Sowing Seeds of Change: Q&A with John Atlas

Editors of sat down recently with John Atlas, NHI board president and author of Seeds of Change: The Story of ACORN, America's Most Controversial Antipoverty Community Organizing Group, to discuss the organization itself, as well as organizing on a national level, tensions between organizing and development, and lessons learned from the downfall of the once-powerful antipoverty organization.

You’ve said that your book was originally intended to be about an organization that no one has heard of, but should have. You now say that it’s about an organization about which “everything you know is wrong.” What happened?

ACORN made no attempt or very little attempt to be a nationally known organization. They were well known in the neighborhoods where they served and [where their] chapters were increasingly becoming huge political players, such as New York, Chicago, New Orleans, California, Minneapolis-St. Paul. But many of the chapters were mostly focused on trying to mobilize low-income communities to solve very local problems; as a result, most of the press was local.

In the last issue of Shelterforce, you detail how the mainstream media failed to report accurately on the attacks on ACORN. Do you think this historically below-the-radar approach actually had a negative effect on fending off a national attack?

I think it was a problem for them. As ACORN became a significant player on the national political scene it was important for them to define themselves before their enemies did. They had a very difficult time doing that.

ACORN is a unique American institution: it was very difficult for reporters to wrap their brains around what they did. It was hard for me, and I was immersed in the organization! I was embedded with ACORN for four years in preparation for writing this book. I’m the only journalist that went to their staff meetings, their board meetings, their demonstrations, and had access to all their internal e-mails. I knew everything about them, but trying to describe the organization was very hard.

They were involved in electoral politics, but they weren’t a political party. They were a community organizing group, but they totally broke down the traditions of Saul Alinsky — Alinsky would have never conceived of a group claiming to do community organizing actually going out and organizing labor unions. As part of ACORN’s family of organizations, they had two powerful labor organizations, one in Chicago and one in New Orleans. Alinsky would have never believed in endorsing candidates or even registering people to vote. This was totally outside the scope of traditional community organizing.

They were also involved in the schools. ACORN managed to support the teachers’ union as well as support local control of schools. ACORN certainly helped people get food and clothes, but they weren’t a charity. They did tax counseling, home counseling, but they weren’t in any way a service agency. This was outside the scope of most journalists’ understanding of what ACORN did.

It was so complex that it made them an easy target.

Well, I think that journalists could have figured it out. You can write an article about complicated things, but it would have taken time. The thing that the mainstream media did not do when the crisis hit was report and investigate who ACORN was.

It also didn’t help that the Obama administration basically threw ACORN under the bus. Having your president and your national Democratic leaders help define how successful ACORN was would have helped. Also, The New York Times could have reported accurately. They constantly got the story wrong with egregious errors. The Washington Post was even worse. CNN just followed whatever Fox said. I mean, Fox is going to do what they’re going to do, but the mainstream media could have corrected the errors.

And then the progressive forces could have been more vigilant in coming to the aid of ACORN. All those things could have helped keep ACORN alive. But it’s hard to say.

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