The Disappearing Organizing Art: Tagging

by Wade Rathke

Pearl River   Those were the days! As part of the ongoing 50th anniversary celebration of ACORN this year, different veterans have joined me on Wade’s World to share their memories and reminisce about their work when they rode for the ACORN brand. We started out with Sue Hanna Marquess, one of the early organizers from 1970-72 in June. In July, Craig Robbins whose time stretched from the 90’s to 2010, joined me. The other day it was Fred Brooks, who worked most of the decade of the 1980s who joined me on Wade’s World.

Fred is now Associate Professor in the Andrew Young School of Social Work at Georgia State University, based in Atlanta. As an educator, he had notes prepared, wanted to know the questions in advance, and even sent me the beginning of a narrative memoir of some of his highlights. Certainly, Fred honed these skills in the academy, but more honestly, Fred was always totally prepared, so none of this was surprising, which was one of the reasons he was such an asset on the ACORN staff.

Fred shared some great highlights, while showering praise on his colleagues at the same time. He was a canvasser and canvass director for ACORN, and his work history is like a crisscrossing map of travel back and forth across the country. I lost count of the cities when he listed where he ran programs for us, but it was in the double figures without a doubt. He was part of the team opening Denver. He was in Oakland, Atlanta, New Orleans, and on and on. He was the director in Columbus. He played key logistical roles in ACORN Conventions throughout the 1980s and then came back and worked in a number of subsequent conventions as well. More recently, he has been to a handful of Organizer Forums international dialogues from Cairo to Warsaw to Douala to Tunis to Casablanca.

Fred was part of our “archives strike team” in the summer of 2019 pulling documents on ACORN history where they are stored at the Wisconsin Historical Society in Madison. Early in our discussion I mentioned having found the iconic and detailed memos that he and Peter Wood, ACORN’s overall canvass director, had written in the early 1980s about something called “tagging,” that ACORN implemented to great success in those years.

Tagging is low tech and high reward. By legend, if not fact, it was refined from the annual firefighters’ fundraiser in some cities where they worked the street corners collecting contributions at stoplights in their boots and gave small paper “thank you” tags to donors. ACORN tagging recruited young teens from twelve to sixteen mostly, with parental waivers and approval to work the corners on Saturdays mainly asking for contributions to various ACORN campaigns on utility rates, housing, and whatever was happening in the local office. We refashioned old tennis ball cans with an ACORN logo scotch taped around the side and the name of the campaign.

Fred remembered the first time he had more than 30 kids on the blocks, and they netted $1000 on a Saturday. In New Orleans it was a huge fundraiser often raising a grand or more. Local 100 used tagging to help fund its early organizing. Cecile Richards, the former head of Planned Parenthood, speaking to an ACORN Year End Meeting in the early 2000’s, immediately established credibility with the whole gathered staff by telling them what a great tagger she was on the corner of Claiborne and Louisiana when she was a Local 100 organizer.

It was a great fundraiser, so how did it fall into disuse? Partly, the answer lies in city pushback. Many municipalities objected to people in the streets, claiming they obstructed traffic. We ended up in court frequently, and even though we emerged the winner repeatedly, we lost a case in Denver on public begging and had trouble with police harassment even as judges ruled in our favor. The real answer is more likely that it seemed déclassé. Cecile may have seen it as a badge of honor, but many organizers seemed to feel it was perhaps beneath them. Even if they weren’t on the streets themselves, others felt that managing an unruly bunch of 10, 20, or 30 teens, usually from our minority neighborhoods was too chaotic and fraught, regardless of the money raised for ACORN and the kids themselves.

Whatever. I miss the excitement of walking into the office on a Saturday morning and seeing a beehive of activity as the kids got organized and trained and rolled out in one car after another to the “best” stoplights. I also miss seeing them mill around hours later as staff or leaders emptied the cans with their names on them and counted out hundreds of dollars of coins to make the split.

Now there are still people on the street corners, just none of them wearing ACORN buttons. It’s a damn shame!

Wade Rathke is founder and chief organizer of ACORN and ACORN International. You can find Wade’s recent past posts here Chief Organizer Reports. And you can link to his website here Chief Organizer ACORN/ACORN International

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