The People Shall Rule: ACORN, Community Organizing, and the Struggle for Economic Justice

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Never again! Similarly, the organization needed to be multiracial and have a broader income base in order to not be stunted by any other external forces seeking to pigeonhole our ambitions or mission. Power in numbers and ballot boxes.

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The APAC upended common wisdom by carrying Stephens to victory based on overwhelming majorities in the eastern, southern, and central wards, creating the first election victory in a generation where a candidate failed to carry the affluent 5th Ward in the Heights and Pleasant Valley. My high school Latin teacher constantly parroted in each class the maxim repetitio est mater studiorum—repetition is the mother of study.

Whether in Massachusetts or Arkansas or anywhere else, it became obvious that the more we followed a formulaic campaign and tactical design, the more likely it was for the target to be able to ignore, avoid, or sidestep our demands. We needed the ability to operate on a wide-ranging scale that could give voice to our members and their participation but also utilize the full arsenal of tactics we could assemble from research, media, and other leverage. Importantly, in ACORN we also quickly learned, as we had piloted in Springfield, Massachusetts, that our ability to actually deliver the spoils of victory built power.

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George Wiley. The capital city and the largest city were one and the same, and were located in the geographical center of the state, making the prospects of building statewide organization easy to imagine and practical to implement. The population was widely mixed without one group being dominant. Income was low, meaning that some issues that in more wealthy states might be only welfare issues, in Arkansas might cover a majority of the families free and reduced-price school lunches were a good example. Arkansas was a backwater where we could wildly experiment, both succeeding and failing, while trying to build a new model in a way that might not have been possible on the East or West Coast.

We had an even chance to build something exciting, effective, and different, and that was the opportunity of a lifetime. The first campaigns have to be won if an organization is to survive. Save the City campaign, — These ACORN neighborhood organizations fought for the creation of local parks, tried to stop real estate blockbusting, pushed for more equitable distribution of community development funds and fair property tax assessments, and tried to win much needed local infrastructure improvements.

Protect Our Land Association, — Issues around increases in utility rates for gas and electric coincided with concerns about the announcement of the construction of a huge coal-fired plant along the Arkansas River between Little Rock and Pine Bluff. All of this not only won reforms in the plant size and pollution controls but also established the organization as a force both locally and nationally.

Quorum Court and Lifeline campaigns, — The Quorum Court was the county legislative body responsible for setting taxes, most importantly, and was an archaic structure with hundreds of seats and smaller districts. We won the election at the ballot box but later lost in the court challenge, based on a technicality where an electric cooperative had a few customers in the city footprint, which was hugely disappointing Hillary Clinton was the opposing counsel in the lawsuit but taught us many lessons for the future. The organization was seeking in this brief time span to be able to play a role winning a voice for the issues and interests of low- and moderate-income families in the presidential campaign.

This expansion created on a national basis the modern footprint of the organization and many of its issues and campaigns. The expansion outside of Arkansas meant that in one year, , ACORN finally became a corporation, created a national board and leadership structure in a first national convention in Memphis and then a platform conference the following year in St. Louis , and moved its operational headquarters to New Orleans, where it has been for the last thirty years. The last twenty-five years have been as significant as the first years of ACORN, but the branches of history and development are harder to categorize.

Work expanded through the squatting campaigns of the late s to create the ACORN Housing Corporation development and counseling programs; relationships in Dallas, Tampa, and Little Rock created noncommercial FM radio stations in those cities; and more. Nonetheless, the core organizational values and constituency have continued to trump any specific campaign or experience. For many people, this simple component seems too obvious, too transparent, but in fact it is the critical distinguishing characteristic at the foundation of the organization.

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The dues program began during a confluence of terrible necessity and ideological presumption. In late as we moved in a different direction from the National Welfare Rights Organization, we had no money. Either we went to our members and got them to pay dues or the organization could not financially survive. We hardly survived then. And, I was not alone!

We operated from pillar to post, squatting in free office space for a couple of months here and then a couple of months there, borrowing paper and machines, and hiring away staff to provide the nucleus for our operation. We were young, and none of this seemed crazy at the time. In fact, it seemed normal. But, none of us knew anything about dues. The members had to teach us about dues, and the lessons they taught were endlessly important and, at the time, very surprising. Three lessons are still tattooed on my brain and will be forever; these lessons confounded the organizers but taught me that dues were the way to go forever.

Two of them are old lessons, and one is fairly new. Even as a member, Lela used to lead the entire staff in members and dues, although she insisted on only collecting the dues on a month-by-month basis. She was as timely as a clock and would make her regular rounds in the neighborhood and collect the dues from each and every one of her members without fail. She saw collecting dues the same way that others paid their burial policies: little by little, month by month.

Carolyn would talk to Mrs. Phillips about getting more in advance or in a yearly sum, but she believed it was important to see the members every month, to tell them about what was new and upcoming in the organization, and to keep them active. Sister Phillips took me to school on dues!

In one staff meeting, while I was pressing her about dues being paid in the North Little Rock groups where she was working, she blurted out a problem that involved Dixie, a very low-income African American neighborhood where we had an active organization. It seemed that she did not think she was doing a good job there and she felt guilty about having neglected the group over the last several months while she was working on a campaign and doing more in other groups.

So, what was the problem? The Dixie group continued to pay their dues and turn them into the office faithfully, even though Donna felt like she was not delivering on her job as an organizer. In Dixie, what Donna was missing was that the organization there had become theirs, not hers, and their expectations for the group and the necessity of supporting their organization with dues were different than hers. She saw them as poor people for whom dues were really a burden.

They saw the dues as an organizational tithe and something they paid because it was important to support something that could only exist for them and with their support. The last lesson bridged the decades.

I was in Manila with community organizers who had been working among the urban poor there for thirty years. On the issue of dues, they had been attentive but skeptical. Perhaps dues could be paid by the poor in the United States, but people were way too poor in the Philippines, and, with all due respect, they said, such a thing would never work in Asia. We sat down with the local leaders in one of the groups so that I could ask them, with the help of translation, about their issues and how it all worked.

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Were they collecting dues for the local group? They collected dues every month and supplemented the dues with other community fundraisers, mainly involving food. This local group might be in Manila, but we had 1, groups all over the United States just like it. The veteran organizers were surprised, and I hope not embarrassed, when they found that despite their ideological prejudice about what the poor would never do, the poor knew it took dues to keep the organization going, and they simply paid for what they felt was important.

Just because the organizers had never discussed the issue of dues did not mean that the members in the local organization did not know their importance. Not hard in the sense of heavy lifting or people not being willing to pay, but hard in the sense that it requires constant, unswerving, daily, monthly, and yearly discipline. A dues collection system must be constantly maintained or it all breaks down completely. Although ACORN has found that membership dues are the lifeblood of the organization, no other organization has really adopted the system because of the maintenance it requires.

As natural as a dues system is for members, many organizers, ironically, find it unnatural. Collecting money is not what many people imagine when they picture themselves as organizers. Every night. Night after night. That is what is involved in a dues system and the commitment to allowing the members to own their own organization. As Lela Phillips taught us in Little Rock, if we do not ask every month on a consistent basis and prove to the members that their dues are essential to us, then we have ripped the guts out of the system itself. Making the system work requires a large staff willing to sweat in the streets rather than a small office-bound staff.

Organizers have to maintain constant communication with the members across the gamut of local activities on both the internal, local level as well as the local, citywide, and other issue-based campaigns that allow continual participation and excitement. The internally focused practice of the local ACORN groups and their additional levels of meetings and events that create the vibrant internal life of the organization is essential, rather than simply the externally based campaign and public process of the organization.

There is nothing pretty or dramatic about dues, but, like lists, they are at the heart of the organization. That was certainly true of dues. First, there was simply instituting dues—creating the practice and getting the job done. There were constant arguments among the staff about how it could be done and among the membership about how much should be collected and who should do the collection. Secondly, there was the process of getting better at dues, which took years and years, constant mistakes and miscues, and the experience of hundreds of organizers and members. These were wrenching experiences, but they forged the organization that we have today from the crucible of such common experiences.

I often wonder if there was a better way, an easier way, or a more comfortable and correct course we could have taken. I know I could not find one, and I also wonder if ACORN is becoming soft around these critical questions of internal standards on things like dues and continuing to engage in the painful mistakes and process of getting better in the streets so that we can get better at every level. This dialectical process of construction and critique has allowed us to survive and thrive and is part of the story between the lines of every event, campaign, victory and defeat , which has brought us to this point.

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Leaders and organizers share a challenge. Local group democracy is rigid and exacting in its accountability, not because of deep-seated philosophical commitments to voting, but because of a shared commonality of labor that is based on the sweat equity of membership maintenance and dues collection. Members can vote with their feet and do so quickly, and organizers and leaders are bound at the hip in the tasks involved in preserving the sometimes mercurial and mysterious balance required to allow organization to stabilize and grow.

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Within ACORN examples are legion of the price paid by top leaders, even nationally prominent leaders, who neglected the base in their home cities and local groups. The base had changed there, and he had not attended to it quickly enough, particularly as the membership became more Hispanic in one city after another.

A membership organization is not a public-interest group with an amorphous, squishy, self-described constituency, but a real-life, flesh-eating machine that must be fed constantly on activity and victory. Turning the wheels of the organization is not a matter of mobilizing disparate parts of the general low- and-moderate income base we identify as our support but precisely and exactingly motivating and activating our membership base. The internal cultural clues are specific and institutionally exacting in our program.

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The dialectic around tenant organizing is a good example. Tenants are a central part of the ACORN base, but there is a constant internal tension about whether or not offices with extensive tenant operations are mobilizing tenants or building organization among them. Essentially, the argument is whether or not the base is stable enough to handle the internal discipline, democracy, and accountability of the organization. ACORN offices that want to push this program have to answer institutional questions that go to the heart of the internal—and financial—life of the organization.

This has been one of those classic issues in organizing where there is clearly a debate but little discussion.