ACORN may well have been the most effective anti-poverty organization in the nation's history. To paraphrase Sarah Palin, community organizers such as those who have worked for ACORN are kind of like Alaskan governors, but with commitment and staying power. John Atlas' book, Seeds of Change (Vanderbilt University Press 2010) masterfully tells the story of the rise and current state of one of the most effective, most widely challenged, and now beleaguered advocacy organizations for the poor. Today the future of ACORN, and of community organizing itself, are contested. Any fair reading of the history of this particular organization would suggest, however, that community organizing should have a bright future.
As Atlas recounts, ACORN has won significant victories and helped thousands of low-income families in their efforts to secure livable wages, exercise an effective right to vote, pay reasonable utility fees, secure home and small business loans on equitable terms, combat predatory lenders, extract benefits from redevelopment plans initially designed to profit developers and other urban gentry, and take other actions to escape poverty and join the American mainstream. With an annual budget of $100 million, more than 1,000 employees and 400,000 members in over 100 cities across 38 states at its peak ACORN grew from a small group of organizers in Arkansas in 1970 to a major force in local, state, and national politics less than 40 years later. According to one report produced by ACORN staff, its organizing efforts had generated more than $15 billion for low-income communities between 1995 and 2004.
But this is hard work which has been carried out by people from all ends of the socio-economic spectrum. Ivy League graduates, paid less than half of what they could have made, often spent years, some decades. Most of the foot soldiers, however, were poor and working people, of various hues. It has been the empowerment of traditionally marginalized people that has long been a primary objective and accounts for much of ACORN's success. Race and class divisions have appeared among ACORN volunteers, staff, and leadership. But those divisions have generally been overcome, with more than $15 billion to show for it.
Some missteps by ACORN staff coupled with an all-out assault by right wing political and economic forces along with their friends in the media, and the unwitting capitulation of many in the mainstream media brought an end to the organization of ACORN as we knew it. Seeds of Change does not sidestep the embezzlement fiasco involving the brother of ACORN's founder Wade Rathke, accusations of voter registration fraud, the prostitution and tax evasion charges and other challenges that have confronted ACORN over the years. ACORN is not blame-free, as Atlas observes. There were management problems. There were some bad apples. But the story is far more complex. And it is evident that none of these issues would have had a news life of much more than one 24 hour cycle if it were not for the fact that ACORN was successful in challenging some of the most powerful public and private interests in the nation.
There are nits to pick with Seeds of Change. In two chapters on post-Katrina recovery efforts many compelling stories are told about various organizing and planning initiatives but it is difficult to follow all the connections and to see the proverbial forest for the trees. The many frustrations and failures surrounding the Road Home Program, arguably the major federal and state effort to assist homeowners, are not discussed. The many controversies over the role of insurance companies and the claims they did pay or should have paid are ignored. And there is no discussion of the important role that ACORN played in insurance redlining debates nationwide during the 1980s and 1990s.
But these are nits. Seeds of Change is a vital reminder of the critical importance of community organizing in successfully combating the many problems associated with poverty at all levels - local, state, national and international. Ironically, Sarah Palin and her colleagues (Rudi Guiliani perhaps most notably) may have done more in recent years to enhance the credibility of community organizing than anything ACORN or its partners could have done. ACORN, in fact, is not disappearing. Seventeen former state chapters have reorganized as statewide entities independent of ACORN and a new national non-profit Community Action Support Center will be established to provide a range of services to these organizations. It may be awhile before there is another group on the national stage that has the cache of ACORN. But given its many victories, recounted in Seeds of Change, there is reason to be hopeful about the future of community organizing.
Gregory D. Squires is a professor of sociology and public policy and public administration at George Washington University