Much of this country believes that ACORN, the now defunct Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, supported prostitution, engaged in voter fraud, and caused the subprime lending crisis. Some people are aware that these lies have been more solidly disproven than Saddam Hussein’s friendship with Al Qaeda. The Government Accountability Office has now joined a former Massachusetts attorney general, a federal court ruling, and the Congressional Research Service in finding no wrongdoing by ACORN. But I suspect that only a very tiny percentage of Americans has any idea what ACORN was or why we need it.
I was ACORN’s communications coordinator from November 2000 to September 2003. I was the first and last fulltime communications person this 400,000-member, $100 million, 40-year organization ever had. They’d been persuaded to hire someone for public relations in 2000, but did not exactly continue the position or build it into a department after I left to work for Dennis Kucinich. At the same time, in 2004 and subsequent years, ACORN placed itself at risk of media attacks by focusing its energies on registering millions of poor people to vote in U.S. elections — something that is just not done, will not be tolerated, and will not be defended even by those it benefits when it is attacked. I feel a great deal of guilt over having no longer been at ACORN when the assault came. I don’t for a minute imagine I could have done anything to save ACORN, but I wish I had been there to go down fighting with ACORN’s staff and members. No better people can be found, and no better team of engaged citizens will ever be assembled.
John Atlas’s new book about ACORN, “Seeds of Change,” does ACORN credit. The first several chapters of the book do a better job than any other book I’ve read of explaining the unique institution of ACORN, its birth 40 years ago this week, its mission, and its successes. Here was a community organization bringing together the poor with the middle class and members of all races around issues of economics and political power, while at the same time engaging in electoral politics, and simultaneously providing services and partnering with corporations and governments, while nonetheless taking its agenda from its members and its approach from a toolkit with direct action always on the top, but with innovative tactics including coalition building, new forms of labor organizing, and approaches to housing ranging from squatting to loan counseling, legislation to corporate divestment, dumping garbage on the mayor’s lawn to negotiating with developers. I don’t know of any similar organization. Yet, when I imagine a logical organization to build in our society, I wind up at ACORN. If ACORN did not exist, in other words, it would be necessary to invent it. All we actually need do is reconstitute it.
If books were printed more quickly, and if Americans read books in greater numbers, or checked the truth of scandalous claims at blogs like BradBlog, ACORN would not have been shut down. At least not if Congress paid any attention. It was congress members, many of them beneficiaries of ACORN’s work, who destroyed ACORN at the behest of the corporate media. The legislature behaved as a court, declaring guilt. And almost nobody pushed back. Bertha Lewis, former President of ACORN, recently told RawStory.com: “It just pisses me off that the right can get away with attacks on the organization while the left and progressives just stood by and did nothing to defend us.”
When I worked for ACORN I couldn’t begin to keep up with, much less help properly publicize, the huge variety of work being done by ACORN chapters all over the country every day. ACORN was constantly passing local and state laws, and winning reforms from governments and corporations, on a tremendous range of issues from schools to policing, traffic to environmental quality, racial discrimination to union organizing, immigrants rights to mortgage lending. No book attempting to cover 40 years of ACORN could possibly do more than scratch the surface, and I wish “Seeds of Change” did more to communicate the depths it was necessarily leaving unplumbed. Atlas chose to highlight particular campaigns, most of them national efforts engaged in by many cities. But even this approach misses the variety of tactics employed in those campaigns. The living wage chapter leaves out the work of the Living Wage Resource Center in advising non-ACORN campaigns. The predatory lending chapter leaves out the passage of ordinances, our protests on the front lawns of Household Finance’s board members, the city, state, and congressional testimony from victims, the days of simultaneous protests in lobbies, the divestment campaign, etc. In only takes that many words to list some of the facets in a multifaceted campaign.
Atlas also focuses heavily on scandals and attacks, which makes sense because of how ACORN was brought down, but which distorts the picture of ACORN over the decades I think. Atlas focuses disproportionately on New York City, as well, and disproportionately on recent years, on ACORN’s response to Hurricane Katrina, and especially on the decline and fall of ACORN at the bitter end. But this will be of interest to most readers, who only know ACORN through the fictional scandals that destroyed it.
Kevin Whelan, one of ACORN’s smarter and more dedicated staff members (and that’s saying something), is quoted in “Seeds of Change” describing ACORN’s public relations response to false charges made against it:
“We thought that by being totally transparent — documenting everything we were doing and being the first ones to flag any problems — we would be able to get people to understand what our work was really about. In retrospect, this was probably naïve.”
Wade Rathke, who started ACORN and ran it for 38 years, left two years ago after having covered up his brother’s embezzlement of funds. (Wade had arranged for the money to be paid back, but had not informed ACORN’s board). On Friday, Wade told me:
“Today is the 40th anniversary of my founding ACORN . . . . As you might imagine, there’s a bit of shame, defensiveness, and god knows whatever from many at having somehow presided over the death of ACORN within 2 years of my leaving. It is unimaginable to me how one can kill a membership organization when the membership is still paying dues, but I can only guess the decision must have been horrific for them.
“As far as John’s book, yes, I’ve read it. Social Policy is excerpting the chapters on Katrina recovery this fall and winter. I’ve told him directly that I think it is unfortunate that he made so many simple errors of fact in the writing and in other cases seems to have been easily duped and naive, none of which were necessary and all of which detract, even if these fictionalizations help his ‘narrative’ in some ways. At the same time I have told him that I appreciate the fact that he took the work and the organization seriously and tried as hard as he did with the best of intentions no matter how ill directed. I believe his book proved that he cared deeply about ACORN and its mission, regardless of how well he might have served it. David, you and I have both written books. I think John’s errors were not ill intentioned or mean spirited, and that’s important to me. None of us ever do our subjects as well as we wish we could. Sigh.
“Some of my objections to the book are obviously his mischaracterizations about my departure. You can’t resign, be given a plaque in front of the convention to standing applause by the membership and then read that somehow you were fired and not wonder who is on what drugs?!? Nonetheless, in the whole course of events and now against the backdrop of the death of the organization, that all seems petty and irrelevant and so yesterday. Whether his book is true or false, right or wrong, i hope it finds an audience, because ACORN and its mission deserve that.
“As for me, busy as always, and probably working harder and with less than at any time in my career. It all reminds me of the early days, and it’s exhilarating. ACORN International is now working in 9 countries and just opened two offices in Honduras last month. I’m spending a lot of time with ACORN Canada where we just won the 1st living wage measure in New Westminister outside of Vancouver and are getting closer in Ottawa and hope to soon open our 5th office in Montreal. Campaigns about the damage the Commonwealth Games will do to our members in East Delhi are exciting to me — I’ve never had to encourage people to make demands of the Queen. Remittances are a huge issue between all of our countries, and we’re still trying to get our arms around it. The union is growing and it is nice to run an independent local again down here. . . .
“As importantly, I’ve been thinking a lot about the lessons of ACORN’s demise ever since their lawyers informed me 8 or 9 months ago that they were going out of business. This organizational vacuum for low-and-moderate income families is a crisis in my view. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what I created 40 years ago and what I would do differently now, if I were starting over. I’m slowly moving to work with old ACORN leaders and various organizers in different cities and states on how a new organization for 2010 moving forward would be organized. It is invigorating to consider both what needs to be done and the different challenges and opportunities ahead of us. . . .”
State and local ACORN chapters have, in some cases, changed names and continued, and may federate. What worries me is not so much the work required in reconstituting a structure like ACORN or the need to have one or more people run it as well as Wade and his colleagues and ACORN’s members ran ACORN. What worries me most is that a new ACORN by another name would have to avoid offending those in power and the corporate media or be smeared and slandered to death just like its predecessor. When I said above that the organization we logically need is ACORN, I meant an organization independent of those in power including political parties, an organization willing to offend, an organization open to any strategy appearing most likely to both succeed in the short term and to build the movement. ACORN created a couple of radio stations, a magazine, a website, and an Email newsletter, but what I think our society needs most desperately is an organization principally dedicated to building local, state, and national independent media with much greater reach, and building it through an ACORN-like membership approach. That would be worth putting 40 years into, and a lot of what would still be needed would follow that progress much more easily.