Roasting a Fire Under ACORN

It’s September here in the Northeast and the acorns falling from the oak trees, including those from the Northern Red Oak, New Jersey’s state tree, cause a messy, but welcome sign that cooler temperatures are here, and fall is on its way.

But the climate is not so pleasant for the national organization that bears the name of the fruit of the oak. With this ACORN (the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now), it’s still messy, but temperatures are roasting, its reputation has been sullied, at least with those not in the community organizing field, and both Houses of Congress overwhelmingly voted this week to deny federal funding to the organization, probably less for the handful of ACORN employees out of its 1,200 chapters who used poor judgement, to say the least, but more because the organization is now a political liability.

And why shouldn’t it be? Yes, the organization has been under fire for years from the right wing, but now we’re seeing that criticism slowly transforming into a mainstream story line, starting, most recently, when it was revealed that Dale Rathke, brother of ACORN founder Wade Rathke, embezzled nearly $1 million from the organization and other affiliates. That mishap was handled internally and the ACORN board was not notified. Then there was the frustratingly sticky scenario involving charges of voter fraud registering people leading up to the 2008 presidential election. And now, we have an undercover video-filming duo who employed pretty ridiculous antics to prompt some ACORN employees to respond in kind with some pretty damning advice.

What’s happening here? ACORN has spent nearly 40 years building its reputation as the country’s largest grass-roots community organization, helping out low- and moderate-income families improve their neighborhoods, fight to increase minimum wage, combat predatory lending, offer mortgage counseling, offer assistance with the Earned Income Tax Credit, register nearly 2 million low- and moderate-income voters, and much, much more.

ACORN has done so much as far as engaging low- and moderate-income voters that it’s certainly not surprising that it has to field attacks from the right wing. But despite the high quality of the organization’s vast portfolio, there exists, now more clearly than ever, its inability to control the news cycle, its failure to appropriately manage these significant crises, its (until now) dismissive response to various attacks, and its overall impotence in being able to take care of business against a breathtakingly stupid story line that’s being invented for public consumption.

It’s just so astonishing.

So now, with more or less of a consensus, both the House and Senate have banned federal funds (ACORN has received roughly $54 million in federal dollars since 1994), and now the Census Bureau has announced that it will not employ ACORN services for the 2010 census.

After all of this, Bertha Lewis, ACORN’s CEO, announced a series of action items on its Web site:

  • No new intakes will be accepted into ACORN’s offices for service programs, effective immediately;
  • An immediate in-service training for all frontline staff has been ordered within 48 hours;
  • ACORN’s independent Advisory Council will help select an independent auditor/reviewer no later than September 18th to review all of the systems and processes called into question by the videos.

Regarding the videos, Lewis called the incidents “indefensible action[s] of a handful of our employees.

Last month, NHI Board President John Atlas, author of the upcoming book on ACORN, Seeds of Hope, wrote on Huffington Post and on Rooflines a short history of the smear campaign against ACORN, leading up to the point in the John McCain campaign when he started using ACORN as a campaign prop:

“Since it was founded in the 1970s, ACORN has been in the thorn in the side of big business, banks, Democrats and Republicans. It has helped families obtain affordable housing, increased wages for working people, stopped mortgage companies from deceiving customers with predatory subprime loans, cleaned up vacant lots, and saved thousands of Hurricane Katrina survivor’s home from being demolished.”

Atlas also wrote in Shelterforce in 2007 on “the Republican-directed vendetta against voter registration, orchestrated from the White House against those, like the grass-roots anti-poverty group ACORN, who have a history of working to register poor and minority voters,” and blogged about it leading up to last year’s election when both community organizing and ACORN were, once again, under intense scrutiny.

For all the good work that ACORN does, why does this anti-ACORN, anti-organizing meme stick? Is it the right-wing’s fear of entitlements? Mobilizing low-income communities? Dare we say it’s racially influenced (WHOA, we wouldn’t want to do that because that would be racist, right?) There’s always going to be the undercurrent of the right-wing, McCarthy-style views of progressives, usually manifested in the form of misusing other political philosophies as insults (“commie,” “fascist,” “socialist,” etc.).

But, as indicated with this ostensible Congressional rebuke, it’s moving beyond that. It’s going mainstream.

Randy Stoecker, the moderator and editor of the COMM-ORG listserv asked his readers this week if the fight has gone out of organizing:

“I am wondering if organizing is suffering from a one-right-way mentality that has declared confrontation and disruption off limits under any circumstances. One of the things I am working on is a model to try and understand the conditions under which militant action or moderate action is more effective. There is a lot of silence out there on this.”

I submit there is plenty of fight in community organizing, but the fight is on the ground, fighting for things that actually matter, fighting for the things ACORN has fought for for 40 years. However, what ACORN, and the next target of the right wing smear needs to understand, is that the far right and its media enablers, have tossed the high-road philosophy out the window. Organizations like ACORN cannot continue, most unfortunately, to maintain its good name with those outside the community organizing field using its portfolio only. It needs to understand that there is the perception of impropriety within the organization. Yes, there have been legitimate, significant misdeeds at ACORN, but a massive amount of that public perception has been fueled by right wing smears. The clock cannot be turned back now: the perception is there, and it needs to be addressed because if it’s not, it won’t be just ACORN, but so many more of the organizations that do so much for our communities will be at risk.

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