Preventing the ACORN Tragedy

Channah_gileshicago First in a session with Kim Bobo and her talented staff at Interfaith Worker Justice and then with the great immigration rights organizers, Josh Hoyt and Lawrence Benito and some of their staff at Illinois Council of Immigrant and Refugee Rights, it was only a matter of time that we stopped talking about Citizen Wealth and what was needed in the world, and each in their own way asked essentially, “How do we prevent ‘stings’ from crippling our work?” These are smart and effective organizers who understand in the wake of the devastating ACORN tragedy that there is no magic cloak protecting them from any unprincipled stingers if their organizers acquired a sudden bullseye.

Organizers are not paranoid for the most part. We know there are people and forces dedicated to our destruction.

What is so chilling for social change organizations in the lessons of ACORN’s demise is two things: (1) that no one can control or prevent how something “might seem” on the screen: the old Richard Pryor problem of the facts versus your lying eyes, and (2) any non-profit director with an ounce of sense is horrified at the “holier than now” shunning that they are still hearing from funders who are still knocking right at the door of saying that essentially “ACORN got what it deserved.”

For IWJ Kim’s nightmare is knowing that with separately constituted independent affiliates all over the country that obviously IWJ does not control, who knows if all their paperwork is in order and timely filed with every “i” dotted and “t” crossed. These are semi-volunteer operations. Kim told me a telling story of how great her board has been, and having met with her board before, I knew that was the case with major church and union leaders with deep leadership and administrative responsibility. She had me laughing at the irony of funders pretending that if ACORN’s board had just had more big names and upper class folks rather than democratically electing its own members to provide its governance, how little it would matter. She went through an array of questions that she had never been asked by her board and furthermore knew for a fact they would have been clueless about that some anti-outsider could plaster all over the news. True that!

Josh in his masterful way was almost lobbying me to write the “how to manual” for crisis management on these kinds of attacks, and maybe that will be in the next book, but given the polarization around immigration now, I have no doubt that my friends wake up at night wondering if there is anyway to batten the hatches down.

Nonetheless, they are asking the right questions now to prevent being “next,” by assuming that that arrogance is not the guide, it could happen to anybody, anywhere, anytime in this work, so you have to be prepared. That’s my first piece of advice: assume it’s coming and prepare. We certainly never had “crisis management” discussions or preparations when I was at the ACORN helm. I can remember having great organizing discussions on how we might prepare to take advantage of crises as opportunities for organizing, but certainly nothing about how we would communicate to the outside world and our members if all hell broke loose. I think the ACORN tragedy suggests that it is not a matter of conceding error and saying you’re sorry, but how to voice these points with credibility and sincerity sufficient to trigger compassion. Only ACORN grassroots leaders would have had that capability, and for whatever reason in too many cases they were not the ones chosen to speak on the firing line.

Any social change based non-profit needs to have the conversations about being “acorned” now with their funders and friends to inoculate them to the near certainty that all are vulnerable and to assure that others will step up front and behind the scenes to protect them and speak to their mission and right to work. The notion that one can be safe behind the scenes is over. No director of such an organization can allow the organization to be as isolated and alone as ACORN became.

Organizations in the business of meeting and working with the public, as ACORN was, are especially vulnerable because representatives are trained and hard wired to do their best to help and comfort people, which also makes their good will easy to victimize and distort. Organizers who are trained in the give and take dialectic of communication rather than the didactic will often look like they were aiding and abetting something, by not condemning but instead questioning and pushing conversations back.

Do such organizations need their intake people to ask folks to sign waivers when they come in? Do they need to start conversations with scripted language that makes sure their advice is understood and couched correctly? Do such conversations need to be taped or filmed to protect the organization? There may be merits to all of these intrusive and difficult strategies, but even if employed would that stop the O’Keefe and Giles types from not editing to suit and simply leaving such protective matters on the cutting room floor?

Is our first mission advancing our members interest or covering our own institutions and how do we resolve these issues? There are many lessons in the ACORN tragedy, but most are only partially understood with answers still debatable and advice still uncertain and hard to come by especially since so many are playing “cover your ass” now and “not me” with funders and the outside world. People like Josh Hoyt and Kim Bobo are smart, skilled, and professional, and they know that “there by the grace of god go we,” and approaching the ACORN tragedy with humility rather than arrogance is probably the first step in finding useful lessons to advance all of the work.

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