Playing Bigger Than You Are: A Life In Organizing
Playing Bigger Than You Are: A Life in Organizing, By Stewart Acuff
In my previous book, Getting America Back to Work, I talked about a 30-year assault by the Financial Elite on America’s working families. This was no accident, nor was it inevitable. Instead, it was a deliberate, organized program to slash wages and benefits, to lower our standard of living, and to shift wealth toward the few at the top and away from everyone else. As I write this, the fruits of that effort, measured in millions of middle class dreams turned to nightmares, are now upon us. This is what organized money can do and has done.
I also wrote about the antidote to the power of organized money, which is the power of organized people. Over and over, history tells us that organized people can change the world. My own life is filled with too many examples for me to believe otherwise. I have seen organized people do something as simple as get a foot-dragging city council to put up a stop sign in a poor neighborhood or something as grand as derailing a Presidential candidacy. I have seen organized people demand, and get, better access to health care. I have seen them come away from bargaining tables with better wages and benefits than anyone had thought possible. And I have seen the beginnings of an international movement that, when it comes to full power, will restore sanity to world trade policies.
In truth, I owe the fact that I am here to write this book at all to the power of organized people. I was raised in West Tennessee and Southeast Missouri. On one side of my family, my grandfather was a farmer who earned the money to buy his farm by skidding cypress, oak, and hickory trees out of the Mississippi River swamps and bottomlands with his team of oxen. Until he died when I was six, my parents took me to his fields to pick cotton and gather it into the tiny sack they had made me from an empty flour sack. On the other side of my family, my grandmother was the daughter of a sharecropper and tenant farmer. She and her family never owned a thing. They lived in dirt poverty and were totally dependent on the plantation owners.
My future changed once and for all when my grandmother, her husband, and my cousins moved to St. Louis. There they found the power of organized people in the union jobs that allowed them to crawl out of poverty and into the middle class that sustained and educated me. That middle class didn’t just happen. Organized people built it. And because they built it, a child of Scots-Irish, Native American, and African American ancestry, who was destined to repeat the cycle of brutal southern poverty, rose to a wonderful life as an organizer for social change.
You can’t be raised in the midst of that much poverty by the parents I was blessed with, one a teacher and the other a Southern Baptist preacher, without developing concern and compassion for average people. My faithful reading of the Bible and daily prayers convinced me that God loves all people, that all people as children of God are worthy of dignity and respect, and that racism violated God’s will. The conflict between Southern mores and the scriptures turned many young Southerners, me included, into activists. How to channel that activism into change? For me, the answers came from Professor John Galliher during my college days at the University of Missouri, from my lifelong friend Bob Arnold, and from reading Si Kahn’s first book, How People Get Power. The best way to fight poverty and human misery was to organize average people so they could build their collective power to get a fair share of the wealth they produced. Thus began my life’s work, a struggle filled with deep joy, one devoted to helping people build power.
Now I find myself in a different position. More times than I can count, a person much younger than I am will approach me at a rally or after a speech I have given. They’ll ask the simple question, “How do you do it?” They know the answer lies in organization, and have chosen to devote their lives to the task of building power for social change. But the hard question, “How do you do it?” looms large. I want so much for these young people to succeed, for the future of our nation lies in their hands. So, in this book, I will try to answer their question as best I can. I will tell you my story and how I did it.
For over thirty years, I learned organizing by doing it on the streets and dirt roads of America and in some far more lavish settings, too. I have organized for community groups, for political groups, and for labor groups. I have seen great victories that sustained me and endured crushing defeats that even today leave their scars. For part of this book, I will tell you that story. It won’t be your story, or the way you will do it, but it will show you how one person did it. It will show you how much work it is to knock on doors day in and day out, how grueling the travel can be, and how sweet the victories taste. Then, I will tell you some of the lessons I have taken with me from those years on the streets. To be successful, there are things you must know. There are things you must do. And, most importantly, there are things you must believe.
It has been a long time, what seems like a lifetime ago, since I was a young ACORN organizer reading Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals. I can only hope that your reading this book will have the same effect reading Alinsky’s book had on me. Even more, I can only hope that your life will in some ways be as fulfilling as mine has been.
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