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3 Organizations Take Up Where ACORN Left Off

After conservatives successfully dismantled ACORN, these groups are picking up the slack in empowering the poor and disenfranchised of America.
 
 
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The story of ACORN's sudden and precipitous fall is famous: McCain-Palin’s viciously overblown accusations of voter fraud in 2008; the Republicans' unrelenting post-election animosity; the notorious sting videos; and finally, the defunding and discrediting of the organization. No matter that ACORN was proved innocent of any illegality in the “pimp” affair, that a federal judge declared defunding ACORN unconstitutional, and the Congressional Research Service found no evidence of voter fraud.

The manufactured scandals that destroyed the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now --ACORN -- are well known, but fewer people understand what the organization actually did. Established in Arkansas in 1970, it built a vast network of chapters in impoverished neighborhoods in over 100 cities, with hundreds of thousands of dues-paying members, and over 1,000 staffers. Unlike most community organizing groups, ACORN built power on a national level, coordinating the efforts of state and local to push for changes in D.C. It used this leverage to raise the wages of low-income workers through minimum- and living-wage campaigns, restrict or ban predatory lending practices, defend labor rights, keep homes from foreclosure, and register low-income voters.

When conservatives successfully dismantled ACORN, a powerful voice for the disadvantaged was lost on the national, state and local levels. Although no other community organizing group has ACORN’s size or power, there are still many organizations that perform similar works.

“There are quite a few grassroots organizing groups and networks around the country, but no single branded group like ACORN,” says Deepak Bhargava, executive director of the Center for Community Change. “There are the seeds of a poor people’s movement in the country again, more today than in a number of years.”

Here are three examples of such groups. You’ve probably never heard of most of them, as they receive scandalously little media attention. But their work proves that community organizing did not die with ACORN.

National People’s Action (NPA) is a mid-sized group of 200 organizers with a fierce reputation for direct action. It has a national presence (it has suffered attacks from Glenn Beck) and a multi-state presence that it's used to push two main goals: Financial reform and preventing foreclosures.

“It was hard to advance justice when ACORN was here, now it’s even harder,” says George Goehl, executive director of National People's Action. “If ACORN was still around today, there would be a lot more people on the street pushing to hold banks accountable and keeping people in their homes.”

NPA is best known for its dramatic direct action campaigns. In 2009, it disruptedthe American Bankers Association’s annual meeting. In 2010, it marched on Wall Streetwith the AFL-CIO and the NAACP in support of tough financial reform (300 of NPA’s members occupied JPMorgan Chase’s lobby). The “Showdown on K Street” halted traffic in D.C. and 700 activists rallied outside the house of Bank of America’s Gregory Baer. In 2011, NPA helped coordinate a protest at JPMorgan Chase’s shareholder meeting in Columbus, Ohio, where activists bridged the moat surrounding the massive office complex to challenge the bank’s regressive foreclosure policies.

But NPA’s emphasis on aggressive tactics doesn’t mean it isn't interested in substantive policy outcomes. The group frequently lobbies the Federal Reserve and even meets with Chairman Ben Bernanke.

“We’ve put a good deal of energy into trying to modernize the Community Reinvestment Act [a 1977 law that requires increases low-income communities’ access to lending],” says Goehl. “That’s become a primary focus of our three meetings with Ben Bernanke. We’ve had nine townhall meetings with his staff and five official meetings with the Fed focused on modernizing CRA. Not the sexiest thing in the world, but it is an example of something moving forward during tough times.”

When ACORN fell, many of its largest chapters split off and formed new, regionally focused organizations. New York Communities for Change (NYCC) is one of the largest of these splinter factions. NYCC’s self-proclaimed greatest effort is an ongoing pressure campaign against JPMorgan Chase, which has one of the worst home loan modification rates (6 percent) in New York.

The plan? Hit them where it hurts. NYCC is working with townships and cities all over New York to move their money out of Chase. In April, Hempstead, a township with a majority black and Hispanic population and one of the worst foreclosure rates in its county, decided to remove $12.5 million from Chase. (Hempstead’s Housing Authority closed its account too.) In June, Freeport followed suit. NYCC prompted Albany Countyand Ithaca to ban the issuance of bonds to Chase. The small towns of Binghamton and South Floral Park are considering similar legislation.

The real prize is New York City itself. “The city shouldn’t be supporting a bank that is putting families out on the street,” says Jonathan Westin, organizing director for NYCC. “But Mayor Bloomberg and the banking commission here in the city have been very hesitant.”

NYCC is also organizing low-wage, mainly immigrant supermarket workers against wage theft. Abuses are rampant in the store locations targeted by the campaign. Workers are paid less than minimum wage and are forced to work 70 to 80 hours a week without overtime. Back pay abuses are common in the low-wage, immigrant sector, where workers (many of them undocumented) are often too frightened of retaliation to fight back. Workers’ centers will help employees win back wages, but little can be done to protect their jobs.

That’s where the NYCC campaign is unique. It is winning the workers’ money back (approximately $50,000-$60,000 so far), while leveraging the supermarkets’ illegalities to gain the workers union contracts with UFCW Local 338, a union with many grocery employees already under its wing.

“You can do a lot of work around getting people back wages but that same employer is screwing over the workers that come in after and are in the exact same situation,” says Westin. “The only way to have long-term protections is to have a union.” Negotiations are ongoing, but NYCC expects to have several stores under contract within a couple months.

In June, as part of the Republican Party’s nationwide war on voting, Maine Republicans passed a bill outlawing same-day voter registration, claiming that widespread voter fraud forced their hand. (Maine’s voting fraud cases can be counted on one hand.) The law would disproportionately affect those who vote for the Democratic Party.

The Maine People’s Alliance (MPA), a low-income advocacy group with a history of voter registration, took action. Working with a coalition of groups including Maine chapters of the League of Women Voters, Sierra Club and AFL-CIO, they formed Protect Maine Votes and began gathering signatures to put the new law up for a vote. MPA’s political director served as ad hoc field director for the campaign, which relied entirely upon the staff coalition partners were able to lend to the drive and volunteers. MPA was the driving force behind the petition drive, providing their communications director, the campaign’s lead organizer, and six of the eight regional organizers.

“Maine People’s Alliance played an instrumental role, providing a lot of organizational infrastructure for the signature collection phase of the campaign,” says Matt Schlobohm, executive director of the Maine AFL-CIO.

Despite a labyrinthine signature certification process, Protect Maine Votes gathered 80,000 signatures in 23 days. By August 8, 70,000 signatures had been checked and approved by town clerks (only 52,700 are needed to get the question on the ballot). “This is a wildly successful campaign,” says Jesse Graham, MPA’s executive director. “We certainly did it faster than anyone else has ever done it in Maine, with less money.”

A July 12 poll shows 60 percent of voters oppose the ban on same-day registration. Regardless of the November outcome, Maine People’s Alliance plans to register more voters in 2012.

Battles are still being fought and won, even in the age of austerity. But none of these groups has the scope or capacity of ACORN. Outside the ever-shrinking labor movement, ACORN was the only truly national group to specifically focus on low-income and working people’s economic power. Even National People’s Action, which boasts the sole national profile of the groups portrayed here, only has offices in five states.

“If you don’t have ACORN connected in all these different states you have a lot more independent groups and there’s not as much built-in coordination,” says Joe Szakos, executive director of Virginia Organizing, one of the few strong state community groups in the South. (His group never affiliated with ACORN, but worked with it on many projects.) “Having said that, I’ve been doing this for 32 years and there’s way more cooperation among the state groups than ever before. The lines aren’t as rigid.”

The New Bottom Line is one of the ways that cooperation is taking shape. Dozens of community groups, including the Maine People’s Alliance, Virginia Organizing and National People’s Action, are part of the coalition, which is chiefly meant to build power on the national level around financial and housing issues.

“The New Bottom Line wasn’t really possible ten years ago,” says Goehl. “It puts us in 30 states. In my world it’s a groundbreaking alignment. Tons of organizing that might feel like it's below the waterline, but it's trending in the right direction, building power. Attacks on working families will be met with serious resistance.”

Jake Blumgart is a researcher for the Cry Wolf Project and a freelance journalist based in Philadelphia.