By now most Americans have heard of ACORN. But they may not know what it really is.
The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now is a nationwide, anti-poverty group that has, through community organizing, pressured powerful banks to provide home ownership opportunities for working people. It has fought to raise workers' wages, get traffic lights at dangerous intersections, increase police protection in low-income neighborhoods and help families avoid foreclosures.
The group has improved the lives of millions of working families and strengthened America's democracy through its voter registration efforts. ACORN helped lift low-wage workers out of poverty by building the living wage and minimum wage movements, perhaps the most successful poor people's campaign during the past two decades.
ACORN has more than 400,000 members, mostly black and Hispanic Americans, in cities around the country. ACORN does not depend on one famous charismatic leader. It leaders, nurtured in local chapters across the country, are ordinary people who often do extraordinary things. To many of the poor and moderate-income families living in Paterson, the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, the Ninth Ward of New Orleans and the hundreds of other neighborhoods where ACORN organizes, these unpaid neighbors are heroes.
Anticipating the problem of subprime loans pushing people into default, ACORN campaigned in the late 1990s against the financial giant Household Finance Company over predatory loans. Through a successful lawsuit and collaboration with 50 state attorneys general, ACORN obtained over $500 million dollars in compensation for injured families. Had the nation's political and financial leaders followed ACORN's lead, America would have avoided the epidemic of foreclosures that has engulfed the country.
In Paterson, I watched ACORN members and their children, armed with black garbage bags, gardening gloves and shovels, clean up Roberto Clemente Park removing newspapers, broken glass and beer bottles, turning a neighborhood eyesore into a community asset. ACORN also organized a campaign to prevent lead poisoning in young low-income and minority children. I observed ACORN workers providing advice to families filling out tax returns, carefully showing eligible families how to obtain the Earned Income Tax Credit, a federal tax for the working poor, whose benefits were expanded by presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.
Since 2000, ACORN's effort to register millions of poor, minority voters, a time-honored way of bringing disenfranchised people into the American democratic process, put it squarely in the crosshairs of the Republican Party. Determined to destroy ACORN as a threat to the GOP, White House political director Karl Rove led an effort to get U.S. attorneys to file bogus "voter fraud" charges against the community group.
ACORN has also long faced harassment from right-wingers who attack it for ideological reasons, calling the group "socialist" and "left-wing." What they are really worried about is how ACORN effectively challenges big business and its conservative political allies on behalf of America's working families.
Like all large organizations made up of human beings, ACORN is not without flaws. But it has a long history of quickly responding to its weaknesses. After the videotape prank by two young right-wing activists posing as a pimp and prostitute seeking tax and business advice, ACORN's CEO Bertha Lewis quickly dismissed the offending employees. Although no tax returns were filed, no loans provided, and ACORN's management oversight mitigated any further harm from taking place, Lewis has appointed a group of eminent experts, including former Maryland's former Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, to help implement necessary internal reforms. This week, a former Massachusetts attorney general was named to oversee an internal review.
Meanwhile, Fox news broadcast these "gotcha" videos on a virtual round-the-clock basis, causing a controversy far out of proportion to its news value. We now know the hidden tapes were doctored, misleading and in some cases probably taken illegally, and that contrary to the filmmakers' claims, they had been turned away from several ACORN offices.
ACORN has been and remains a force for good in our communities. It instills in its members a belief that the future can be a better day and that individuals, working together, have the power to shape their own destiny.
© 2009 New Jersey On-Line LLC
John Atlas is president of the National Housing Institute, based in Montclair, which produces Shelterforce magazine. His book on the history of ACORN, published by Vanderbilt University Press, will be out in 2010. Atlas blogs at njvoices.com.
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