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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.

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 disrupted the American Bankers Association’s annual meeting. In 2010, it marched on Wall Street with 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.”