BY JONATHAN VALANIA FOR THE PHILADELPHIA WEEKLY For all the bad press that ACORN has received in the media in recent years — according to Lexis Nexus, from 2007-2008 there were 4,468 newspaper and wire stories that mentioned ACORN — the general public remains largely uninformed about what ACORN is and what exactly it does, outside of signing up Mickey Mouse to vote every four years. In short, ACORN, which stands for the Association of Community Organizations For Reform Now, provides a voice for the voiceless, advocating, organizing and agitating on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised — registering them to vote, helping them obtain suitable housing, get a mortgage, protecting them from predatory lenders, helping them earn a living wage and then providing free tax preparation services to help them give back their fair share on those living wages — providing the largely invisible underclass with something you and I take for granted every day: agency, or the capacity to make choices and impose those choices on the world.
In 1970, founder Wade Rathke opened ACORN’s first office in Little Rock, Arkansas (ACORN originally stood for Arkansas Coalition For Reform Now) organizing welfare recipients and working poor families to advocate and, if that failed, agitate for free school lunches, Vietnam Veteran’s rights, unemployment benefits and hospital emergency room care. After making headway in Arkansas, ACORN began opening new chapters across the south and then nationwide. As of 2007, ACORN had chapters in 103 cities across 37 states.
In June of 2008, Rathke resigned his post as Chief Organizer of ACORN in the wake of controversy surrounding his brother’s embezzlement of nearly one million dollars from the ACORN coffers nearly 10 years ago. Rathke felt ACORN would not be well-served by going public and getting law enforcement involved and, like most corporations when faced with an embezzlement scandal, opted to handle it quietly and in-house. The money was replaced, but the scandal eventually went public and Rathke resigned in the hopes of shielding ACORN from further controversy. Today, Rathke lives in Louisiana, runs ACORN International — organizing ACORN chapters in India, Kenya, Argentina, Mexico, Dominican Republic, Peru, and Canada — and publishes Social Policy magazine quarterly. He was in town last week promoting his new book Citizen Wealth: Winning The Campaign To Save Working Families and PW took the opportunity to get his side of the story about all the controversy surrounding the organization he founded some 40 years ago. MORE