assessing ACORN

ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) is the epicenter of today’s political struggle. It was already a target of angry criticism during the 2008 election because of its radicalism and its links to Barack Obama–and perhaps because it is one of the only effective interest groups for poor people. (It claims 400,000 families in its membership.) Both houses of Congress recently passed bills to strip ACORN of federal funds after a video surfaced in which ACORN staff were shown providing illegal assistance to actors pretending to be, respectively, a pimp and a prostitute. ACORN replied that the behavior caught on tape was unacceptable but that many other staffers had refused to help the actors–some even called the police–and that the tape may have been doctored.

Because of ACORN’s sheer size and its symbolic importance, we need to reach fair and informed judgments about it. Maybe Democrats and liberals should throw it off the bus, or maybe we should defend it. I am cautious about reaching any judgment, because I know that it’s hard to make a fair and accurate assessment of a large organization that is the target of unrelentingly hostile scrutiny. One problem with the “gotcha” video (apart from its hostile motivation), is its lack of reliability. Who knows, for example, whether the discarded video from other encounters would make ACORN look very ethical? And perhaps you could get similar footage if you traveled around the country trying to entrap staff from the Red Cross or the Veterans of Foreign Wars. The evidentiary value of the video is low.

Thus it’s with deep uncertainty and humility that I confess my own misgivings about ACORN. There was, first of all, the astounding news that the board covered up a $1 million case of embezzlement to prevent embarrassment. I blogged about that–as an angry former donor whose money had been stolen–and I did receive a personalized and very strongly worded apology. The apology made a difference to me, but the original scandal reinforced my feelings about ACORN’s worldview. ACORN thinks of poor people as victims, and itself as a victim because it stands with them. There are villains who are out to get the poor, and ACORN is good because it is on their side. That kind of attitude can excuse bad behavior and cover-ups. More than that, it can cause you to underestimate the capacities of poor people and opportunities for collaboration.

A classic ACORN event displays the victimization of poor people and the wickedness of some rich and powerful group (who then become even less likely to collaborate). For instance, I once described an ACORN protest against federal welfare policy. The angry crowd that ACORN assembled shouted down the sole member of Congress who chose to address them, Rep. Charles B. Rangel of Harlem, demanding that he answer their questions and meet with them in New York City. One of the rally’s organizers (a Harvard graduate) explained: “Most of the crowd are people living with the reality of fairly extreme poverty in their own lives, and they are rightly angry.”

The organizers of this protest apparently believed that they could speak for poor people, whose main need was more federal welfare spending. Their strategy for winning such aid was to parade welfare recipients before Congress and the press, emphasizing their deprivation and anger. (They also displayed the political naivety and weakness of these people.) The protest organizers implied that anyone who did not completely endorse their demands was their enemy. And of course they failed completely.

In contrast, community organizers such as the Industrial Areas Foundation like to build up the confidence, skills, and power of poor people and make allies out of any powerful leaders and institutions who will cooperate. Their goal is to work with the powerful as equals, with mutual respect and accountability. Time and time again, the latter kind of organizers report that ACORN is a major problem.

For instance, in Community Organizing: Building Social Capital as a Development Strategy, Ross Gittel and Avid Vidal focus on LISC (the Local Initiatives Support Corporation), which supports collaborative community development in poor areas. They write:

    After program activities began in Little Rock, the local coordinator tried to reach out to ACORN and develop a working relationship but was largely unsuccessful. ACORN was never ideologically comfortable working with LISC and was highly doubtful about the potential efficacy of the consensus organizing approach, which contrasted with their own confrontational tactics. ACORN tried at times to undermine LISC’s efforts (e.g., claiming that LISC groups were “selling out to corporate interests”), but was largely unsuccessful.

Again, in Streets of Hope: The Fall and Rise of an Urban Neighborhood, Peter Medoff and Holly Sklar tell the story of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative in Bostons South End. They devote a whole section to “friction” with ACORN. They write, “By the time ACORN first expanded into Massachusetts in 1980, it had already developed a reputation among progressive organizers and funders for not working in coalition with other organizations. In Boston, it was seen as invading the turf of Massachusetts Fair Share.”

In the 1980s, ACORN set up a “tent city” in vacant, city-owned land to pressure Boston to build affordable housing. “DSNI members were angry not only because ACORN, seen as an outsider to the neighborhood, had focused on Dudley Street without first contacting DSNI, which had been so carefully structured to empower residents and break the pattern of outsider-agency domination. But also DSNI … had successfully negotiated with the city to stop disposing of vacant land until the neighborhood was able to complete a comprehensive neighborhood development plan and exercise community control.” (Medoff and Sklar proceed to describe “angry exchanges” and charges that ACORN members pretended to be from DSNI when they canvassed for money.)

These are anecdotes that depend on testimony from people who have struggled with ACORN. Maybe ACORN’s side of each story would be convincing. But I could multiply these examples, and they add up to an indictment. I think partisan Republicans are attacking ACORN with poor motives and unethical methods. They dramatically exaggerate its funding and impact, when it appears to be in pretty rough shape. But there is a valid critique from the left. The two critiques are related because the same tactics that antagonize ideological conservatives also disempower poor people at the grassroots level and disrupt progressive coalitions. I wouldn’t throw ACORN off the bus, but I am for strengthening the alternatives.

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