We organizers tend not to badmouth our colleagues in public. In some ways we protect our own. But the recent ACORN prostitution scandal has me worried about our profession. Prior to the uproar, I had hoped that President Obama's rise to power would make community organizing a respected sector of the workforce rather than some ill-defined stepping-stone for young people. But we seem to be losing ground again. Of course, many right-wingers were already belittling community organizing as a profession during the Obama campaign–to the chagrin of some conservative community organizers. But the recent attacks on ACORN are especially damaging. While we organizers have a responsibility to counter the misinformation of right-wing pundits and politicians who attack our colleagues (though Rachel Maddow probably did a better job of defending ACORN's work than any of us ever could), we must also be willing to clean house on our end. If we are going to survive the current tsunami of attacks, our own conduct, as Gandhi often said, must be above reproach.
To merely shake one's head in disbelief as groups like ACORN go down in flames is to be a victim. Community organizers must look inward at our policies, practices, and organizing culture. It should have been no surprise to us that ACORN became a target of the right. I know many organizers in Chicago who disliked ACORN because they often claimed turf in the communities they served. A long-time neighborhood leader told me he was derided for organizing in "ACORN's territory." A friend of mine who was once an ACORN leader complained that the organizers often organized ACORN meetings on community issues only to adjourn those meetings a few minutes later, telling people that "the ACORN meeting [was] officially over and anyone wishing to stay for the election campaign meeting of [X politician] could do so." Many of us found such tactics to be unethical and unfortunate, but we also felt it really wasn't our problem. Would I want ACORN meddling in my affairs?
To be sure, there are thousands of law-abiding, ethical, and effective organizations out there doing great work for little pay or recognition (the majority). In fact, despite the ineptitude of the workers in the sting videos and the above complaints, on balance ACORN does great work. But there are others who are a heartbeat away from being the next national scandal. One such organization is the Gamaliel Foundation. You may have come across the organization thanks to the YouTube video of them supposedly praying to President Obama. I apologize in advance to my former colleagues who decided to stick it out in order to make the foundation a better place. The idea of an international, faith-based organization that brings together people of all colors and creeds is certainly a noble cause. But the organization's philosophy was flawed from day one. I worked for Gamaliel in the late 1990s up until 2001. This was about 8 years after Barack worked for them.
My former mentors, Greg Galluzzo and his wife Mary Gonzalez, took over the Gamaliel Foundation after breaking with the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), the organization founded by Saul Alinsky. Gamaliel's leadership system was built on notes obtained from the IAF. They eventually modified the system, but to my knowledge they have never credited the IAF even for the initial iteration of the so-called Gamaliel model.
I have never seen such a strange and warped culture anywhere. Staff were pitted against each other by Galluzzo and Gonzalez. Galluzzo told me that he wanted organizers to be tough bastards who could build power like the Conquistadors. His idea was not even Machiavellian (no virtù needed at all). He felt that organizers should fight fire with fire. In fact, Galluzzo used to give a cultish advanced training seminar titled "Walking the Edge of Immorality" where he repeatedly stated "the ends justifies the means" and nonchalantly told us that to have an impact on society we had to be willing to "lie, cheat, and steal for the greater good." His concept of doing the good was completely Platonic — we could be shady to get power but once we had enough power, knowing the Good would be enough for us to make the right decisions. Too bad Galluzzo, a former Jesuit seminarian, skipped the course on Aristotle where he would have learned that character is a function of habit — i.e. doing shady things makes you shady whether or not you grasp the Good. The final straw for me was when Galluzzo sent out a weekly report with a reflection that we organizers needed to promote a noble myth to our churches that our work was about justice, God, and peace even though we really knew it was about power.
I left Gamaliel disillusioned and disgusted by what seemed to me to be pure evil. How could a faith-based organization operate under such a skewed, cynical view of the world? Where was God in that scheme? I should have exposed them then. I had a duty to do so. We can't content ourselves with feelings of moral superiority while people with corrupt principles are out there building power. We ignore these bad apples to our own peril. We have to be willing to shake the tree, letting the rotten ones fall where the may. If we don't do it ourselves, then the Media will surely do it for us!