I often think about how to resist the powerful tide of money and media that props up the status quo.
I wonder how we can solve local or state issues, when our national politics continue to be deadlocked and politicians remain beholden to elite interest groups and the funding they provide.
I seek how we can address institutions of injustice that prevent people from experiencing their own potential.
Then I consider the void left by one organization, and realize that we may already have a model for disrupting our current systems and propelling us quicker along the arc of justice.
That organization is the Association of Community Organization for Reform Now (ACORN).
ACORN, one of the most successful anti-poverty organizations in the U.S.’s history, tirelessly fought for justice (e.g. affordable housing, workers’ rights, living wages, livable neighborhoods, etc.).
Unfortunately, those opposed to the political empowerment of low-income communities also noticed the rise of ACORN’s influence.
There is a reason Republicans attacked ACORN so frantically and Democrats, more worried about their own elections than the people ACORN represented, allowed it to fall.
Now ACORN wasn’t perfect by any means, but ACORN did offer a model to amplify the voices of low-income communities, and also worked to elevate their interests to a level where they couldn’t be ignored.
Lessons We Can Learn From ACORN
ACORN did things well and also made mistakes. We should learn the lessons of what ACORN did well or should have done differently, to create a new set of resilient organizations that can strongly work for justice.
We need to learn to:
1. Build New Leadership
There is a big difference between recruiting existing leaders vs. training people to develop their own leadership skills.
Just think in your own organizing, how often are the same faces at every meeting? The people most impacted by injustice should be leading the charge.
Particularly in low-/moderate-income and/or non-organized communities, we need to create programs, host workshops, and work 1-on-1 to expand leadership capacity.
2. Tie National Organizations to Local Organizations – And Vice Versa
If ACORN was solely a local organization, it would have had a tough time standing up to bank that offered predatory loans. However, since it had such a robust network across the county it allowed ACORN to stand up to powerful interests of all sizes.
ACORN’s local groups had some degree of flexibility to focus on the issues impacting their own communities, which could then scale up to become national issues.
There are times when having a unified focus is essential to moving forward progressive issues, and then there a times the multi-issue approach works best.
3. Register voters
We need to conduct a disciplined and comprehensive voter registration drive to get more people to the polls.
Politicians need to be accountable to ALL their constituents, not just those with the loudest voice. By making sure most people register and vote, politicians will need to reach out to and listen to their base.
Even though ACORN had a well-trained voter registration drive, the media focused on isolated incidents and held them up as systemic issues.
Thus, it becomes doubly important to have discipline and accountability so as to be resilient to attacks from those afraid of registering low-income and disenfranchised voters.
4. Develop intersectional cross-issue plans
To solve issues of low wages, high incarceration rates, environmental degradation, attacks on basic rights, etc. we must look at them holistically.
People are impacted by a whole host of issues and most people have multiple identities (e.g. based on economics, race, gender, sexuality, ability, age, etc.). This is called intersectionality.
We ought to look beyond single-issue politics and engage in cross-issue plans that can propel significant victories against multifaceted problems (e.g. the Prison Industrial Complex, poverty, and poor educational outcomes).
5. Provide political education
We need a truly grassroots organization that frequently engages people in political education.
Rinku Sen writes in Stir It Up these means we need to organize our members to “read, share information, understand history, bring people to speak to our groups, and talk with people in other places.”
A mass-based organization could engage people in actions for justice regardless of whether the truth is covered in schools, politics, or the media.
6. Grow media and research capacity
If an organization relies on the dominant media to relay their message, then they are constantly fighting an uphill battle.
Rinku Sen notes in Stir It Up (and implements it in practice with Colorlines.com) the essential role in media in all of our organizing efforts, and that we have to BOTH foster alternative ways to get our message out and better learn how to work with mainstream media.
This means building relationships with news outlets, focusing our messages on a specific audience, and developing our own media.
7. Coordinate multiple, long-term cross-issue campaigns
We need to be action-oriented in order to engage and educate people. We also need to work for the long-term (i.e. think beyond election cycles) to achieve larger-scale changes.
To be able to run multiple campaigns at the same time requires a lot of base building, but allows our organizations to gain a much higher capacity level.
To summarize all these points, I again turn to the wise words of Rinku Sen who writes we need to be “increasing our organizing among the people affected and then addressing their issues with sustained campaigns and the addition of research and media capacity.”