The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) was once the nation’s largest grassroots community organizing network. For nearly 40 years, the organization focused on employment services and advocated for affordable housing. ACORN shot to notoriety, however, after registering more than one million low-income voters during the 2008 Presidential campaign. Soon, their work come under suspicion, the group faced accusations of fraud and become a common target of attacks by conservative media.
During that time, ACORN’s CEO and Chief Organizer Bertha Lewis was thrust onto the national stage. Lewis appeared all over national media defending the organization. She eventually restructured ACORN and saw the organization through to vindication. Despite her best efforts, however, ACORN closed its doors in 2010 after spending much of its resources defending itself against one investigation after another.
Today, after almost 20 years with ACORN, Lewis has moved on to head up a new organization. The Black Institute is Lewis’ brainchild, an “action tank” that she hopes will organize black Americans around some the day’s most pressing issues. Its first order of business: immigration reform.
theGrio: What is The Black Institute and how did the idea for this new organization come about?
Berta Lewis: After ACORN, poor people didn’t go away. Black folks didn’t go away. Our old members still wanted to organize and fight. This country is soon going to have a new majority. People of color will be the majority in this country and there needs to be a point of view that addresses their issues. That’s how I got the idea to form The Black Institute and I called it that deliberately. People were like, “Why don’t you call it The New Agenda or Diaspora?” I’m was like, “No.” I knew “black” would elicit a certain reaction and I want spark thought and conversation.
We want to build knowledge around issues through data, polling and research – doing research with a particular focus about how people of color are affected. We used to joke at ACORN, whenever there was a poll done, we’d laugh and say, “Well, they didn’t call any ACORN members.” You know what? That’s not funny. Somebody needs to specialize in polling poor people and especially people of color, instead of those groups always being reduced to a tab. But The Black Institute is more than that. We’re what I call an “action tank.” We’re a think tank that takes action. So first there’s the research but, like Malcolm said, you have to make it plain. So, we train people on how to organize around the knowledge to create legislation, develop public policy and move feet on the ground.
Our first issue is environmental justice – and not just whether or not there’s an incinerator in your neighborhood – but what climate change means for people of color. Our second bucket is education reform. The third bucket is economic fairness and, finally, what we’ve been working on for the past couple of years is putting a black face on immigration reform.
What inspired you to make immigration reform the first big cause for The Black Institute?
In 2010, when I first put the institute together, I get a phone call asking me to come and meet with a few women. These eight women began to tell me this incredible story, that they were recruited from the Caribbean in 2000, 2001 to be teachers in New York City public schools, to teach Math and Science and to go into low-income neighborhoods. They were promised work, housing and a quick path to citizenship. By the time they get to me, they had been waiting 10 years for a Green Card and they had issues with the children they brought here, who by that time were turning 21 and facing return to a country that they know nothing about or becoming undocumented. I was shocked, you know, whoever heard of this? These were the untold stories and nobody was really helping them.