Thursday, September 24, 2009

ACORN The new whipping boy?

I have been keenly interested in the controversies over the past year regarding ACORN. I worked as a community organizer for ACORN from October 1987 to August 1988. I also worked for ACORN for about a month in their Brooklyn office in the fall of 1988 when I entered seminary at Union in New York City.

I organized a community group on the South Side of Chicago for ACRIN and then came to the Twin Cities to re-open their office. I ended up organizing two community groups in the Cities—one on the East side of St. Paul and one in the Philips neighborhood in Minneapolis. I also helped organize a delegation from the Cities who attended ACORN’s national convention in Atlanta in August 1988—their convention took place at the same time as the Democratic National Convention.

I have always had a high amount of respect for ACORN’s willingness to do the gritty work of organizing low-income people. I was trained to go door-to-door in low income neighborhoods. During our conversation I was asked to help people identify the problems in the neighborhood and share a vision of how a group of people could solve these problems. I was then trained to sign up the person to become a member of ACORN and collect dues on the spot.

Few other organizations are developing leadership in low-income neighborhoods like ACORN. I wish the church had the willingness to empower low-income people to solve their problems. I’ve heard many sermons from preachers about helping the poor, but I’ve experienced few churches (though some do exist) who look to empower the poor. Or Christians who would go door-to-door in low-income neighborhoods to talk to people.

Obviously I am biased when I reflect on the latest controversies regarding ACORN.

I found ACORN to be a loosely-managed organization. It was my experience that many people came in and out of ACORN as staff people. Many of these folks couldn’t exert the energy that was necessary to work for ACORN. We had many college students who were looking for a job after graduation. We would train them for a day and then send them out into the neighborhoods.

When the Republican party made ACORN a whipping boy last fall during the election I first thought it was a joke. I couldn’t believe that anyone would find ACORN to be a threat. I remember how hard it was to get people to come to a meeting in someone’s home. We were happy if 40 people came to a community meeting. Suddenly ACORN was this “evil” organization? That didn’t make sense to me.

I’m not at all defending the behavior by ACORN’s staffers in the infamous video that has gone viral. I see the behavior by ACORN’s staff more an issue of mismanagement than one of corruption. In a column written this week by Tom Blackburn, the Catholic bishops’ Campaign for Human Development cut off ACORN’s funding because of weak management, transparency and fiscal accountability. The link to his column is here:

I’ve always believe that if you really want to find trouble, a person can find it. Some conservative staffers dress up as a prostitute and a pimp, go to different offices of ACORN, offer their services, and secretly tape their interactions. That doesn’t pass the smell test.

ACORN’s mismanagement doesn’t pass the smell test either.

But the organization is not this terrible threat to our nation. They are an organization who has a long track of organizing the poor and have at times managed their organization poorly.

I still find it funny that people would find ACORN to be a threat. And I’m crying that this incident has created so much anger. ACORN doesn’t deserve to be anyone’s whipping boy.

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