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Building a global organizing movement: A conversation with ACORN's Wade Rathke and Judy Duncan

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ACORN CANADA image from 4th National Convention, used with permission

In June, I had the amazing good fortune to interview Wade Rathke of ACORN International and Judy Duncan of Canada in a small café outside of Paris. I grew up admiring the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN as most of us knew it, and had seen Wade speak quite a few times. I must admit to being very awed by having the opportunity to speak with Wade in person and in depth, and I fear I talked too much and our conversation meandered.

If you imagined that ACORN had been destroyed by the machinations of the right wing and the "scam artist James O'Keefe," you were wrong. Our conversation didn't dwell on the past, we talked about the global campaigns ACORN International is now building and laughed at how interconnected the community of global organizers is. Seated near us were ACORN organizers from across North America, talking about the campaigns they were building and the work being done in Paris.

This article continues rabble.ca's reporting on global organizing. Please send articles about community organizing and global organizing efforts we should be profiling to toolkit@rabble.ca.

The origins of ACORN International

Wade Rathke: When it first began ACORN was a United States-based organization. However, our members were often immigrants and often asked if we could help build campaigns in their home countries. That was how, in 2004, we started a Community Organizations International, ACORN Peru and launched ACORN International. Within three years our membership had grown to 3,000 and our members helped to stop a national plan to privatize water in Peru and built an initiative to make city streets safer. Since 2004, our efforts have grown to include Argentina, Canada, Czech Republic, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, England, France, Honduras, India, Italy, Kenya, Mexico, Scotland, South Korea, South Africa and continues to have affiliates in the United States. Generally, we start campaigns at the invitation of organizers in the country. 

What seems a long time ago, in 1973, I wrote what I called the ACORN Organizing Model. It is not a recipe book, and should not be used as such, but is a tool for organizers and has been a guide for many of our international campaigners. However, it is important to note ACORN International is a federation and each country builds in its own way, based upon what is necessary locally. 

Building off opportunities

Wade Rathke: In 2011, the Cameron government in the United Kingdom introduced a neoliberal austerity program called "Big Society" to attack state-run programs. It was meant to be a Band-Aid offsetting the austerity measures and supposedly train 500 community organizers.  

As with many good people who end up participating in institutionalized forays into community organizing, participants who wanted to do good things sometimes found themselves not doing as much to make change as they may have wanted. So we reached out to some of them and talked to them about organizing ACORN groups here. They got very excited about that in Bristol and evangelized among their cohort.  There are some strong organizers there doing tenant-based, door-to-door organizing. And, for a while, the government was paying as we helped to develop real community organizers. 

With the Community Organiser Programme, we ran as fast as we could to build a base and get things up and running.  We now have ACORN groups in Bristol, Brixton, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Newcastle, Sheffield, and around London, mostly doing tenant-based organizing. So much of social housing has collapsed across the United Kingdom. You now have a huge increase in the percentage of people in private housing but the standard rights you would have as a tenant don't exist. Therefore, tenants are organizing to get security of tenure, stop evictions, fighting letting agencies and getting a letting bill of rights. The campaigns are building and during the 2017 election, The Guardian published this great article to help tenants demand that the candidates take on tenants' rights. In Edinburgh, the city council just moved towards rent controls, but there is a lot more to do.

Anyway, some may say that it was odd that we took advantage of a Conservative program, but this is what being in the field looks like, you take opportunities where you can. However, your work should not be opportunistic and instead you must build with integrity based on local issues.

Registering a union India

Wade Rathke: When we first started our organizing in India, it was to organize against Walmart's entry into the Indian market. Due to the concerted efforts of allies and ourselves, Walmart has had a difficult time operating in India and we are proud to take credit for our part in that. We continue to work in India through our affiliate India FDI Watch, which works to prevent the take-over of India's retail sector by corporations. We are building Joint Action Committees (JAC) led by those who will be most affected, mainly; trade associations, unions, hawkers' organizations, farmers' groups and small-scale industries. We are currently working in New Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru,and Chennai. ACORN India now is a registered union with 5,000 street hawkers in Chennai and more members in Bengalaru. In Mumbai, we have a waste pickers' co-operative and recycling centre. (Note: Here is a blog by Wade with some of what was learned while organizing in Dharavi in Mumbai). When we say we have 35,000 members through grassroots organizing in our unions in India, it sounds like a lot to North American ears, but in terms of the numbers in India it really is a pimple on the elephant's butt.

The work of our federation of allies organizing around the world has been a mixed bag. We have learned a lot about how NGOs and institutions operate in different environments. For example, in Kenya, there is some good work happening but institutions sometimes inadvertently create a dependency that makes grassroots organizing we believe in difficult. However, the organizing continues in communities around Nairobi and Kisumu.

So why Paris?

Wade Rathke:  Our affiliate in France is an organization called Alliance Citoyenne. The Alliance was initially trying to build through churches in very secular France and eventually found that did not work. So then Adrien Roux, one of the organizers, reached out to me on Facebook, as so many of us now do, explaining what she was trying to do. I said OK, well I'll Skype with you and it turned out they had an exciting project growing in Grenoble. So then one of her organizers trained with ACORN Canada's Judy Duncan and Jill O'Reilly, for nearly two months, and Adrien came and trained with me in New Orleans. Then they came back to France, and now they have six groups across France. Here in Paris, they are organizing in Aubervilliers -- one of the poorest areas in France. Most of the area is social housing. Do you remember where there was violence in the area around Chinese people? That was Aubervilliers. We had a lot of conversations for a while and they wanted us to train the Chinese organizers there. It is where Veolia built their big corporate headquarters right in this poorest district in France during the Communist government recently. It was a big gentrification project. The Alliance has been in Aubervilliers for a year and has about 800 provisional members and 200 dues-paying members in Aubervillers. 

What are some of the campaigns in Canada?

Judy Duncan: We have been fighting on issues that matter to our members who are mostly low- and moderate-income people in 20 communities across Canada. A few months ago we had our fourth National Convention in Ottawa, and our members took over the Finance Building in downtown Ottawa to demand fair banking. We are tired of the high fees charged for insufficient funds in bank accounts and other predatory lending practices that gouge users. We put out a report at the end of last year about how expensive it is to be poor in Canada because of these predatory lending practices but too many of these practices remain in place. We have also been fighting to lower the fees people pay to send money abroad (remittances), and to get federal and provincial regulations of payday lenders, and are nearing wins on both issues. Visit our website to find out more.

Another important campaign is for wireless affordability and access. We have been trying to get the government to declare internet as a vital public service. We have forced some companies to make changes and now are in discussions with the federal government.

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