Thursday Nov 30

Reflections of an ACORN Canvasser 1979-1990

Highlights, Lessons Learned and Paying it Forward


In October 1979, I was hired as a door-to-door canvasser in the Atlanta Georgia ACORN office. Over the next 10 years I field-managed and directed canvassing operations in Denver (twice); Columbus, OH; Chicago, IL; Oakland, CA and New Orleans. The following essay is a memoir of that experience including my path to finding ACORN, struggling to make quota but eventually succeeding, helping open the wildly successful Denver office, highlights from ACORN conventions, being arrested twice (once on purpose), skills developed and lessons learned, and my attempt to pay these skills and lessons forward in my current job as a professor of social work at Georgia State University. I begin with a few thoughts going deep into childhood and speculating on influences that helped shape my political conscience.

Childhood Origins of My Political Conscience

I was born in Atlanta, GA in 1956, the same year Blacks in Montgomery Alabama boycotted the bus service for the better part of that year. I was raised in a largely apolitical family. I don’t ever recall my parents discussing politics or who they even voted for except for one brief exchange with my mother about the Johnson—Goldwater election in 1964. I noticed my parents had a copy of the self-published book by Phyllis Schlafly A Choice Not an Echo which is widely credited with helping Barry Goldwater win the 1964 Republican nomination for president. At the age of eight I had no interest in reading the book, but I distinctly remember how my mother answered the question about why she was voting for Goldwater. Her somewhat defensive response was “people with our income are better off voting for Goldwater.” As a child that is the only political position, I ever remember either one of my parents expressing around me. We were not wealthy by any measure but were solidly middle class.

When Martin Luther King was assassinated in April 1968, I remember it was a big deal, but as an apolitical 11-year-old with no Black neighbors, friends, or fellow students in my lily-white suburban neighborhood, I did not have a deep emotional reaction. I also have no recollection of any conversations in my classes at school which seems strange since Martin Luther King was born and raised in Atlanta.

I credit my two older sisters with introducing me to the first social protest I remember personally encountering. I started high school in 1969 and my sister Chandler was 2 years and Celia was 3 years older than myself. They hung out with the rebellious, hippie crowd at school. Bell-bottom jeans with patches, were all the rage, and my sisters and their friends loved their heavily patched bellbottoms. This must have been too much for the old white male administrators that ran our school, so they passed a rule prohibiting girls from wearing “slacks” to school. Celia and a group of her friends decided to challenge this dress code by wearing their patched jeans to school and directly challenging the new policy. They were called to the principal’s office and suspended for the outlandish behavior of wearing patched jeans to school. Like any good organizers they got powerful allies to support their demands for changing the dress code (see article below from the student newspaper). After getting some strong support by enough parents, the school relaxed their policy and allowed girls to wear pants to school once again. While my sisters and their comrades were responsible for changing the dress code, they still felt the confines at school were oppressive and both withdrew from the school and completed their high school education at Clarkston Adult which allowed for more flexibility and an open campus.

While I admired my older sisters’ actions challenging authority, I was an athlete (swimmer) and less rebellious compared to my sisters. I did not find it difficult to follow normal school rules. I was a little nerdier and even have pleasant memories of many classes such as biology and English. By far the most memorable assigned reading during late high school was John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. I remember being blown away by his depiction of capitalism and migrant labor in California during the Dustbowl years. I was so moved by the book (among others) when I started college in 1974, I declared English as my major as a first quarter freshman.

My reaction to the Grapes of Wrath probably had something to do with selecting Introductory Sociology as one of my first semester classes at University of Georgia. My instructor was a graduate student completing his PhD named Joel Horowitz. For the mid-70s Joel looked conservative: short, modest non-descript clothes, horn-rimmed glasses, short hair, and the way he described the course made him appear strict. I was not sure what to expect but very quickly Joel turned out to be a fantastic and funny lecturer (he had dozens of college freshman diving for their dictionaries when he used the terms cunnilingus and fellatio in our first class), and his approach to all the basic institutions in the USA—especially religion, the family, and the economy—could best described in modern parlance as critical theory or “woke”. Joel had a power analysis and in a methodical, funny and scientific way deconstructed the conventional wisdom in all these areas. I loved Joel’s class and felt like I had been given both a scientific and critical lens to understand how capitalism and the government worked--you had to analyze power, self-interest, and propaganda if you wanted to reduce poverty and inequality. Right after Joel’s class I changed my major to sociology, joined a campus organization called the Young Socialist Alliance, and attended my first protest march in Atlanta in support of the Equal Rights Amendment.  When I graduated in 1978, I knew what I was looking for—a grassroots organization with a power analysis--but did not find it until I discovered ACORN a year later.

Path to ACORN

Majoring in Sociology, I had taken courses in social stratification, theory, and social problems, but had not been exposed to community or labor organizing as viable careers. While I was searching for a job working to decrease poverty and inequality, I bounced around several temporary jobs that included construction work and summer camp counseling in Maine during the spring and summer of 1979. Before taking a camp counselor position in July 1979 at Agassiz Village summer camp in West Poland, Maine, I had applied to be a VISTA Volunteer. That July an ACORN recruiter interviewed me over the only pay phone at Agassiz Village. She described an opening for an organizer in Dallas, Texas. On my VISTA application I put down what I thought would be the coolest places for a young college graduate from the south to live: Boston or San Francisco. While the job sounded intriguing and worthwhile, I had never heard of ACORN, and was comme si, comme ça about moving to Dallas. Also, I had no confidence my 63 Chevy Biscayne (purchased in 1973 for $350) would even make it from Atlanta to Dallas. So, I turned down the VISTA offer with ACORN in Dallas. After the summer camp job ended, I stayed with my mother in New Hampshire for a couple of months while substitute school teaching. I couldn’t see spending the entire winter as a substitute teacher in New Hampshire, so in October I headed back to Atlanta to continue my search for a job in social change.

Upon opening the Help Wanted ads of Atlanta Journal Constitution, the following job advertisement screamed off the page early in the A section: “ACTIVIST. Meaningful work helping low-and-moderate income families organize for social and economic justice. Call …” (over the years we hired hundreds of canvassers with this short, effective ad). I called and set up an interview with a guy named Peter Wood at the offices of Georgia Action/ACORN. Immediately, walking into the cramped 2nd floor reception room in an old house on Ponce De Leon Avenue in midtown Atlanta I saw a huge ACORN banner hung on the wall. Since this was my second encounter with ACORN in the last couple of months, I thought it might be a sign.

Peter Wood presented as a suave, cool cat, who relaxed behind his desk smoking a cigarette through the entire interview while blowing the most perfect smoke rings I had ever seen. While Peter seemed like a smooth-talking operator, he won my respect when he asked me a question about the location of the construction job I had in early 1979 helping to build a second home on Teel Island, a small obscure Island off the coast of Maine. Since Teel Island was privately owned and only reached by a 45-minute boat ride, hardly anyone had ever heard of it. Peter asked me “didn’t Andrew Wyeth do a painting of Teel Island?”  I thought damn, this guy knows art history, if he remembered this little-known Wyeth painting. Not only was Peter Wood a pretty smart guy, he turned out to be one of the most effective managers I ever worked for. He was my boss for the next 3 years at ACORN. Peter had an excellent way of discovering your strengths and challenging you to bust your ass and do your very best. He expected high standards and motivated you to reach them.

After hearing Peter describe the canvassing job, my first thought was “I have no idea if I can do this job, go door-to-door for 5 hours a night asking everyone to sign a petition and asking for money.” The quota at the time was $70 a night. You had to raise quota at least once during your first week or you were terminated. I considered myself a shy, introverted, young man on the lower end of the assertiveness scale. After observing the job, I still had no idea if I could succeed at it, but I believed in what the organization was doing, and thought it would be a tremendous challenge. I also felt, that if I was able to learn how to successfully canvass, it would require me to learn some valuable communication skills, such as talking to strangers and asking for money.  No doubt, I would learn to be more assertive.

So, while I considered this a big challenge, I thought I had more to gain than lose. I thought If I can succeed at this, I could succeed at anything.

I struggled to raise quota my first week. It took two re-trainings for me to finally raise $70 on my own. My first retraining was from a field manager, Gene Britton a middle-aged Episcopal Priest who seemed able to talk anybody into anything (we joked since that if he was able to convince parishioners of God’s existence, asking people for $15 to support ACORN was nothing for him). I still remember the street Gene and I canvassed in Decatur, Ga and how wildly successful Gene was. Gene got a guy who was up on his roof, cleaning out his gutters, to climb down a ladder, sign our petition, go in the house, and write ACORN a $15 check. Gene raised $30 or $40 dollars for me that day and it was the only way I met the $70 quota at least once during my first 5 days. I could not really identify with Gene’s persuasion skills. Luckily, during my second week on staff, Kurt Roscow, the other field manager returned from vacation and his re-training was easier to relate to. Kurt had a short, simple introduction, got folks to open the door and take the clipboard, maintained good eye contact, and was simply effective at asking for money. Kurt was my age and I could identify with his simple, straightforward style. After his retraining, I was on my way!

My First Big Action That Got Me Hooked on ACORN

Winter 1979-1980. Atlanta Ga. World Congress Center.

It was a cold and blustery winter morning when ACORN mounted its first regional action. Moon Landrieu was President Jimmy Carter’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and was the keynote speaker at a national HUD Conference. ACORN decided to do an action on Landrieu and demand he meet with ACORN members around housing issues our members were having. Van loads of ACORN members came in from Florida, the Carolinas, Tennessee, New Orleans and St. Louis. Atlanta was charged with turning out 100+ members from our local neighborhood groups. Canvass staff helped with logistical tasks such as picking up members.

I have vivid memories of 150+ ACORN members entering the venue, marching all the way down the aisles and taking over the stage simultaneously as Coretta Scott King was introducing Secretary Landrieu to the audience. Mrs. King was nonplussed by the demonstration.  When she realized what was going on, she didn’t miss a beat by welcoming the ACORN protestors and declaring this was in “the spirit of Martin.” ACORN members took over the stage and within a couple of minutes Secretary Landrieu agreed to meet with the ACORN members and hear their concerns as soon as his speech concluded. The ACORN members agreed and were given a separate meeting room where they sang and chanted for 20 minutes or so until Landrieu came and listened to their testimonials and demands for another 45 minutes. When our members marched in and took over the stage, I remember intense feelings of excitement, danger, risk, contentment, and a strong feeling of satisfaction that right now I would rather be here than anywhere else in the world!  The combination of succeeding at the canvassing job, and playing a small role in this exciting action made me feel like I had found my place in the organizing universe!

The King is Dead, Long Live the King

Mike Hinkelman had jet-black hair cut in a shag, long sideburns, and was an excellent canvasser. Mike had a great ability to create friendly rapport with whoever he met on the doors. On a hot summer day on the doors, Mike asked a guy “Do you have a spare beer for a thirsty dude?” Mike shared the beer with his new friend before continuing to hit doors. In October 1979, Hinkelman owned the Georgia Action one-day canvassing record which was $170 at the time. Some two or three months into my canvassing, I broke Hinkelman’s record by raising $180 in one night (later this was smashed by many). I remember the excitement of getting back in the car for the drive home from the turf that night. Hinkelman was generous and emphatic about me breaking his record, more than once he declared “The king is dead, the king is dead…long live the king!” It always makes me smile and laugh remembering Mike making such a big deal out of me breaking his record.

Opening-Up the Big D

One thing I always liked about ACORN organizing and canvassing was that if you proved yourself competent at your current job you were quickly promoted to a higher-level position. Field Organizers would be promoted to Lead or Head Organizers. Excellent canvassers were promoted to Field Managers, if you proved competent at training canvassers and running crews you could become a Canvass Director, all within your first year on staff. After 3 or 4 months on the doors in Atlanta, Peter asked me if I wanted to become a Field Manager and help Liza Hendricks (Canvass Director) open a canvass operation in Denver Colorado. I jumped at the chance. I am not sure exactly how Peter, Wade Rathke, and other ACORN staff created such high expectations for a Denver canvass, but everyone seemed to expect Denver to be bigger and better than any of our current operations at the time. As it turned out, my 1963 Biscayne did make it from Atlanta to Colorado.  Peter rode with me. I had never even been west of the Mississippi river when I moved to Denver.

My introduction to the Rocky Mountains was dramatic; Peter and I arrived in Boulder, Colorado at night.  It must have been cloudy as well, because I did not see the mountains for the first time until the following morning. I awoke to a clear, sunny day. I walked out of the apartment of a friend where we were staying, stared up into the craggy Flatirons nestling against Boulder and was staggered by the raw beauty of the surroundings.

We arrived in Boulder on a weekend, and on Saturday night Peter and I hit a local music venue to see the contemporary jazz group Rare Silk. The place was enormous, larger than any club I had ever been to in Atlanta or Athens, GA and the place was jam packed with several thousand college aged youth. Peter and I had a drink and toasted our arrival in Denver, we surveyed the room packed with exactly the demographic we expected to hire as canvassers, and I felt chills running up and down my spine as it dawned on us both “the canvass is going to kick-ass in Denver!” The next 6 months proved Peter and I had correctly surmised the wonderful recruiting grounds Denver proved to be for ACORN canvassing.

Liza Hendricks and I made a great management team. Liza had all the qualities of a terrific Canvass Director: welcoming personality, tons of positive energy, assertiveness, high expectations, and an excellent combination of sensitivity and accountability toward staff. In the middle of the summer, we had 25+ canvassers hitting the doors every night and set new ACORN records exceeding $10,000/week for most of the summer.

Empirical evidence for the fast start in Denver: The job ad in the Denver Post said call 9am to noon.  At 9:00 am our very first call and interview scheduled was with Tony Massaro. Tony was my first observer, first hired, and three months later our first new Field Manager. By summer Tony and I were each running crews of 10 canvassers. Tony left ACORN after a year and went on to organize volunteers to canvass for Federico Pena and was instrumental in getting Pena elected as the first Latinx Mayor of Denver! Tony’s wife, Ann Byrne, who canvassed for ACORN during the summer of 1980 helped create an organization and canvass in Denver for Women Against Rape, which quickly became a large, and successful organization. The political and organizational ripples from the ACORN canvass created a lot of positive social change in Denver.

Highlights of ACORN Conventions

I had job assignments at the bi-annual ACORN conventions in New York City (1980), Philadelphia (1982), Dallas (1984), Washington DC (1986), and Atlanta (1988). As my work assignments got larger, my memories are scanter from the last two conventions.  My most vivid memories are from the 1982 convention in Philly and 1984 in Dallas.

“You came here to wine and dine; we came here to draw the line!” –ACORN chant from 1982 Philadelphia convention.

The theme of the 1982 convention in Philadelphia was “draw the line.” After pushing for representation quotas for low-and-moderate income people in the delegate selection process in the Democratic party in 1980 and winning a “commission” to study the issue, the Democrats had not followed through on any of ACORN’s demands for increasing the power of low-and-moderate income citizens in the party. The Democratic Party was having their 1982 mid-term convention in Philadelphia and ACORN members decided to make it difficult for the Democrats to begin their convention.  The planned action with 1500 ACORN members was very bold: ACORN members would go first thing in the morning to all the hotels where Democratic delegates were staying and set-up picket lines in hotel lobbies and in front of and behind the Democrat delegates buses so they could not leave for the convention center. The demand was to not let the buses pull out unless the delegates agreed to support ACORN’s demands on the Commission for Low-and-Moderate Income Representation.

That morning I ended up at the hotel where Arkansas ACORN members descended on the Arkansas Democrats and established pickets to prevent the bus from leaving the hotel. ACORN members got there early and discovered several big shot delegates still eating breakfast in the hotel restaurant. I ended up with a group of 10 or so members that stormed into the restaurant where U. S. Senator Dale Bumpers and his pals were still eating breakfast. Elena Hanggi, a one-time ACORN National Preisdent, had a bullhorn turned up full-blast and was only 3 or 4 feet from Bumpers head when she shouted out the ACORN demand that he support the commission on low-and-moderate income representation. I don’t recall how long we stayed in the restaurant or why we left, but I recall the pickets in front of and behind the bus held the line for some 30 minutes or so. A dozen or so ACORN members were arrested that day. Out of dozens of actions I witnessed in my 10 years working at ACORN, I had never seen anything quite so hilarious and assertive as Elena Hanggi making her demands at 100+ decibels 3 feet from Senator Dale Bumpers ears!

Summer 1984. Trinity River Bottom, Dallas TX. ACORN Tent City AKA “Reagan Ranch”

After four years of “Reaganomics” that had only exacerbated issues for low-and-moderate income people, including homelessness, in 1984 ACORN erected a massive tent city in the shadow of the convention hall that would host the re-nomination of Ronald Reagan as the Republican presidential candidate. This convention would be the first one to include ACORN members hitting the doors in the city with a mass canvass. In 1984 all you had to do to register a voter was to get them to fill out a simple postcard (the process to register today is considerably more difficult). ACORN decided to get all 1500 members out on the doors in south Dallas to register voters for 3 or 4 hours on a Sunday afternoon. At the time I was directing the Denver canvass, and for 2 weeks before the convention I was reassigned to Dallas to scout turf and create 750 canvass maps for teams of two ACORN members to register voters. I have to remind some readers that this was well before the advent of cell phones, GPS, or google maps. Two field managers and I literally scouted the turf by driving through it, drew 750 handwritten maps and organized drop-offs and pick-ups so multiple busloads of 30+ ACORN members could register voters for 3 hours and not get lost in the field.

While I was nervous as hell about how smoothly it would go, the voter registration canvass was a smashing success. Once completed we had a spirited ceremony where someone was playing music and an ACORN member from each state danced up to a huge basket and threw in their voter registration cards with much applause and jubilation. Steve Kest reported that we registered some 10,000 voters that day.  It was the largest one day voter registration drive from any organization during that election cycle. The members enjoyed it so much that subsequent ACORN conventions included some form of ACORN members hitting the doors. Afterward I heard from several Head Organizers that the voter registration canvass was the highlight of many members experience in Dallas that weekend. This is one of my fondest and proudest ACORN memories.

Rough Ride Home from Dallas to Denver

Good organizers and canvassers learn how to talk and navigate their way through what appear to be impossible bureaucratic obstacles. The best example I have of doing this was in August 1984 on the drive back to Denver from the ACORN tent city in Dallas. My field manager Kathy Haake had caught the membership bus back to Denver and asked me and another canvasser, Mark, to drive her Volkswagen Beetle, with a newly rebuilt engine, back to Denver. I was part of the crew that had to breakdown the tent city after the convention, so Mark and I got a late start out of Dallas. Only a few hours down the road, right outside of Wichita Falls, just as dusk was arriving the car threw a rod.  The engine was completely blown. Since it was almost dark, we just pulled out our sleeping bags and slept the night in a field near the disabled car. The following morning, we hitchhiked into town and found a mechanic willing to tow it to his shop and check it out. His diagnosis was a blown engine, that would have to be completely rebuilt or a new one installed. Having the car professionally towed 500 miles back to Denver was way above our pay grade, so we came up with the crazy idea to rent a car in Wichita Falls and buy a chain from the mechanic.  With me in the rental, and Mark in the VW, we (illegally) towed the car ourselves 500 miles back to Denver. The key to this working was for Mark to pay close attention whenever I hit the brakes in the rental car and for him to hit the brakes in the VW.  Otherwise the VW would crash into the back of the rental car, and we would be in double  trouble. Anyway, that was the plan.

I walked into the rental car agency and gave them my Colorado Driver’s License only for them to tell me I could not rent a car because my license had expired. I had been so preoccupied prepping for the convention I hadn’t realized my license expired on my August 4 birthday. Mark didn’t have a credit card, so I decided to call the DMV in Denver and see if they could renew my license over the phone. The first person I talked to said this was impossible; I politely asked to speak to the boss of the DMV and with patience explained my predicament and asked if there was any conceivable way to renew the license remotely. She thought about it a few minutes and said if I could find someone in Denver who could come into their office and pay cash for the renewal, she would renew my license, and I could rent the car. Lucky for me a friend in Denver was free and happy to do me this favor. After she completed this and called me back, I got the rental car agency and the head of Denver DMV on the phone together to establish that my license was renewed, and I could rent the car. We successfully towed my field manager’s VW all the way back to Denver without any crashes or mishaps. Without the confidence and sensitive negotiating skills I had learned from canvassing, I would have never been able to successfully renew my driver’s license over the telephone.

Arrests as Fundraisers

Thanks to our excellent legal team at ACORN (during the early 80s it was Bachman, Weltchek and Powers) we knew that First Amendment law protected our right to knock on doors every evening from 4:00 to 9:00. As it turned out, we knew the law much better than many of the small municipalities where we canvassed. Before we began canvassing in a town we would send them the requisite packet of materials: ACORN’s registration papers as a non-profit, selected press on the organization, days and times we expected to be canvassing, and the names of current canvassers. While most municipalities notified their police departments, and we commenced canvassing without incident, some jurisdictions objected to our plan and wanted to restrict our canvassing or even outright ban us from going door-to-door.

I was arrested twice while out on the doors. The first time was in 1981 in the small suburb of Columbus Ohio called Reynoldsburg. I had sent the city the packet of details about our canvass plans, and on this beautiful spring afternoon I was training a young, female observer. For readers unfamiliar with the canvass hiring procedure, if a job interview with a prospective applicant went well, we asked them to spend one day “observing” a canvasser for 4 hours and then for the last hour they would hit the doors and see how well they liked the job. If the observation day went well, they were on payroll the next day. After an hour or so on the doors a Reynoldsburg police officer shows up and tells us we are under arrest for “soliciting without a permit” and writes us both a ticket and tells us to stop canvassing. While the policeman was friendly enough, I could not talk him out of writing a ticket for my observer who was not even canvassing. After booking us, they let us go on our “own recognizance.” This was horribly embarrassing for me and unsurprisingly the observer did not take the job. I assured her that we were on strong ground in getting the charges dropped. Within a week our attorney Steve Bachman filed a lawsuit claiming Reynoldsburg had violated our first amendment rights, and within a month the city settled out-of-court, dropped the charges, and even paid ACORN monetary damages. 

The second time I was arrested, was in 1989 in St. Tammany Parish across Lake Ponchartrain from New Orleans, and it was intentional. St. Tammany Parish told ACORN we could not canvass after dark. Since ACORN had won multiple lawsuits over the years with damages, we knew if a canvasser got arrested, we could sue them and win damages. Since I was the most senior canvass manager in New Orleans at the time, I was the lucky one that got the assignment to intentionally get arrested. On my first day hitting the doors in St. Tammany, shortly after dark the police showed up and were so verbally hostile to me, I chickened out of pushing the boundaries to get arrested, got in my car and drove back to New Orleans. After discussing the situation with my boss Dale Rathke, the decision was made to go out again a few days later and continue to canvass. Like clockwork, the same two police officers accosted me; this time it was simple, they did not tell me to stop, they just said “turn around and put your hands on the hood of your car, you’re under arrest.”  They booked me at St. Tammany Parish jail and after my phone call to the ACORN office, Beth Butler drove across the lake and bailed me out of jail. After another lawsuit St. Tammany dropped the charges and paid ACORN $10,000 in damages. I never kept track but I suspect ACORN made between $50,000 and $100,000 over the years suing towns trying to restrict our First Amendment rights.

Other Lessons Learned and Paying it Forward 

Besides learning how to skillfully negotiate bureaucratic obstacles, running canvasses for a decade at ACORN taught me the following lessons: accountability, good management and how to create positive crew dynamics.


One thing you learned fast in canvassing: You could never blame a bad night on the turf. If you didn’t raise quota you had to own that there was something you could have done differently to have raised quota. How well accountability was instilled in a canvass crew was directly related to good management. Good management sounds simple and trite, but in a job that was challenging, repetitive and replete with rejection, canvassers had to be managed sensitively and carefully. Even on a good night 2 out of 3 doors rejected a canvassers rap. Field managers had private conversations with every canvasser at both the drop-off and pick up. Their performance was discussed using the Socratic method before getting back in the car and driving back to the office.

Another instrument to instill accountability was weekly canvass staff meetings where each canvasser would set a goal for the coming week and evaluate their performance from the prior week. Each office’s performance was published in a weekly report from the National Canvass Director that included numerous performance metrics, e.g., gross $$ raised, gross hours worked, number of staff, hourly average for office, hourly average per Field Manager Crew. Individual canvassers were recognized that raised over $600 in a week. These reports were circulated and discussed at the weekly staff meetings. Keys to the canvass success were the combination of daily accountability and close management, weekly collective and individual metrics sharing. Another key was creating a fun, social environment so people enjoyed coming to work.

Crew Dynamics

The social environment was enhanced by two things in particular: 1) daily lunch stops out in the field, and 2) Wednesday drinking nights. Since we hit the doors every night from 4:00 to 9:00 (today that seems pretty late to be knocking on doors), we scheduled lunch for around 3:00 at a local restaurant out in the turf. Between the drives out and back from the turf and sharing lunch before canvassing, ample time was built into the schedule for canvass crews to develop friendships and have fun. Another part of the model was the canvass staff going out on Wednesday nights after getting off at 10:00pm to a local bar and sharing a drink or two. All of the above led to friendships, laughter, romances, and esprit de corps, everything you might expect when a bunch of young, smart, politically aware, and socially skilled folks got together working for positive social change.

One way I have tried to implement the lessons I learned about management and accountability in my academic environment has been managing large research projects. Over the past year I hired 12 research assistants to conduct interviews with clients at 10 Atlanta metro food pantries. The job included recruiting food pantry clients, completing a 30-minute interview, and entering data in two different data bases. We had an ambitious goal of completing 750 interviews and to meet that goal the research assistants needed to complete an average of six interviews per week. Drawing on my canvass directing experience, I scheduled weekly meetings where I went over the interview statistics for the whole office and had individual research assistants describe and analyze their performance from the previous week and set an individual goal for the upcoming week. The goal, like running a canvass crew, was to create healthy competition, fun and supportive camaraderie between research assistants, as well as also creating a culture of individual accountability around performance.

Paying it Forward

I teach first semester Master of Social Work students an introductory course in community social work. Part of the course introduces students to community organizing and the major assignment is for students to complete a “community analysis.” In order not to burn turf in low-income neighborhoods, I have students analyze the neighborhood where they currently live. I tell students that you can’t analyze a community unless you knock on doors and interview your neighbors about what they consider to be the strengths and challenges in the neighborhood. For any students who are anxious or hesitant to hit the doors, I offer training in the field. In a typical semester, I end up door knocking 3-4 different neighborhoods in metro Atlanta.  It is easily the most fun I have during the whole semester! I have door knocked with students in areas as disparate as million-dollar homes in East Cobb County, to ex-ACORN turf in low-income Atlanta neighborhoods such as Pittsburgh and Vine City. Students often find what they expected to be a challenging and anxious assignment turns out to be their most enjoyable learning experience of the semester.

This doesn’t happen very often, but every now and then a student does this assignment, interviews a bunch of her neighbors, and it becomes a spark for the neighborhood to organize. Three years ago, my student Gloria Claudio, who happened to be the only Latinx family in an all-Black suburban community, decided to host a pot-luck dinner to get to know her neighbors, talk about issues in the neighborhood, and get folks to agree to interviews. In this new subdivision the developer had left several projects incomplete: poles for streetlights, but no lights on them; a dirty retention pond, and a corporate run Homeowners Association that collected dues but had no transparency or democratic processes to involve the residents. After the semester was over, Gloria spent the next year helping organize the neighborhood to pressure the city council and developer to finally install the streetlights, clean up the retention pond, and turn over the corporate controlled HOA to the residents. In the first election Gloria became president of the neighborhood association!  I love it when something as simple as bringing neighbors together to enjoy and meal and talk about issues takes on a life of its own, and with a bit of leadership creates an organization that transforms the community.

Turning Georgia Blue!

The most direct way I have recently applied my ACORN canvassing skills in Georgia was during the eight weeks between the November 2020 general election and the January 5, 2021 Senate runoff between incumbent Republican Senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler and their Democratic challengers Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock. With quickly raised financial support through ACORN International, I hired ten Get Out the Vote canvassers that hit the doors for six weeks and helped elect Senators Warnock (first Black Senator from Georgia) and Ossoff (first Jewish Senator from the South in over 120 years). Since I wrote an article 2 years ago about the impact canvassing had on these election results (see Social Policy, Summer 2021), all I will say here was that it was great fun and enormously satisfying to hit the doors and play a small role in this historic election!


Running ACORN canvasses across the country for 10 years clearly made a profound impact on my life and career trajectory. I have always said that if the 250-year-old experiment that we call American democracy is going to succeed, i.e., be sustainable and maximize freedom and economic security for everyone, organizations like ACORN have to survive, thrive and win. When I worked for ACORN in the 1980s, I found it easier to be optimistic about that outcome than I do today. I am not sure if the deterioration of my optimism has more to do with my age, being in academia rather than organizing, or that the empirical facts on the ground are indeed worse than they were 30+ years ago (probably a combination of all three). The racist backlash to a Black man being President for eight years combined with the rise of disinformation, conspiracy theories, and the percentage of the population that seems to think scientific, empirical evidence is no closer to the truth than propaganda, astonishes me daily. If my reading of history is correct, the only thing that is going to save us is grassroots community and labor organizing that builds permanent political and economic power for low-and-moderate income people. For all the organizers out there, never forget that no job on the planet is more important than yours, and I will try and turn on as many students as I can to the practice of organizing!

FRED BROOKS is an associate professor at Georgia State University in Atlanta.