Remembering fresh eyes to horrible situations

by Wade Rathke

April 30, 2021

New Orleans –  We were lucky on our work to launch the ACORN Tenants Union in Atlanta to have a bunch of serious and committed young apprentice organizers with us who chose ACORN as their practicum in the quest of a Masters’ degree in Social Work at Georgia State University. Over four months they collectively averaged almost twenty hours of work in the housing complexes we had targeted to begin our organizing drives.

As organizers, we quickly found that we were taking on many hurdles, despite the long list of issues we were hearing from the tenants. First, organizing committees on ZOOM was deadly, despite the good spirts and persistence of the members, because ZOOM is a communications tool, not a community builder. Secondly, despite the tsunami of evictions hanging like a sword over so many tenants, the constant on and off again of the eviction moratoriums meant that we bracing for storms that didn’t arrive, or at least didn’t arrive in the waves we expected, and the uncertainty made tenants tentative about taking risks to improve their living conditions when their own housing situations were so precarious. Finally, the pandemic in general was depressing the feeling of immediacy and need for compelling action so essential to build issues, campaigns, and organization. Our MSW team felt this all acutely as well, but more interestingly to me, as I listened to their end of semester presentation – and the reactions to it by others — was my feeling again of seeing situations with fresh eyes for the first time.

Several of our apprentices recounted times when security and others had barred them from talking to tenants and evicted them from complexes where we were organizing. For jaded veterans, this is such old news, it hardly warrants comment, but it was somewhat unexpected for first timers, still juggling the differences between organizing and proving assistance and linking services. The response from their classmates to our now hardened veterans’ report was even more interesting. They greeted our team as if they were some of Castro’s guerillas coming down from the mountain, and as they lined the streets of Havana in awe. The professor, an old friend and comrade, commented that it had been years since students had chosen to work on a project with a “conflict-organization,” rather than a service or research project. He was talking about ACORN of course, even though no conflict was being reported, just the stories of initial door knocking and building organizing committees.

One of our team expressed insight right at the heart of the matter. She spoke of the appalling conditions she and others found when they were talking to tenants inside their apartments, often dealing with mold, broken appliances, leaks, and infestations of pests and vermin. She said it was hard in these situations to repress the “social worker” instinct, meaning to refer and direct services for the individual, and to look past the immediate relief to the long-term solutions, meaning building organization and power.

With our thanks for their work, we’ll keep pressing, but if she and the rest of the team learned that lesson, perhaps their time with us was as much a gift given to them, as the one we received.

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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