Collective action through organized social movements has long expanded American citizens’ rights and liberties. Recently, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) has helped win living wage initiatives in more than 130 cities across the country. Likewise, congregation-based groups have established countless health, education, and other social programs at city and state levels. Despite modest budgets, these organizations—different in their approach, but at the same time working for social change—have won billions of dollars in redistributive programs.
Looking closely at this phenomenon, Heidi J. Swarts explores activist groups’ cultural, organizational, and political strategies. Focusing on ACORN chapters and church federations in St. Louis, Missouri, and San Jose, California, Swarts demonstrates that congregation-based organizing has developed an innovative cultural strategy, combining democratic deliberation and leadership development to produce a “culture of commitment” among its cross-class, multiracial membership. By contrast, ACORN’s more homogeneous low-income class base has a national structure that allows it to coordinate campaigns quickly, and its seasoned staff excels in tactical innovations. By making these often-invisible grassroots organizers evident, Swarts sheds light on factors that constrain or enable other social movements in the United States.
Heidi J. Swarts is assistant professor of political science at Rutgers University.