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Anti-Poverty Community Organizing and Learning (APCOL)

Spotlight: Discussing Activist Learning and Development with Judy Duncan

Judy DuncanHot on the heels of the publication of Global Grassroots: Perspectives on International Organizing (Social Policy Press) as well as their recognition this year as one Toronto’s leading activist organizations (Now Magazine, 2011), Peter Sawchuk sat down with Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) Toronto organizer Judy Duncan to discuss two issues: how social activists emerge generally, and how organizers develop in ACORN specifically. The following offers condensed excerpts from the conversation.

PS: So how did you become an activist and how does it relate to ACORN today?
JD: For me personally, some of it stems from my experience in university, and even younger than that when I was in elementary school. [...] But the main thing is that after graduate school, I went to Seattle and saw this position with ACORN that I applied for. Today I would not describe myself as an activist. I would describe myself as an organizer. You know the difference is it’s not about me being engaged, it’s about other people being engaged and me helping to organize, and this shift happened when I started with ACORN. Most importantly, I realized wherever you go people really want to be engaged, but it’s just that they’re not exposed to the possible channels to get there.
PS: So, what are these types of channels?
JD: Well, people often see their situation compared to other people, and when they do they generally can get a bit mad. They see that they’re not being valued as much as say someone making more money or something, and the channel that comes out of ACORN’s work is, you know, you’re standing at somebody’s door or sitting on their couch in our door-to-door work, and you ask them, ‘Are you interested in getting involved?’ And they say, ‘Yes’.
So, then it becomes getting them to come to meetings. But it has to be certain types of meetings because a lot of people might go to a meeting somewhere and they find it’s actually dis-empowering. It’s because they feel it’s not going to go anywhere. So it’s really important to show them examples of change and people actually making a difference.
PS: Why is it that people might not show up to a meeting though?
JD: Low and moderate income people are just busier with necessities compared to more affluent people. They’re working two jobs. Their kids are getting into trouble because they can’t be around as much as they’d like to be. Lots of things make life really busy. And then again, it’s easier to watch television than to walk into a meeting full of people you don’t know. So, you could maybe call it shyness or maybe just basic social nervousness.
PS: Well, that’s not an issue we really talk about a lot in terms of organizing.
JD: I don’t know if those terms capture it just right, but nobody really likes going to a meeting where they don’t know anybody. So that’s another important thing for these effective channels for action and participation.
PS: In terms of present day ACORN, do you think it pays enough attention to organizer/activist learning and development? Some anti-poverty organizations seem to pay a lot of attention to this while other great organizations seem to pay very little attention to it. What’s ACORN like in these terms?
JD: It’s the core of what we do. We call it leadership development. Everything we do is geared toward developing leaders. We work with them to develop a specific campaign and that’s how learning happens. Everything we do is getting people to go door-to-door and develop leaders in a community.
PS: How about for staff organizers?
JD: We try to develop staff so they can develop community leaders. We have staff development materials. Our whole model is hinged on having good organizers who can develop leaders, so yes we spend a lot of time on training the organizers.
PS: So ACORN really revolves a lot around activist learning: learning in terms of building community leaders, and learning in terms of staff organizers. Specifically, how do you help the staff organizers do what they do?
JD: Our office looks pretty casual and campaign oriented, but our organization has a very structured set of things we take people through. They have to learn to door-knock effectively, they have to learn the rap. The rap takes two weeks or so to learn, to understand it and be able to execute it. There’s five phases of the rap and we’ll train people day after day, you know 2 or 3 hours a day. They learn by doing and shadowing. They’ll go out and do it with another staff member who knows how to do it. It’s all about how to engage people. It’s all about asking questions. They do role play as well. It’s very structured.
But we have to make sure in the course of this training that there’s a good fit, that the person knows what they are in for, that they’ll be going out to meetings and working with people in the community. We spend a lot of time working with new organizers. 
More information at http://www.acorncanada.org/


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