Day: November 8, 2010

Politico: ACORN razzes President Obama in New Delhi

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Had President Barack Obama stopped to survey the crowd of Indian leftists protesting in the heart of New Delhi on Monday, he might have seen a familiar name on some placards: ACORN.

The group, a pioneering organizing force on the left and leading boogeyman on the right, remains alive in the American political imagination, with Republicans darkly warning last week of its role in various local elections. In reality, ACORN entered Chapter 7 liquidation last week, leaving behind a handful of big-city chapters under new names but no national political organization.

So what’s it doing in India, where it joined a protest against proposed liberalization of the retail industry, which could bring chains such as Wal-Mart to the country at the expense of its millions of small vendors?

As befits an organization torn apart in the end by internal chaos, ACORN International has grown out of a schism between ACORN founder Wade Rathke and a group of leaders who ousted him in 2008 amid criticism of his governance. Even before his ouster, Rathke had quietly shifted his focus to setting up groups along the ACORN model in nine countries, largely focused on organizing to demand government help in giant slums in the developing world.


“We run a much more self-sufficient organization — much closer to the ground and much more indigenous” than the U.S. Acorn, Rathke said Monday of the new group, which he said has between 50,000 and 60,000 members. “That’s one of the lessons I’ve learned since the demise of ACORN.”


Rathke created ACORN — short for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now — in 1970 as a membership organization of poor people who paid modest dues to a professional staff to help press governments and corporations for tangible concessions. As the group grew, however, it became increasingly dependent on liberal donors and foundations and on government work — most of which vanished after the conservative videographer James O’Keefe produced videos of employees of ACORN’s housing unit appearing to offer him tax advice in setting up a prostitution business. The group was never charged, but the damage to its fundraising was devastating.


And Rathke said he’s determined not to build an organization that vulnerable again.

“You can imagine what it’s like to run a membership organization in India on 15 rupees a month,” he said.

He’s proudest, he said, of the work the group has done in San Juan de Lurigancho, a megaslum in Lima, Peru.

“It’s just amazing — there’s potable water there now, roads are being paved, there’s stairways being built, two parks are built and one school. We feel great about that,” he said. “But once again these are extremely poor places — stairs and roads going to shacks.”

In India, the group has set up shop in three cities and has been a member of a coalition called FDI Watch, which favors strict regulation on foreign direct investment.

ACORN “definitely has a future” in India, said Dhamendra Kumar, who heads up ACORN’s India office. “The rate of growth is really amazing.”

Obama, who as a lawyer represented ACORN in a 1993 voting rights case, had Republican operatives dressed as squirrels following him on the campaign trail in 2008. But now he’s firmly on the other side of the barricades from the radical group, trying to open Indian markets to American corporations.

“He’s in sales and promotion right now,” Rathke said dismissively of Obama’s focus on American jobs while in India. “I just wish the president had been a little more on message about what’s happening in India and a little less a corporate huckster. I really think the guy has a lot to give, and it would have been a message well-received if he’s going to speak to equity and injustice around the world.”

Rathke’s old internal critics weren’t thrilled to see ACORN resurface. Rathke had agreed to stop using the group’s name domestically when he left — he called it “Community Organizations International” for domestic fundraising purposes — but had irritated his old colleague by using the brand abroad. He’s now free to use it in the U.S. again as well.

“We had an agreement about him not using it here in the states, and the next thing we know the bastard goes and now he’s international,” said Bertha Lewis, ACORN’s final president. “He just stretches stuff.”

“I’m quite proud of the name and history of ACORN and ACORN International, so we have never considered changing the name in any country where we are working,” Rathke said.

And those who have followed Rathke’s career expect ACORN International to make its mark.

“He is the most important organizing strategist and tactician, since the father of community organizing, Saul Alinsky,” said John Atlas, author of a recent history of ACORN, Seeds of Change. “He has succeeded in building effective groups in India and Peru. I believe he will succeed in building others, and they will get stronger over time.”

Christian Science Monitor: How ACORN could intrude on President Obama’s India visit

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On his trip to India’s commercial capital, Mumbai (Bombay), President Obama addressed entrepreneurs, university students, and Asia’s richest man, who just built himself a 27-story house.

But he stayed far away from Dharavi, one of Asia’s largest slums, which was made famous worldwide by the hit 2008 movie “Slumdog Millionaire.”

Inside the slum lies an impolitic connection from Obama’s past that – like Shakespeare’s Falstaff – could have helped balance the president’s view into the lives of citizens here.

The ACORN Foundation India works to organize the slum’s trash collectors and sorters known as “ragpickers.” The group was set up separately by the founder of the ACORN community organization that Obama once worked with in America. Opponents assailed Obama’s ties to ACORN after some of its workers falsified voter registrations during the 2008 presidential contest.

In India, the model does not involve widespread voter registration of the poor – partly because groups like the ragpickers are disenfranchised in the world’s largest democracy. Many of them are migrants or homeless who lack the proof of residence papers needed to vote, says Vinod Shetty, the Mumbai head of the ACORN India Foundation.

“At every stage they are asked for proof of identity, proof of residence. So if you don’t have [that] you are treated as a criminal in the city. So then they have to bribe someone to get something all the time,” says Mr. Shetty. “They are in fact lining the pockets of all these authorities, who have a vested interest in keeping them either informal or without papers.”

ID cards for ragpickers

ACORN India issues the ragpickers identification cards that help cut down harassment by police and neighborhood watch groups.

But since the group cannot be turned easily into a vote bank or organized against a single employer – most are self-employed – they have been ignored by politicians and labor unions.

ACORN India is working with the ragpickers to form a cooperative that helps the adults bargain collectively for better prices and social standing, while providing their kids educational scholarships and enrichment.

“In a city like [Mumbai] you need to be from a powerful section of the poor to grab land or even squat. If you are not protected by a political party, or by a community, or by any kind of gangsters or slumlord, you may not even get that space,” says Shetty.

Life in the slum

Instead, some of the 150,000 to 200,000 ragpickers in Mumbai live on top of the garbage they sort on the fringes of Dharavi.

One such colony lives under a highway overpass around a trash heap hemmed in by two massive water pipes. The pipes have become sidewalks connecting hovels where ragpickers skillfully squeeze profit from the 10,000 tons of trash discarded daily in the metropolis.

Some are cutting large cardboard boxes into smaller panels that are cut and pressed together to form new, smaller boxes with their old logos cleverly flipped inside. Even the old staples are recycled.

Others are sorting for specific detritus like car headlamps or bicycle handlebar grips; such items take on value in bulk.

A man named Syed Sheikh sits under a canopy sorting through a sack of plastic junk he bought for 50 cents. He pulls an item out, taps it against a rock, then tosses it into one of the many bags and piles around him.

“I tap the rock to understand: Different plastic makes different sounds,” he says.

Plastic that’s sorted by color and by grade sells for $3.50 to $23 per sack. Even with his fast pace, the work nets less than 67 cents an hour for him. Still, after three hours of work a day he will earn more than 75 percent of Indians do, according to World Bank data from 2005.

While he lives in a very expensive city and Indian wages have grown in the past five years, his economic reality remains closer to the majority of Indians than the elite Obama met.

‘Green-collar’ workforce?

Shetty says roughly 40 percent of all Mumbai’s waste gets recycled, meaning ragpickers are part of the “green-collar” workforce that politicians and industrialists tout as a “win-win” between environmental and business concerns. ACORN India is resisting efforts to commercialize the sector unless the ragpickers are the ones chosen for the formalized jobs.

Standing in the foot-deep sea of worthless tiny plastic pieces outside Mr. Sheikh’s tent, one can see the tall buildings of Mumbai’s most expensive offices, including Indian Oil, Citibank, and Reliance Industries, the company owned by Asia’s richest man.

The distance, in many ways, is far greater than the gap between the Chicago streets of Obama’s early career and the halls of power in Washington.

“I think President Obama is a long way away from community organizing now,” says Wade Rathke, the founder of ACORN. While he says Obama carries lessons from his community work, “he’s playing a different game.”

Indeed, Obama has used his trip to bring together the heads of multinational corporations to argue for free trade as a means of job creation and economic growth in both countries.

ACORN International’s focus on world’s mega-slums

Mr. Rathke, who left the US ACORN group in 2008, focuses now on a separate organization he founded named ACORN International. The group has members in nine countries, including India, and focuses on the billion or so people who live in mega-slums.

Activists tied to ACORN International will protest outside Obama’s speech to Parliament Monday to pressure Indian lawmakers not to allow foreign companies like Wal-Mart into retail.

“We’re trying to organize a vast base in order to push on all political parties,” Rathke says. “The vision is that people should have the power and they should be able to push governments and corporations to do the right things.”