As progressives survey the damage from the attacks against ACORN, largely overlooked is the organization's preeminent role in training young activists to be great community organizers. Hundreds of progressive organizers got their start with ACORN, and the loss of ACORN as an organizing incubator comes amidst an acute shortage of community organizing jobs. Although Barack Obama’s community organizer background was supposed to galvanize young people into following this path, nearly a year after his election there are fewer entry-level community organizing jobs than before. Young Obama campaign activists who hoped to become fulltime organizers post- election have seen doors closed. Obama’s Organizing for America has created nowhere near the number of full-time community organizing jobs necessary to meet demand, and the group’s connection to the Democratic Party limits its effectiveness. As ACORN cutbacks weaken one of the progressive movement’s leading organizer training vehicles, everyone from labor unions, to interfaith networks, to progressive foundations, to the Obama Administration better start thinking about how to fill this organizer gap.
The success of the right-wing assault on ACORN is best measured by how the discussion has rapidly moved from the validity of the FOX News charges to the fallout for ACORN and the constituencies it serves. While many have focused on ACORN’s sharply diminished capacity to build power among for low-income communities, the entire progressive movement will be impacted by the potential loss of ACORN’s role as one of the nation’s leading entry points for young people seeking community organizing careers.
ACORN’s Organizing Culture
For at least the past two decades, ACORN offered more opportunities for community organizing jobs than any organization. It did so because it saw organizing low-income families as fundamental to its mission, used a model whereby organizers raised their own salaries through door to door canvassing for memberships, and gave a chance to anyone who sought to become a community organizer.
This latter quality distinguished ACORN from nearly all other progressive groups, which customarily carefully evaluated prospects for what were typically relatively few organizing positions. But ACORN saw organizer recruitment as a “numbers game,” believing that organizing was such hard and complex work that success could not be easily predicted, hence the need to bring in lots of people to find out which could perform.
This resulted in massive turnover, with many would-be organizers dropping out, or being terminated, within weeks of starting. But it also meant that people got a chance to succeed, and if they could get through the rough early weeks, hundreds went on to become skilled community organizers.
By prioritizing organizing, ACORN amassed a great group of longtime community organizers. These veteran activists have collectively have led struggles for higher local minimum wages, against predatory lending, and for a broad range of social and economic justice measures at the local, state and national level.
But ACORN’s important training ground function is also reflected in the many tremendous organizers who got their first full-time jobs with ACORN before leaving in frustration over its notorious payroll problems, its glacial, New Orleans-based bureaucracy (which was finally eliminated last year), and its long work hours and, prior to recent years, extremely low pay. But for all their criticism, few among them dispute that they learned valuable skills and built important relationships there, and that ACORN played a critical role in their organizing careers.
Future Community Organizers Need not Apply
Today, ACORN is not in a position to hire new organizers, and it might not be in such position again. This means that the group most capable of training and absorbing large numbers of new organizers in this critical time in history will not, at least in the short-term, play this role.
Unfortunately, even prior to the right-wing attacks that put ACORN on life support, the progressive movement was not harnessing the energies of hundreds if not thousands of young activists seeking to engage in community organizing.
After the November 2008 election, I described how the Obama campaign could enlist these activists using the model
of the United Farmworkers of America in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Just as the UFW harnessed hundreds of young activists into becoming fulltime grape and lettuce boycott volunteers, this model could accommodate the numbers Obama inspired to seek fulltime community organizing jobs.
In Beyond the Fields
. I chart how the UFW trained a generation of young activists who went on for the next four decades to impact a wide variety of social justice movements and organizations. The Obama campaign created the opportunity of setting a new generation of young activists on this path of future strategic leadership, but ultimately failed to springboard campaign activists into fulltime organizing jobs.
This is why ACORN’s role as a training ground for young activists was so critical.
As even highly skilled Obama campaign organizers found little interest in their skills after the election, ACORN was among the few vehicles left for young organizers to get training in organizing and activist strategizing.
The PIRGS, Labor, and Community Non-Profits
Without ACORN, young activists seeking an entry-point in organizing have very limited options. The PIRG’s hired 70 organizers in the past year, 50 of which are campus-based. The PIRG’s resemble ACORN in being a training ground for community organizers, and with the latter’s decline, the PIRG’s are probably now the leading employer of new organizers.
Organized labor is less likely to hire inexperienced organizers, which is why SEIU and other unions prefer hiring those previously trained by ACORN. SEIU has long hired many young organizers, but internal problems and the union’s battles against UNITE HERE and NUHW have caused many young organizers to leave their jobs and made recruitment more difficult.
Local non-profit groups hire young organizers, but these jobs often lack the mentoring offered by ACORN and the PIRGs that is so critical to building effective activists. Non-profits also face ongoing funding limitations, staff turnover, and unless linked to national networks, focus exclusively on local issues.
In contrast, both ACORN and the PIRG’s give young organizers the opportunity to work on national campaigns. This builds the broader relationships among community organizers that helps the campaigns themselves, while also assisting organizers learn from those outside their immediate organization.
The faith-based networks such as PICO, the IAF, Gamaliel and others hire many organizers, but rarely those without prior experience. MoveOn, Democracy for America and similar national groups also hire organizers, but not in meaningful numbers.
So ACORN’s problems will exacerbate the current lack of funding for a progressive organizing infrastructure. It’s fine to hire folks to work on elections, but as the health care campaign vividly shows, there’s a great need for people on the ground to advance progressive issues after winning elections that is not being met.
Randy Shaw is the editor of Beyond Chron and author of The Activist’s Handbook.