The Right Battles a Mighty Acorn

John Atlas

The right is trying to undermine one of the left’s most effective groups, Acorn, using film clips of the organization’s employees giving financial advice to a young man and woman posing as a pimp and prostitute.

Acorn has shown that ordinary people can organize to enhance democracy, advance progressive politics and reduce poverty.

The attack is a testament to the group’s success. Acorn (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) has shown how ordinary people can organize through their communities to enhance democracy, advance progressive politics and reduce poverty. It dispels the myth that the only way to help the poor is through soup kitchens, charity and social services. Rather, Acorn – politically both pragmatic and progressive – energizes the poor so they can clean up their communities, build homes and increase wages. 

In a country suspicious of state intervention, Acorn’s experience shows that an activist government, when combined with a well-organized civil society, can be a vital force in the struggle for a just society. Today its agitation could help make Barack Obama a better president –like the Depression-era activism made it easier for FDR to accomplish New Deal reforms.

That’s why Acorn has been a target of conservative ideologues.

What does Acorn do day to day? With a membership of more than 400,000, who are mostly black and Latino, Acorn has organized to provide home ownership opportunities for working people, raise workers’ income through living wage” campaigns, increase police protection and help families avoid foreclosure. It has strengthened America’s democracy through voter registration. 

Working with 50 state attorneys general, Acorn campaigned in the late 90s against the financial giant Household Finance Company’s use of high interest deceitful mortgage loans and won more than $500 million dollars in compensation for injured families. Had the nation’s political and financial leaders followed Acorn’s example, America would have avoided the recent epidemic of foreclosures. 

Since Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, Acorn’s local chapter has saved thousands through a volunteer home restoration project and built the Lower Ninth Ward’s first new homes after the storm.

Acorn is not a charity or a social service agency or a political party, but a low-income citizen crusade for economic justice. It has leaders but no real public figures. The group has challenged powerful corporations and politicians, but also negotiated agreements with those same corporations and politicians to win improvements for the poor. The organization supports parent involvement and control in public schools, but it also supports the teachers’ union. 

Acorn solves problems by mustering poor people’s most important source of power – the poor themselves. Thousands of nonprofit groups around the country help those in poverty by providing charity and social services. Others advocate on behalf of the poor, but without input from the people themselves. Acorn is a national force, with the ability to win major reforms at the neighborhood, city, state and national level.

Yet, like all large organizations, Acorn is not without flaws.

Following the videotape scandal, Acorn CEO Bertha Lewis dismissed the offending employees. And although Acorn employees filed no tax or loan documents with officials, Lewis appointed former Massachusetts Attorney General Scott Harshbarger as an outside auditor to recommend and implement necessary internal reforms. 

The effectiveness of the attacks in the right-wing echo chamber has damaged Acorn’s reputation and led Congress to cut off federal funds. The capitulation of some on the left and some Democratic Party leaders to the attacks against Acorn is partly understandable. They want to avoid a public distraction from their efforts to pass national health care and Wall Street regulatory reforms. 

But surrendering to the right only empowers the Glenn Becks of this world and the Republican leadership. First, the right attacked MoveOn​.org, Planned Parenthood, green jobs” overseer Van Jones, then Acorn. Now they are going after the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the Center for American Progress and Obama’s political director, Patrick Gaspard, who previously worked with SEIU.

Because Acorn, like a union or the National Rifle Association, relies on members’ dues, the organization will survive this attack. But to restore its strength as America’s most effective national poor people’s organization it will need the financial and political support of all of us in the progressive community. 

John Atlas is president of the Montclair, N.J.-based National Housing Institute. His book on the history of Acorn, Seeds of Hope, will be published next year.

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