Telling ACORN’s Story

A book about ACORN documents its transition from a successful grassroots organization to a scandal-plagued group that was the focus of a major congressional investigation.

Courtesy of publisher.

When John Atlas started writing a book about ACORN in 2004, it was a little-known grassroots organization with a mission to help low-income communities. By the time he finished, ACORN had collapsed in a series of headline-making scandals, including a video sting that prompted Congress to pull its 2010 funding, effectively forcing ACORN to close its doors.

“When I began writing this book, I would tell people I was interested in how the working poor could make a difference in their community,” says Atlas, a public-interest lawyer who directed the Passaic County Legal Aid Society for 22 years. “My friends would say, ‘Why are you writing a book about a group that no one ever heard of?’ It turned into a book about a group that 80 percent of the American public know about, but what they know is not true.”

Seeds of Change: The Story of ACORN, America’s Most Controversial Antipoverty Community Organizing Group (Vanderbilt University Press) is Atlas’s ambitious attempt to tell the real story of the organization.

ACORN (which stands for Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) did a remarkable job of helping the poor, says Atlas, who lives in Montclair and is president of the Montclair-based nonprofit National Housing Institute. In his book, he describes how the organization built thousands of units of affordable housing, helped to increase the minimum wage, stopped foreclosures on homes and turned garbage-strewn lots into parks.

Yet today, most people only know of ACORN as the organization portrayed in that video sting, in which ACORN employees allegedly advise a purported pimp and a prostitute how to commit tax fraud. ACORN, which was nonpartisan but was closely aligned with Democratic causes, earlier made headlines during the 2008 presidential campaign when Republicans accused it of voter-registration fraud.

During the campaign, ACORN hired thousands of temporary workers to help register voters. Despite stringent warnings by supervisors and in violation of ACORN’s policies, a few of those employees wrote in phony names, such as those of cartoon characters. Republicans used the incident to undermine the group’s registration effort, says Atlas. “There’s never been any evidence—despite a dozen investigations against ACORN—that the group ever took part in any voter fraud,” he says, adding, “Mickey Mouse never showed up at the polls to vote.”

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