Mark Winston Griffith
Calling the Question of ACORN
Last night the "Newshour with Jim Lehrer" rebroadcast a story on the looming development of downtown Brooklyn, which includes the Nets Basketball arena and a dominating, Manhattan-like, Frank Gehry-designed skyline.
Among the interviewees, there was Bertha Lewis, the electrifying spokesperson for Brooklyn-based ACORN, patting herself on the back for getting Forest City Ratner, the developer of this mega-project, to agree to set aside 50% of the proposed residential units as affordable housing.
Although there's no guarantee that Ratner will honor this agreement, I'll leave it to others to argue whether this was a good deal for the residents of the surrounding area. It could end up being, as Bertha indicated, a coup for affordable housing and job seekers. Or it could end up being a cruel and opportunistic selling out of a neighborhood.
This question will continue to be explored intensely for the next few years. But an issue that also deserves public debate is the role that ACORN continues to play in New York City politics and community development. From Bertha's famed spit swapping with Mike Bloomberg, to ACORN's penchant for striking shady, self-profiting, deals with huge corporate interests, ACORN has muddied the idea of community organizing as a process of developing grassroots leadership and building community power.
To be fair, ACORN, nationally, has often been a force for good, wringing concessions from corporate exploiters and building social justice institutions. To assert their legitimacy, ACORN's will point to the thousands of members they have. But if you have ever been to an event organized by ACORN in New York or a meeting with an ACORN organizer, it's hard to see their members as little more than animated props and set pieces in ACORN's elaborate political theater.
New York has a lot of social justice "advocates", spokespeople and so called leaders who work on behalf of low-income people and people of color. Disclaimers aside, I, admittedly, am one of them. But when it comes to community organizing I think New York could use a lot more community agitation, mobilization and low-income people speaking publicly for themselves, and less brokering and deal-making by others claiming to know what's good for the disenfranchised.