Over the last 18 months, ACORN chief organizer Bertha Lewis, executive director Steve Kest, and his brother Jon Kest have secretly sought to consolidate ACORN resources and power in its New York branch. We have learned that New York ACORN has shut down its operation in Brooklyn and handed its lease over to New York Communities for Change, a new nonprofit organization formed by community activists and former staff and leaders of — wait for it — New York ACORN.
New York was home to one of ACORN’s strongest branches. Interestingly, New York ACORN leaders have raided the coffers of ACORN chapters across the country, like Louisiana, and then re-incorporated under a new name. ACORN, or what’s left of it, should consider suing New York Communities for Change for full accounting and forensic audit.
The exposure of the $1 million Rathke embezzlement nearly 18 months ago should have been a wake-up call. It was ACORN’s last real chance to right the ship and save itself. Instead, ACORN’s management decided to expel the board members who exhibited courage and integrity when they tried to exercise their fiduciary duties and root out ACORN corruption. They failed to realize that it was impossible for ACORN to continue to operate the way it has in the past. ACORN’s business model is forty years old — change was painful but inevitable.
The election of President Barack Obama — though celebrated within the association — was actually the worst thing that could have happened to ACORN. The meteoric ascent of the first community organizer to reach the presidency means a level of scrutiny was thrust upon ACORN that it had never experienced before.
The secret of ACORN’s success was that it was always underestimated. Corporate executives would see a group of little old ladies in bright red hats, holding signs, chanting aloud in front of their buildings and laugh. Never realizing they were caught in the sights of a $100 million multi-national conglomeration — with state, congressional and national political reach. That is — until it was too late.
The understated genius of the ACORN is that there is no national front figure, no organizational figurehead. Unlike the Rainbow/Push Coalition with Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr., or the National Action Network with Rev. Al Sharpton, the face of ACORN is ordinary little old ladies from any community USA.
Whether or not you agree or disagree with their tactics, most corporate executives know what is happening to them when Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson show up. But a handful of non-descript little old ladies? They never bat an eyebrow — their hubris does them in.
The second factor is new technology. Forty years ago, no one could untangle the complex web of interlocked corporations that Wade Rathke created in ACORN. No one had the time, knowledge, inclination, or resources to travel across 50 states and check all the secretary of state filings in order to figure out if ACORN had affiliates there or not. Today, you can do it all in one afternoon with Google.
Also, we live in an age of 500 channel telephony. Forty years ago there were three broadcast outlets. So even if you thought you had an ACORN story you probably couldn’t get it aired. Today, we have a media environment that has to fill 500 channels with news and entertainment 24 hours a day. Individual activists armed with a video camera or a cell phone can capture images, post them on the web, and have a very good chance that they could cross over into cable or broadcast television, with devastating impact.
Times have changed — ACORN leadership didn’t. Therein lies the rub. Devastated by a loss of funding and damage to its brand, has the long-rumored dissolution of ACORN finally begun?