bias, big is better, and biggest is best.

If we make errors as organizers or activists of any stripe, part of the fault has to lie with the narrowing of our perspectives in issues, tactics, constituencies, and territory – we have to organize where change can be realized and power can be built. As long as we have a rationalization in organization which assumes failure, and as long as we allow political machines, business conglomerates, and governmental institutions to organize themselves more effectively than our community organizations are organized, we are bound to lose, and lose consistently in the long run. In organizing there are great systemic power alignments that argue against success and great risks at every point in the process, but that simply makes a more exacting demand on us that we minimize as many of the risks and liabilities as possible, not that we internalize them like aspirin.

ACORN, because of the impressive power of state government and the weight and authority it commands in many issues and areas, always envisioned realizing itself as a statewide organization in building our structure and plans. These state boundary lines are not rigid walls though. ACORN is now regionalizing to open up organizations in eastern Missouri that also exert significant influence over sections of Arkansas and its people. The American Community Organizations for Reform Now, or whatever develops, would then have the structural alignment and organizational ability to deal with similar constituencies with similar issues in their areas of mutual self-interest where ACORN members are heavily involved – for example, with the Arkansas Oklahoma Gas Company and its rate increases or the building of the proposed power plant in northwestern Arkansas that would affect Missouri, Oklahoma, and Arkansas consumers. The options of the organization extend even farther depending on the dynamic of need and growth, as well as the maintenance of staff, resources, and impact on existing ACORN organization in Arkansas as prime considerations. The crux of the matter being that an organization expands and develops according to its own effectiveness, timetable, and goals, without strangling itself in rigid structure and externally imposed priorities or assumptions. Time has to be part of the organizing plan, not its master. Movement too often becomes analogous to burning the rope from both ends: nothing is left in the middle to give organizing base and stability even though victories are won at the edges.

In some way that brings us to a continual confrontation of national organization and its relationships to local and statewide organizations. Organizational institutions, no matter where they work, build commitments to themselves and their goals. A national organization seeking to build a national agenda runs into constant difficulties in establishing local bases in order to argue the existence of a national constituency of people and interests. On the front end, I will argue flatly for organizing strategies that internalize, rather than vocalize, commitment to the primary needs of local organizations within the national structure. Successful organizations are rarely built with the roof coming on first. When constructed that way, the foundation and walls never quite get erected or are put together in a sloppy fashion. The reason the AFL-CIO traditionally had power in its way is not because they are good lobbyists or many raisers, but because they have local organizations permeating the country that are independently strong. Without that they might have some influence just as something like Common Cause has some influence, but there is a heap of difference in power and even more in permanence and capability to achieve change.

It is not impossible to conceive of national organizations that operate with mutual self-interest with local organizations and equalize fundamental priorities in their parallel growth. There are exceptions where national organizations provide resources, technical assistance, or money to local organizations to deal with local issues and activities. This works particularly when the nature of their institutional agenda is to see that local activity succeeds. Unfortunately, these this is not always true of national organizations. National movements and organizations too often to survive and maintain themselves must legitimize their existence through local activities on national organizing issues which may be not only irrelevant, but counterproductive to the organizing strategy of local community organizations. National issues on local organizing agendas only are constructive when the issue or event is as important in the local area as it is to the national campaign.

It is critical to understand that there is a definite territorial imperative which operates in organizing. A neighborhood organization taking on a federal issue outside of its power, its constituency strength, and the history of issues and activities of its organizing is going to almost invariably get walloped if the goal is actually to win, rather than simply make a point or grab a headline.

The territorial imperative though is not a rope which tightens every time the line is crossed. But for survival and growth it demands that its interests be served. And, in that sense, one talks about dealing with national issues without necessarily having “national organizations” in the way we have seen them in contemporary organizing experience. Issues and organizations can cross stateliness and have national impact with national campaigns, and maybe in that sense be viewed, incorrectly, as national organizations. When two organizations of farmers affiliated with ACORN took on the world’s largest power plant proposed by Arkansas Power and Light, and it turned out that AP&L was a wholly-owned subsidiary of a New York holding company, Middle South Utilities [ed. now Entergy], did ACORN need a national organization to move on Harvard, its largest stockholder, or Middle South? No, the organization went after Harvard and twenty other universities with major holdings in Middle South. A classic ACORN organizing dynamic. Local groups hitting the issue on the local level. Statewide organization hitting the same issue in other areas and in the hearings in Little Rock with state agencies and regulators. Statewide organization and local groups combined to move on the trail of the holding company and Harvard for the interests of the local and state campaigns.

To talk about building national organizations in the way that I am, we are talking about building realistic organization throughout the country in cities, counties, and states which, when pervasive in the nation, automatically define the existence and need for national organization. Obviously, it takes some time to build a national organization of the shape and size of the one that I am advocating. But if I can talk without stuttering of state organizations with million dollar budgets, then it only makes it seem ore ridiculous to think of a truly mass national organizations that only operate on two or three times the money that an ACORN has now, but who are thinking about creating national organization to organize national constituencies on national issues against Goliath with chicken-bone resources. David brought the man down once, but who would have given odds on ten times or continually?

To build organizations even to the extent that ACORN has built at this time is a long process with highly trained and experienced organizers. One cannot do it by simply dropping men and women with a few nickels and dimes in their pockets and a hope in their hearts into cities all around the country, unless you are prepared to see them as organizing fodder with an eight percent failure rate, if you are lucky. Too often organizations on the local level are caught in the bind of dealing with situations, events, and institutions at the 100th assumption, rather than moving them back to the first. The people we organize are sick to death of failing and being beaten into it before the game began. When are organizers going to come to the same conclusion and revulsion?

As long as foundations and money folks in general operate from a bias which funds national organizations in fact or fantasy if they operate in New York or Washington and claim a national agenda and constituency, then one has to once again come to the realization that in the final analysis, organizations on the local level are going to have to run on their own juice. Funding national efforts because of fads, diversity of support, and “national impact” are a common device in attempting to shortcut the processes that actually produce power and social change. Illogically, in organizing we know that paper does not float, yet money will frequently buoy up a national issue or organizing effort, despite ultimate failure or irrelevance on the local scene. There may exist in reality a pattern of funding by foundations and other national institutions that argues plurality as a motivating principle in financial priorities. Such a pattern once again flows from the fundamental concern that foundations have to build independent agendas as institutions. There becomes a shared understanding between national organizations, foundations, and agencies on how the social change industry works based on the common assumptions – hit the bases, spread the wealth, build your agenda. Once the peas are in the pod though, that not only does not guarantee that social action and change occur, but in fact may define its improbability.

After all the creation of power or change is fundamentally not the primary interest of any of these institutions, and that is the point of all of this. Organizations should listen to different drums, but with highly selective ears. Because the drum starts beating a message that there is money all over the place to fund businesses, or build housing projects, or deal with x, y, z issues should sound like an alarm, rather than a sweet song. Money cannot and should not play the tune for where organizations move and work, or the siren song will lead a lot of ships against the rocks.

Other problems in the relationship between local and national organizing can be found in political perspectives and tactical decisions. An issue or the way it is handled to move an undefined national constituency of support, often in fact does just the opposite on the home front. In that sense Nixon and others are somewhat correct. The tactics they buy in Washington, if they buy rather than tolerate them, are somewhat different than the ones that can be marketed in Plum Bayou, Fort Smith, or Harrison, Arkansas. Similar problems develop in the transference of issues down to local action from the national centers. Misjudgments are often made on this kind of movement back and forth from national to local concerns. A tactic or an issue isn’t “our” or “in” in the same that miniskirts are. The problem for fashion in either arena is that somethings work better sometimes, and others work better at other times, depending on what you want to achieve and how much you have done to prepare.

Media is an important tool in community organizing, especially because it moves local issues frequently to nation consciousness. Media would be a better tool if there was a press organized to appropriate the power in the same way union organizing produced a labor press. The nod will invariably tend to go to those activities, organizations, and issues that are closer to the major networks, newspapers, and media outlets in the country on the East and West Coasts. The connections of style rather than the content of substance in Washington or New York, are much more able to galvanize an issue in Topeka or anywhere into the illusion of national prominence and attention, than are natural actions and events of local organizing – unless, of course, they are violent.

An issue best becomes a national issue when it is repeated in a variety of local situations. I have some real difficulty remembering a national organization that arose to deal with an issue prior to its having been dealt with by some local organization or local organizing effort. In fact, I would also argue that unless the agenda is not only determined, but controlled, in local organizing, then the national organization which rises to shape the issue or the constituency will have much more difficulty in protecting the clarity of perspective of the vision from the swamp of competing agendas which proliferate the major national information and power centers of the country.

That is not to say it cannot happen, since obviously it does, but simply that it cannot be sustained indefinitely in that manner. ACORN is arguing in favor a different view of geo-political organizing and issue development in this country. The world of organizing and social change should run from its sources rather than from its conduits in DC or NYC. The history of major mass national organizing and issues has almost always come from local organizing. Talk about labor unions – local organizing. Talk about tactical developments – local organizing. Talk about major mass community organizations – local organizing in places like North Dakota, New Mexico, and Arkansas. Talk about movements for social change – local organizing in places like the South for civil rights, urban areas for welfare rights, and others. Talk about issues – local organizing, no matter where it is. There is nothing so totally misconceived and indicative of the flesh-eating machine of our manufactured perspectives, as the question of whether if something happens in Arkansas, for example, it could happen in the same way in the rest of the country. As a matter of fact, there is more reason to believe that if it happens here, it could happen everywhere else, if only because it happened here.

When the credibility and legitimatization of national organization and issues are tested by their effectiveness in relation to local areas and constituencies, then we are talking about an organizing system which does not isolate local organization in an Arkansas, but produces a network where organizations like ACORN and our issues become not only part of the national agenda, but directing influences in its viability and influence. When the pot starts to bubble, it is usually because the fire has been lit and maintained under the cauldron. It is a fundamental rule of physics that heat rises, it does not fall except in inversions which are only temporary abnormalities.

Instead of there existing a crisis in social change because of the scarcity of national organizations and issues, that, in actuality, is a health indicator now that the great amount of local organizing around the country will build permanent national organization accountable to its needs. The time is more than ripe to talk about building vertical monopolies in organizing which control not only the services and issues in their communities, but are also prepared to move after all the tentacles of influence and power that stretch into the communities, the cities, counties, and the state, and in fact go after the octopus itself. The pluralism in national organizing that says the more things that happen the better, as long as things are moving and some change is being made, is inadequate as an effective organizing strategy. Strategies should be concentrated around effectiveness as the test to deal with the nature of the societal opposition. Money, media, and the whole mess should move with the concentrations, not the contemporary customs. They should simply be tools in the process, not the determining factors. Now is the time not to talk about another movement or another drive on a major issue or constituency, but to plan for continual organizing throughout communities within a developing strategy and coordinated structure which produces and channels issues and information through directed national networks to make the puzzle fit smoothly and with the proper cement.

Organizing is a way of thinking and a profession proud with tradition, but humble in its view of the probabilities of the future. Organizers and organizations should have one eye two inches from the ground and other ten feet in the clouds. Too many have one, but are missing the other. In organizing the time should be now for merging the vision in community organizing methods and goals. It is senseless to allow our rationales to cushion failure and protect the sanctity of the dreams on the premise that after all everyone needed it, it should have happened, but it never could have.

The time is over for organization created by flowery stationery roaring off the mimeograph machines and flowing through the country on thousands of gummed labels. The time is past for organizers who hold out for $15,000 because they brush their teeth with Crest, and believe their degrees are worth their weight in gold. The time is past for millions in research and five thousand for its realization. The time is past for media to determine movement. And the time is past for movement itself, if it does not plan for some permanence and permeation throughout the country.

At ACORN we would like to compete for power with any institution that holds it in the state, region or wherever. We would like to win. Enough battles have been fought. It’s time to start winning the war.

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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