query: cell phones and organizing

colist-admin at comm-org.utoledo.edu colist-admin at comm-org.utoledo.edu
Sat Nov 3 11:42:00 CST 2001

Thanks to Gene,  Kelly, and Nathan for the interesting and 
impassioned responses to Linda's cell phone query.  A quick 
thought from me at the end.]

From: Gene Allen <gallen at UNHS.ORG>

I find a cell phone to be absolutely necessary to stay in touch.  With 
my job I am often out on the road.  It is the best way to stay in 
touch with everyone.  I even have voice mail on my cell phone, as 
well as at work and home.  

Do you see email as being pretentious?  Probably not. It's the same 
with cell phones.  Communications technology is there for us to use 
to its greatest potential.  

Gene A. Allen
Community Director
gallen at unhs.org


From: "Kelly Pierce" <kellyjosef at earthlink.net>

**The questions above seem focused on the     appearance  of cell 
phones rather than any analysis of the    technology.  Yes, many 
individuals are using cell phones, including many with low incomes.  
In a growing number of urban areas, cell phone service, now called 
wireless service because of the different technologies used in 
addition to analog cellular technology, is cost competitive and 
frequently less expensive than comparable wire line service.  That 
is the situation here in Chicago.  

the writer suggests that cell phones are universally good or non-
important or a possible liability for the organizer.  I question this 
essentializing.   With any technology basic questions should be 
asked in deciding whether or not to use it.  What problem will be 
solved with the technology?  Is the technology a solution for a 
particular need?  Like the questions asked by the writer, the focus 
is often on the technology or the gadget rather than the personal 
and organizational needs, problems, and challenges.  When the 
time is spent clarifying needs and defining problems, it often 
becomes obvious what solutions, including technology-based ones,  
might work best and why.  It is also much easier later to evaluate 
the effectiveness of the solution when the original issues are 
reviewed and considered.  There are a lot of technology-based 
tools out there.  Cell phones are one of them.  Others include 
Internet access, e-mail lists, organizational web pages/sites, 
streaming audio/video, pagers, laptop computers, hand held 
organizers/computers, and databases.  It is important for each 
organizer and organization to consider if a particular technology 
would help with their work and if the cost of the technology is worth 
the benefit that is expected.  Might the resources be better used for 
another project or activity?  

One often overlooked aspect of cell phones is the efficiency factor. 
Cell phones can be used to provide greater time efficiency and 
increase productivity.  Often this is not considered because an 
organizer's time is often not thought of in dollar terms.  



From: Nathan Henderson-James <caacornres at acorn.org>

Linda brings up an interesting question with the accessibility of 
organizers and the technology of cell phones.  

Our experiences here at California ACORN lead me to believe that 
these devices, if not essential now, will be in very short order. The 
simple fact is that they allow organizers to be more flexible and 
responsive and are important logistical tools for organizing large-
scale events and demonstrations. Randy's point about the Seattle 
demonstration is instructive. On a smaller scale, cell phones were 
invaluable for helping coordinate 250 ACORN members, 3 actions 
and a march in May for our California ACORN Convention in 

But cell phones can be useful beyond this important coordination 
function. In September California ACORN, in conjunction with 3 
coalition partners, got the state legislature to pass an important first 
step in the fight against predatory lending. While not perfect, AB 
489 outlaws the worst abuses and sets the stage for future efforts.  

However, as you can imagine, this bill was fiercely opposed by the 
industry, who spent money like it was going out of style in the run-
up to the vote. Despite a solid Sacramento lobbying effort from us 
and our coalition partners, it was clear that the only thing that was 
going to move legislators in the Assembly was pressure from 
constituents back in the district.  

This requirement played to ACORN's strengths because of our 
membership base in California's biggest metro areas, our 
relationships with allies, and our door-to-door outreach model. It 
became clear that this was going to take everything we had when 
the Assembly sponsor of the bill, Carol Midgen (D-San Francisco) 
could only count 12 votes out of a necessary 41 about 6 days 
before the vote.  

Many of these votes were from outside the districts where our 
members live, so we needed to send field organizers into the 
targeted districts, knock on doors and stop people at transit sites 
and ask them to sing letters and petitions in support of the 

But we also knew that the most effective thing to do on such short 
notice was generate blizzards of calls into Sacramento and district 
offices. So every organizer with a cell phone programmed in the 
appropriate numbers and as people indicated their support for the 
issue, we called the office and handed the person the phone. They 
registered their support for the bill right then and there with the 

Those offices with caller ID were getting annoyed, figuring it was 
the same person calling again and again, but we insisted that they 
start taking names and addresses and they realized that it was one 
phone and many people. Over the 5 days that we used this 
technique we generated over 500 calls, proving to be an essential 
part of the larger field campaign for the bill.  

The field campaign itself was a strong combination of media 
events, placing op-eds, getting calls and letters from allies, 
targeting strategic legislators, and mobilizing our own members; the 
cell phone tactic but one of many.  

What was exciting about this effort was watching the instant 
feedback from the field work. The first night we had 12 votes. This 
was a Thursday, with the vote tentatively scheduled for Tuesday. 
By 9 PM the next night, 24 hours later, the field work had generated 
15 additional yesses, taking the count to 27. Over the weekend the 
work didn't stop and by Monday night we could count 40 yesses. 
The momentum stopped cold the next day, for it was September 
11, and the country stood still. However the next day, the 
legislature resumed business and we we able, in the last 2 minutes 
of voting, to get the remaining yes!  

Despite the tremendous resources of global capital, a group of 
committed citizens organizations was able to beat them.  

While not the full story of this victory, the cell phones played an 
important role, and continue to be a feature in our campaign work, 
as well as our day-to-day organizing. In fact, we are researching 
new options to standardize the phones, reduce billing and possible 
adopt Nextel's DirectConnect technology that gives you the ease of 
two-way radios with the range of cell phones. (There were what was 
used during the Seattle shindig.)  

Nathan Henderson-James
California ACORN


[ed: Kelly's response reminds me of my involvement with the early 
days of the Internet (we're talking six years ago here).  As we 
began a project here in Ohio to develop a "community network" 
linking community organizations thorugh this new technology I was 
reminded by someone who had tried to do something similar even 
earlier to "not let the technology drive the project."  It was wise 
advise.  We did some participatory action research with the 
organizations on their information uses and needs.  Then, once we 
knew what the groups had and needed, we looked at a variety of 
ways to meet those needs, including use of the Internet.  Part of the 
goal was to get out ahead of the technology, trying to shape it to be 
useful, rather than just profitable.  It seems wireless 
communications technology is in a similar state. ]

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