The Mark of an Institution

Community Organizing

New Orleans               ACORN has maintained an office and an active organization in St. Louis for 30 years now.  Members there can mark great milestones including winning living wage elections both in the city and statewide (this year!) even having lost statewide a dozen years earlier.  We have fought hospital closings, won relief on the sales taxes on food and medicine, and can note that the first Federal Reserve hearing in the country under the CRA legislation was held on our petition around a banks record in St. Louis.  Thousands of homeowners in St. Louis and the surrounding communities thank ACORN for the work and programs that made them first time homebuyers and put them in their homes.

In the ebb and flow of 30 years nothing is ever perfect, so there have been ups and downs.  Ironically in the midst of now celebrating the victory on the minimum wage increase, we are also dealing with the one of the rare instances in the history of the organization when the President supported by the full Association Board has had to invoke Article 13 of the ACORN Bylaws and put an office under receivership in order to manage its affairs until new elections and staff stabilization is achieved.   Progress is being made by Bertha Lewis, the trustee, and the local leaders, but there continue to be bumps in the road.

None of which is necessarily my point in writing this.  I can remember the endless arguments and discussions that I have heard — and joined  — among community organizers over the decades around the issue of institutionalization.  What were the markers and signposts?  At one point had the organization become so embedded in the community that it achieved permanence?

Well, here is a sign you can note.  When you have trouble internally, and it is so noteworthy that the political reporter for the largest daily paper writes a story about it, then you know you have built some power.

And, when there is an editorial in the same paper, which has often disagreed with the organization, been with us and against us, refused to cover us and hounded us on stories, that says, as the one in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch does below, that we have essentially that good or bad, ACORN has become an institution vital to the community that must rebuild and survive, then there’s another sign that you have become a permanent institution.

                 The editorial follows.  You decide.

A hard fall

The St. Louis chapter of the community advocacy group ACORN has had a tough fall. The local board and leadership have been ousted. The woman who had been filling in as chief local organizer quit Monday in a dispute with national and regional leaders. The local chapter (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) has lost thousands of members and dropped eight of its nine affiliated groups in recent year.

National ACORN officials told Post-Dispatch political reporter Jo Mannies last week that the problems in the St. Louis chapter were the worst they had ever dealt with in the group’s 36-year history.
It’s an unfortunate loss; there’s a need for clear, strong voices for social justice.

But advocating on behalf of minorities, the poor and the disenfranchised has never been a high-prestige, high-paid calling. Effective advocates — who are prone to burn out fast   — always are in short supply.
Over the years, ACORN has campaigned locally for a higher minimum wage, for more jobs for minorities, for more affordable housing, for tougher enforcement of lead paint codes, for safe neighborhoods and for campaign-finance reform.

During the November elections, ACORN activists in St. Louis and Kansas City turned in about 90,000 new voter registrations as part of the successful effort to pass Proposition B, which increased Missouri’s minimum wage. Local election officials later said that thousands of those voter registration cards were fraudulent. ACORN has had similar problems with voter registration drives in other states. Fortunately, election officials here have not reported any cases in which bogus registrations ended up on the voter rolls or resulted in fraudulent votes being cast.

When national ACORN officers stepped in here, they found an organization in chaos. The group’s books were a mess. For example, $18,750, the first installment of a $75,000 grant from St. Louis’ Affordable Housing Commission was unaccounted for. Financial reports are being completed, and it doesn’t appear that the money was stolen. But the loose accounting casts a pall on the organization and gives potential grant-makers pause.

Bertha Lewis, who heads the New York ACORN chapter, is overseeing the housecleaning here. She says most of the problems have been resolved, and a new St. Louis board and leadership team will be put in place within six months.

Groups like ACORN play an important role in building healthier, more equitable communities. They shine the spotlight on social and economic disparities, turn up the heat on decision-makers and hold elected officials accountable.

The St. Louis chapter of ACORN had been one of the most active in the nation. With dedicated, knowledgeable, hard-working people in charge, we’re hopeful the new ACORN will send out healthy new shoots and roots.