ACORN and the Power of Community Organizing

by Randy Shaw on December 10, 2009

After Barack Obama stated during his primary campaign that he had once been a community organizer, it soon became clear that many Americans had no idea what this job entails. Sarah Palin ridiculed the community organizer’s job as lacking any responsibilities, and the Republican Party seemed to equate the organizing of low-income people to improve their lives as a Marxist-Leninist approach. Ironically, while the media failed to clearly explain community organizing last fall, former Tenderloin organizer and now Rutgers Professor Heidi Swarts released a book that detailed how organizers for both secular and faith-based organizations operate, and what they accomplish. Swarts’s Organizing Urban America was overlooked then, and remained ignored while the media subjected ACORN to enough unfair attacks to put the group’s future in jeopardy. Swarts provides clear evidence of ACORN organizers’ extraordinary commitment toward improving the lives of low-income Americans, and shows how they and faith-based organizers achieve progressive change.

Heidi Swartz was an outstanding organizer in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood in the 1980’s, and then became both a Reverend and a Professor of Political Science. So she had a great background from which to write a book about grassroots community organizing by both secular and faith-based groups.

The secular model for Swarts’s analysis was ACORN, which in 2009 has been unfairly demonized to a degree perhaps not seen since the anti-Communist hysteria of the 1950’s. Anyone reading Swartz’s book will soon learn the true reason for this FOX News led spate of attacks: ACORN has proved an effective organizer of often disenfranchised people of color, winning gains for constituencies that those in power prefer to ignore.

Swarts analyzed the St. Louis and San Jose ACORN chapters, contrasting their approach with that of two faith-based community organizations in these cities, Metropolitan Congregations United (MCU) in the former and People Acting in Community Together (PACT) in the latter. MCU is affiliated with the Gamaliel national network (for whom Obama once work) while PACT is part of the PICO network.

ACORN: Organizing is a Numbers Game

Having worked with both ACORN chapters, I found Swarts’ description of their strengths and weaknesses spot on. ACORN’s biggest weakness has been staff turnover, with some chapters beset by a revolving door of organizers. Understaffing is often due to a lack of resources, though as Swarts points out in Santa Jose, one full-time staff was able to develop strong member leadership that made ACORN a major player in the city. (Unfortunately, Swarts’s analysis of San Jose ACORN ends in 2000, so it does not include the chapter’s incredibly important leadership in the city’s just cause eviction campaign, and in enacting pro-tenant legislation statewide).

ACORN views organizing as a numbers game because, as founder Wade Rathke often told me, it believes few and far between are capable of being effective organizers. And since this is hard to predict, getting large numbers to come in and try is essential.

Swarts describes ACORN’s broad agenda, which included city and state living and minimum wage campaigns and landmark efforts against predatory lending. ACORN was the national leader in anti-predatory lending efforts, a fact routinely overlooked during the media’s 2009 attacks on the organization.

Perhaps the biggest distinction between ACORN and the faith-based groups is its actively running simultaneous local, state and national campaigns, and the pace of its campaigns. Whereby the faith-based groups proceed deliberately, and slowly build support for a major campaign, ACORN is off and running, thinking nothing of holding multiple press conferences and/or direct actions in a single week.

Since ACORN members generally have lower incomes and face bigger daily problems than those in the Gamaliel or PICO networks, staff is compelled to engage in constant activity to address member concerns. The upside is that ACORN accomplishes a lot; the downside has been insufficient attention to fundraising and a lack of overall management structure that would reduce the likelihood that low-level staff and volunteers will engage in questionable conduct.

ACORN’s Service/Electoral Component

Whereas the congregation-based groups serve as social action advocacy vehicles for its members, they are not service-driven and do not directly engage in election campaigns for candidates. In contrast, ACORN has long had a major service component, and has played a critical role in voter registration drives and in field campaigns for progressive, pro-labor politicians.

Swarts describes how ACORN used private foundation grants to help low-wage workers apply for the earned income tax-credit. In 2003 alone, ACORN’s efforts brought $3.8 million to new applicants, leading the IRS to contract with ACORN to expand its participation from three cities in 2003 to forty-five in 2004 and eighty in 2005.

Amidst the massive media coverage of the undercover conservatives who videotaped low-level ACORN tax program staff (the pimp and child prostitution “sting”), it’s hard to recall a single story about the millions of dollars ACORN has brought to low-wage workers through its tax program.

Nor do I recall a story describing the impact of de-funding ACORN’s tax program. Congress lacks alternative plans to prevent low-wage workers from missing out on applying for badly needed funds.

Project Vote

While Swarts discusses ACORN’s voter registration and outreach organization, Project Vote, the book went to press before John McCain and the Republican Party made alleged ACORN “fraud” central to their 2008 presidential campaign. It is critical to recall that, while ACORN was allegedly brought down by problems in its tax program, the Republican Party was targeting the group due to its success getting low-income African-Americans to the polls.

I worked with Project Vote in Ohio in 2004, and the vastness of ACORN’s ambitions – there were millions of unregistered low-income people of color and the timeline before the November elections was short – resulted in management and bureaucratic problems. These problems continued in 2008 as Project Vote expanded to states like Nevada where ACORN lacked a strong local chapter.

But none of ACORN’s top staff were involved in any of the voter registration problems that occurred in Project Vote, and there was not a single case of actual voter fraud found anywhere. Yet when Republican prosecutors misused the criminal justice system – recall that Karl Rove had U.S. Attorneys fired for not prosecuting ACORN after the 2004 elections – and went after Project Vote in 2008 and 2009, the media ignored the full facts and joined the pile on.

Swarts provides a wonderful antidote to the media’s ongoing disinformation about ACORN, and offers an appendix that cites a long list of concrete accomplishment by both ACORN and the congregation-based groups. At a time when funding for community organizing is imperiled, and there are fewer opportunities for new organizers, Swarts’s book is a valuable contribution to our understanding of how progressive change is achieved.

Randy Shaw is also the author of Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century.

Filed under: Book Reviews