Power to the People

Seeds of Change: The Story of ACORN, America’s Most Controversial Antipoverty Community Organizing Group
By John Atlas

Contesting Community: The Limits and Potential of Local Organizing
By James DeFilippis, Robert Fisher, and Eric Shragge

Reviewed by Erik Peterson

A community organizer elected to the U.S. presidency. A vice-presidential wannabe who dismisses his work. Nightly screeds and conspiracy charts by Glenn Beck. Lead stories on CNN. There is no doubt that, in the last three years, community organizing has become “hot,” or at least as hot as grassroots organizing for social change can become.

Into this mix come two new books—John Atlas’s Seeds of Change and James DeFilippis, Robert Fisher, and Eric Shragge’s Contesting Community. Both provide a reflective analysis of the role of community organizing in progressive politics and social change. And both are grounded in the pragmatic, populist politics practiced by the late Senator Paul Wellstone—a politics that develops and grows leaders within communities to challenge existing power relationships by combining grassroots organizing with electoral politics, all around a clear public policy agenda. Wellstone used to say: “Electoral politics without community organizing is a politics without a base; community organizing without electoral politics is a marginalized politics. And community organizing and electoral politics without a clear, progressive public policy agenda is a politics without a head, without a direction.” (Wellstone Action now trains out of this model and calls it the “Wellstone Triangle,” www.wellstone.org.)

Seeds of Change examines the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) as an example of the type of progressive organizing Wellstone promoted, and Contesting Community provides an intellectual framework and a provocative critique of community organizing in a neoliberal age. Both show why a Wellstonian politics is at once so rare and more important than ever.

Contesting Community starts out slow, making relatively modest and obvious claims: community has been romanticized by both the Left and the Right, communities cannot be isolated from larger forces that reside outside them, and communities are not homogeneous. But the argument quickly becomes an engaging and provocative critique of the evolution of neoliberalism and its impact on communities and community organizing.

There is little doubt that the last thirty years have witnessed massive divestiture in government provision of social welfare, and the normalization of a neoliberal economics that celebrates private capital, free markets, individual entrepreneurial freedom, incentive schemes, competition, efficiency, and deregulation. Contesting Community argues that, in the face of this neoliberal economic assault, the public sector has retreated from providing basic services and turned to public-private partnerships and the non-profit sector to provide for human needs. The authors argue that privatization has effectively expanded the size of civil society at the same time that it has marginalized community organizations and subordinated the social benefits they provide to the logic of the marketplace. Community Development Corporations (CDCs) and Community Economic Development organizations (CEDs) have arisen to fill the void and help stressed communities. Governments contract with these community organizations to provide services and, in turn, expect them to professionalize and operate like for-profit businesses. According to the authors, the most corrosive aspect of this contracting out is the diminished importance of the public sector. Government “no longer has a direct responsibility to local citizens” and “the community can no longer turn with any success to the state that is no longer responsible” (p. 79). The result is a less visible, less effective government that seems, for many citizens, incapable of providing the basic services necessary for personal and collective life. The authors do not reject the market pro forma, for if the market could provide social and economic justice in communities they would not object (p. 77). But the goals of the market are far different from the public good; CDCs emerged precisely because the market failed to provide basic social services, and free market logic turns community life and public services into commodities rather than collective, basic social rights (p. 90).

The authors do not aim to lay blame on community organizers or the tactics organizers have felt compelled to adopt, although many—especially in the world of social services—may feel judged by Contesting Community. The authors also recognize that community organizations have adapted to historical circumstances as they try to meet real human needs, but they are equally unflinching in their insistence that much community organizing has served to ameliorate rather than to challenge market fundamentalism and the systems and policies that are creating the problems within communities.

In Chapter 4—“It Takes a Village”—the authors examine a turn away from the power-building community organizations, typified by Saul Alinsky, to an emphasis on building social capital. These “community development” models seek to build relationships between individuals and organizations to heal what Robert Putnam first diagnosed as “bowling alone.” Contesting Community critiques two of these models—asset-based community development and consensus organizing. Asset-based organizing focuses on identifying a community’s assets and then seeks to build common ground and mobilize people within the community to pool their assets and work together to solve mutually identified problems. Similarly, consensus organizing seeks common ground, but it looks outside the community to partner with powerful corporate and foundation elites to address problems within the community. Both self-consciously position themselves as antidotes to what they portray as an outdated model of conflict organizing. Both also “deny that conflict of interests and unequal power relations are critical to the problems that exist in poor communities” (p. 119).

Although much of Contesting Community is a sharp critique of prevalent community organizing efforts, the authors make clear their issue isn’t with building community or strengthening relationships. Both are necessary for social change to occur. The problem is with community organizing that does not challenge the external institutions and policies that have created many of the problems in the first place. They argue that community organizing is effective when it operates on multiple scales, where organizing is done “within place” while challenging the larger systems and unequal power relationships that create problems from outside (p. 69). This requires community organizers to look beyond simply building organizations and local power to building social movements on larger state and federal scales. And it requires social analysis and political education on how the broader political economy (and the racial, class, and gender codes that structure it) hurts people.

Contesting Community ends with the assertion that, through community organizing and collective action, individuals can revive civil society, build the power to “make history,” and negotiate their needs and demand change in regard to both the government and the market. The book describes a number of multi-scale organizing efforts that sustain and integrate community building, provision of social benefits, leadership development, and electoral strategy with a clear, people- and community-centered policy agenda that challenges current power relationships.

One of the examples Contesting Community elevates is ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now). John Atlas’s Seeds of Change provides detail to ACORN’s story, one of the most powerful, effective, and enduring community organizations of the last thirty years. An October 2008 national survey showed that 82 percent of all Americans had heard of ACORN—a staggering recognition for any United States organization, let alone a community-based, anti-poverty group. But what most Americans had heard and thought they knew of ACORN was not impressive. Nor was it accurate. Persistent (and false) stories of voter fraud and tax evasion advice to prostitutes were fueled by a media frenzy launched by right-wing conservative bloggers and propelled to the level of “conventional wisdom” by the mainstream media and the silence of President Barack Obama.

Seeds of Change offers a welcome and much-needed antidote to the scurrilous sound bites and YouTube videos that have dotted ACORN’s recent history. Atlas traces ACORN’s history from the ideas of an ambitious, pragmatic idealist (Wade Rathke) in 1970, to a multi-racial, multi-issue, national, neighborhood-based operation that transcends the single-issue welfare rights platform of Rathke’s first organizing gig with the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO). What started in Arkansas with a tightly-knit group of committed, white, college-educated organizers disillusioned with the ideological factions and schisms of the New Left—coming out of the splits within SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) and other left-wing organizations—grew into a massive network of interlocking organizations, including non-profit and forprofit entities, two radio stations, several publications, two labor union locals, and hundreds of semi-autonomous city-based chapters spanning more than one hundred cities in forty states, with four hundred thousand members, one thousand employees, and a $100 million budget.

At the heart of this vast labyrinth is ACORN’s core organizing model: go door to door, sign up members, identify leaders, call a mass meeting to identify key problems, and mount a community campaign to secure a set of demands. What makes ACORN different from many community and non-profit organizations is its focus on dues-paying members, a pragmatic, flexible approach to organizing, and an organizational structure that engages on multiple scales from neighborhood campaigns waged by city-based chapters to national campaigns that challenge some of the most powerful corporate and political interests.

ACORN’s self-conscious political sensibility and multi-scaled organizing present an alternative to the ameliorative community organizing described in Contesting Community. Rathke used to tell young organizers, “You can win stoplights from here to eternity, which is what many community organizations around the country have excelled at, but unless your organization addresses the question of who has the power to control what happens in a neighborhood, a city, a county, or a state … then all your organization will achieve is a proliferation of stoplights in low to moderate income neighborhoods” (p. 21). ACORN combines all three elements of the “Wellstone Triangle”—grassroots door-to-door community organizing, an electoral strategy ranging from building a new political party (the Working Families Party in New York) to mass voter registration and voter mobilization around politics, and progressive public policies including Community Benefit Agreements, living wage campaigns, and financial regulation through the Community Reinvestment Act.

Much of Atlas’s book walks through the history of the organization and its legendary victories: the squatter campaign in New York City, living wage campaigns, challenging redlining by banks, passing the Community Reinvestment Act, and perhaps ACORN’s most poignant and challenging campaign—its work with survivors in post-Katrina New Orleans to rebuild  their homes in the Lower Ninth Ward and other low-income neighborhoods. This is important history and gripping reading. What Atlas does not provide is a more penetrating analysis of ACORN’s organizing model, and he seems, at times, too willing to gloss over legitimate criticisms. Given the right-wing firestorm around ACORN, this is understandable. Still, there are plaguing questions whose answers might be very instructive for future community organizers and leaders:

• Why did ACORN never seem to be able to overcome the challenges of a mostly white and college-educated organizing staff when most of its members were low-income people of color? The attempt to bridge identity politics with an agenda of “shared economic injustices” oftentimes did not work. What are the lessons to be learned?

• While the authors (and ACORN) often celebrate the romanticism of “selling democracy on $14,000 a year” this model of organizing often turns community organizing into an enterprise in which only the young (often from privileged backgrounds) without families to support can participate, and then only for a brief time until they become burned out, disillusioned, or otherwise move on. This model of organizing as hazing has become almost legendary in a number of progressive community organizations and labor unions. If we are to take seriously Gandhi’s admonition to be the change we wish to see in the world, then it is not enough for the authors to simply identify ACORN’s massive staff burnout and turnover as unfortunate byproducts of social justice work.

• ACORN’s management issues are depicted as “growing pains” exploited by rightwing and corporate opponents, but what organization-building and management lessons can we learn from the daunting task of running a multi-issue, community-based organization at multiple scales?

In the wake of the 2008 elections, and the sobering realization that electing a community organizer to the highest office is insufficient in itself to advancing a progressive agenda, both Seeds of Change and Contesting Community are important reminders that progressive politics must never stop building the power in communities necessary to win social and economic justice and hold elected leaders accountable to the needs of ordinary citizens. Both books are also instructive for a labor movement trying to rebuild itself in numbers and as a voice for the working class. Contesting Community reminds us that unions must broaden their focus beyond simply recruiting new members to begin building genuine relationships with community allies around an explicit and broader critique of neoliberalism. This becomes even more important in the wake of the global financial crisis and the debate over national health care and economic stimulus, and when it appears highly unlikely that the Employee Free Choice Act—or any meaningful labor law reform—will pass in the next few years. Seeds of Change and the story of ACORN demonstrate that powerful, multi-scaled and broad-based labor-community alliances can form around an economic justice agenda, especially among lowwage workers, but we must also tackle directly the institutionalized divisions of race and gender that erode solidarity. Together, these two books remind us of the importance of building a communitybased politics that is focused on improving people’s lives and creating a society where, as Paul Wellstone used to say, “we all do better when we all do better.”

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