Historians Begin to Look at ACORN’s Impact

ACORN Community Organizing
Professor Carroll speaking as Fred Brooks, Robert Fisher, and Gary Delgao (from right to left) listen to the Lessons from ACORN Panel at OAH

Milwaukee   If it has been said that newspapers “write the first draft of history,” perhaps it is panels like Lessons from ACORN organized by Oregon State Professor Marisa Chappell at the national conference of the Organization of American Historians that starts to outline the second draft.   At the least an excellent panel of very knowledgeable folks had been assembled to take a crack at it.

Fred Brooks from Georgia State argued that there was not yet a full appreciation of the “radical vision of social change” that drove ACORN, citing the Peoples’ Platform and its 309 points as evidence.  He also talked about a great personal story from an action in Atlanta done by 200 at a conference where Coretta Scott King was speaking and the grace with which she wrapped the ACORN demonstrators demands in Martin’s legacy saying that “if Martin were alive he would have been protesting with us,” and the meeting with bankers the action forced.

Robert Fisher of the University of Connecticut and editor of the evaluation of ACORN in The People Shall Rule drew comparisons from a recent conference on community organizing he had attended in France where many argued that community organizing was dangerous because it could be “disruptive of social engineering by the state,” which Fisher thought was the whole point of ACORN’s “conflict over power.”  Fisher made an insightful remark about the efforts of ACORN increasingly in the early years of the 21st Century to “build bridges” to other organizations and the intriguing promise it had shown in steps to build “a united front” where others had been more sectarian.  Fisher also rejoined later in the panel on my point about working now on an organizing model where the organization “eats what it kills” to also add correctly that ACORN had pioneered in “eating what we won” as well as evidenced by the H&R Block campaigns and many others in the 21st Century.

Professor Carroll of the Rochester Institute of Technology nailed a critical part of the ACORN history as a “misreading of the role of conflict in making social change” which allowed too many of its critics to advance and too few others to move to protect the organization failing to understand how conflict creates change and challenges power.

Gary Delgado, former staffer and author of the still classic book about ACORN, Building the Movement, rattled off a number of observations collected in his 40 years of close observation of the organization.  He worried that the “vacuum” created by the organization shuttering its doors in late 2010 had not been filled and proving difficult to fill because there were not other “national” organizations that had “centralized” operations that could be effective and “were not afraid to make enemies.”  The use of direct action and the singular voice for poor people were also now missing.  Delgado found agreement in nailing the fact that the attack on ACORN had been “racialized” and the opposition that mounted around its voter registration work was rooted in ACORN’s effectiveness in registering African-Americans and Latinos to register and vote.  At the same time he noted, perhaps controversially, that times had changed and ACORN was unprepared for the “air war” when attacked and his own view that “boots on the ground are necessary but not sufficient” to protect the organization.

In my remarks I responded to the question posed by Professor Chappell about how organizing strategies at ACORN had changed to address alterations in the way state power worked by detailing our expansion program designed to adapt to the devolution of federal resources and decision making to states.  I also told the stories of our living wage initiatives and victories that greater statewide capacity and infrastructure allowed, citing the statistics in my Citizen Wealth chapters.

The discussion had been engaging and the questions way too brief, but the presentations had resonated with many, so perhaps there will be fruit borne in the future from the seeds planted in Milwaukee.  John Atlas in his Seeds of Change began and ended his remarks noting forcefully the unreliability and inaccuracies of the New York Times and other media outlets in being able to understand or interpret the ACORN story.  There seemed to be consensus in Milwaukee that the first draft from newspapers absolutely needed to go to rewrite!