This period witnessed the maturity of ACORN in preparation for the '90s. The people and the organization they comprise, 70,000 plus in twenty-eight states, grew in size, numbers, and maturity. The original vision of the movement to win the power to control important decisions in American life for the majority continued to guide ACORN members and allies across the country. The up and down struggle over twenty years showed them the value of the struggle and the importance of winning; the process of the struggle built the means to reach the goal.
The work of ACORN required members, staff, leaders, money, skills, issues, conflict and organization. The supply of each of these had been scarce on a continuing basis since ACORN's inception. The key to survival and growth was the continual effort to find and develop resources, or find ways to manage without them at least part of the time. This period demonstrated the organization's ability to do just that. Through diversification and ingenuity, ACORN laid the foundations for an organization that can go into the '90s with confidence and enthusiasm. The key to this optimism was the shared dream and the value of the lessons learned and applied over twenty years.
Sharing the Dream
The sharing of the dream began with the People's Platform and grew as each newly organized neighborhood and member learned about the issues and solidarity of ACORN. The national conventions stirred members to greater commitment to ACORN goals. They grew by sharing actions and enthusiasms, whether marching on the Democrats in Philadelphia, S. Lee Kling's home in Memphis, or the Republicans in Dallas. Working toward the shared goals defined in the People's Platform helped connect the work in their neighborhoods with the overall national goal of justice for low- and moderate-income Americans.
This connection continued to grow and strengthen through a variety of means. National parties were preparing their presidential candidates for 1988 and ACORN once again took advantage of the opportunity to get involved in the process. It began with a Caravan for Justice, a multi-city trek from St. Louis to Memphis, across Arkansas, through Louisiana and on to Atlanta, picking up allies, such as labor unions, along the way. In the caravan members and leaders met one another, worked to gain publicity for ACORN issues and learned more about shared concerns.
ACORN's decision to back the Rainbow Coalition and Jesse Jackson might have been a divisive action in many organizations. When it became clear that Jackson not only shared ACORN's commitment to the People's Platform but was able to work with ACORN and other progressive groups, however, the decision was easy. That summer, ACORN held its national convention- in Atlanta, along with the Democrats. ACORN had thirty Jackson delegates on the floor of the Democrats' convention, led an inspiring march down Peachtree Street, as well as participating in actions and conventioneering. Members returned home sharing their insights and enthusiasm.
Also instrumental to sharing the dream was the development the Affiliated Media Foundation Movement (AM/FM). Because ACORN recognized that mass electronic communication is essential to articulating and sharing a vision and could mobilize people in a large area quickly and effectively, they created AM/FM. Starting with station KNON in Dallas, they have begun the work of establishing radio, UHF and cable television programming. Using creative news, entertainment and public affairs programs, ACORN informs, moves and recruits members and allies on important issues.
Lessons Learned and Applied
This period also witnessed a series of ideas that ACORN® adopted to enhance its effectiveness: organizational alliances, electoral politics, national lobbying, diversification and the insiders' power game. While the movement maintained its core commitments, it added some effective means to enhance its power, the bottom line in all its efforts.
Starting after the ACORN® 80 Plan and reaching its heights in the Rainbow Lobby work in 1988, ACORN® found ways to work effectively with other progressive groups, such as labor, churches- and political movements. The 1984 Reagan Ranches convinced other progressive folks of ACORN®'s resolve to work effectively with others. In city after city, groups provided members, resources and enthusiasm to the ranches to protest Reagan's domestic and foreign policies. The Rainbow Lobby was a strong force in Democratic Party politics in 1988 because of ACORN®'s hard work and ability to coordinate efforts with other groups. This experience confirmed the value of building and working within alliances.
Electoral politics also became a powerful weapon in the ACORN® arsenal. While they were not new to ACORN®'s work - they were first tried in 1972 - they were refined and institutionalized within ACORN®. The work with the Rainbow Lobby was clear proof of ACORN®'s electoral abilities. APAC work in local and national electoral politics paid off, not just in campaigns won but in influence wielded within parties or among voters. ACORN® groups discovered the possibilities of getting candidates to see things their way before an election, push for turnout and support, and continue to influence officeholders. They were even successful in electing members to offices in city councils, boards of education and, in Connecticut, the state legislature.
ACORN® also developed the capacity to influence office holders it had not been involved with in elections. The creation of the national office in Washington, DC made it possible to push ACORN® issues at the federal level. Their work in pushing for funding of innovative community programs to prevent rape was one example of the possible connections to local and community ACORN® efforts.
The national lobbying arm of ACORN® is only one example of the diversification within ACORN® that was basic to its success. The ACORN® Housing Corporation worked to create affordable housing in conjunction with banks and state and local government. The United Labor Unions, now Locals 100 and 880 of the Service Employees International Union, became labor organizing arms of ACORN® which organize people where they work. ACORN® Services, Inc. and the canvassing operations enhanced ACORN®'s ability to create the financial resources needed to grow. The Arkansas Institute for Social Justice became the means for developing leadership skills and political talents among the ACORN® members. What was once a relatively simple organization of community groups has became a diversified system of institutions capable of applying specialized skills to solving the kinds of problems ACORN® encounters in its work.
Finally, ACORN® began playing the insiders' game in American politics. Congressional lobbying is practiced by ACORN® staff. Leaders and members became a central part of the insiders' games, too. Members elected to office or serving on APACs acquire experience and skill applying power from the inside of the political process. Instead of confronting opponents in actions (something ACORN® will never stop doing), members could trade and negotiate from inside positions of power. ACORN®'s work on the savings and loan bailout provided effective means of developing and applying power for low- and moderate- income people. ACORN® members won appointment to the Resolution Trust Corporation (RTC) to help determine the management of the billions of dollars of assets the government seized. The payoff to these activities came, and still comes, when substantial numbers of ACORN® members developed the ability to move inside the political sphere that has for so long been closed to low- and moderate-income people.