During a Center for Popular Democracy staff retreat earlier this year, former ACORN executive director Steven Kest talked with Stephanie Maldonado, organizing director with LUCHA (Living United for Change) in Arizona; Christina Livingston, executive director of ACCE (Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment); Allison Brim, organizing director with Texas Organizing Project (TOP);  and Arlenis Morel, one of the three co-executive directors of Make the Road New York. They talk about the importance of organizing basics like door knocking, listening, and leadership development in driving their organizations; what they’ve learned from older organizing traditions; and how they’ve adapted or changed those traditions to become more effective and powerful. This roundtable has been edited and condensed. 


Steve Kest: Allison worked at Texas ACORN before it became Texas Organizing Project. Christina worked at California ACORN before it became ACCE. I'm interested in how your current organizing practice builds on or differs from the historical experience with ACORN. What have you preserved from ACORN that's most meaningful? What have you built that goes beyond what we practiced at ACORN?

Christina Livingston: You know, the truth is there's a lot of ACORN roots that still live in ACCE. We still talk about hitting those 60 doors. We still have membership dues. People are still paying monthly on bank drafts, and we're still finding quick hits that we can do early to get people excited. We don't print the newspaper articles and put them on a clipboard anymore. We have a field tool. We've moved away from the membership card in large part. And instead, we just have people directly sign up in our database. But a lot of the fundamentals around the organizing drive, we still do. 

There were some very key things about ACORN that we have moved away from. There was a tendency to have a very Black and brown base and not talk about race. That doesn't fly, obviously. In fact, the sharper we are about race and about class and about gender, the better off and more focused we are in our wins.

There was also a tendency to shy away from ideological discussions. And I think there's a lot of good reason behind it, right? Nobody's asking us to go build a base of people who really understand Gramsci. Nobody's actually worried about that. However, it's not as though we don't care what it is that we're building, right? In my ACORN experience, there was more emphasis on what we're breaking down, as opposed to what we're building up. And so I think that that's a significant shift — our ideology matters when we're talking about what we're building.

And then the last thing I would say is that I remember feeling like we are big shit. We don't need no friends, we're good, we'll handle it on our own. And in a lot of ways, that was true. But when we got taken down and there were no friends around, that was a problem. So even though California ACCE is stronger politically and stronger in the movement than ACORN ever was, we don't have that attitude that we don't need anyone else. Actually we do a lot of concerted work in building relationships between other organizations and our members with other people's members. Being rooted in an ecosystem is so much more important than being the big dog in the pond that everybody hates. 

Allison Brim: There's a lot of overlap in terms of what we've kept at Texas Organizing Project from ACORN and what we've rejected or changed. The biggest thing we preserved is door knocking. There is just no replacement for going out and knocking on people's doors — cold, warm, hot, whatever, right? Many of us learned a hard lesson about that in the 2020 election when we did not have large door-knocking programs for the first time in most places.

I will say that we have gotten much less disciplined about it. We don't expect our organizers to be out knocking on 60 doors every day. I think we could gain from returning to some of the discipline and rigor that ACORN instilled in organizers while changing some of the ways that we instill that discipline and rigor. To be a good ACORN organizer, you had to do things step by step. ACORN gave you the plan about how to be a successful organizer without a lot of room for creativity or for people to bring in their full selves to the work. And I think that goes to what Christina was saying about race. Race is definitely where we have made big shifts, although we certainly have a long way to go.

ACORN had a very large percentage of white staff, particularly in positions of power. We've been very intentional about recruiting Black and Latino folks onto our staff and in higher level positions, as well as training folks up within the organization. Our staff are bringing a lot of their own experiences and background to the work. They are bringing in pieces of cultural organizing, bringing in their own theories on strategy, campaigns, and issues. When folks join our staff, we like to say that our hope is that TOP shapes them and they shape TOP, right? And that there's room for growing and developing as an organization.

One big change is that we have shifted completely away from the neighborhood chapter model. We realized that having members join a neighborhood chapter — and then those neighborhood chapters electing representatives to sit on a citywide board that controls the budget and the executive director — was just leading to a lot of problems. We had almost defunct neighborhood chapter leaders who were still serving on the board, still had their power but weren't really actively organizing around the issues. So we've shifted completely to our membership structure being around issue campaigns. We have mainly our county-level issue campaign committees. We also have a county-level leadership team, although they are advisors, not a board. And then we have a statewide board and those folks get elected mostly from our membership. 

Kest: Let me turn now to Arlenis and Stephanie. What are the organizing traditions that are most meaningful and impactful for the work of your organizations? And who have you learned from in your organizing history? 

Arlenis Morel: Who have we learned from? The people. This is a membership-based organization and it's not just on paper. When we said we're a membership led, we mean that.  The sauce of Make the Road is our members. It's what keeps us going. They are driving the work, they are making sure that we are doing the work that needs to get done in our communities. And we've learned that the people who have the power, who are our members, are the people who are directly impacted in the system. And part of that is making sure that we're giving the space to tell their stories and also go real deep, right?

We want our members developing not only a profound analysis of campaigns and strategic stuff but building strong relationships with each other. And that's key for us — keeping in touch with our members, making sure that we're breaking bread together, talking about the issues.

Stephanie Maldonado: I joined LUCHA a few years after it had been founded. LUCHA comes from ACORN and had preserved a lot of the traditions of ACORN but also developed space for young people to lead and bring their ideas and experiences into the work. Some of the preservation is definitely deep leadership development. I started off as an intern in 2014 and now I'm the organizing director. We have leader organizers that started off as volunteers. We had a student volunteer who started off on our Fight for $15 campaign and now she's our organizing manager. 

Here in Phoenix, there's not many spaces where people can go and feel celebrated, where you can feel pride as a Latina individual. And I think that that's what LUCHA does for our communities. We create space for people to come, like someone said, to break bread, to empower, teach, and unlearn many of the systems that we're brought up with. I would say this vision of liberation is something that our ancestors have been fighting for.

Kest: You each spoke to some of the organizing basics and to an evolution of the organizing model. Is there a story you can tell from your organization's history that illustrates how you've taken one or more of those organizing basics and run with it?

Livingston: Early on in my organizing, I was told to drive the neighborhood — be a part of it, really feel what's going on in order to find something hot and then grab onto it. We do a lot of housing work and for a long time it was: knock the doors, knock the doors, just go to a neighborhood. And we started to notice that people were talking about either rent or habitability issues. And so we were like, let's do apartment complexes. And when we started to do that, we found these really ripe apartment buildings where people were taking us door to door. When we set up the organizing committee, we thought, it'll be 15, 20 people; 75 people showed up, with three different languages spoken. 

You can't assume you know what the issue is. If you've heard most people want to talk about the street lights and that's what you're going in with, you're going to miss what the real gold is. It’s the very basics of organizing to really listen and craft your strategy based on that.

Maldonado: When I think about the power of organizing, I think about Maribel. She is one of our leaders who started off back in 2016 as a student of the English classes we offer. She really didn't know what organizing was. She just came to the organization for classes. We did a call to action to join one of our parent teams and she joined. She was really quiet; she wouldn't talk. Now, four years later, she is vocal. Now she's leading. She has led some of our LUCHA lessons. She's one of our member delegates. She is leading in more ways than she could have ever imagined. 

You have to be patient with organizing. You have to go back to the drawing board, and you can't just give up on people because they're not ready to lead within six months. I've been told many times, if a person's not ready, you need to move on to identify new leaders. If we would've done that to Maribel, she wouldn't be where she's at today. It takes more time to politicize our older generations because they have different views of the world than a 16, 17 year old. And I think it's important to apply all of our organizing skills with every single person. Persistence, consistency, and patience is what builds our issue-based campaigns. It's the-deep rooted organizing —  that extra time, that late one-on-one, even though you're probably tired, but that person's only available at 7:30 — that builds movements.

Livingston: Some of the most beautiful stuff is the stories around our leaders' transformation. And I want to be careful about over romanticizing the idea that every single person has to go up that ladder. Because not everybody will. And I know of some organizations that have 30 of the most amazing leaders you could ever think of — but that's all they have.

We’re really talking about power dynamics. Do we have enough power to confront the power of the opposition and win? We're not going to do that with the small, beautiful, amazing cadre. We also need the folks who are just in it for their self-interest, the folks who showed up because somebody just invited them and they don't really know what's going on. We need to remember that we need the big base because people, organized people, are what we have to put up against organized money. 


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