Monday, April 26, 2010

Why We Need Acorn

Why We Need Acorn


    The group, once a top anti-poverty organization,

    fought to empower those whose interests and needs

    get short shrift.


By Frances Fox Piven and Lorraine C. Minnite


Los Angeles Times

April 22, 2010,0,1875085.story


This is a eulogy for ACORN as we knew it. Our premier anti-

poverty organization has been forced into a massive

reorganization, and its future is unclear. If we care about

democracy, we should study the story of what happened to

ACORN, or the Assn. of Community Organizations for Reform

Now. It is true that in its rush to recruit people and build

its organization, ACORN was sometimes sloppy and should have

supervised its people more closely. But those faults could

have been corrected and ACORN's singular contributions to

our polity sustained.


More than any other national organization, ACORN succeeded

in bringing the voices of the poor into domestic politics.

The group had its roots in the welfare rights movement of

the mid-1960s, when impoverished Americans joined together

to demand benefits they were entitled to but often denied.

By 1966, these small local groups had banded together to

become the National Welfare Rights Organization. Their

campaign attracted young activists who called themselves

community organizers, and in 1970 the movement gave birth to

ACORN, which set out to organize a broader swath of low-

income Americans.


Sarah Palin and her ilk mock the term "community organizer"

because they are blind to the vision of an inclusive

democracy that lies behind it. The community organizers at

ACORN were deeply committed to expanding our democracy to

include people whose interests and needs otherwise get short

shrift. They were highly effective in reaching out to people

in poor and working-class neighborhoods, identifying their

concerns and fashioning strategies to resolve them. Their

small victories built community organizations, ultimately

making the group a force not only in local politics but in

state and national politics as well. ACORN held a profoundly

optimistic view of democratic possibility in America, and

those who ridicule that vision do our country a serious disservice.


ACORN's most extreme critics have attacked the group as a

tool of some Marxist cabal intent on overthrowing American

democracy. There is irony in this. ACORN's campaigns were

inspired by nothing so much as faith in the potential of

American democracy. As far back as 1972, ACORN's

neighborhood organizations in Arkansas campaigned for more

parks and better schools, for fair distribution of community

development funds and for an end to racially discriminatory

real estate practices. And through it all, the group

registered voters as part of a goal to increase

participation in government by low-income citizens.


The political climate of the Reagan era was hostile to an

organization devoted to building power among working and

poor people. ACORN nevertheless persevered, launching

campaigns against predatory lending and for low-cost

housing, environmental justice, a living wage and school reform.


One study by an independent analyst put the monetary value

of legislative and other victories won by ACORN in behalf of

its constituents at $1.5 billion a year between 1995 and

2005. Meanwhile, ACORN campaigns nurtured an amazing cadre

of proud local leaders, most of them African American women.


In 2004, in the battleground state of Florida, ACORN

developed a strategy to increase the electoral participation

of poor Floridians by helping put a referendum on the ballot

to raise the state's minimum wage, which at the time was

$5.15 an hour. Organizers hoped the lure of a ballot

referendum to raise wages would mobilize more liberal

voters, who would also then cast a vote in the presidential

race. In the end, George W. Bush beat John Kerry by 381,000

votes in Florida, but 3.1 million voters, or 71% of the

electorate, voted for the minimum-wage increase.


ACORN's success in the Florida minimum-wage fight came at a

cost. Conservatives and business leaders who opposed the

initiative took aim at the organization in hopes of

discrediting a political enemy. An alleged whistle-blower

claimed knowledge of an ACORN conspiracy to fraudulently

register voters; a major Republican law firm with ties to

the Chamber of Commerce and other business interests

launched lawsuits; and government investigations ensued. But

while there were lapses on the part of some of the people

ACORN paid to register voters, the organization was not

found to have deliberately done anything wrong.


Having Barack Obama in office does not negate the need for

an organization like ACORN. A progressive president needs a

mobilized base, and ACORN knew how to mobilize a base.

Today, the circumstances of low-income Americans are

worsening, and public policies or their absence are a large

part of the reason. As in the Depression, and again in the

1960s, we once more need wide-scale protest movements to

save American democracy. It's a shame ACORN won't be around

to help organize them.


Frances Fox Piven is on the political science and sociology

faculty at the Graduate Center of City University of New

YorkLorraine C. Minnite is the author of "The Myth of Voter Fraud."


Copyright c 2010, The Los Angeles Times


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