Robin Acree, Executive Director, GRO-Grass Roots Organizing - Mexico, Missouri
For many people in rural central Missouri life is a struggle. In this quiet cross-section of the American heartland, with a substantial African-American minority and a growing Latino population, opportunity and security are in peril. Manufacturing jobs have disappeared as companies have closed or moved. Many family farms have been sold to corporate farm groups, and much of the job growth has been in the low-wage service sector.
Seeds of commitment
The eldest of five children, Robin Acree grew up in poverty in the small Missouri community of Mexico. She thought her pregnancy and marriage at age 17 would be her way out. Instead, she was caught in domestic violence and continuing poverty. Armed with a GED and a small welfare grant, she left with her three small children and enrolled in college. “All along my way, I experienced injustice and prejudice,” Acree recalls. “This made me angry, and I sought avenues to express my dissatisfaction with a system that made me feel unvalued and insignificant.”
Her first action, at age 22, was to organize her fellow workers at a nursing home. Later, while in college, she joined ROWEL (Reform Organization of Welfare) and found her calling. Acree became a member leader, a board director, a community organizer, and finally the lead organizer of ROWEL’s statewide group. When she learned that welfare and food stamps were up for national reauthorization and Missouri had no real voice for mothers like herself, Acree began GRO—Grass Roots Organizing in the Fall of 2000. “Although starting a nonprofit with little administrative knowledge was risky,” she says, “I knew I would have to find a way or make one” to ensure there was an organization that would take on welfare and other issues affecting poor people in the rural Midwest.
GRO helps low-income people find the courage to stand up, speak out, and change the rules of the game. In the five years since it was created, GRO has significantly influenced public debate and won important changes in public policy. GRO and an alliance of small farmers led an effort to reform the state food stamp program. As a result, the food stamp program in Missouri is now considered a national model. GRO also mobilized mobile home park tenants to press for better laws. As a result of this effort, mobile home tenants now have more time to leave after a property is sold or rezoned. GRO was instrumental in persuading the governor of Missouri -- then serving on a National Governors’ Association task force -- to oppose a Medicaid plan that would have eliminated health care for millions of American families.
In 2004, GRO began an effort to increase the participation of low-income people at the most basic level: voting. GRO staff and volunteers registered 3,300 new voters, contacted more than 7,000 voters one-on-one, and sent out 150 volunteers on Election Day to get out the vote. The voter program inspired low income people to become more involved and positioned them with elected officials as a constituency they need to serve. That impression was reinforced in February 2005, when GRO was responsible for one-third of the voter turnout for a primary election in Mexico, MO.
A leader who is admired for what a supporter calls “fearlessness, energy, and integrity” might also be considered too daunting for potential leaders within the organization to emulate. Instead, the opposite is true. Acree insists that her experience as a poor, single mother who has succeeded in creating change inspires others to become leaders themselves. GRO’s new and emerging leaders confirm this, noting that “Robin is one of us” and “understands what it’s like.”
“Organizing is about leading by example more than anything else,” Acree says. Indeed, she is uncomfortable with the trappings of leadership and the possibility that her role as executive director of GRO might distance her from her membership. “Although I have a position of power and some degrees now, I don’t like the feeling that I belong to some other group of people. The only people I belong to are my people, and they are the only ones that I want to be accountable to,” she says.
Acree nurtures a sense of ownership among GRO’s members. Every year, GRO sends 20 leaders to the National People’s Action conference in Washington, D.C. Each person raises the money to go. “People are engaged for the long haul if they feel valued and claim ownership of the organization and its priorities,” she says. “The motivation of GRO leaders goes beyond their initial self-interest. It’s a commitment to movement-building on behalf of us all.”
GRO’s recent victory in both registering voters and motivating them to vote has earned respect from elected officials. “Our membership base is now electorally empowered,” Acree says. “They not only have a newfound sense of responsibility and understanding of the political process, but also see that together they are able to leverage power with elected officials.” GRO plans to put that new sense of power to good use. “I believe that our future is not in a defensive posture, but in a struggle for assets and access. I can see myself leading the charge, demanding our place, the right to our own housing, businesses and institutions that truly serve and benefit all our families.”
More about Robin Acree and GRO - Grass Roots Organizing
"One of the reasons GRO is thriving is Robin’s passion for developing new leaders, not just being a leader. With her personal strengths, it would be easy enough to fall into the pattern -- so common in American communities -- where an ‘organization’ essentially consists of a single personality with supporting cast. GRO’s resistance to that pattern is a tribute to Robin’s personal integrity and her firm commitment to core principles of grassroots organizing.”
– Deepak Bhargava, Executive Director, Center for Community Change
"The committee shut out Robin Acree, executive director of Grass Roots Organizing, who had rushed straight from a Medicaid rally in Mexico, Mo., to the capital. Here's some of what she would have told them: "Those of you who support this legislation are well aware that you will be held accountable -- when people are institutionalized or homeless; when public health concerns rise; when jobs are lost in your communities; . . . when your constituents go to the ballot box; or worse, when they go to their grave."
- Editorial, St. Louis Post Dispatch, 2005
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