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

While I was in a public space recently, reading Seeds of Change, John Atlas’ new biography about a certain nationwide grassroots movement, I resisted the urge to look around furtively and make sure no one saw the cover of the book. After all, the dreaded word “ACORN” is printed boldly in red.

The attacks on ACORN have been so amplified through the reactionary media that far more people are aware of ACORN via the lens of a pseudo-pimp than by the acres of good works the organization actually has accomplished. When members of the public sees or hears about ACORN, they are more likely to think “corruption” than “people power.” And that’s more than a real shame—it’s a massive loss for millions of America’s low-income people who desperately need the type of empowerment engendered by the ACORN model of organizing.

Atlas, a lawyer, longtime community activist and president of the New Jersey-based National Housing Institute, provides a well-researched and highly readable antidote to the vicious smear campaign begun against ACORN in the 2008 elections. Subtitled The Story of ACORN, America’s Most Controversial Antipoverty Community Organizing Group, the book is the product of many years in which Atlas poured through ACORN’s extensive files—with the group’s permission—and interviewed dozens of ACORN activists across the nation. With its outside-looking-in approach, Seeds of Change compliments ACORN founder Wade Rathke’s personal account of the organization. Rathke joined us in this space for a book salon on his work, Citizen Wealth.

Atlas condenses a vast amount of material into tight, clear prose that makes it easy for any reader to grasp in a few sentences issues like redlining and the subsequent ACORN-led push for passage of the now maligned Community Reinvestment Act (CRA). But the bulk of ACORN’s work was neither high-profile nor nationally based, and Atlas does an impressive job pulling together the organization’s myriad but diffuse grassroots accomplishments—the hard-fought local living wage campaigns, elections of ACORN-generated candidates for public office and success around distinctly neighborhood issues like predatory utility companies and polluting power plants.

Although he states at the start that ACORN as an organization was never identifiable by any one national leader, Atlas makes it clear that Rathke’s stewardship was paramount for many years while the organization got off the ground—his individual stamp shaping its formation. Bucking the 1960s–1970s SDS vision of unions as part of the sniveling capitalist class, Rathke sought to connect labor and the community, his one-on-one experiences with union members, like those whom he worked with on an offshore oil rig, having taught him that “people are more complex than he had realized.”

Rathke would never view union and blue-collar workers as his enemies. If they were misguided about school integration or the war in Vietnam or the welfare system, that didn’t mean they were evil people or that they couldn’t change their views.

Even though the ACORN-led union “association” organizing model didn’t survive the long haul, ACORN’s partnership with grassroots union activists engendered key cross-fertilization, ACORN community activists later taking prominent leadership roles in labor, seeding the ground for the union movement’s progressive rebirth.

Like the seed (we’re sticking closely to the metaphor, here) for which it is named, ACORN’s accomplishments, large and small, litter the ground, hard to collect and piece together. But then, the very identity of the organization also proved a puzzle.

People who encountered ACORN had a difficult time comprehending it. Even union leaders and other close allies of ACORN, such as the head of Arkansas’s AFL-CIO, couldn’t quite understand what Rathke was doing. He had produced an admixture of organizing group, national political party, community and workplace union.

ACORN’s amorphous nature enabled it to accomplish much—but also provided opponents with the ability to make a quick hit on a local ACORN office that viraled out of control, this closing episode chronicled in “The Prostitute and the Assault,” the final chapter in Seeds of Change.

Or is it the final chapter?

A distorted (surprise) Politico article on Seeds of Change breathlessly titled, “New Book Says ACORN Will Be Back,” stirs the specter of an ACORN comeback, already in process via re-named local former ACORN organizations.

That’s good news. As Atlas shows in a portrait of ACORN President Dorothy Hurd, who was “brought up ‘not to make waves,’ ” before she marched into Boston’s City Hall to demand the mayor address trash-filled vacant lots in low-income neighborhoods, change means conflict.

“It was a scary experience for me and a lot of folks,” Hurd would recall, “but it got results, got news coverage and got some vacant lots cleaned up. At that point, I was convinced that people working together like that can work.” She realized ordinary people could successfully demand a say in politics that affected their lives.

And that was the essence of ACORN. And democracy. And why the forces of reaction attacked it so hard.

Tula Connell

Tula Connell