Organization Building


Other, less noted, but still important, political developments also occurred during the 80's. ACORN learned the lessons of the Quorum Court and referenda issues in several states well. In many cities, for example, at-large elections made it easy for white and upper-income candidates to dominate city councils and other local governmental bodies. Cities with African- American populations as large as 40% had few, if any, African-Americans serving. Representatives would come almost exclusively from the upper- income neighborhoods of the city. ACORN worked to rectify this arrangement in a number of places, including Pittsburgh, Columbia, S. Carolina, and Sioux Falls, South Dakota by changing the legislative bodies to district, rather than at-large, representation thereby creating opportunities for more democratic governance. Internally, ACORN developed and strengthened their ACORN Political Action Committees (APACs). In every part of the ACORN realm, APACs honed their skills, developed clout and devised agendas for their members. They interviewed candidates for public office and endorsed good ones. They made decisions on how to urge their members to vote on referenda issues. They encouraged ACORN members to run for office and move the ACORN agenda from the inside of the political system. Their goal was accountability to ACORN voters who supported political leaders and wanted good representation of their interests and goals. 

The big test for the APACs was the 1984 presidential election. While no one considered supporting the Republicans, questions arose as to which Democratic candidate to support for the nomination. ACORN leaders decided that the only way to pick a candidate for endorsement would be to get 75% support in polls among members. No candidate reached that level, though there was strong support for Jesse Jackson and the Rainbow Coalition. Seven local groups, however, supported Jesse in the primaries and won recognition, political ties and financial support for their efforts. More importantly, they gained valuable experience in the national political game and a reputation for being able to play it. 

ACORN also established a legislative office to coordinate national ACORN goals and translate them into legislation at the national level. Working out of Washington, the office informed national leaders and media of ACORN's agenda and sought allies for the organization. ACORN refined its political activities to get the greatest amount of impact through a coordination of effort and a sharing of experiences and lessons learned. This period also marked a diversification of ACORN organizing. The United Labor Unions (ULU) became an effective labor organizing arm of ACORN. They organized homemakers in Boston and New Orleans, hotel workers in a number of cities and other challenging low-wage industries. These efforts also benefited ACORN by finding people outside of their neighborhoods and linking them to the ACORN network. 

1980-1985 was a trying time for ACORN organizing. As the needs of low- and moderate-income people increased, the means of serving those needs declined. The movement spirit of the 60's and 70's died away, making it hard to find organizers. The political elite callously ignored serious needs of the least well-off in society. People invested most of their time and energy in simply surviving. Despite hardship, ACORN grew to twenty-seven states, adding significant chapters in New York, Washington, DC., and Chicago, strengthened its core and grew increasingly sophisticated and effective. 


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