Accion was founded in 1961 by a UC Berkeley law student named Joseph Blatchford. A bold and charismatic young man, he was fresh off a goodwill tennis and jazz tour of 30 cities in Latin America when he began to wonder how young Americans might better serve the causes of both global understanding and democracy.
In his travels through the social strata of Latin America, Blatchford had encountered alarming upheaval. Much of Latin America was reeling from a confluence of social and economic changes: faltering paternalistic governments, an end to the traditional feudal system of rural land ownership, and an influx of migrants to urban areas that produced overcrowded, unsanitary and untenable shantytowns. Violence and unrest were in the air, and much of the ire was directed at the United States.
Reading the works of Alexis de Tocqueville, Aldous Huxley and Mohandas Gandhi as well as The Ugly American by UC Berkeley professor Eugene Burdick and the classic essay “The Moral Equivalent of War” by William James, Blatchford’s philosophical approach and plan for action began to take shape. Working from James’ main thesis, he believed that Americans needed to find new, non-militaristic ways to focus their involvement abroad while promoting self-determination and democracy. A volunteer corps dedicated to international cooperation and grassroots development was one such path.
Blatchford recruited two other standout UC Berkeley law students, Jerry Brady and Gary Glenn, to manage volunteer recruitment, publicity and stateside orientation of volunteers while he continued to cultivate contacts in Latin America and relay his vision to prospective donors in both North and South America.
In the summer of 1961, the first group of 30 Americans was ready to deploy to poor barrios in urban centers around Venezuela.
The nature of Accion’s first projects reflected needs that the communities themselves identified as priorities. The Accion workers spent long days doing everything from digging ditches to building schools to fundraising to managing sensitive negotiations between opposing community leaders. About the range of these early projects, Blatchford reflects, “The project depended on what the community was concerned about. Then the community did it, they created committees and were in charge of the project. They realized they could do it and it changed their lives.”
But for Accion volunteers and staff, the work was never about the projects themselves. Rather, they set out to help disenfranchised communities realize the power they possessed when they worked together. A 1969 annual report explains, “Accion’s projects are a vehicle by which the people of the slums have been able to become full participants in the life of their country.”
After several months of work and life in the barrios, the first corps of volunteers had learned a few tough, but valuable lessons about the importance of relationship building. As a result, Accion developed the following five-step training course for all volunteers:
Take all the time you need to get to know the community;
Cultivate local leaders and come up with a small project that can be easily accomplished;
Help the community to accomplish a larger, higher-impact project;
Assist the community in institutionalizing these new efforts and networks to ensure they last;
Move on, making room for the community to collectively lead itself to a better life.
This final step of working themselves out of a job was critical to the founder’s vision. When effective, the volunteers’ usefulness quickly ran out as community members themselves built up their technical and political capacities.
In fact, by the mid-1960s, Accion was engaging fewer and fewer North Americans and Europeans and instead was hiring college-educated Venezuelans as organizers – a group called “Community Action Organizers.” The original Accionistas worked side by side with their Venezuelan counterparts until they were eventually deployed to Argentina, Brazil and Peru to start new Accion organizations.
Throughout the 1960s, Blatchford and other Accionistas worked with local business leaders in Argentina, Brazil (Rio, Sao Paulo and Recife) and Peru to set up community development organizations that followed the same philosophy as the original Accion en Venezuela – “not to give people alms but to give them confidence in their own ability.” Many of these organizations – including Ação Comunitária do Brasil Rio de Janeiro, Ação Comunitária do Brasil São Paulo and Accion Comunitaria de Peru, which today is Mibanco – are still thriving today.
A few years after launching in Venezuela, Accion was founded in New York to provide technical support to local funders and business leaders in Latin American countries who wanted to start Accion in Venezuela-style community action programs. Thus, Accion’s legacy as a technical partner dates back almost to the very beginning of its 50-year history.