After two years at ACORN, 27-year-old Avery Book remains committed to the mission of social and economic justice that compelled him to become a community organizer in the first place. As serious as he usually is, though, Book laughs when the subject turns to his budget for ACORN's Durham office—about $150,000 a year, he says. And as lead organizer in Durham, he receives a salary of slightly more than $30,000. "Obviously, a get-rich quick scheme," he cracks.
It's funny, but what's happened to ACORN lately isn't funny at all. The 40-year-old group—officially, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now—has become the right wing's favorite enemy since a pair of conservative activists, equipped with a hidden camera, tricked two of ACORN's Baltimore staffers into acting like, well, idiots would be a nice word for it.
The conservatives, posing as a pimp and his prostitute, got the ACORN staffers to advise them how to run a brothel, cheat on their taxes, even claim some of their fictional teenage whores (who would be smuggled from El Salvador) as dependents on their tax returns. Fox News is treating the footage like it's the crime of the century, while the mainstream media piles on.
And why not? Because as Book says, the videotapes "are shocking to me and shocking to everyone I've talked to in ACORN that anything like that could happen." Book struggles to explain it. He can't. "It's unimaginable," he finally says.
Nor is this the only problem ACORN faces. Last fall, ACORN discovered that its founder's brother, acting as fiscal officer, embezzled about $950,000 from the organization a decade earlier. When the scandal came to light, according to Pat McCoy, ACORN's state director in North Carolina, foundations and other private funders pulled back, waiting for proof that ACORN had improved its management controls before they'd resume their contributions.
A year later, after consultants and an auditing firm seemed to have put ACORN back on course, McCoy says, "this thing popped up," putting the organization back in the crosshairs.
ACORN quickly fired the staffers involved, suspended client intake at all of its offices and initiated an external review led by a panel that includes former White House Chief of Staff John Podesta. "We do not defend in any way what is shown (on the tapes), or shift blame elsewhere," McCoy says. "ACORN condemns the actions of these employees."
And yet, says Book, what's missing from the ACORN stories is any sense of perspective or proportion. To hear the news media tell it, he says, ACORN is a giant political force cozy with one-time community organizer Barack Obama.
In fact, with offices in 75 cities in 40 states, ACORN is the biggest of a group of tiny organizations that set out in the '60s and '70s to organize low-income and minority communities following the era of civil rights legislation. Most of these organizations failed long ago, Book says, and ACORN nearly died in the '80s, only to revive itself over the last 15 years.
The federal funding that ACORN receives—which Senate and House votes last week threatened to cut off—is about $3 million a year (that's million with an "m"); it's no Enron, in other words, let alone a Bear Stearns or AIG.
In North Carolina, ACORN employs eight people, according to McCoy, and it operates on a annual budget of between $400,000 and $450,000.
Book has two employees in Durham, one of whom is on maternity leave. That makes it the biggest of ACORN's four offices in North Carolina. A Raleigh office is intermittent and is currently run by a volunteer. The others are in Greensboro and Charlotte.
A graduate of Oberlin College in Ohio, a school with a long history of progressive activism, Book was drawn to ACORN because of its progressive mission and its "scrappy" style, which puts low-income people in charge as member-volunteers.
ACORN has 100 to 200 dues-paying members in Durham (dues are up to $10 a month) and another 300 or so who are non-paying, or associate, members, Book says.
In Durham, ACORN's organizing has focused on neighborhood issues like the need for better policing and improved drainage in northeast central Durham, as well as tenants' rights campaigns at the low-income Lincoln Apartments and the Morehead Hills senior-citizens housing complex.
Such efforts, Book says, helped lead to enactment in the recent General Assembly session of a new tenants' rights law, including minimum housing standards statewide.
ACORN is also working on such national issues as home foreclosures (with Durham staffers doing community outreach, referring potential clients to a national ACORN counseling hotline that is federally funded) and health care reform.
In North Carolina, ACORN and N.C. Fair Share are the two lead organizations for a national reform coalition called HCAN (Health Care for America Now) that receives much of its funding from organized labor. All year, McCoy, Book and Dustin Bayard, the volunteer-organizer in Raleigh, have been at the forefront of the fight for reform, including a robust public option.
ACORN's style makes it an easy target for its critics, Book says. It believes in developing leadership from within, which in low-income communities can mean ex-offenders and folks with little education. Its policy objectives are based on their experiences, not gilded-edged studies.
This means listening to people's struggles, tapping into their hopes and figuring out how, if they pull together, they can help themselves, Book says. "The way ACORN has survived, and my own experience with it, is that it's been very creative at figuring out how to remain true to its mission and, without chasing the dollars, to keep on truckin'."
This is why when he tunes into Fox News, Book hears a "witch hunt," or what he terms "a neo-McCarthyism" intent on turning the failures of a handful of ACORN employees into an unseen conspiracy that all Americans should fear.
"ACORN has never been a popular group just because of the nature of the work it's done," he maintains. "But to claim that we're somehow this giant army is just a scare tactic to frighten the progressive community. Let's face it, a lot of the right wing doesn't want low-income people and people of color to be empowered."