By Peter Dreier
No group was better at kicking ass than ACORN. That’s the story that John Atlas tells in his fascinating new book, Seeds of Change: The Story of ACORN, America’s Most Controversial Antipoverty Community Organizing Group, published by Vanderbilt University Press.
Seeds of Change is full of fascinating people, colorful anecdotes, and political drama, but it is really a story about the hard but hopeful work of bringing about progressive change. Atlas writes about activists, organizers, and ordinary people learning how to fight for, and win, better living and working conditions. It is a book about the poor that doesn’t treat them as victims or stereotypes, but as people who, by joining with others in politics and protest, can shape their own destiny, by changing government policy and corporate practices.
Atlas shows how ACORN revolutionized the field of community organizing by creating an organization that could wage battles at the local, state, and national levels. He profiles Wade Rathke, a welfare rights organizer in Massachusetts who in 1970 moved to Arkansas to create a new inter-racial organization that would organize poor and working class people around jobs, veterans benefits, utility prices, and other issues. With the help of idealistic college graduates and up-from-poverty activists, Rathke built ACORN into a powerful organization that, by 2008, had chapters in 38 cities and 400,000 members.
With unprecedented access to ACORN’s staff, leaders, board members, and archives, as well as interviews with the group’s political allies and enemies, Atlas presents a colorful and dramatic portrait of the obstacles and opportunities for grassroots activism. His readable narrative shows how ACORN recruited low-income residents to engage in local battles for better schools, parks, housing, and police protection, which often gave people the self-confidence they needed to take on bigger targets and campaigns.
With an eye for the telling anecdote, Atlas recounts ACORN’s campaigns against big banks, insurance companies, utilities, and other corporate power-brokers, as well as major legislative victories at the federal level, including strengthening laws against bank redlining and an increase in the minimum wage. Because of its deep roots in urban neighborhoods, ACORN warned policymakers about the dangers of predatory lending and the possible foreclosure epidemic years before it became front-page news.
In one of the most fascinating chapters, Atlas uncovers how the leaders of ACORN’s large New Orleans chapter organized the victims of Hurricane Katrina to successfully demand a voice in the relief and reconstruction efforts by local, state and federal officials. More than any other group, ACORN played a key role in ongoing efforts to rebuild the Lower 9th Ward, and to reach out to the Katrina diaspora scattered throughout Louisiana, Texas, and elsewhere.
Atlas also reports on ACORN’s cunning “homesteading” campaign in Philadelphia in the 1970s that involved members illegally taking over blocks of abandoned housing in order to pressure local officials to direct funding for repairs and rehabilitation. He describes ACORN’s bold and successful campaign to pass a statewide referendum in November 2004 to raise Florida’s minimum wage by a dollar an hour. Despite being dramatically outspent by Disney and other corporate giants, ACORN built a coalition of unions, faith groups, and others that scored a whopping 72 to 28 percent (4.95 million votes to 1.96 million) victory, far larger than George W. Bush’s 300,000 majority over John Kerry in the state that same day.
Seeds of Change also recounts the “battle of Brooklyn” that pitted ACORN against one of the city’s most politically-connected developers, Forest City, that planned to build a megaproject – including a new arena for an NBA basketball team, luxury housing, and high-rise offices – at Atlantic Yards. ACORN threatened to stop the project if developer Bruce Ratner didn’t include a significant number of housing units affordable to poor and working class tenants. ACORN won that fight, forced Ratner to make significant concessions, and then become an advocate for the project. In doing so, ACORN earned the enmity of the project’s fierce opponents, mostly middle-class residents, for whom Atlas shows great sympathy, leaving the reader to wonder who won and who lost.
As Atlas describes in this lively book, ACORN learned the art of playing the inside-outside game. Although it was best-known as a kick-ass activist group, it also formed alliances with sympathetic politicians and even some corporations willing to negotiate with ACORN to avoid being the target of protest. As a result, ACORN was able to pass living wage laws in dozens of cities, get voters and legislators in a dozen states to raise the minimum wage, and pressure local politicians to strengthen tenants rights laws and adopt policies to stem the tide of foreclosures.
Atlas devotes a chapter of Seeds of Change to the ACORN-affiliated Working Families Party, which has groomed activists to run for city and state offices in New York, helped them win elections, and played an important role in building a progressive coalition with labor unions and other groups.
Atlas, like ACORN’s leaders, expected Obama’s victory in 2008 to give the organization even greater influence. But during the campaign, and soon after Obama took office, ACORN became the target of a right-wing assault that it was unprepared for and, ultimately, unable to survive. Atlas reports on what he describes as the “tragedy” of ACORN’s downfall
Atlas’s history of ACORN is sympathetic to the controversial group, but does not shy away from exposing its weaknesses, clashes over strategy, internal power struggles, tensions between white Ivy League organizers and a membership of mostly blacks and Latinos, as well as ACORN’s trouble with staff turnover. Atlas’ account of the Rathke embezzlement scandal is a fascinating inside story that you won’t find in the New York Times, on CCN, or on Fox News.
Atlas’ complex tale of ACORN will likely stir up debates about community organizing, how we might address a real war on poverty, and why a progressive movement is essential if we are to bring about significant change in America. Seeds of Change is an essential read for anyone concerned about democracy and social justice.
Although Atlas recounts ACORN’s rise and fall, Seeds of Change does not end on a downer note. Atlas shows how, over the years, ACORN has been a real school for democracy, training thousands of activists who, even after leaving ACORN, continued to work as effective organizers for hundreds of community groups, unions, environmental organizations, and other public interest groups. Many ACORN veterans worked as key staff for elected officials and some became successful politicians themselves. Atlas also notes that ACORN’s willingness to experiment with different strategies and approaches has changed the field of organizing in numerous ways.
Finally, Atlas observes that while ACORN may be dead, its offspring are continuing to organize. In more than a dozen states, ACORN’s former leaders and staff are building new progressive community organizing groups to carry on the work of kicking ass to strengthen American democracy.
Peter Dreier is professor of politics and chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy program at Occidental College, where he teaches a course on community organizing.