ACORN’s Roots

Steve Kest and John Atlas Speak at Progressivism on Tap

The Progressivism on Tap Fall 2010 series concluded with a discussion of community organizing and the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN. The event featured Steve Kest, former executive director of ACORN and Senior Fellow at CAP, and John Atlas, who recently published Seeds of Change: The Story of ACORN, America’s Most Controversial Anti-Poverty Community Group. Kest and Atlas discussed the history of community organizing, how ACORN developed the modern model, and what the future holds for grassroots organizing.

Atlas discussed ACORN’s roots and how the organization learned from past American organizing movements—from the settlement house movement in the late 19th and early 20th century to labor movements and the civil rights movement of the 1960s. These movements, and ACORN, operated on the fundamental belief that if one wants to help the poor, charity is not enough. Organizations must “encourage people-power,” said Atlas.

What made ACORN uniquely effective, though, was its organizational philosophy and methodology. Some of the key elements of this methodology, according to Kest, were involvement in electoral politics, a replicable organizing model, partnership and creation of unions, and partnership with its enemies, such as banks. ACORN registered to vote millions of people just in the past decade, according to Atlas.

ACORN was so effective in achieving its goals—from voter registration to securing low-interest rate loans for homes for low-income families—that it dissolved in 2009 due to controversy that engulfed the organization. The right-wing media cooked up a variety of scandals targeting ACORN, and the mainstream media did not independently investigate these scandals until too late.

Kest said that in the future progressive organizations should “stick together and show solidarity” when right-wing groups like FOX News try to propagate damaging rumors.

Read about more Progressivism on Tap events here.